Brooke Fraser Talks New LP ‘Brutal Romantic’, Switching Up Her Sound & The Fraser Clan’s Crest: Idolator Interview

After building a loyal international following with acoustic, singer/songwriter fare like “Something In The Water”, Brooke Fraser decided to switch things up on her fourth LP. The New Zealand superstar explores a starkly beautiful electronic sound on Brutal Romantic — a brilliantly-executed collection of brittle synth-pop anthems that owe a debt to Scandinavian acts like Peter Bjorn And John and Lykke Li without being derivative.

I recently caught up with the 30-year-old and dug a little deeper into her change in direction. Brooke opened up about the two-year process of writing and recording Brutal Romantic and the need to challenge herself creatively. She also dissected lead single “Kings + Queens” and explained why “Brutal Romance” is her favorite track on the album. Oh, and the Kiwi hitmaker also revealed that her family crest is a strawberry! Find out more after the jump.

Why inspired you to explore a more electronic sound on Brutal Romantic? I knew when I finished recording the third album, that the next project I did I wanted to do something that was really different that took me out of my comfort zone. My voice has always been put against really warm, lush sounds. Since my voice is quite breathy, I wanted to see what would happen if I put it against something spiky and cold and mechanical.

I thought that might be an interesting contrast. So I did that to create soundscapes and textures in a different way that my voice hasn’t been presented before. It took a long time finally nailing it and getting it to the place where it felt like the right balance. But it was certainly heaps of fun.

How long did you work on the album for? I only had three months off which was nothing, and the rest of the time I’ve been writing this album. So there was no much time off at all — I went straight into it. But because I wanted to do something different and be out of my comfort zone.

It was almost like relearning again, and not allowing myself to go back to my default ways of writing melodies and lyrics. Just really challenging myself and trying out a bunch of things to see what works. I thought the process would be for a year and it ended up being two. But we ended up at a place that I’m really happy with.

Did you have any musical reference points when you started working on the project? I was listening to a lot of stuff out of Scandinavia like Peter Bjorn And John and Lykke Li, and thought the mood of that sound could be something that I could explore. Originally I thought it was gonna be more analog elements. But as the writing process went on, it ended up being more electronic. But I think we struck the right balance in the end.

What’s your interpretation of [lead single] “Kings + Queens”? It’s so funny when you write a song because you know what it’s about, and I can articulate it in lyrics but not necessarily in a tidy little speech. But it’s about being grateful about what you have and that tension of I’m not all the way where I want to be yet, but I’ve come so far from where I was — which I think encapsulates this album for me as well. I feel like I have so much to give as an artist but I’m also really grateful for my journey up to this point.

I love the video but what’s with the crazy dudes dancing in the warehouse? The video is quite random! [laughs] I think the idea behind the dancers was that at first they appear to be normal but as their dancing intensifies, it becomes apparent they have these superpowers. So it kind of tips into the surrealism of the lyrical content — it’s the line between reality and unreality. That’s as deep as it goes, really!

Was the point of “Psychosocial” to shake people up? It was definitely to give people a taste of what is to come. I try to always include my audience on the journey as I’m writing and recording. On my feed from the last two years, there’s a lot of pictures of vintage synthesizers and drum machines. But people don’t necessarily connect that with what’s about to happen. So I was like, “Well, let’s show ’em!” I thought it was appropriate to put “Psychosocial” out because it was about social media and online platforms, so it seemed apt to put it out online and let it go.

I read that the huskiness in your voice on that song came from having the flu. People keep asking me, “How did you get that effect on the vocal?” Actually, I was really sick and had a really crap microphone plugged into my laptop. That’s why it sounds like that! There were no fancy studio tricks.

“Je Suis Prêt” is one of my favorite tracks on the album. It’s quite dark but you come across as such a bubbly, happy person. I’m wondering how you tap into those emotions. I’m a whole human being, and then there’s a substantial part of me that is an artist. I think artists feel a lot and have deep processes of things. So that tends to come out in different expressions. But “Je Suis Pret” is one of my favorite tracks, for sure. It’s so fun for me to sing. I had so much fun even tapping into different parts of my range on this album, and singing in a way that I haven’t before. It’s not necessarily a different emotional expression for me, but certainly the way that it’s packaged sonically is fresh.

Is there a reason why you went with the French title? It’s actually my family motto, which I only found out in the writing session. I was talking to Kid Harpoon, who I was writing it with, about his Scottish girlfriend and how I’d been to Scotland a few years earlier. I was a bit bummed because I was looking for my family crest, and everyone else had really awesome crests — like lions and bears. I looked up what the Fraser crest was, and it was a strawberry. That is so uncool!

So I was telling him about that and he asked me what my family motto is. I actually didn’t know, so we googled it and it was “Je Suis Pret.” So when the ancient Frasers would run into battle, they’d be carrying banners which said “Je Suis Pret” — which means “I Am Ready.” So they’re kind of killing people and wearing strawberries; it’s a beautiful juxtaposition! [Laughs].

Is there another track on the album that has a special meaning for you? Definitely “Brutal Romance,” that’s my favorite song that I’ve ever written. It really pushed me as a writer. It was so challenging, fun and educational to write. It’s very technically written but at the same time it’s one of the most emotional songs on the album. It was so rewarding for me to find those two elements for the song.

What is your idea of a brutal romance? For me it’s just about life. Life is joy and sorrow, anguish and delight, traumatic and mundane. It’s all of those things, and its brutally romantic.

I like the statue on the cover. It’s me actually, I got three dimensionally scanned in a CGI studio. So it’s kind of about wrestling with yourself. I really liked the way the two figures are posed because it’s like are they embracing or are they fighting? You can’t really tell, and that’s the point. Life is about both.

Did living in L.A. have any impact when you’re recording? Sometimes the city can impact an artist’s sound. That’s why I didn’t record the album in L.A.! I made my second and third albums in L.A., and because I wanted everything on this album to be different for me I wanted to make it everywhere except America. So it was written mostly in Stockholm. While I was writing, we were living in Scandinavia and then New York, but then we made the record in London. With the timing of when we moved places, we were pretty much living in winter for like a year and a half straight. That explains the sound as well, kind of like the stark beauty of winter in the city.

How have fans reacted to your new sound? I think it’s really good and pretty overwhelmingly positive. People who have followed my journey as an artist have expected me to do something different on each album anyway. If you stripped away all the sounds and just looked at the DNA of the melody and the lyrics, they’re still very much Brooke Fraser songs. So the reaction has been great!

How do you cope with being comparatively unknown in the American market? I think I’ve always been pretty good at separating myself as a person and as an artist. It’s a very small percentage of the world that are aware of who I am and what I do. In some places that percentage is concentrated. I think it’s something that I’ve always been used to. When my first album had been out for four months in New Zealand, I moved to Australia where I was anonymous.

I’ve spent a lot of my life living in places other than where I’m widely known, and I think that’s a healthy thing. That means I don’t take anything for granted and I don’t think anything should be handed to me on a plate. I’m willing to work hard and I love working hard.

What’s the goal for this album? I just really want to make music that makes people happy, and I want many people to find this album and connect with it as its supposed to happen. Whatever that looks like, I’m not fussed. It doesn’t mean I’m not motivated, but I try to be really grateful for whatever happens. I think that I’ve made music that my existing fans will enjoy and hopefully will reach into a new audience that wouldn’t necessarily like Brooke Fraser two or three albums ago.

Have you heard Brutal Romantic yet? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Get an eyeful of even more pop music coverage, from artist interviews to exclusive performances, on Idolator’s YouTube channel.