Exploring ‘The Overflow’ With Brooke Singer Of French For Rabbits

[Cover photo credit to Lily Paris West]

This Friday, November 12th, New Zealand group French For Rabbits release their new album, The Overflow. The new collection shows a little bit of a “grittier” sound mixed into some of the songs than some might expect, but within the wider sweep of the group’s ambient and dreamy sounds, the subtlety still remains thanks to the intricate work of Brooke Singer, John Fitzgerald, Ben Lemi, Penelope Esplin, and Hikurangi Schaverien-Kaa.

The songs cover a wide range of ideas, too, that audiences will find recognizable, like observing anxiety, questioning the feeling of being a “passenger” in a vehicle you can’t control, and being an “outsider” in an environment that doesn’t seem quite your thing. The songs on The Overflow are all gem-like, carefully carved out experiences that are taken up in new ways through several intriguing videos.

I spoke with Brooke Singer in New Zealand about the development of the album, the role of song-writing retreats, and particularly co-writing as the genesis for a number of the songs, and the ideas surrounding some of the videos that accompany The Overflow.

Hannah Means-Shannon: I heard that this album has had a long road, since you started writing on this even back when you were on your American tour.

Brooke Singer: Albums always take a little time to write, and some of the songs are actually from 2017,  but in 2019, we visited America for a couple of tours and it was our first time touring in America. We wrote quite a few of the songs there, and the rest of them in early 2020. We recorded in February of 2020 just before the lockdowns, then I spent the next six or seven months mixing it and working on all the extra parts in between the other lockdowns.

HMS: Is there a relationship between the mixing work that you do and the Home Alone record label?

BS: Not so much, but Home Alone is a record label that I run here in New Zealand that’s been going for quite a while now. It flows in and out of being productive, I’d say. Last year, we released quite a few records from local artists and one from an Australian artist as well.

For production on this album, we worked with a guy called Jol Mulholland who I’d met a few times before but hadn’t worked with. We actually met at a co-writing camp, which I experienced for the first time in 2018. I had only written with people I’d known before, but it was a new experience going into rooms with people I didn’t know and writing with them.

HMS: That sounds terrifying!

BS: It is but there’s also something interesting about that process and the fact that you can get to know someone so well by the end of the day by writing a song together. I met Jol at one of those and really liked working with him, so when we went to make this album, I really wanted to work with him. I wanted someone who I knew could make the album better, and a bit grittier. Obviously, we make very subtle music, but this album is just a little more present, I would say.

HMS: That’s really interesting because that was a question that was already on my mind. I could pick up on some grittier elements on the song “Passengers”. It surprised me for having heavier sounds. It’s some extra flavor coming in.

BS: That also is coming in from working more with Pop. “Passengers” is actually the last song that made it onto the album. I wrote it the night before recording it. That was in the depths of Donald Trump era and the beginning of Covid. It was this time where we did feel like passengers on this trip that we couldn’t stop. And the people who were driving the train or the bus weren’t really the people that you want driving that vehicle. That’s what it’s mostly inspired by.

HMS: I can definitely see that. It also occurred to me that sometimes we don’t recognize the impact that we have on the people in our lives and there can be someone who seems to be more the one driving than the others. There can be moments where you’re not so happy with that situation.

BS: Yes, totally. Songwriting is interesting. I think of it like stream of consciousness a lot of the time. The songs have lots of fragments of different stories in them. For that one, I was also thinking a lot about social media and the appearance of being kind versus the act of being kind. That song has many stories, I think.

HMS: It feels relevant in so many ways. The social media references connected with me too. I think we’re all evaluating how far we go into social media and how much we see it as something we “perform” and whether that’s okay.

BS: It’s like a curated version of your life. I’ve been teaching at a university here as a tutor and one of the topics we were discovering was this French theorist, Guy Debord, who wrote a book called The Society of the Spectacle, and it’s all about the act. It’s about the moment when society went from consumerism of need and want to consuming for appearance. Like buying a car to make you seem a certain way. It’s a really interesting concept.

HMS: The album title is The Overflow, and the title track and video for “The Overflow” are out. I really love the different colors and textures in the video. That seems like a song that’s taken from everyone’s minds right now.

BS: I think I wrote that in 2019. I feel like anxiety is growing ever more present for everyone. It’s a song about that. There is anxiety in many forms in that song. A lot of it’s just about fear for your friends. It’s a pretty honest song, I would say!

HMS: I’ve never heard something that explores that exact fraction of a second that’s a tipping point. The song seems to keep coming back to that feeling of that moment. It’s a fragment of time where you wonder if things are going to be too much for you somehow.

BS: I love that image of a water overflow, where there’s something stopping it from just barelling over the edge.

HMS: As serious as the subject is, there’s something fun about digging into that moment and trying to look at it. The video does that with a lot of great objects. Plus we get to see the other band members!

BS: Yes, which we don’t often get to do. It’s hard to get us all in the same place at the same time. That’s why Ben’s in the darker scenes and the rest of the band is in the more yellow, inside scenes. I wanted the video to be optimistic, but also kind of funny with the precariousness of it all.

