On the eve of her first Australian tour and the launch of her debut EP, ANDY HAZEL finds out about the long musical history and striking fresh sounds of multiple Age EG Music Award nominee SOPHIA BROUS.
When a debut single is musically proficient, lyrically unusual, artfully produced and stunningly delivered, it’s going to attract attention. Streamers, the lead single from the eponymous debut EP from Melbourne band Brous has been thrust to high rotation on JJJ as well as garnering community radio play and an Age EG Music Award nomination for Best Single. Despite a short musical career of surprising twists and turns, recent developments are something that vocalist, composer and chief architect Sophia Brous is still grappling with. “I’m really pleased!” she says happily. “It’s funny, when you view other people you think things are going well and achievements like this are all there is to their life at the moment. It is fantastic, but it’s not like the world has turned purple, life goes on.”
Life, for Brous, constitutes of a range of creative projects, which sees her week divided between writing music and playing gigs. It’s a work ethic befitting someone who can lay claim to an impressive array of achievements, including debuting onstage with Gil Askey, becoming, at 22, the youngest ever director of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival (a role she recently stepped down from), and winning a scholarship to the New England Conservatory and Berklee College of Music. These experiences feed in to the truly unusual and powerful sound that is being introduced to the world through Streamers. “When I went to the States, it was the first time in my formal music training that I had been introduced to music like exotica and tropicalia, and film noir soundtracks and was able to focus on them in an concentrated manner,” she says emphatically, highlighting influences that permeate the EP. “Many people who’ve gone through that system go through a process of unlearning, and it was like that for me. As soon as I got back, I went straight into jazz clubs and performing, but then there was a period of feeling like I wanted to explore other things, so I stepped back and started writing. It’s interesting,” she says, pausing, “as soon as I stepped away from jazz, I got the festival job; I jumped into it and gave it my all and it was a great experience, but now that Brous is out there, it’s time to be focusing on that.”
Unsurprisingly, when Brous focuses on something, impressive results follow, and so it is with the EP. Amazingly enough, with Brous’s powerful voice and poetic turns of phrase, the band’s music arrests almost as much attention. “The band were long time friends of mine and people I knew well before they joined,” she says keenly. “It began with James Rushford. We had an interest in pop melody, Europop, art music and avant garde and after playing with him I got further into melodies with a sense of darkness or depth. Shags [Chamberlain] was the last person to join the group, but he is a really important part of it,” she says with a rare pause for contemplation. “As oppose to having musical training, he has great taste in gear and an encyclopaedic knowledge of music and sounds which makes him great in the studio, this guy has 10000 records in his bedroom, so how could he not? I had a clear idea of what I wanted before I went in, but it’s difficult to communicate outside of music terms, and that was a great thing about having Shags there. I don’t have knowledge of synths, but when I write I have a very clear idea of the sounds I want, and sound is the core of my music – every song begins with the foundations of melody. To communicate the sound in my head means I’m singing stupid sounds to people, or playing recordings to focus on the exact tone I want, and Shags really gets that. Scott [Horscroft], Shags and me coproduced the whole thing. I bring the chords to the band and ultimately it’s what you do next that is the most interesting thing. Everything has to come back to the fundamentals; that’s the whole process on the writing - the melody, then lyrics. Then it’s a matter of extrapolating out and building around it, like architecture.” Other band members, or architects, include Alexander Garsden, Jeanette Little and Joe Talia, shining examples of the fertility of the Melbourne music community, which Brous seems intent on feeding back into.
“Initially we recorded nine tracks as a session - a few I wanted to hold for the album, some others as B sides - and this collection of songs felt cohesive. For the EP, it felt like this was enough of a first statement to come out with. We’ve written a lot of music since then and I can’t wait to get to work on that, but with Brous, there is a certain timbre. It’s dramatic and epic in scope, but I’m interested to see how this can be done in sparser ways with fewer instruments,” she says enthusiastically. “When we were recording and producing the EP Streamers was such a big song to create,” she continues breathlessly. “It took the most work, it was draining to record and it is a workout to perform; I call it my Jane Fonda song,” she laughs. “We had a lot of gear in the studio to play with, and time to develop countermelodies and give the song a certain robustness. Recording it was something that happened over time and in stages - because of my job we could only work in bursts - so the song was constructed in stages, which is funny because you can hear the song develop like that when you listen to it,” she says of its unusual structure. “I wanted a strange dislocation.”
Even with the quality and universally positive reviews, Streamers runs the danger of overshadowing the quieter and less exuberant songs on the EP, but that’s something Brous can justify. “Because Streamers came out first, and with the video getting lots of views online, people have had time to sit with it. I think every song on the EP has that scope of arrangement and heart and soul put into it; none of them are fading flowers,” she laughs. “A song like Little Ticket is a condensed version of the drama that people are talking about in Streamers. More is great, and giving something a sense of grandeur is great, but I don’t want to overwhelm the song,” she says carefully. With the company she keeps, you can be sure that’s unlikely and any density the songs have will only reward deeper listening.