Sep 29, 2021 Music
It’s apt that Reb Fountain and I devote a consequential portion of our exchange to discussing our personal lives. She offers generous commentary, parsed through her own experiences, imparting judicious observations that betray her own years of being not entirely sure about any number of things that constitute a life — even more a life pledged to the arts. In conversation she is probing and perceptive, going deep and wide, and by the time the formal interview finally begins we’re way out in the cosmos and I’m glancing at my watch.
Unsureness is what makes this singer- songwriter and her haunting, beguiling music so evocative and arresting. Fountain wrestles with the spaces between, from which she emerges as a complex and experimental but increasingly assured artist. Indeed, the name of Fountain’s forthcoming album, IRIS, gestures to this idea. In an iris, a regulating aperture of light, there is a sense of new vision, albeit shadowed.
We are seated in a large, glass-paned, plant-based restaurant. The space, draped in tangled greenery, befits a woman born in San Francisco to hippy parents of the alt-Christian ilk, who steeped her in the counterculture of the era. Moving to the quiet harbour town of Lyttelton in the late 1970s when Fountain was six, her family joined other North American migrant families there who forged a community oriented around music. They played folk music together from photocopied songbooks that her father, an economics professor, compiled.
Fountain is tall, elegant and precise. Her eyes have an eerie quality, like she had the capacity to see beyond sight. One feels exposed in her presence. Her voice is low and calm, and she chooses her words with care. Wearing an exquisitely tailored, probably expensive navy suit, she exudes a quiet radiance.
Fountain comes from a line of strong women. Her maternal grandmother, herself a migrant from Ukraine, walked her daughter, Fountain’s mother, across the Canadian border into the United States. Arriving later in Aotearoa was a shock for Fountain’s mother, and she struggled with the conservative Pākehā world of Christchurch into which she was thrust. “For any migrant, it’s really challenging,” Fountain says of her mother. “I’ve got these recordings of her sending tapes back to her mom in the states talking about difficulties, and how subservient women still were to their husbands. It was a huge culture shock.”
With songs known for redolent lyricism and dense imagery, story and narrative is paramount for Fountain, not only as a song- crafting device, but as a way to understand and structure feeling. “Women carry these stories in so many ways; not necessarily doing big showy things, but form this backbone, trying to make sense of their place. And all genders have this issue, of trying to make sense of who you are within our culture, and in relation to dominant narratives.”
Women, she suggests, are often the bearers of stories that express abstract inner worlds contending with alienating lived experiences. The dissonance and clash means they can be onerous to comprehend, if not articulate. “How do you stand up after everything you’ve been through, and carry on? Everyone has those stories; everyone has been through shit. Many of us are hurting and I care about that because I have to care about it in myself, and I really care about it with other people. How does that relate to music? Fuck knows, but all of that goes into it.”
Fountain has a yearning soul. She has lived a rich, full life between countries, between various worlds, and her life is replete with stories. The driving theme of her life, subconscious or otherwise, seems to be emancipation. In fulfilment of this desire she has sought fulfilment in any number of affective and somatic means; the search for a kind of salvation is itself a driving, libidinal impulse. Among her restless and searching journeys, music was the cornerstone, a constant, a fixed star that held her attention. Simone Weil describes desire as being contingent upon attention; that is, genuine desire for any given thing is produced by attending to desire itself — “If the thing desired is really light, the desire for light produces it”; “if we go down into ourselves we find that we possess exactly what we desire”.
Performing with her teenage band, Fountain was shy, and relied on a bottle of Jim Beam or Jack Daniel’s at her side. “I’d smoke cigarettes the whole time, stand there fucking terrified,” she says. “I didn’t know how to be myself. It’s taken me a long time to work out how I can be myself so that I can go on stage and share the things that I can with others. It’s not necessarily life changing or saving and it’s not going to solve the climate crisis, but it is the work that I can do best in the world and hopefully others connect with it in some way.”
She married and divorced young, studied jazz in Seattle at Cornish College of the Arts, suffered two grand mal seizures which left her unable to work or drive. At 23, she returned to Aotearoa and recorded her first solo album with her brother, Joel, among other Christchurch musicians. She had two children in a relationship that ended, and found herself a solo mother.
