Gabriel White and Richard von Sturmer have already had stellar careers in the arts – White as a filmmaker, and von Sturmer as a poet and lyricist. They began writing songs together just over a year ago, initially for White’s film called Oracle Drive. Von Sturmer knew White’s mother in the mid 1980s, when he was artist in residence at Northcote College, and White knew of von Sturmer through his artistry. The pair started collaborating formally as The Floral Clocks at the start of 2014, when White started to put music to von Sturmer’s poems, and he in turn began writing dedicated lyrics for White. They accumulated a large number before White recorded their first album, ‘Desert Fire’, mostly alone, as Amanda Mills reports.
The striking name seems to scream ’60s psychedelia, but The Floral Clocks maintain that’s not the case.
“It came from a postcard of a floral clock… in Edinburgh,” the duo’s wordsmith Richard von Sturmer explains.
“I just liked the strange alliteration in the words, ‘floral clocks’, it’s a bit of a mouthful!” his musical partner Gabriel White chimes in.
The song The Floral Clocks provides an intriguing illustration.
“It’s generational, the lyricist explains. “About a [man] who came to NZ and destroyed native bush, and mowed everything down, and his son –as part of his penance for what his father did to the vegetation – decided to visit floral clocks all over the world to redeem himself.”
White and von Sturmer are each known for previous accomplishments. White made 2013 film, Oracle Drive, while von Sturmer is known for his work with the nascent local punk scene, as part of The Plague, Whizzkids, and notably Blam Blam Blam, writing lyrics to New Zealand’s unofficial national anthem, There Is No Depression In New Zealand. White has also played a lot of music, performing with Steve Abel for several years and with James McCarthy. After leaving art school in the 1990s he was a founding member of Spacesuit with Ben Holmes and Sandy Mill.
“Spacesuit was kind of improvising a garage, punky, jazzy kind of thing… instrumental music,” he expands. “Getting into a working relationship with Richard suddenly got me back into music, because I’d always wanted to write songs. Richard provided the keys to unlock a thing that I’d always wanted to do.”
White recalls he started songwriting again towards the completion of Oracle Drive.
“It was just a kind of a gag. I thought, ‘I’ll write a song for the film,’… and Richard wrote the lyrics for it. And then we thought, ‘That’s great, let’s keep doing this.’ And so that became the next project.”
“It just happened,” von Sturmer laughs. “It was a good synergy that Gabriel and I just had. It was just a good sort of creative outlet.”
“They were written really fast,” White agrees. “Richard would send me a poem, or a set of verses, and… I’d fire back a song within a few hours… it wasn’t polished, but the songs came about like that. I just totally react before I have even reflected on what the lyrics were communicating. I… processed that through making the music around it.”
“It’s good for me,” von Sturmer adds. “I write in a number of different genres; poetic fiction, prose poems, poetry, and I find that sometimes you sweat blood to finish a poem, but songs come quite easily! I think we’re complimentary.”
There is some crossover between von Sturmer’s lyrics and poems – Geronimo was one poem transformed into song lyrics.
“It was only an eight line poem, and then I wrote an extra verse to turn it into a song, the lyricist explains.
“There’s a couple of other ones on the album where I’ve just literally turned Richard’s poetry into lyrics for a song,” White expands. “The Perfect Love Song is one… it was not written to be a song, it was written to be four verses and they actually went with postcards… but in the song, they’re just verses. Richard writes with images, he tends to paint a lot… with the words. There was a bit of an analogy between the layers of images, layers of harmony and rhythm, and these interwoven passages of music.”
So, how would they describe their sound?
“I didn’t want it to be easy listening, but I… didn’t want to write something that was really abrasive,” he says. “I have this guitar… it’s got a very soothing, sort of soft sound, and wistful too… the sound is the sound of this guitar! I do tend to impregnate songs with lots of different layers of feelings I convey… but there is overall, a kind of gentleness to it which I’m really just exploring as a musician.”
“It’s something of a new style, but resonates with the past,” von Sturmer concurs.
The duo’s influences are broad. White describing himself as “omnivorous and a big fan of classical and orchestral music,” while von Sturmer devours world music, with West African and especially Brazilian music as important touchstones. One artist who made a big impression on his work is Stephin Merritt from The Magnetic Fields, whom he considers a “genius songwriter” and wrote A Perfect Love Song as a tribute to.
For White, the songwriting process has changed with age.
“When I got to my 30s, I sort of went off writing pop music or those kind of things that had inspired me to be creative… then I grew back into it as I grew into my 40s! he laughs. “I discovered all these artists that were writing pop music that was really not juvenile, it was interesting… grown up and full bodied, and not obsessed with the things younger people get obsessed with!”
‘Desert Fire’ is sold through Bandcamp. The whole package (a visually arresting lyric book containing the CD) of ‘Desert Fire’ is stunning, and based on postcards used by von Sturmer as lyrical inspiration.
“That’s Marcus [Hofko] he explains. “He did a good job… for songs that are American western, south-western themed… there’s quite a few postcards that relate to the songs directly.”
“I’ve just been writing a Creative NZ thing about this,” White laughs, seeming slightly surprised. “I got all this feedback from people… it didn’t matter what age… they liked it.”
He hopes they will tour ‘Desert Fire’, though laughs that it all depends on how well it sells. Keyboardist Hermione Johnson, bassist Robbie Rolls and drummer Danny Mañetto have been recruited to play in the live band, the musicians are bringing a different timbre to the music.
“They are really changing the way the songs are played, and it’s really interesting. The keyboardist… her melodic sensibilities are starting to play out with mine. I’m quite excited to play with her.”
The pair are already hard at work on the next Floral Clocks’ album, with three songs written and more on the horizon.
“The second album will probably come out about September, I hope… we’re having a lot of fun doing it, White enthuses.”