The band’s sound has adapted along with the lineup, developing into what Brooke Singer calls “a fusion of our styles and interests”. Long considered a cult band, their audience and reputation as a superb live act has spread widely, with millions of people finding and streaming their music.
French for Rabbits began with Brooke Singer, whose musical talents became apparent very early. She told Woman magazine she wrote her first song at six years old, an ode to her recently deceased cat: “I want Monty ... but Monty is dead.” Along with departed pets, Singer took inspiration from her parents’ record collection: albums by Pat Benatar, The Beach Boys, and the Cats soundtrack.
Singer’s musical education is extensive – childhood piano lessons, music studies and jazz classes at Hagley High School, a live-sound course at MAINZ, and a university music degree.
Alongside her formal education, she had a more experiential training: performing and songwriting in two bands, the folk band Ragamuffin Children, and the pop-shoegazey The O’Lovelys – bands that started at high school with fellow students Anita Clark and Laura Watson. With Clark, who performs as Motte, she formed Ragamuffin Children, while Singer and Watson (also known as Laura Lee Lovely) formed the The O’Lovelys. Both bands played locally at small shows and open mic nights.
Early Ragamuffin Children shows in Christchurch had a distinct aesthetic, which Singer concedes, was in a time of “twee music” and “quite creative ... I don’t know if we realised that’s not how other people were doing shows.” Their debut album, Werecat Lullabies (2007), included ‘More of Me’, which won Singer the Loop Recordings Rise and Shine award for young songwriters. “It was really our first introduction to the music industry outside our own DIY thing.”
With Ragamuffin Children and The O’Lovelys, Singer performed around Europe.
They signed to Native Tongue Music Publishing and Singer headed overseas with both Ragamuffin Children and The O’Lovelys, travelling and performing around Europe. “This was really before Tiny Ruins, or any other bands we knew, were going over and touring. We didn’t really know how to do it.”
She performed with both The O’Lovelys and Ragamuffin Children on the tour, and one highlight with The O’Lovelys was when they opened for The Veils. After returning home, a second Ragamuffin Children album was released, Seahorse Emporium (2008), alongside The O’Lovelys’ self-titled album. Later that year Singer decided to move on from both bands, and returned to her studies.
After joining acoustic-rock trio Valdera as their keyboardist for a short time in 2010, Singer began working on a project to showcase her songs, sung by other artists who she approached through MySpace, including Hollie Fullbrook (Tiny Ruins), Agnes Obel, and others. “I just sent them these songs, and I asked if they would sing this for this project. But then the [Canterbury] earthquakes happened and everything changed.”
Post-earthquakes, Singer was back home in Waikuku Beach in North Canterbury with her musical and then personal partner, John Fitzgerald, recording a new song called ‘Claimed By the Sea’ at her mother’s house in Sefton. Fitzgerald had recently finished jazz school, and was looking for new musical projects. He had played guitar for Ragamuffin Children, which went unused, but when Singer started writing songs for what would become French for Rabbits she wanted him on guitar. Singer calls his sparse and atmospheric playing the “backbone of the sound”.
Fitzgerald credits his study of jazz and blues as an influence in his style. “I was drawn to the raw emotion and improvisational aspect. I discovered jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery. He used his thumb instead of a pick which helps create a really warm mellow tone. In terms of the tone and feel I try to play with, he would be the biggest influence.”
Singer put ‘Claimed By the Sea’ on a secret Bandcamp page, admitting that “apart from John, no one knew that I was attempting to sing. I’d always thought of myself as a songwriter and a pianist.”
Her initial anxiety about singing fed into their new name, French for Rabbits. “It was all down to the fact that I was terrified of singing. I used French for Rabbits as a secret password.”
They relocated to Wellington, playing an open mic night at Meow! with Ebony Lamb a week after arriving. The duo found a lot of support, which helped Singer break through her fears about singing, and they went into The Surgery studio with Lee Prebble to record the Claimed By the Sea EP (they kept the recording of the title track from Sefton), with Ben Lemi joining on drums.
In 2014 a remix of ‘Claimed By the Sea’ used in the UK television series ‘Being Human’.
