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by Steph Brown

Steph Brown (Lips) On Creating The Sound Of Daffodils

by Steph Brown

Steph Brown (Lips) On Creating The Sound Of Daffodils

Daffodils. It’s an NZ-made movie musical starring Kimbra, Rose McIver and George Mason, that features 10 of New Zealand’s most iconic songs (Anchor Me, Language, Fall At Your Feet…). I know what you’re thinking, “I’m not a fan of movie musicals or musicals in general, they’re corny and film musicals are generally a bit shit. Outside of Once. That one I liked alright…”. I get it. But as a musician, you need to go and see Daffodils. Full disclaimer: I did the music for it (along with Fen Ikner) and I want you to go see it!

My name is Steph Brown, I write and perform under the name Lips. I won the Silver Scroll Award for my song Everything To Me back in 2012, which was a pretty crazy time for me. I had moved to New York a few years before with the idea of becoming a session keyboard player, but then as soon as I hit the ground over there all I did was write music. It was so inspiring living in NY. I would sit down to practice the piano and instead would just spend hours and hours writing songs.

When I won the Scroll I had released a handful of bedroom demos and had hardly any experience singing live, the idea absolutely terrified me. I was pretty bad at it, I had no confidence. I set about doing as many gigs as I could in Brooklyn to get better at performing solo. I would hustle as many of my friends as I could each month to come to my shows, and gradually I got better.

But winning the Scroll was awesome ‘cos it affirmed for me that I could write music, and I knew that I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing it. But that in itself posed a conundrum. I’ve always been that person with their eye on the 10-year plan, like where do I see myself at 35, at 45, at 65 years old.

Looking around, it seemed like there was a sort of a drop off of people making pop music after a certain age. I saw loads of musicians making music in their 20s and 30s and then around 40 the crowd thinned, especially with women. (Why? Babies? Ageism? There is a whole other article in this question!) Where were the role models for my 10-year plan?! Madonna. But we just don’t have a similar career trajectory, what can I say. I kept writing music for Lips, but I also started looking for other avenues and forums to write music.

Around that time I met Rochelle Bright. I was interested in getting into musical theatre and a mutual friend put us in touch because Rochelle had just finished her Masters in musical theatre at NYU. Rochelle is awesome. A fountain of knowledge on music, film, storytelling, she is so smart, so inspiring. We met at a little ramen joint in the East Village and talked for hours. Rochelle was just about to move back to NZ but we stayed in touch and when she wrote the stage show Daffodils, she asked if I would come back and do the music for it. YES!

That same year I also met Fen Ikner, who is a multi-instrumentalist and record producer, and he started playing in Lips. Fen has a different skill set to mine, in that he plays all the instruments I don’t, but also he has an arranger’s brain, particularly when it comes to rhythm arrangements, which is such a helpful skill to have in a band. He also used to build microphones so he is a great studio engineer cos he knows which mics to use to get different shades and colours out of an instrument.

Fen and I commuted back and forth to NZ from New York to perform the stage play and we worked alongside guitar maestro Abraham Kunin to make the arrangements of the songs. It went well, and a couple of years later David Stubbs approached Rochelle about turning Daffodils into a film.

Daffodils is a film centred around a live gig played by Maisie (Kimbra) in a small bar in Hamilton. Over the course of the gig, she reflects on the story of her parents, framed by the new information that has just been told to her by her sick father.

Fen and I were brought on to do the music for the film which involved writing three new songs, arranging, recording and producing all of the songs, and composing the score for the film. Dream. Job.

This was such a big task. Normally with a film, the composer comes on at the end once the edit is complete and scores to the images. But because this was a musical, we had to have recordings of the songs ready before the shoot even began, so that we had something for the actors to sing to. And the way the script was written is not like in a traditional musical where the drama stops and then there is a song for three minutes, and the drama continues. Instead, the songs interweave with dialogue, so a song might start out with some singing and then the music drops down to score while there is some dialogue, and then it picks back up into the song again, and so on.

So early on in the planning stages, Fen and I made audio “roadmaps” of how we imagined the songs would go based off of the script. The idea being that there would be enough audio in there that the actors could vibe off and sing to, but we still left the tracks bare bones enough that we would have plenty of room in post-production to then react musically to the actual picture. We also went back and forth with Rochelle with writing the original songs too – she would give us an idea for a scene to write to, I would write some ideas and send them back, and then she would rewrite the scene based on the new song. It really opened me up to the idea that collaboration can take different forms, it’s not necessarily just two people sitting in a room writing a song together.

In the case of our song, Silent Treatment, it had to hit emotional beats at certain points to work with what Rochelle had written, so we went through a couple of different choruses and bridge ideas until we were both satisfied. Then Fen’s genius was to tighten up the arrangement of the thing with extra instrumental hooks and trimming of fat, and ultimately this collaboration between the three of us resulted in a much better song than if I had just written it all myself.

