Brett Adams and Dianne Swann on collaboration, mentoring Lorde, and the clarity of their new album, Travel Light. Plus, selected WOMAD highlights.
To not only survive but thrive in the music industry, you have to be able to be fluid. More than that, you have to know when to be so, and when to stay the course. It’s a sentiment embodied by the many incarnations and collaborations of Brett Adams and Dianne Swann, aka The Bads. The band was formed in 2003, and named so by the acronym of their initials, after Dianne and Brett moved to the West Coast of Auckland following 12 years in London. The pace and beauty of the West Coast was invigorating in its opposition to the bustle of London, and particularly the environment. Dianne still sounds enthused by the effect, ten years on: “I hadn’t realised until we’d been to London and come back, [but] I’m really enthused by landscape and environment, and a lot of that comes through in songs.”
And so it does, infusing natural imagery and a slower pace into their music, as compared to their British based (and more British sounding) bands The Julie Dolphin and Boom Boom Mancini.
After stints with different labels for their first two releases Earth From Space and So Alive, and with the plethora of European labels they worked with while in bands in England, Dianne and Brett have experienced more than most the full range of labels, from small independents to majors. ‘There are pros and cons for both,” says Swann.
“[Boom Boom Mancini] were signed to Almo Sounds, which was a fantastic label, but you’ve still got that board room of people involved in your creative process. So for better or for worse, you are susceptible to other people’s opinions.” It’s obvious talking to Swann that representation is important to her, both with labels and in the broader sense. Her songs are representations of whatever part or parts of her, and as such, the suggestion of interference, outside of creative collaborations, carries an edge of discomfort. “You’re conscious of the fact that they want you, but a commercial version of you, which isn’t necessarily wrong, but it makes it hard to be genuine.”
Having now established their own label, with a distribution and publicity deal through Warner Music, it gives the band “the best of both worlds.” Travel Light, their latest album, was the first they released on their label, and it suits the ethos of The Bads well. As Swann says, “it’s great, it’s like having a big major label behind you, but after the album’s done.”
That sense of clarity is easy to discern on Travel Light. It sounds like a record made in a very open and genuine way. You can almost hear the salty air and the see the sunshine on the Waitakere plains. Throughout, there’s also a sense of belonging and honesty from a band that have honed their craft and sound, and know exactly who they are and what they’re doing.
It’s an uneasy time for the record industry, and making an album is a tough ask, especially when being on your own label means funding the record entirely by yourselves. “People say no one wants albums anymore, [but] we just wanted to make a great listening album from start to finish. That’s what’s nice about having your own label.”
It’s obvious that for The Bads, they’ve built a structure in which they feel comfortable to make the music they want to make. They’ve set themselves up so they can focus on what’s most important for them. “It can be hard to argue those things without sounding controlling, but if that’s not how you want it, it’s really hard to give that up.”
Part of that fluidity for both Dianne and Brett is the constant and constantly evolving collaborations they’re involved in. Recently, the band teamed up with Tim Finn, playing with Finn (and his children) at the Leigh Sawmill in December. “We asked Tim if we could do a show with him, up at Leigh. He agreed, which was amazing. It’s a great format for us, trying to interpret in a way that our band would do it, rather than being a covers band.”
As Adams often plays with Finn as his guitarist, the collaboration seemed like a natural fit. It evidently worked well, as both Finn and The Bads are booked to play WOMAD 2014 off the back of the shows, both separately and together again.
It’s a format that fits their collaborative nature well. Swann appears on Radiohead’s ‘The Astoria London Live’ show and features on their track ‘How Can You Be Sure,’ the B-side to ‘Fake Plastic Trees’. The same format they used to play with Finn, they’re looking to focus on and develop in the coming year. “We decided that we want to do it more often, so we’ve actually invited Don Walker [lead singer of Cold Chisel] to play with us, and he’s accepted.”