HMS: You’ve got a video out for “Ouija Board” and for “The Outsider”. Has that always been a trajectory for French for Rabbits, that you always make several videos for each album, or is it a newer thing?

BS: I guess for quite a while in some ways. The first one we ever made, I made with a MacBook video editor. In New Zealand, they have funding here specifically for making videos for your singles. For this album, part of the reason that we have so many is because we got funding for some, I think three. Then we’ve added on a couple of other ones. I couldn’t decide which ones to make video for, so we made some more. We’ve got a lot of filmmaking friends.

HMS: They must be very talented! These videos have a lot of thought put into them and it shows.

BS: I do design as well and I just love being able to express the song in another form. The “Outsider” video is one that I daydreamed up and it just felt like a movie in my mind, so it’s really cool that it turned out the way that I imagined it.

HMS: How do you feel about videos presented as close to the lyrics, or do you prefer videos that take things in totally different directions?

BS: I think a little bit of both. “Ouija Board” was a much more metaphorical take, and that’s part of handing it over to someone else to dream up a concept. “The Outsider” was pretty close to the song, I feel, with a party, and a pretty clear comparison. It really depends on what feels good at the time.

HMS: For “The Outsider”, I heard that you tried to make it a bit more American feeling since that’s where the song comes from.

BS: Yes, I had an idea like an American movie with big houses and wide streets, like some in Los Angeles that I remember visiting. There’s the warm glow of the verandah.

HMS: That’s definitely a warm feeling in the video. Something that made me laugh was that the party is not really a raucous, tear-it-up party, but was actually rather sweet. But the truth is still the same, that parties are parties.

BS: Yes, it’s still scary walking into a room sometimes. But honestly it was the nicest party. I invited all these people around and made up all this food. We had a friend of ours let us use their house. I actually really enjoyed it. It didn’t feel like it was a video shoot. But everyone who was laughing, smiling, and dancing, was very genuine, I think.

HMS: Who thought of wearing the hat to make the ghost costume more flowing?

BS: I actually often wear a hat on stage, so it kind of matched my character. But we were also trying to make sure the ghost looked like a ghost, but also a friendly ghost as well. That was really important to us. We tried out different ways to make it look like Casper rather than a creepy ghost.

HMS: I really love how the music builds up in the song. There are so many ways of talking about this experience of being an introverted person who likes spending time alone, but this song builds some positivity into it.

BS: I think there’s nothing wrong with being an introvert, so this song became a celebration of the outsider, in a way. Sometimes it’s good to feel like you’re on the outside looking in, where you get this different perspective. I didn’t plan that as such, but you kind of follow your nose, and the song reveals itself. I’m not really one to plan out a song. I think it’s what naturally comes next and that’s what came next naturally in this song.

This song is actually the only song on the record from the co-writing sessions I did America. I wrote it with Brooke Daye, a Pop singer, and we’re very different kinds of “Brookes” from different backgrounds. Also, Mark Orrell, who played in the Dropkick Murphys, who is a producer, was involved. He loves Phoebe Bridgers and we used that as a point that we all knew for sound. We put down some piano chords, then had a yarn about my time in LA so far.

I hadn’t spent a lot of time away from New Zealand by myself before, and I had been to a proper Los Angeles party with swimming pools and palm trees. It was intense, so that’s where the song came from originally and we turned it into a song. I hadn’t written with another lyricist and vocalist who I didn’t know before, so it was a bit intimidating, but it turned out well.

HMS: It’s funny because everyone has an internal monologue of some kind. I think that everyone can relate to moments of feeling like an outsider regardless of their personality type because at some point in your life, you’re going to be that person.

BS: Totally. I think that’s very true.

HMS: The song “Middle of the House” is a little more narrative in nature. What led to the sound or ideas in that song?

BS: That was actually the song on which I met Jol Mulholland, writing. When I was in Australia at a writing camp, even though I was writing songs all day, I had a tendency to write songs at night as well. I was in this room, playing this old piano by myself, and the piano part was so haunting. I brought it to Jol the next day in the writing session, and I didn’t know if it was one for the sessions, but I thought it might be a French for Rabbits track. The Nor’east winds were what we were trying to create in the beginning.

In Christ Church, which is where I’m from, they have a really dry, blustery wind that kind of gives you headaches and we were trying to create that sound going through a house. I had an image of a house in my mind, which the song is set in. It’s essentially about past trauma and getting through it, not my trauma, but someone else’s trauma. It’s about showing them how far they’ve come, and though it’s a nice song, it definitely has some dark themes in there about child abuse and those themes.

HMS: There are things under the surface, but a lot of it is left open to explore. I did get the sense that there’s a supportive role in the song, that almost breaks the song into a more human zone for there to be two people in dialog.

BS: It’s like going into a house of a friend of yours, essentially.

HMS: Sometimes having someone else there is enough to help someone through those associations when it comes to places from our past.

BS: That’s totally what this song is about, yes.

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