Graham Reid | | 9 min read
On occasion Elsewhere is obliged to give the background of artists who respond to our questions.
But not so Lauren and Matt Barus from Christchurch about whose recent album The Raft is Not the Shore we said “alongside elegant folk there's smart pop (You Can Choose,Tomorrow Always Comes) and weightless dream-folk (Yelling in the Wilderness) within this self-described music “for day-dreamers, cloud watchers and sad song enthusiasts . . . this impressive album shows thoughtful consideration of hard life (Hold Your Light High) and soft love without suffocating sentimentality”.
Perhaps all you need to know is that Lauren may be more familiar as LA Mitchell, and she and Matt were in the Dukes.
There are Silver Scroll nominations in their backgrounds (see our review) and . . .
Well, that is it because they are so generous in their interesting answers that we simple step aside and let them tell their stories.
Where did you grow up, and with who?
(Lauren) I grew up on a cherry orchard in Te Waiharakeke, Blenheim, though we moved around a bit when I was younger. The greatest chunk of my memories rest in the orchard which was built on this dusty, stony old river bed that we farmed as a family. I grew up as the youngest of three siblings with parents that worked hard at everything.
(Matt) I grew up between Christchurch and Java, Indonesia with my parents and two siblings, a sister and brother. When I finished high school in Salatiga, Indonesia, I came back to Christchurch to study at the University of Canterbury.
Was music an important part of your childhood?
(Lauren) Yes, all us kids had to learn piano for 3 years. We had guitars around, mum was a kindergarten teacher and often played nursery rhymes. She sang and so we all sang. My Dad belonged to an amateur performers group and they would have family nights where we would perform as a family, singing in harmony to my Mum playing piano.
(Matt) Very much – in Java music is everywhere and on top of that I grew up going to church. In Java, as teens we’d sit outside people’s houses at night with battered acoustic guitars and sing whatever anyone could play. There’s ‘pengamen’ on the streets, buses and markets, people who make a small living singing songs and collecting a donation from onlookers. And in the villages, there’d be constant gamelan music for neighbour’s weddings, funerals, holy days etc, it felt endless.
What are your earliest childhood memories of music which really affected you . . .
(Lauren) Getting lost for hours playing piano. Starting somewhere on notes and chords I didn’t know and having the feeling of being led, enjoying the sounds, not with any purpose - not to try and make a song or create anything, just really enjoying the sounds and the sensation of time changing in this moment of complete absorption.
(Matt) Squatting in the bottom of a broom cupboard in a big old Dutch villa in Java listening to ‘Thriller’ on a friend’s Walkman in the dark. I remember feeling transported into another, unfamiliar but alluring world, a similar feeling I had when watching The Breakfast Club. At the time, my parents weren’t into us listening to certain music so it had that forbidden feel that made it even better, riskier.
Was there a time when you felt it was going to be music and nothing else?
(Lauren) When I was 17 sitting in a green tiled classroom in Brazil it came to me as a distinct voice that I must do music, but I’ve never really known what that should’ve looked like and it’s very often looked nothing like what I expected. There is a shifting-sands kind of feeling between the organic experience and the industrialised experience and the idea that to do nothing else would doom us to poverty. There isn’t the freedom, for us, to choose music as a means on its own. Yet we have a degree of commitment to it that doesn’t make sense on many levels, even to us.
(Matt) I slip in and out of this idea - when I was in my late thirties I really thought that there’d be nothing else I’d want to fall completely into. But the reality for us of making a living through writing and performing our own music has been hard work with plenty of financial sacrifice and small returns.
When you started on your music career were people around you supportive or did you have to find those people?
(Lauren) They were likely there but I don’t think I saw them or heard them, I think I had a tendency to hear the negative voices the loudest, so it has been a slow journey to feel supported, to support myself and to know how to ask for support or indeed what to ask for, all big lessons. In saying that, my friends in my earliest band were a remarkable and beautiful group of people who were really in the journey with me. I am warmed by those relationships, still.
(Matt) I had a lot of friends that would attend our shows at the Dux De Lux, and the venue was small enough that you could pack it out and really get it buzzing. As an introvert I don’t think I was part of the wider music community but I really made an effort to see bands at that particular venue. I knew the people but wasn’t tight with them. Ross Herrick who ran the Dux was really supportive and the various bands I was in were definitely helped by his generosity.
The first song of yours which you really felt proud of was . . .? And why that one?
(Lauren) “When It’s All Too Much” produced with D.UNK, aka George Duncan. And released on an EP that was called “The Concept”. I remember this one because it speaks deeply, the sounds, the construction of it, the execution of the production are all moments for me. It feels the closest I had been, at that point, to articulating exactly what I was feeling – where the external accurately mirrored the internal. I still have a strong reaction to it.
(Matt) My first band was a Christchurch pop rock band called Deluxeboy (I don’t know why…) and the song was called Three Million Odd People. I think I was so proud of it because the lyric was reaching beyond what I had done at the time, writing about loneliness and longing in wider society.