The EP, released in 2012 on Home Alone Music – the label Singer runs with Timothy Blackman and Lake South – was successful. It was nominated for the 2013 Folk Tui Prize, with a PLAN remix of ‘Claimed By the Sea’ used in the UK television series Being Human in January 2014. The remix led them to look overseas, and Singer and Fitzgerald began their first tour of Europe before signing to Lefse Records in the US.
On returning to New Zealand, they started work on their debut album Spirits (2014), with Lemi now on bass, and new drummer Hikurangi Schaverien-Kaa.
Singer and Fitzgerald had been looking for a new drummer when they met Schaverien-Kaa at a Home Alone Music gig in Paekakariki where he was playing with City Oh Sigh. “On seeing us play, Brooke and John decided I was the one,” he says. “I agreed, and here we are, a decade, world tours, and three albums later.”
French for Rabbits recorded Spirits at Blue Barn Studios in Wellington, and Little Monster Studios in Auckland. They headed back to Europe in mid-2014 where they played 27 shows over six weeks, starting at The Great Escape Festival in Brighton, UK. During this tour, the band opened for Danish musician Agnes Obel, playing in some spectacular European concert halls, including L’Olympia in Paris, which Fitzgerald considers a highlight. “When we turned up to the first show we were shocked that we were going to be performing to 4000 people at L’Olympia Theatre.”
Both Fitzgerald and Schaverien-Kaa loved the Italian dates on this tour. Fitzgerald recalls “plenty of tasty food” while Schaverien-Kaa remembers one evening after a show in Rome when they were guided to their accommodation. “Expecting to be shoved into ratty bunk beds, the wrought-iron gates were thrown open, revealing the marble atrium of a boutique hotel, where we were serenaded by the proprietor. That surprise was probably the time I felt most like I’d made it.”
While on tour, they sent files for Spirits back to Lemi, who worked on final mixes in his home studio. It wasn’t an easy process, Fitzgerald told NZ Musician in 2014. “It was a difficult process communicating ideas over the internet.”
Spirits was released in October 2014, an ethereal, deceptively delicate album that further cemented Fitzgerald’s sparse, jazz-inflected guitar style, and Singer’s wistful vocals and occasionally spiritual, elemental lyrics. Singer explains: “Growing up in the countryside, and then by the beach, you’re surrounded by nature more than you are in the city. [Nature] makes for the best metaphors, it helps me understand the world.”
Nature makes for the best metaphors, says Singer, “it helps me understand the world.”
The addition of Lemi and Schaverien-Kaa to the band added sonic depth, particularly in the percussion on ‘The Other Side’, a haunting knock played on a wood block. “Hikurangi played that and it was so perfect for the song. We have played shows overseas without drums, and we’ve had people in the audience clap that part. It’s such a part of that song.”
The band gained further international interest when US television show Vampire Diaries used the singles ‘The Other Side’ and ‘Goat’ in the show. There was significant interest in Spirits. AllMusic described their sound as “orchestrated and often dramatic pop that manages to feel comforting and lonesome all at once.” Echoes.org rated Spirits as their “replay” album: “A delicate, folk-based dream pop that makes you want to wallow in melancholy because they do it so beautifully.”
A New Zealand tour followed the album release in 2014. By now the band had established a deep connection with their audience, something that came from engaging with them. In the band’s early days, if someone bought their CD through Bandcamp, Singer would include a short letter. “People would turn up to shows overseas with the little letter I’d written them, and I’d see there was this impact. I love community grassroots stuff, I’ve always found that really appealing ... [to] do it on a smaller scale, but have more, deeper connections [is] more interesting to me.”
Change was in the air in 2015. Fitzgerald and Singer moved to Ōtepoti Dunedin, settled in Port Chalmers, and began working on new material for their next album, The Weight of Melted Snow. They moved south as Fitzgerald was studying computer science, and they flatted with artist Devon Smith, who has subsequently designed much of the band’s merchandise.
Living in the South did not agree with Singer. “It was one of the coldest winters. The roads were icy, it was cold, and it was a new city. I wasn’t so sure it was for me.” However, she met a musician in Dunedin who would soon join French for Rabbits: Penelope Esplin of The Prophet Hens and Grawlixes.
