This has definitely been the year of the Kiwi: Flight of the Conchords, Black Sheep, and Zoe Bell's role in Grindhouse have all garnered the little island nation lots of attention in the U.S. through 2007. The Midwestern front first heard a reunited Crowded House and then, a short time later, the Veils opened up the Download Festival in Chicago. Last night, The Brunettes rode into Madison high on the transpacific wave.
The duo of Heather Mansfield and Jonathan Free brought joy to the High Noon stage, backed by four young lads on every kind of instrument imaginable. Heather's winsome chirp and Jonathan's chewy drone made for a contrast straight out of Grease. Clad in an all-black ensemble, Jonathan dressed the part of the bad boy, with the pandas depicted on his t shirt hinting at his sensitive side. Heather was decked out in a gingham red dress and knee-high black boots, ready to break hearts (and maybe stomp a few as well.)
All this costuming was no ruse, but part of a well orchestrated, well practiced package.
So what's it like being a Kiwi in the land of apple pie? Heather Mansfield told all before the show. She looks like a young version of Diana Rigg, but instead of kicking an attacker like Emma Peel, Heather would melt an evil doer with her effervescent laughter and warm smile. "Is that a camera slash dictaphone?" she asked as I set up to record. A dictaphone?!
The Daily Page: From spending time in New Zealand, I had the impression as if it and America were bizarro worlds of each other. Everyone speaks the same language, everyone looks the same, but there is a lot more strife, more war in America, whereas New Zealand has really stayed out of the trouble and remained fairly isolated. Your music harkens back to a time -- the 1950s -- that is very pure and innocent. Do you think that the surroundings you grew up in drew you to that style at all?
Mansfield: It's kind of a tricky one to be able to say what exactly makes you do things the way you do them. But I think something about having that isolation, being so far from the rest of the world -- or at least how we felt like that when we were kids -- I think that had an impact on music that we got into.
A lot of the music that Jonathan and I would have been into as kids was from our parents' record collections, rather than being able to get records perhaps like kids in America could. For instance, where I grew up (Warkworth, about an hour north of Auckland), there wasn't actually a record store. There was a small place that sold tapes only, and also they doubled as a bike repair shop!
Who were some of the people you grew up listening to? Were they primarily imported artists?
Yeah, they were primarily imports. Like The Beach Boys and stuff like that. You know, the popular songs might have been different in the States, but pretty much the radio hits of the '70s and the '60s. A bit of ABBA... ha, ha, ha! My parents were never really heavily into any Led Zeppelin or anything like that.
One of the things that many people might not know, is the New Zealand government provides assistance to musicians and artists.
Yes, the government at the moment, because of Helen Clark, our Prime Minister, has the Creative NZ program, which gives money to do certain projects. They are basically like grants that you can get -- our manager would know more about this! -- but I know there are specific criteria and things that you go for.
Us getting over here [to the States] is due to receiving help from the government. They'll meet us halfway. We have an amount that we can spend, which we have to prove in receipts and things, and then we get reimbursed up to that amount. That gets eaten up pretty quickly with just, you know, renting a van. And there is also a New Zealand on air grant, which is used for music videos. [One of New Zealand's basic, non cable channels is C4, a continuous music channel similar to MTV2 or MuchMusic, which focuses on music videos and music news.] There are all criteria for specific things.... It gets somewhat complicated!
There are so many bands that would love to be able to do these sorts of things, and especially in America, where many people look down at our government, the opportunity to be aided by your country seems incredibly fortunate. Do you feel like you have more freedom because you know you can get this aid?
Creatively, how does that effect you?
It's hard for me to imagine not having that help. Even getting over here from New Zealand, we have a very small boutique label... and there is a lot of support, and a lot of the time it runs on favors. There is not a lot of money changing hands; it's more like, you know, you play on an album and then they help you out and you borrow their Fender.
There is always talk of people in the US wanting to "make it" in NYC or LA. Do you have a sense of wanting to "make it" somewhere in a certain way?
I really don't have that feeling. I have heard people talk of making it before, and I don't really know because I feel like just the moment I decided that this is what I really wanted to do... and that I could do it. I've just been doing it. And I love it and I feel like I made it. I mean the Flight of the Conchords? They've made it! But it's so hard to explain how great it is.
Speaking of Flight of the Conchords, what is it like to hear people from your country getting popular in the States?
I don't really know if many people even know where New Zealand is! But we do have some people who are really great David Kilgour and the Clean, the Finn Brothers, FOC. We have some really awesome talent. I am really proud. It's such a small place!
Now for the fun stuff: Is there a band you'd want to collaborate with?
Oh yeah, lots of bands! If I had a dream, it might be fun to do something with... The Flaming Lips. Or Architecture in Helsinki. Or the Postal Service! Part of the Jackson 5. But that could be bad, you know, to destroy your favorite band.
Maybe you'd be the next Michael Jackson?
Ha... Maybe Blondie. What about you?
I don't play, so I'm not too sure.
You ever play dream karaoke? We'll do dream karaoke. Who would you pick?
Hmm.... Talking Heads? I'd like to wear the big suit.
Aha! I'd love to be a drummer... ooh, maybe... of Blondie!
If you could have one artist or band cover one of your songs, who would you pick to do so?
Oh man! I don't know! This is a tricky one because I wouldn't want to say. I can think of bands that I would want to tour with, but to talk about a band covering one of our songs? Ooh, I don't know!
Do you think when you are in your 50s and 60s, you might have a few songs that people might latch onto and end up covering? Do you ever think about that?
I've never thought about that to be honest! I have to think about this! Especially in the context of me touring right now, the songs seem to really belong to the people I am performing with, and I can't praise them enough. I can't imagine enjoying any of the songs without John playing them!
Returning to Tuesday's night show at the High Noon, Heather played clarinet, duct taped glockenspiel, harmonica, and keyboards while cooing with her pretty voice. Jonathan stuck to guitar. Others in the dark lit corners played bass, trumpet, hand percussion, synth, and tenor sax.
The quirky musical mixture, rich with harmonized choruses, hand claps, and shared lead vocals, was fresh and energetic. If The B-52's had had The Brunettes at the Love Shack, the place would have shaken to the ground!