Any one person you'd call a mentor, angel on your shoulder or invaluable fellow traveller?
(Lauren) I think there have been many, small encouragements, sometimes realistic advice, sometimes appropriate chiding from lots of gentle people on my journey. But if we are thinking about a fellow-traveller, then it has to be Matt. He really helps to hold a container and has been the single biggest encouragement in me continuing to pursue my own writing & performing work.
(Matt) I feel I’ve had a few people like this. Lorraine Barry really got my songs in front of people and encouraged me to imagine music as a career.
Where and when was the first time you went on stage as a paid performer?
(Lauren) I started getting paid to play at jazz clubs in Christchurch in the early 2000’s. I had three regular gigs, they paid my rent.
(Matt) I think the first show I did, also with my brother Jo, who amazingly is still playing bass with me, now in Terrible Sons, was at the Army Barracks just down from the Bridge of Remembrance in Christchurch. It’s the Post Office now but back people were playing shows there, maybe around 1997.
The army had clearly moved out. We opened for Adam McGrath (The Eastern) and one of his early band’s, The Bains.
It was a dingy room, we weren’t really sure how to end our songs and our line-up included Devin Abrams from Pacific Heights/Shapeshifter on saxophone and Adrian Palmer from Zed on drums. I really remember thinking that was the endpoint of music, the final destination, to play live in front of people.
Ever had stage fright or just a serious failure of nerve before going on stage?
(Lauren) The worst was warming up to sing the national anthem for a graduation. I was expecting to go straight in, sing and go home. But then I had to sit through two hours of ceremony before singing. Not knowing the real format of the gig was a real distraction and I really struggled to compose myself.
That’s the only time I’ve had a shaky knees experience. It was awful. Now I see nerves as interchangeable with the experience of excitement and as a necessary discomfort for the exceptional release of focused energy that is about to happen.
(Matt) Every single show. No different now. I would like it to reduce but maybe it works to keep one sharp…
As a songwriter, do you carry a notebook or have a phone right there constantly to grab ideas they come? Or is your method something different?
(Lauren) Yes, written and digital, sound bites, not even of musical ideas but just noises. I have a folder called “1 minute in another person’s life” which is a collection of 60 sec long sound bites of where ever I am in that moment. It was one of these sound bites that informed the composition Birdsong in Port Levy. The heartbeat of my unborn daughter on a doppler is in another song I’m currently working on.
(Matt) I have both but I use the phone much more, the ideas are just that, beats using my teeth, tunes hummed and the occasional lyric repeated, while the notebook is for when they’re getting close and the lyric is settled.
What unfashionable album do you love as a guilty pleasure?
(Lauren) 5 Seconds of Summer, Easier and Charlie Puth, BOY
(Matt) Too many. I really loved Hunting High and Low by A-Ha. A friend gave it to me for my birthday and I remember playing that tape over and over…And You Tell Me, Love Is Reason, that tape got wobbly from all the rewinding. There was definitely filler on that album but it opened my imagination, another world of relationships, sounds, stories. I had a very narrow musical palate.
Any piece of advice you were given which you look back on which really meant something?
(Lauren) Yes, I was fretting about how people were perceiving me and my friend gently said, “Lauren, no one is thinking about you”.
(Matt) Less advice but a friend once told me I shouldn’t sing and that it’d be best if I let my brother take over as the main vocalist. It sort of spurred me on…
It's after a performance/concert and you are in a hotel room or back at home, what happens then?
(Lauren) I try and find ways to exhale the adrenaline so I can sleep. When I do it well it looks like a hot shower, a cup of tea and some yoga stretches and breathing. If I’m not doing so well it looks like a beer and chips and bad tv.
(Matt) Wind down. It takes ages, I’ll float around, maybe watch something on tv, have a cup of tea, slowing my mind down. Usually stay up too late and then the kids are awake early…
Is there any fellow artist you admire for professional and/or personal reasons?
(Lauren) I agree with Matt’s comment below!
(Matt) Mel Parsons is someone locally we admire – firstly she’s a great songwriter, constantly creating and touring and she always seems to be championing other artists who are starting out, encouraging them. That’s rare and beautiful and selfless.
And finally, where to from here for you do you think?
(Lauren) I think it will be pretty much more of the same. As our music work has gone on our lives have changed and we value other things as much and more than the constant pursuit of music.
So we are always seeking out the appropriate expectations for what we can do…in concert to the costs of that, not just financially but on our extended family, who come and look after the kids and to our kids and to us as a family with the time we take up preparing, rehearsing, recording and writing.
This can be hard in the musical environment that demands perpetual growth and the outward expectation of always getting bigger. That bit may not be for us, we want to be satisfied to be able to just keep going the slow and steady way.
(Matt) We’d like to figure out how to play more, with the whole band, and our kids in tow, and to play further afield etc. And somewhere in the constant dance of family and friends, making a living and supporting our musical habit, to start thinking and dreaming of what a new album could sound like.
You can hear and buy this album at bandcamp here.