While Fitzgerald was studying, Singer returned to Europe on tour, this time with Esplin and her Grawlixes bandmate Robin Cederman. They performed at Iceland Airwaves as well as playing intriguing venues throughout Europe: a hat shop in Brussels, a hair salon in Barcelona, an abandoned warehouse in Munich, and a wedding in a Swiss castle. The trio drove to the ceremony through Switzerland, but when they arrived at the mountain overpass it was closed due to snow. They made their way through the Swiss Alps via train instead, arriving in time to play music at the wedding. “It was really lovely, we played at the castle where they had the reception and dinner and then we let off lanterns outside.”
Once back in New Zealand, Singer and the band resumed writing and recording their new album, but it coincided with Singer and Fitzgerald’s relationship ending. Singer told Stuff it was the perfect example of an amicable break-up. “We broke up, went and ate nachos and then went for a bike ride.”
She returned to Wellington a short time later. Their personal situation inspired two songs, ‘The Weight of Melted Snow’ and ‘One and Only’, while the physical environment also influenced the music. “I wrote ‘The Weight of Melted Snow’ in Port Chalmers,” she told Highclouds.org. “You could hear the church bells ringing in the valley there. That is how the song begins ... I was remembering little moments.”
Co-produced by Singer and Lemi, The Weight of Melted Snow album was released in March 2017 on Home Alone Music. While it was labelled a breakup album, the album is thematically broad, and draws on different topics, including international politics and environmental apathy.
‘The Weight of Melted Snow’ album (2017) draws on different topics, including international politics and environmental apathy.
Visually, The Weight of Melted Snow was striking: a stark image of Singer’s father was used on the album cover, taken from the accompanying video of the title track. The video, filmed with their frequent visual collaborator Misma Andrews and featuring a cast of Dunedin’s creative community, portrays Singer in a glass casket full of flowers. The video was set in the heritage surrounds of The Savoy building in Dunedin, with beautiful visuals focusing on the floral imagery, and the starkly shot faces of the band and the audience.
In contrast to Claimed By the Sea and Spirits, Singer considers The Weight of Melted Snow “a real band album, in terms of what all the other instruments are doing.”
The expanding band lineup also had an impact on how Singer wrote the music. “Each album’s so [different]. Claimed By the Sea was our guitar album. Spirits was the first sort of band one, then The Weight of Melted Snow, that one was definitely a lot more sombre.”
Reviewers noted the emotion in The Weight of Melted Snow. Atwood Magazine called it “an intimate record that weighs on the mind, body, and spirit” while The Sampler on RNZ pointed out that Singer’s vocal was front and centre of the mix: “It commands your attention with the merest breath, while worlds of sound rise and fall behind it.” The song ‘One and Only’ was longlisted for an APRA Silver Scroll award.
The band returned to Europe for a supporting tour, and while overseas was approached to open for Lorde’s Christchurch show in support of her 2017 album Melodrama, which Singer describes as “a really nice way to cap off that album release. I was quite surprised that she asked us.” Schaverien-Kaa says walking on stage “in front of thousands of screaming Lorde fans” was another career highlight.
In 2018, French for Rabbits undertook its national ‘Highest Hill’ tour, and Singer produced Flip Grater’s album Songs for Anäis. In early 2019 The Weight of Melted Snow was released internationally on Muscle Beach Records. A 21-date tour of the US followed, including a show at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, where French for Rabbits were part of a strong musical contingent from Aotearoa.
Winning the APRA Professional Development Award that year enabled Singer to pursue songwriting opportunities with different musicians in Los Angeles. “I learnt so much about songwriting, because I was working with pop writers, but also around production. Every day I got to see how a different producer did this stuff. I’d ask questions about plug-ins, microphones, and it was a very good learning experience.”
Singer also became a mentor for Girls Rock! Aotearoa in 2019, something she is passionate about. “At high school, I had a really good, supportive music teacher, but we didn’t do Rockquest because I thought you couldn’t do that when you play quiet folk music. There are so many more opportunities now, like this programme to encourage people to give it a go, and make it a little bit less scary.” A position at Massey University, teaching music practice and industry, also came Singer’s way.
By the time the March 2020 Covid 19 lockdown occurred, French for Rabbits were well into creating and shaping their third album, the rhythmically-inclined The Overflow. Singer co-wrote more material on the album, and considered the material that was not co-written to be influenced by the process. “Writing with others helped me to challenge some songwriting preconceptions I had, and allowed me to write stronger material.”
