Today marks the release of Jonathan Bree’s highly anticipated third solo album – Sleepwalking. A composer, multi-instrumentalist and producer hailing from New Zealand, Bree is a self-confessed workaholic. Sharing his time between running the successful record label Lil’ Chief Records, which boasts a roster including the likes of Princess Chelsea, Ruby Suns and his previous band The Brunettes, whilst simultaneously recording and producing his own material.
Bree’s first release from Sleepwalking came last Summer in the form of You’re So Cool. An enchanting, orchestral pop record, with a music video just as hypnotising. Featuring his mysterious masked band, the video went on to be voted Best Music Video 2017 by Time Out New York, now amassing over four million views.
A duet with Catalunyan musician Clara Vinals – sets up for his second single Say You Love Me Too. Whispered intimate vocals sit above a prominent bass line and drum pattern which drive the song.
Sleepwalking is an album which draws a strong infatuation to psychedelically-tinged ’60s and ‘70s chamber pop, reminiscent to the sonic treatment of Brian Wilson and Sir George Martin with his Beatles’ production. The album is already being heralded as Bree’s "masterstroke", and critically praised as "exactly that kind of masterpiece that is a product of somebody who drinks, eats, and sleeps music".
Jonathan kindly spoke to us about his latest release and the process that went behind creating the body of work.
The reviews of Sleepwalking are amazing. It has been variously described as “the essence of the '60s/'70s chamber pop in all its variations”, “Lush orchestrated pop" and “On Sleepwalking Jonathan Bree occupies a place which few others achieve. He’s made high art of pop.” Do you feel you have perfected your vision with this collection?
Umm. Like all albums I’ve had a hand in, I think I’ve come as close to where I was wanting to go with it... That’s not a very exciting statement I’m afraid is it... For the time being I’m really happy with it.
Your music sounds wonderfully rich, but yet organic and natural. Are you able to summarise how you achieve such a sound?
I’ve always enjoyed layering, constructing and deconstructing. Though this is only achievable for myself through multitrack recording because I am using mainly real orchestral instruments I suppose the end result is firmly planted in the real acoustic work. When it comes to studio effects, I might embrace reverb, or tape speed, but rarely spend much time tinkering with zany modulation effects.
Your approach to production has been likened to Brian Wilson and Sir George Martin in that you display a deep understanding, and affection for their works and studio techniques. What is about these sounds that appeals to you?
There’s a certain magic to their productions. Obviously they were at the helm aiding the recording of the best musicians and songwriters of the 1960s, so there’s that! They were leaders in the era where for the first time the studio became a major player in shaping what a song could be. I find that era of discovery very compelling. There’s something special that I believe comes from not only the experimentations but in the limitations they faced. Today you can add as many tracks and do just about anything your processor will allow you to get away with but with a lot of those productions incredibly strong songwriting and arrangement was still what was needed above all else.
When it comes to recording, how focused are you on getting the sound in your head nailed before hitting the DAW? Do you have a favourite recording chain? Or is it sometimes a case of getting it in the DAW and experimenting after?
It really is different every time. Usually though an instrument palette is settled on through trial and error, and then I’ll get into the sculpting.
Virtual Instrument vs. Real Instruments - are there certain areas where you have a preference?
Well, I’d love to be able to have perfect pitch and be able to compose in my head, sadly though I do not. So I do most of my songwriting in my home studio by myself. So virtual instruments are invaluable to the early process of writing. Virtual Instruments can also get you incredibly close to where you need to go as well. As far as preference goes, I prefer virtual drums to recording real drums as I like to compose drum parts as I write my music. They’re a big part of the arrangement. With regards to other instruments I prefer to record real instruments before I finish a recording and release it, especially strings and horns or those more expressive types of instruments. I play guitar and bass so usually record those myself but often I’ll write with a sample bass in the early stages.
Do you use any tools from the Abbey Road products range – if so, why? What do they offer that is perhaps different from similar products?
I’ve used Abbey Road drums. Really like the vintage, '50s and '60s kits. I came around to working with a V drum kit around 10 years ago after I found myself painstakingly cutting and pasting up a recorded drum multitrack. It was maddening. I then thought what really is the difference here between cutting up this drum take and triggering a massive amount of well recorded samples. So when it comes to most things drums now I jump on my V kit, play what feel I want down at 2am with everyone in the apartment block gently sleeping and then trial and error as many different drum piece combos as a want until the sun comes up.
In general, there is so much choice to musicians and producers when it comes to samples and plugins – how do you stay focused? Any tips to other artists?
Well, I think it’s a balance of going where the momentum takes you. I’ll trial and error various sounds until I’m either happy or bored. My advice is go with the natural momentum of creative songwriting…there’s plenty of time at the end of the recording process to deliberate over the timbre of a tom… if mental torture is your thing.
What is missing from the Abbey Road product range – what would be your dream Abbey Road instrument, plugin or piece of hardware?
Without a doubt a Paul McCartney vocal sample pack of various Oohs, Ahhs and Nahs…5 octave range…with an optional celery chomp in the aftertouch…
Okay maybe a bass range, the Violin bass, plus that amazing clicky one used on the White Album…was that a Rickenbacker?…
Buy Sleepwalking by Jonathan Bree here.