Music Reviews & News
Blue King Brown is one of those bands that make you stand up and take notice of their energetic blend of rootsy sounds and inspirational lyrics. Lead vocalist Natalie Pa’apa’a and her partner (and BKB co-founder) Carlo Santone, started out their music career busking on the streets in Byron, playing some of the most amazing street percussion that I have had the good fortune to get my groove on to. This busking laid the foundation of the band and since relocating to Melbourne in 2004 they have gone from strength to strength both musically and professionally. They have toured with the likes of Carlos Santana, Michael Franti and Spearhead and the John Butler Trio, both within Australia and abroad, and like these gurus of the music industry their music inspires both your feet to get dancing and your mind to really start thinking about what is happening in the world around us.
With Blue King Brown set to headline the up and coming Bleach Festival held in south-eastern Queensland between the 11th and 26th of February 2012, Natalie took some time out to have a chat with me about what the band have been up to over the last few years and the more important issues that they hold close to their hearts.
Do you still get out on the streets and spontaneously jam at all?
No not really. We haven’t done so more or less since we left Byron. It’s the kind of thing that I can definitely imagine us doing again as far as for old times sake.
Can you tell us a little about your musical training?
I was brought up in Melbourne and moved to Byron when I was about 13. That was around when I picked up the guitar and decided that I was going to be a musician and I kind of learnt off everybody I met and who could play something. I would get them to teach me everything they knew and then I would find someone else to teach me. I didn’t really have any formal guitar lessons but we travelled a fair bit up and down the coast so we met lots of people. Then much later on I started doing all the percussion and that became my main musical activity. I was never planning on being a percussionist and I never thought of ever being a drummer or anything like that. But it just kind of happened that way and we just rolled with it. And then I said ‘hang on a minute I do still really love the guitar’. So I went to the Lismore Conservatorium of music and did the Diploma there in Jazz guitar and learnt theory and how to read and write music in the more Western traditional way.
You play the guitar now in BKB but do you get back on the drums at all?
For sure, I play hand drums in Blue King Brown in our set and it’s still a big part of our show and our sound especially in the studio. But I don’t get to play anywhere near as much as I did when we were busking on the streets of Byron when I was playing every single day. But it’s still there and I really enjoy playing drums especially when we come back to Byron and hang out with our crew.
Who have you drawn your inspiration from, both for you personally and for your music?
I had a lot of musical inspiration starting from a young age. I was lucky that my mother had great taste in music so I’m a huge fan of Janis Joplin, The Doors, Bob Marley, everything from Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin and all that sort of era and Santana. Then as I moved into percussion I really opened my musical knowledge of world music and grew to love the traditional music from Africa, Asia, and India. I guess stand out artists would be Fela Kuti from Nigeria and Cheik Lô from Senegal and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan from India. Right now I’ve become more interested in the sounds coming from the modern sort of reggae dancehall stuff coming out of Kingston in Jamaica and places like that.
You mentioned artists such as Santana as being inspirations for you, so how does it feel now to know that you’ve played alongside them? It must have been mind-blowing?
Yeah it’s awesome. I mean it’s the best kind of training you can get in our industry, to be able to tour with and connect with other artists that have been doing it for X amount of time, longer than you and that have a certain level of musicianship. In the case of Santana he is legendary and his band are incredible and we were able to tour with them in Australia and that was definitely one of those ‘pinch yourself’ moments. I totally pinched myself when I was side of stage watching them play Oye Como Va for the first time. My head was having flashbacks to my mums record player when I was 7 and I was going ‘Oh my GOD it’s so awesome’ and he ended up pulling me on stage to jam with them a couple of times. That was just crazy and so exciting
You've been quoted as being a 'socially conscious musician' and I know that with your music you push your listeners to embrace their own personal power and the potential to be agents of positive change. Would you say that this would be the most important thing to you as an artist?