The next stage was getting in the studio with the actors to record the songs. Fen and I, along with vocal coach Sarah Lineham and engineer Chris Winter, went through the songs one by one with Rose and George, talking over what their characters might be thinking/feeling for that particular scene and then recording different takes of each song. The actors were such pros and this was such a cool insight into their process. It also opened up my brain to different ways of recording vocal takes in the future, this idea of really considering the meaning and intention of each line, not just singing the “notes”.

George and Rose are both actors first, singers second, but this suited what we were making as we wanted to have the singing sound natural and honest, so that you could believe that this is what the characters would actually sound like – as opposed to them speaking regularly but then suddenly having gigantic operatic voices or something.

Kimbra was a machine in the studio. She works so fast! On the first day of recording, ideas just flew out of her brain faster than we could capture them. It kind’a bottlenecked a little bit that first day, we just weren’t ready for that! So on the second day of recording, we made sure to have a session already set up with 100 audio tracks so we could just press record as she needed, and I think we blew through all 100! The day she sang my original song, Silent Treatment, I cried. Kimbra is the queen of stacking harmonies, and she improvised a three-part “string line” in the final chorus that is so juicy, it was a joy to witness.

For most of the songs we used pre-recorded vocals, but some of my favourite songs we captured live. For example, one of Rose’s songs, Anchor Me, was filmed on a beach north of Wellington. The first verse she had to sing live because she is playing off George’s dialogue, so there is no time, no meter. So for that song I sat about 10 metres from them, playing chords on our little Critter and Guitari Pocket Piano which was being fed to Rose through an in-ear monitor. Kind’a reminded me of doing jazz gigs on the piano where I’m playing chords following the vocalist’s rubato timing, but this was by far the most unique version of that! We did something very similar with George on Language, where Fen and the film sound guy Tony and I were all crammed into a little bach bathroom together playing and watching the takes being filmed in the living room/kitchen from a monitor in the tub.

After the shoot, we headed back into the studio to flesh out our audio roadmaps. We had made it harder on ourselves in that we generally don’t use MIDI instruments, so we had recorded everything live using real analogue synths and drums. Mostly this worked out okay, but there was one song for which we had to change the key after editing. If we had used soft synths, no big deal, but as it was we had to re-record all of the tonal instruments, attempting to re-create the sounds we had made months ago. (“Let’s see, that sounds like it was maybe the Prophet through the AC-15 with a ribbon mic in the hallway kind’a driving the input of the pre…”) I regret nothing!

We had made few rules early on for the music to help give ourselves some parameters for the music. For example, no guitar-y guitar. We used guitar for texture and weirdo noises, but not for regular meat and potatoes guitar stuff, which we pretty much stuck to. (Aside from Bliss which it seems is impossible to play any other way. Go ahead, try it. I dare you.)

Another agreement regarding the instrumentation was our “needle” rule. In the film, conceptually, all of the songs are being performed by the band in a small club as Maisie reflects on the story of her parents. So we decided that when you are actually seeing us on screen performing in the club, all the sounds you hear are what feasibly could be made by just the three band members onscreen. (Kimbra is playing a little Alesis Micron, Fen playing a drumkit with an SPD-S sample pad, and me playing a crazy ‘80s rack of Roland Juno 106, Moog Sub37 and Sequential Circuits Pro 1 – all of us singing.)

Then as we go into the past, we bring other instruments and more ornate elements in to add dimension to the sound in the world of Rose and Eric. But we always keep a kernel of the scrappy little live band in there – even though it’s transcending worlds, somewhere offscreen in a different time, that band is playing the songs. We thought of it like a gauge needle. All the way to the left is just the band in the club, needle all the way to the right is life purely in Rose and Eric’s world – and the balance is constantly shifting.

The final step was scoring. We wrote themes for Rose and Eric, and the various story beats, and decided on a loose palette for each character. Rose’s score would be a little more acoustic (accordions, vibraphone, vocals), and Eric’s a little more edgy (analogue synths, angular sounds). This seems super cliche and gendered but we wanted it to reflect the era of the film (1960-80s in smalltown New Zealand) and the times they were living in.

We had given David Stubbs (the director) little demos of some of the themes early in the editing process, and he was super helpful at this stage, slotting in our demo themes where he thought they’d fit and giving us other musical references for the rest of the scenes. At this point, since the music and picture really needed to be woven together, and the songs needed to be set up both musically and story-wise, we went back and forth a lot with the editing room, which is not normally how it goes with film music. This occasionally made for some friction, because I don’t think anybody was used to working this way, but did eventually develop a working vocabulary for translating film world to music world and vice versa.

Suddenly, after an insanely stressful push toward the finish line, it was done! And I have no way of possibly seeing the film objectively, ever, which is weird. I’m used to that in recorded music to a point, but this is WAY more intense. Maybe in 20 years, I don’t know. But as I type this article, we just received our first review for Daffodils – 4.5 stars and they called it “…our equivalent of ‘Once’”. So remember that thing you were thinking way back in the second paragraph? Now you have no excuse. Go watch our damn film!