Writing with others helped Singer challenge some songwriting preconceptions.
She wrote demos on a laptop, noting the songs were a bit more direct in their poetry. There was a change in subject matter too, as she had spent more time in cities, so was less preoccupied with nature and the elements. Singer wanted it to be “the best of our three albums in terms of the production. We’d figured out a lot of stuff in the previous records. This one was the one I felt most confident putting together.”
The band worked with an outside producer, Jol Mulholland, whom Singer had reconnected with at a writing camp in Australia, writing ‘Middle of the House’ with him. She was keen to include a producer from outside the band as she wanted to work with someone who could “bring a bit of grit ... and that kind of electric energy. And, he’s just so relaxed, and has that same creative curiosity where we could follow our noses.” They recorded The Overflow at Mulholland’s studio within The Lab Recording Studio, in Auckland, and at The Surgery in Wellington.
Alongside creating The Overflow, Singer and Fitzgerald appeared on the 2020 Mansfield compilation of Katherine Mansfield poems set to music, performing ‘The Wounded Bird’. They performed the song during the album concerts in 2021. During the pandemic Singer also wrote and produced (with Lemi) the lockdown song ‘The Tunnel’, saying, “It was just one of those ‘working through a situation’ songs.”
The Overflow was released in 2021 on AAA Records in New Zealand, and internationally through Reckless Yes!. It was heralded in December 2020 by the single ‘The Dark Arts’, which examines memory and loss through the inanimate, often temporary, objects we keep.
Singer has remarked that The Overflow is a metaphor for those with high functioning anxiety, and a celebration of the band’s self-confessed introverted nature. One song that speaks directly to the theme of introversion is ‘The Outsider’, written with Marc Orrell, formerly of The Dropkick Murphys, and Brooke Johnson, while Singer was in Los Angeles. Inspired by a party she attended while overseas, the song details how alienated, and “see-through” one can feel, almost like an apparition. That feeling inspired the video, with Singer ghost-like under a sheet, being ignored at a party. Directed by Martin Sagadin, the video was one Singer “visioned up in my mind” and is another in a long line of memorable French for Rabbits videos.
Video is an important medium to the group, especially on The Overflow, where they have continued to work with Misma Andrews. The video for ‘Ouija Board’, which featured the band wearing phantastic masks by Oamaru artist Donna Demente, was “filmed completely on film rather than digitally, in a beach in the North Island ... that was really fun to work on.”
The Overflow was received well. Ambient Light noted Mulholland’s production “was able to bring layers to Brooke’s voice” and observed “these songs are enduring and magical at all levels, bordering on commercially explosive, just holding back and remaining totally true to form.”
NZ Musician said the band “takes us to a new world with their delicately laid lyrics, groovy tracks and a new dark ambience.” The Overflow was nominated for the 2022 Taite Prize.
French For Rabbits headed out on a New Zealand-wide tour to support The Overflow in April-May 2022. “Everything we previously knew about releasing records and touring has totally changed,” says Singer. There are contingency plans in place: their international tour plans were disrupted by the continued Covid pandemic. So the group performed and filmed three songs from The Overflow – ‘The Money or the Bag’, ‘The Outsider’, and ‘Nothing in my Hands’ – at the Vogelmorn Bowling Club in Wellington. Filmed again by Martin Sagadin, the video is an intimate, tightly framed performance. Esplin was absent from the video shoot, and guest musicians Deanne Krieg and Letitia McKenzie filled in for her.
In a continuation of her production work, Singer performed on Ariana Tikao’s waiata ‘Fly You Home’ in May 2022, co-producing with Lemi.
Singer is already planning for the next album, something she wasn’t sure would happen for a while. “I’ve already started writing it, it turns out!” she says. So far, “it’s mostly on the piano, and it’s quite like flowery. Quite different again from The Overflow, I suspect.” Somehow this sounds like the perfect next step for French for Rabbits.
Home Alone Music
Allgood Absolute Alternative Records
Brooke Singer - vocals, keyboards, synth, piano, guitar
John Fitzgerald - guitar
Ben Lemi - bass, drums, guitar, backing vocals
Hikurangi Schaverien-Kaa - drums
Penelope Esplin - synths, backing vocals