(Interview) Jonathan Bree: “Art is healthier when it is in the shadows”

You most likely know of Jonathan Bree from the catchy music video in which him and his dancers appear wearing masks and dancing awkwardly on a 60’s, ABBA-on-TV kind of background. Elsewhere, another popular collaboration is the cigarette duet with Princess Chelsea, a sample of hippie nostalgia and probably a hidden satire on drugs addiction.

Born and partly raised in Auckland, New Zealand, the workaholic musician started playing drums and joined the goth band The Plaster Sands at only age 12. To exorcize the rock out of his head, he was sent a year later to live with his spiritual guru father in Australia, where he was starving in order to achieve nirvana. He obviously ran away, and started dealing drugs to support himself through high-school. At 19, Jonathan returned to Auckland and started his first indie band – The Brunettes, releasing 4 albums and 4 EP’s within 10 years of activity, opening his own record label – Lil’ Chief Records – and gathering a dedicated cult-following. In 2013, Jonathan released his first avant-garde solo album – The Primrose Path, followed by a second album, A Little Night Music, two years later, both critically praised in New Zealand.

Jonathan Bree’s most recent album, Sleepwalking, is a virtually desensitized chronicle of a love relationship, a pop-rock guide on how to move on after loving someone passionately, and use that experience in order to educate one’s feelings in loving better, harder, stronger next time. Currently in a world tour promoting his new album, Jonathan found time to answer some questions regarding his style, Sleepwalking and, well, his masks. Read the interview below.

I actually find performing in the mask more natural, more comfortable and honest

CVLT: I successfully failed in categorizing the music genre of Jonathan Bree. There’s a pop, there’s indie rock, there’s late ’70s state of vegetation…?

Jonathan Bree: I’ve heard it called fetish pop lately. Sounds catchy.

The Northern hemisfere habitants are a bit ignorant when it comes to what happens across the other side of the world, especially when it comes to music or art in general (although we do know Lord of the Rings was filmed in New Zealand!). How’s music scene doing over there, in your opinion?

It arguably has a healthier scene when it is in the shadows away from the rest of the world. People make their best work when they aren’t thinking about their global marketability.

I’ve read that you and the fellow musician Scott Mannion decided to create your own label, as the interest towards indie artists in your country was practically non-existent. That’s how Lil’ Chief Records came to life. Has the situation changed in the meantime, since a decade ago?

Major labels fund conceive indents so their ‘indie’ artist on a 360 deal has a cooler sounding bio. A lot has changed since we began, but those that create obscure music mostly still remain just as unbankable.

Your original projects – The Brunettes – is arguably the foundation of your own style. True or false?

I learnt a lot of things over the years in that project and others about writing and recording, so yeah, the past totally shaped things to come.

Jonathan Bree & Princess Chelsea, The Cigarette Duet, 2011

My first contact with your work was that music video of You’re So Cool. When and how did the satin mask and awkward dancing routine became your trademarks?

We sometimes used masks in the Brunettes and other bands I’ve been in. I like the effect wearing a mask has on an audience and live show.

I see The Beatles or Lana del Rey listed as main influences, although the overall feel of Sleepwalking is a brilliant, optimistic revival of Ian Curtis’ Joy Division. What are your thoughts on that?

I admire the work of all the artists you just mentioned.

Lots of artists have an alter-ego on stage that sometimes is the total opposite of the real-life person. What’s the main difference between Jonathan Bree, the masked musician and Jonathan Bree, the unmasked individual?

The unmasked individual finds breathing less challenging. Obviously there are a lot of differences, but what might interest is that I actually find performing in the mask more natural, more comfortable and honest an appearance than if I were to walk on stage without it.

You’ve been recently to Romania, while on tour promoting your first solo album, released in June 2018 – Sleepwalking. How did you find Bucharest?

I loved it. I hope to see more of it and Romania next time we tour.

Coming across as a lucid dream at the end of a long summer, Sleepwalking is implicitly a cynical view of love and relationships. What are it’s main themes and how would it (the album) be served best? What important messages are we missing as listeners?

I can understand how it can be perceived as cynical. It’s just an honest informed account of the aftermath of love and relationships though. The arc of a relationship or a love doesn’t always have to be morbid either. It’s up to the listener what they choose to take away from the album, but I think within it’s content there’s still a sense of optimism in facing these things, encouraging self preservation, possible reinvention.

Jonathan Bree in Control Club, Bucharest, 2018. Photo: Andrei Musat

Your last music video was released almost a year ago. When’s the next Eyes Wide Shut-like extravaganza set to make a new appearence?

I’m in tour mode at the moment but when I get back to New Zealand I plan on directing a few more videos for this album. Next video might be… Dec… Jan… we will have to see.

 

Find Jonathan Bree on Facebook | Bandcamp. Stream/purchase Sleepwalking here.

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Romanian self-taught writer, based in Cyprus, interested in contemporary art, unconventional culture and gonzo journalism. Writing for almost a decade, he is agnostic, supports a censorship-free society and reads way less than he wants.

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