Swann’s knack for and enjoyment of collaboration is clearly a strength of her musicianship. In 2010, she was asked to help mentor a teenager who had recently signed a development deal with Universal. The teenager had been set up with a few other writing partners and mentors, as she tried to find herself and establish her sound as a writer, though none had fit for her yet. That young woman was of course Ella Yellich-O’Connor, now known as Lorde. They spent time together writing and discussing the process and development of crafting songs. She says Ella’s talent was obvious even then. “I absolutely knew it [would happen for her]… when we started writing together, her capacity for lyrical imagery was just astounding.”
A mentoring thing, rather than a speculative thing, as she saw it, Swann and Yellich-O’Connor ended up demoing a few songs they wrote together, that she felt they clicked with. “I’ve got the email from Ella saying, thanks so much, it really means a lot and I think I’ve found my feet.”
Recently, however, Metro magazine featured an article on Lorde, in which Swann says she was misquoted. “He [Duncan Greive] actually did a bit of a dirty on me, it was upsetting.”
The article quotes her as saying, “perhaps you could pay me for my time, Universal,” whereas she says she was responding to a question of what she would have said if she had wanted to be paid. Scott Maclachlan, Lorde’s manager, is quoted as being bemused by the statement and saying that if songs worth releasing had come out of the sessions, the “publishing royalties would be the reward.”
“I had felt like I was part of the beginnings, so Scott’s response did seem a little hurtful. It’s not nice being misquoted, or being seen as a different person to who you actually are.”
“[The article] also said I’m ‘really happy’ (emphasised quotation marks) for Ella, and I genuinely meant it. I am very happy for her.”
Music is such a personal expression that it’s hard to disassociate the music from the musician; the same song can be entirely different when played by two different people. So putting your music in the public realm is inherently the same as putting yourself there. The unfortunate side effect of which is that when you do, you’re no longer necessarily in control of your reputation, something that’s clearly dear to Swann, as it is to most people. Talk of Lorde, Swann’s involvement with her, and Lorde’s subsequent successes, leads to the idea of ‘success’ in music in a broad sense.
“There’s a song on the album, ‘California’. It’s about [success] and that whole thing. There’s a line, ‘can someone tell me what success is?’”
Given the journey that Dianne and Brett have been on, playing with the many musicians they have, the songs that reflect those relationships, the organic space The Bads now occupy, and the collaborations ahead, it would seem that, however you define success, they’re now treading steadily along its path.
The Bads play at WOMAD 2014, March 14-16. ‘Travel Light’ is out now.
Selected highlights from The Lumière Reader’s past coverage of artists playing at the forthcoming WOMAD (Brooklands Park & TSB Bowl, New Plymouth, March 14-16).
Delaney Davidson Returns (Brannavan Gnanalingam, interview, 2007)
“A lot of the time you have that experience where you hear some music and you love it, and then you meet them and you think ‘oh what a jerk’, and suddenly you can’t hear the music anymore because it’s been soured for you.” Read More
WOMAD 2007: A Brief Conspectus (Arjun Harindranath, review, 2007)
“Prior to their performance, the ‘bootylicious before Beyonce’ dancers even conducted a workshop whereby the pelvically challenged were instructed to shake their groove thang.” Read More
Album Brief (Brannavan Gnanalingam, review, 2007)
“A great voice does not a great album make. There’s something missing in Smith’s soul songs—when the likes of Aretha Franklin sing, you feel like they’re performing for their life every time. No doubt this will prove popular, but to me this is white bread with the crusts cut off.” Read More
Roberto Fonesca (Catherine Bisley, review, 2009)
“Though there were virtuosic runs, syncopated chromatics and tempestuous arpeggios, as you’d expect, by far the most striking thing about Fonseca’s playing and composition was the way he shaped the music: the varied percussive patterning of his melodies (or even a single repeated note), the underscoring of a simple harmony with a diabolic rhythm.” Read More