Brooke Singer writes and performs in the band French for Rabbits, called ‘pioneers’ of atmospheric, delicate dream-pop in New Zealand. The band started out as duo in the small coastal township of Waikuku Beach and have since received international acclaim for their emotionally evocative music. They are based in Wellington.
In February 2023, she participated in a special event of ‘Mansfield Unplugged’, in which artists came together to perform original music inspired by and set to the poems of Katherine Mansfield. ‘In Her Own Words’ was narrated by Michéle A’Court, and the event took place at the The Mansfield Garden, Hamilton Gardens.
Here at AT THE BAY | I TE KOKORU, we caught up with Brooke Singer to ask about her recent Katherine Mansfield collaborations.
It’s always exciting to see collaborations across art forms, and in this case it’s music and Katherine Mansfield. Can you tell us, first, of your early encounter(s) with KM – Did you read her in school? Were you a fan already anyway? – and then how you first got involved in Mansfield Unplugged?
Brooke Singer: We didn’t study the work of Katherine Mansfield at school, so although I had an awareness of her as a famous New Zealand author, I was unfamiliar with her work as a teenager.
It wasn’t until a few years ago, when I worked for the Arts Foundation who oversee the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship that I began to learn more about her colourful life, and in particular about the villa in Menton where she wrote and stayed in 1920.
It was a real gift when Charlotte Yates reached out to me about the project to see if I’d like to be involved! It gave me the chance to read more of Katherine’s work, and started me on a journey to read more of her work. I love her boldness, her sense of humour and irony – and also the fragility evident in her work at times.
In 2020, you participated in the album ‘Mansfield’ along with other musicians. French for Rabbits sang ‘A Wounded Bird’. Was this the first time you’d put music and KM’s words together? How did you find that experience of looking at the poetic lines of someone else and adding layers of nuance through rhythm and sound?
Singer: Yes! It was my first time setting any poetry to music! It was an interesting and quite impactful experience. I found that I needed to spend some time sitting with the words, and researching the context around her writing the poem. Given this was the last (known) poem she wrote prior to her death, and she was the same age as me at the time of writing it – it was particularly poignant. She captured such rich feelings of fragility and frustration at her failing body…’lift me, lift me – I am not dreadfully hurt’ and at those around her.
At first I struggled to find a way of taking lyrics like ‘scrapings and scraps from the servants lunch’ and ‘a morsel of relish’ and bringing them into a modern context, but as I research and understood her story more – the music I was making stopped sounding like musical theatre, and started sounding like me!
Following from that, do you think your music has a natural fit with Katherine Mansfield’s words?
Singer: I think Charlotte Yates did an amazing job curating the poems and selecting the right person to work with each of them. Being the same age as Katherine was when she wrote the poem gave me a sense of affinity. The music French for Rabbits makes is ethereal and expansive, and I think the way I write is compatible with the soft sadness of the poem. The way it looks to the sky and stars, and has a tension and a transcendence.
Your Hamilton gig took place on Feb 26 and was part of the Hamilton Arts Festival Toi Ora ki Kirikiriroa. Can you tell us more about this event? And also a bit about the other artists involved?
Singer: Yes! It was wonderful. We performed at the Katherine Mansfield gardens – with a replica of her old family home in the background, and a garden party set out on the tennis court behind where the audience was seated. The performance features various artists (including Anna Coddington, Julia Dean, Lontalius and Lawrence Arabia) performing their interpretations of Katherine Mansfield’s works interspersed with extracts of Mansfield’s letters read by our lovely narrator Michèle A’Court. The letters give context to the poems, and help paint a picture of her life.
I love all the songs – especially Lorina Harding’s (her voice is wonderful), and Lawrence Arabia’s ‘Malade’ which is quite fun.
Here at AT THE BAY | I TE KOKORU, we support NZ short stories – and it’s exciting to see/ hear how Aotearoa New Zealand is celebrating the Katherine Mansfield Centenary. With that in mind, do you have a new story or song to share that is also aligned with this celebration?
Singer: Our most recent release is a remix of ‘The Outsider’ which was done by our friend Yvois – a Berlin-based producer originally from Tāmaki Makaurau. Perhaps the story most aligned with this celebration is a new work I am really looking forward to by my friend Ruby Solly. She has a new novel called The Artist coming out in May via Te Henga Waka University Press. You can read more about it here.
More on ‘The Outsider’ here.
Your band was founded in 2011. Can you share a bit about the band in March 2023, and where you are now? How has your music changed since the first year?
Singer: We started out as a duo, with me and John Fitzgerald on the guitar and have since expanded into a five piece. On ‘The Wounded Bird’ it was just myself and John though. This year, I am working on a new series of songs which will be performed with string quartet – so that is an exciting challenge.
Early on, our music was quite acoustic and folky. But it’s been really exciting to be able to explore this bigger more expansive sound – which is still refined and thoughtful with the rest of the band.
You tutor other musicians as well. How does this kind of work support / change/ enhance your own musical explorations?
Singer: I teach part time at Massey University, which is very handy for paying the bills – as music is otherwise a bit of a precarious occupation. I also help run the ‘To the Front Pōneke’ programme which was set up by Girls Rock Aotearoa.
I enjoy working with young people as their enthusiasm, curiosity and excitement for learning about something they have a passion for is contagious. It is good to be around that kind of energy!
French for Rabbits are known for your dreamy quality of storytelling — haunting, suggestive and creating under-and overtones that linger. Do you think of yourself as a natural storyteller? And which comes first: lyrics or music?
Singer: My favourite way to write is both the lyrics and music to come together – although there is no hard and fast rule! I feel like when they are written as one process, the musicality of the words can influence the melody and the melody can in turn guide where the lyrics might go.
I am definitely a lover of words, rhythm and harmony. I aim to capture a feeling – chasing the muse to find the thing that will resonate. I don’t know if I am a natural storyteller, music is kind of like weaving – you have these different strands…lyrics, melody, rhythm, timbres, interplay between parts, and production which all come together to paint a picture that is greater than words alone.
French for Rabbits have dedicated nearly a decade to creating warmly detailed and expansive music together. Led by songwriter and producer Brooke Singer, the project came to life when she started working with guitarist John Fitzgerald in the coastal township of Waikuku Beach back in 2012.
His minimalist, shimmering guitar lines proved to be the backbone of their early work, and over the years the band has expanded to include multi-instrumentalists Ben Lemi and Penelope Esplin alongside drummer Hikurangi Schaverien-Kaa.
Together they’ve toured in the US and Europe, opening for acts such as Lorde, Agnes Obel and performed at SXSW, Iceland Airwaves, WOMAD and in a castle for a fan’s wedding in Switzerland. See more here.