For me that is what I feel is the most important message to impart in my music and in my life. You know, definitely inspiring people to be as you said, agents for positive change and to realize their potential to change things. It comes from really being open minded, being really interested in what’s going on in the world, in the environment and seeing the historical and continual degradation of our environment and therefore of ourselves, and of the human spirit and of human dignity along with it. And just seeing that that’s got to change and especially it’s got to change in OUR time. We’re the ones who know our environment can become irreversibly damaged on our watch within the next 5 years if we don’t do something. So it’s really important to me and something I really focus on both on and off the microphone, you know – it’s who I am
To me, the ability to create music that raises awareness about some serious social and political issues whilst also being fun to watch can't be an easy balance to achieve but bands like Blue King Brown, the John Butler Trio and Michael Franti have done it really successfully. How do you think you’ve achieved this?
For us the music and the message, they married very well and it was never an initial intention to be honest. When we started the band it was never like ‘ok we’re gonna write songs about these issues” - it was not planned at all. We were musicians firstly, and we love good music and we’d been playing with some shit hot drummers from around the Byron region. We’d been trained by Greg Sheehan and we had a high level of musicianship that we wanted and that we required to be a part of BKB. The music had to be good to start with and we’re really fussy about that. Then naturally the lyrics came and that’s what came out of me. I wasn’t being particular about the actual wording and phrasing at the time. For us it was kind of a natural thing and I definitely feel that it is so important to have that positive energy and not make people feel guilty for everything that is wrong in the world, but to empower them to change it. Of course I was also inspired by people like Michael Franti and Spearhead and the JBT, both of who have been supportive of BKB before it even started and both who knew myself and Carlo the co-founder and percussionist. So those guys also have been a huge influence and have been really inspirational as well
I know you have said that your music is an affirmation of how you see the world right now and what is going on around us. Is keeping that connection to the streets a key factor in maintaining that credibility in your music?
Oh for sure I mean we’re the street people, you know – we walk the streets, we don’t walk the halls of Parliament, that’s not our reality. I’m not trying to be a politician. They kind of live in this different world than we do but they speak for all of us. Whereas our daily reality is the street, our neighbourhood and the places we live and that’s where the music comes from. Especially when we travel, because we’ve been around Australia and bussed our way around with close to no money and slept on couches.
In other parts of the world we always make a point of trying to get out to those areas of the cities or towns where the art and culture comes from the street, and where the street culture is really strong. Pretty much every city has a place where the art scene is really coming out and you can meet people and you learn. For us we find out about artists and local issues that occur in the area. Some people know about our music too and what we sing about and they’ll approach us wanting us to know what’s happening and that’s really great as well
You’ve got another big year coming up as while you were touring internationally a lot last year, 2012 has got you playing big shows like the St Kilda Festival, Blues Fest, Womad and the Bleach Festival. Are you excited about getting back to the Australian crowds?
Yeah we did our album launch tour last year, and that was great. I love playing venues because we’re really able to connect with our solid fans and also deliver the full length of the show that we wanted to. Whereas playing festivals you’re playing a shorter time slot but I love that as well. I love them equally because the festival is the energy and pump and it’s really diverse and proud. But those events that you mentioned are the particular ones that we wanted to do because we’re in the studios right now really focusing on our recordings and we wanted to come out and do those ones because they’re really great events. We haven’t played at the St Kilda, Blues Fest and WOMAD festivals for a few years now. And this other gig that is REALLY important to us is the Bleach Festival show, which is to support the Free West Papua Movement. That’s something that Blue King Brown are really going to be focusing on in our social activism this year. We’re really trying to help out the situation there to support the activists who live in Australia and those West Papuans here who are trying to make a difference to what’s going on there. So that’s a really important show for us and we’re looking forward to it
You’ve toured with some pretty amazing performers as mentioned earlier such as Carlos Santana, Michael Franti and Spearhead, the John Butler Trio and Damian Marley. What could you say would have been one of your most memorable gigs to date and why? Would it be the Santana ‘moment’ that you spoke about?
I think, when someone asks me that, that’s the first thing that comes to mind. Instantly I think of that tour with Santana and him really taking the time to connect with me especially and pull me up on stage to play guitar with them. That was definitely one of the standout times. The other one after that would be with Spearhead. We’ve done a few different tours in different places with them now but on our very first time to America, Spearhead took us along on a tour with them. We stayed with them in their bus, and it was so much fun. They made it so easy for us, as a young band coming all the way from Australia without being known at all in America. They let us use their bus, and use their crew, use their backlines, their amps, and everything so that was a really incredible thing that they did for us
I’m a huge fan of the diversity and energy of your music and can only think that this helps with being able to collaborate with a huge range of different artists and their music genres. Do you have a 'dream collaboration' still waiting to happen and if so with who?