For Fountain, music remains a way out of, into and route back to herself. This sinuous path appears to be reaching a point of self- understanding, out of which Fountain’s forthcoming album appears as a resolved defiance. When I ask whether she has, over her life, looked to music and relationships as a means to rescue herself from herself, she holds a pause. Music has been, and is, a saviour, she responds, but her relationship toward it has matured. It is no longer something outside of herself but rather a still point in a turning world, where contradictions synthesise into something metamorphic. “When I had real rock ’n’ roll dreams about music it was always something that you achieved outside of yourself,” she says, “but I had this really fortunate opportunity of just being completely broken and learning that music was inside of me … Remembering why. Remembering what it meant to me.”
About the complexity of relationships, Fountain observes that it is the dysfunctions that teach. “It’s those things we’ve not resolved within ourselves that we then search and find in others to trigger us into resolving. Repeating the same mistakes, forming the same relationships over and over — it’s like having the same bad dream. It takes great courage to be willing to unmask yourself and take the time and space to sit with who you are, and make sense of that.”
Any self-knowledge she has is hard won. Balancing solo parenting against career ambitions resulted in Fountain taking time over projects, plans and university study. Fountain’s lyrics aren’t expressly political — tending more toward emotion, narrative and world-building — but in her daily life and reading Fountain is deeply invested in materialist politics, and interested in phenomenology as a means to consider individual subjectivity. She studied at Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha, the University of Canterbury, undertaking a BA in what was then the gender studies department. There she read feminist theory, by Judith Butler and other gender theorists whose ideas aligned with her own, and who articulated how she wanted to think about the world.
Falling pregnant while studying meant her degree lagged and by the time Fountain was ready to begin her master’s, the department no longer existed. She was also working with Child Poverty Action Group at the time, so she settled on public policy, and now has a dissertation awaiting completion (waylaid by motherhood, music, injuries). Feminist theories greatly inform her music, her ways of being in the world and her approach to political life — the key to which, for Fountain, is collective responsibility. The current era of critical interrogation and its countering of essentialist claims to truth and prevailing normative narratives energises and inspires Fountain. “Right now we’re unravelling different kinds of identities, narratives and stories. At the same time, in other places in the world, they’re really holding on as tightly as possible to traditional, patriarchal, capitalist narratives and there’s this massive tension between the two, because those stories benefit and have benefitted many of us in so many ways, and the concept of unravelling your privilege— how do you fucking do that — what does that actually mean?”
For Fountain, one answer lies in linking the minutiae of our shared experiences with larger narratives, bridging both personal and universal pain. This, she argues, is a feminist instinct of interconnection, rather than an abdication of responsibility that separates. “We hide from things; we try to stay blind to things because they’re painful or they mean we’d lose our privilege, or we’d have to do things differently. I mean, we are never going to tackle climate change because we will not tackle our economic system. We refuse to see that a market-driven economy is the problem.”
While it can be difficult to construe what the arts might do in the uncertain and inequitable world in which we live, music can infuse texture and affect into a world rendered otherwise utilitarian. Music can cohere us with each other and ourselves. It is a faulty premise that music or art ought to do something; it need not impart moral instruction, need not do more than exist. “That’s the essence of the work — if, when you’re listening to my music, it reminds you of something about yourself, if it empowers you to be in that moment and feel or self- reflect or create your own art, that’s the magic, right?”
When making music, Fountain finds transformative meaning in the connections between the slight and the capacious, and in the moments of sense-making within them. From these she seeks to offer agency to others. “I grew up with this idea that music was meaningful, either because it was saying something, or it was transformative in me, because it helped me transform the feelings that I had, and to overcome, or accept, those feelings. So when I think about music having meaning, it’s that I give a shit about it.”