Oh I’ve got so many. You know what, just recently I’ve been starting to think about Manu Chau. I really want to do something with Manu Chau so I’m starting to dream up that possibility
It's been 5 years between your J award nominated album 'STAND' and your recently released WORLDWIZE Part I album from 2010. WORLDWIZE Part I has been 2 years in the making so can you tell me a little about the process that went into making the new album?
Basically we went into the studio with the intention to record and release the album within a 6-month sort of bracket. What happened was when we got into the studio and started working on the songs and getting everything down, we realized that it was going to take longer than that to get what we wanted. And that’s because with Stand Up we wanted to just go in to try and capture as much of the live sound as we could and we wanted to do it really rootsy, you know all live instrumentation. With Worldwize Part I we wanted to add the element of electronically generated sound like beats, and the postproduction that we did on that album, like the layers of synth or strings. One of the reasons it took a couple of years was that we ourselves were learning how to get those sounds that we wanted, what were the sounds, how do we make that happen and who do we need to do that. And the other part of it was at that time we started getting busy overseas doing these tours in America, Europe, Japan and Canada. In between that we were trying to finish the album and so it took some time and it was a big process. But it really laid the way and now that we have all that experience under our belts the whole process of making the next album has been a lot more fluid and faster. I mean you don’t go into the studio without learning something every single time, I don’t care if you’ve recorded 20 albums you’re constantly learning when you’re doing this stuff
You’ve got a fairly large group onstage. How does it feel when you know that a performance is going really well for you?
You know what, it’s the crowd. They are the ones who dictate how good it feels for us. In every show we put out the most that we can and either the crowd will just eat it up and throw the energy back at us and in turn we will get that energy and throw that out again so it kind of amplifies. But sometimes a crowd is not as pumped or it’s a seated crowd. Sometimes you do these gigs and people want to sit down and drink wine or eat cheese. You know those things happen but people are really feeling it inside but it’s not that sort of get up and dance and scream sort of scene. So it really just depends on the crowd in general but for me, being on stage or more specifically playing live music just feels good and it feels right
At SurfSister we’re a relatively surf-oriented magazine so I guess the question is do you surf?
I have tried to surf but I never really got into the whole surf culture but definitely other members of my band are big on it. I mean the ocean around Byron is the best place to be
So if you were not surfing how would you spend your downtime when you’re not gigging, recording, touring or writing music?
I just really like hanging out with my friends. Sometimes I come up to Byron and hang out around the Brunswick Heads area and that’s awesome. Or we go to Cairns and chill there. I guess because now we’re in Melbourne, to really chill is to get back to the ocean or a bit more close to nature
If you were sitting in a room full of aspiring new musicians what would your message be to them?
I think one of the most important things is to be really confident and comfortable in the relationships that you make with those who guide you or assist you in the future that you’re trying to create. And really value just real, down to earth solid relationships because the whole industry is made up on relationships. Between you and your publicist, your manager, your other band mates and when you’ve got that right and you have the right ingredients and the right vibe between the people you can really do amazing things. But when there’s one person that is not vibin with the crew that can make everything seem a lot harder. So I’d just say get your relationships really solid, get comfortable with them and be ready to work hard and there are no rules so be as creative and crazy as you can.
With a new single set to be released sometime in the first half of 2012 and a third album hot on its heels, Blue King Brown are ready for another big year of music, fun and social activism. So put down your wine and cheese and bring your booty ready to shake to the Currumbin Soundlounge on Sunday the 26th February from 3pm where they are supported by the West Papuan group Tabura. Tickets for the show can be bought here. Alternatively, check out their website for more information on what the band is up to.
Words by Nic Steel
Nicole Steel Of Northern Rivers, NSW.
Nicole is a passionate person: live music, writing, cooking, surfing and being a mum to name a few. Nic started a B.A. Communication Studies changing to a Bachelor of Environmental Science, Areas of concentration: Marine Biology and Ecology, Coastal Management. With a post graduate diploma of Education Studies and Community College NSW Certificate IV in Training and Assessment.