In 2020, during the first long Covid-19 lockdown, Fountain wrote a song each day, culminating in her self-titled, critically acclaimed album released through Flying Nun, with whom she signed a worldwide record deal. Winner of the 2021 Taite Music Prize, the album was also nominated for five New Zealand Music Awards, and the song ‘Don’t You Know Who I Am’ was shortlisted for the Silver Scroll Award. More pop, less folk — though not entirely absent — the album signalled a marked stylistic shift from Fountain’s earlier work and a bolder confidence, evinced in Fountain’s decision to give the album her own name.
Produced by Fountain’s inveterate collaborator Dave Khan and engineered by Simon Gooding, Fountain describes the album as a “line in the sand” moment, where she decided to increase her own ambitions. Though the album was released while the country was still in lockdown, Fountain embarked on a sold-out tour later in the year. The record was not only a new genesis for Fountain herself, but made with a solid band — consisting of Karin Canzek and Earl Robertson, as well as Khan — with whom Fountain has a strong connection and commitment.
IRIS, set for release in October, is an extension of Fountain’s previous record. It both elaborates on and refines Reb Fountain’s thematic and musical concerns. The album is compulsively listenable, integrating both deft lightness and a darkness freighted with complexity and experimentation. With polished production and a distinctly pop sensibility — again, not something Fountain consciously sought — IRIS is uplifting and modern, synthesising swirling reverb with ethereal girlish harmonies, driving symphonic rock rhythms, piano ballads, and an outro that conjures Italian disco. In songs that evoke nostalgia, heartbreak, searing jubilation and longing, one hears notes of Lana Del Rey, Sade, Fiona Apple, Bruce Springsteen, and late Bob Dylan.
The song writing on IRIS is accomplished and enigmatic, largely concerned with love in its many forms. Fountain describes it as: “Wanting unrequited love, wanting to be with someone who doesn’t want to be with you, not wanting to be with yourself, wanting to learn to be with yourself. Love is, for me, everything, the most transformative power there is.”
Advancing on from her previous record, Fountain and band aimed to channel the energy from live performances into the recordings. “It’s reaching out to the next thing, and I don’t expect that to necessarily be comfortable for everybody. They’re still the same songs, it’s still me writing them with this background of folk-country, but I’m learning how to create space, for myself as an individual, as well, so that gets mapped on to my songs in a new way.”
Evident within the album’s conceptual leitmotifs is the bridging of the personal and the universal, and the productive grey space between dark and light. The album cover, a beautiful, grainy lo-fi black and white photograph, shows Fountain caught mid- movement, strands of hair suspended, under the beaming flare of a stage light to which her face is turned, haloing her body against the dark. It is an arresting image of a woman staring into an illuminated future while shadowed within the spirit of the present; somehow childlike and grown at once, an incantation.
However, the concern with dark and light has no Jungian shadow-self derivation, rather it is about the alchemic possibilities of exploration and transformation within these polarities — a “dance of the selves, strong feminine energy, accepting all facets of oneself”. It is light as a confrontation with reality. The record, for Fountain, is a meditation on the human condition and a way to express things of which she did not know how to speak.
‘Lacuna’, the album’s single, is itself a resonant double entendre. The word ‘lacuna’ means cavity or gap, and the original version had two parts cut out of it, leaving the remainder of the song informed by those missing components and thereby emphasising the concept of a void. “It’s the same with all the songs on the record — what informed it, what’s been taken out. What’s left is something that feels more essential.”
Also indispensable to Fountain is the magnetic ritual of live performance. “Every time I inhabit a song, it’s new,” she remarks. That’s where the life and the magic is, where she communes most vitally with herself, and where there is a profound sense of commitment to the audience to whom she feels beholden. “I have an opportunity to play and dance within the framework of those songs, but I also have this chance to express something to the audience. I’m honoured. There’s a lot of reverence about that experience, it’s serious.”
As Fountain asserts this she hesitates, then laughs, as though disarmed by the fervour of her own words. While she is not entirely unyielding, there is an unquestionable assurance in her gait and a fixed measure of vision in her gaze. There are high stakes for Fountain, and she is rising to meet them.
Reb Fountain’s IRIS is out through Flying Nun Records on 1 October. She plays The Civic on 11 December.