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Emily Edrosa on Street Chant’s Taite win and what’s next

Henry Oliver talks to Emily Edrosa, the creative force behind Street Chant, whose second album Hauora won the Taite Music Prize this week.

On Tuesday night, Street Chant won the 2017 Taite Music Prize for their second album Hauora. The band’s singer/guitarist/songwriter/producer/etc, Emily Edrosa, was in Los Angeles where she has lived since shortly after the release tour for the now award-winning album. She found out about the award (and the $10,000 cash prize) via Twitter. As soon as she could quiet her excitement, she went to sleep, woke up and went to work at a downtown restaurant, where she’s not allowed to check her phone.

I reviewed Hauora for North & South last year and so rather than shamelessly rewrite it (and because it’s not available online), I’ll quote from it liberally:

“While Street Chant certainly have a certain cache in the local ‘scene’ (they were awarded the Critics Choice Prize at the 2010 NZ Music Awards, playing fellow-finalist Naked and Famous’ hit ‘Young Blood’ while [Edrosa] wore a t-shirt on which she’d scrawled “GIZ FUNDING”), this isn’t the music the comes to most people’s minds when they think of ‘contemporary’, or even ‘cool’ music. There’s no breathy crooning or laptop beats.

“But, like Australian Courtney Barnett, the contemporariness of the music isn’t in the genre or the production, but in the stories being told. In that sense, Hauora is a portrait of the lives of a certain breed of the twenty-something, creative middle/under-class; over-read and under-employed, drinking too much and earning too little, busing from an existential crisis to a house party, walking from breakup to hangover. And like the storytelling rap of artists like Homebrew and Tourettes, literate punk music is a perfect platform for these stories, and Street Chant are one of the best at telling them.”

As a panellist for this year’s Taite Prize, I’ve listened to the album countless times in the last few weeks (first as a judge, then to make sure we’d made the right decision). And it sounds as fresh and impactful as it did a year ago. In the ‘streaming age’, music needs to hit you fast. And if it doesn’t sound up-to-the-second contemporary, it tends to sound old. But Hauora still sounds timeless. And the stories it tells are as true and engaging as ever.

The Spinoff: How did it feel last night?

Emily Edrosa: It was just really weird. I thought the ceremony was longer so I didn’t even watch the stream. And I just thought we’d never really have a chance to win. At all. I just thought I’d go to bed and see who won in the morning. But I was playing around on my phone and then The Spinoff tweeted ‘Congratulations’ and my first thought was that it was a prank. I was like, ‘Don’t!’

It had been a year since the release and the tour. A couple of days ago it was on Facebook history, I could see that it had been a year since that Spinoff interview I’d done with Duncan. It seems crazy how much my life has changed since that time. But yeah, it’s so nice to have some distance from that record because recording it and releasing it was so difficult.

A couple of weeks ago I saw you posting about Hauora being a year old. What’s it like for the album to receive this acclaim now, a year later?

It feels really good. When we were recording it I would say that I wanted to win the Taite and the Silver Scroll. That’s really un-Kiwi of me, but I did. So it’s cool, but it’s also really surreal for me because all this stuff I wanted to happen, happened. But for me, all it is is some tweets and some people writing on my Facebook wall. I didn’t go to the ceremony. It wasn’t like a moment or anything like that. I had to get up and go to work this morning and catch the bus to downtown LA and I got there and my boss told me off for being late and I was like ‘If you only knew…’

Why was this something you wanted to win? What does it symbolise for you?

I think I have a thing with the New Zealand music industry and I don’t know quite know what it’s from. Maybe it’s because I started going to shows before I started playing in bands or because Street Chant’s always been a little bit too punk. Or maybe it’s because I’ve always been a little bit too much of an insecure arsehole, but I have this thing about being an outsider to the New Zealand music industry which I think a lot of people do. But then we would always be invited to the Taites and the Silver Scrolls.

But I think what I really wanted was to be accepted. Y’know in that way like the Nielson brothers or Lawrence Arabia. People talk about them in that way and I want to be … I don’t know. Obviously, it’s just a bunch of individuals voting on a form* and lots of them are my friends. I mean, I voted. But in the same way, there’s a want to be legitimised in a funny way. And even though we’re on the punkier side, or we were, I take the songwriting part really seriously and I want to be taken seriously even though I’m a weird bitch on Twitter.

The other impulse would be to say ‘Fuck it!’

That’s what I’ve realised since coming to LA. But at the same time, I really respect the Nielson brothers and Lawrence Arabia and stuff like that. And also, fuck it! It doesn’t really matter. But those awards are there, so why not want to win them? Or be happy to win them?

Does it help put a positive spin on this record that was such a difficult experience? Or had that already happened?

I think I had already exorcised that. I’m about to go into the studio here and do my debut record, so I’ve just been thinking about that. And part of the reason that album [Hauora] took so long was because of how serious the intent was. So I sort of stepped back and been like ‘It is was it is and it was what it was’.

In her speech on Tuesday, Billie [Rogers] thanked Chris [Varnham], who didn’t play on the record, saying something like, ‘Thank you for being involved because it wouldn’t have happened without you’. What was his involvement on the record without playing on it?

I lived across the road from Chris and he’s been one of our best friends for years. I would always see him three or four times a week and he came to every single show. Alex played on the record and during the interim between when it was sort of finished and when it was released, he said he didn’t want to be in the band anymore. I think Billie was saying that maybe we wouldn’t have released it if we couldn’t find another drummer and Chris was the perfect person because he’s so chill and he’s been to every show anyway and he knew all the parts. And he just made it so easy. Obviously, we were freaking out because we’d spent three years recording this album and by the end of it had no drummer.

So what’s the status of the band? We were talking a while ago about doing something on the band breaking up and you said you’d become unsure about whether that was the case. Does the award change anything?

Not really. I basically decided I didn’t want to do the band anymore before we went on the tour for Hauora‘s release. I knew I was moving to America anyway, and obviously those guys aren’t. And the last few years I’ve been getting more and more into my solo thing and so after we’d gone on that tour and it was such a crazy tour – people stole our money and I busted my chin up and all these dramas, but by the end of it, it was like this huge weight had come off my shoulders and it became fun again. In between when Means came out and when Hauora came out, it became sort of a toxic relationship and we just took it really seriously and it was just crazy. Chris just made it fun again. He brought a new energy and I was like, ‘Oh, I do like doing this’. So we started writing new songs, and I would like to release those.

I don’t know if I want to say the band’s getting back together. I live here [in LA] so it’d be impossible, but I would like to do another album. Because trilogies are cool. And the songs are there.

Is that what you think you’ll do with the prize?

Yeah, I love home recording, but we did that record ourselves and it just took ages, and I’ve been self-recording my own record, and I think I would just love to go into a studio and do something really quickly and give it to somebody else to mix and for it to just sound like a band in a room, rather than like … I think the production is really intense on Hauora.

I think we’ll just put it back into the band. Those guys are coming over for a holiday in a month, so now we can see about booking some rehearsal time and some studio time play one or two for fun. We have demos of these songs, but I recorded them and I didn’t do it very well. It was two days before I moved overseas and I was so stressed out. I sound like I’m just backing away from six months ago when I was like ‘The band’s breaking up!’, but you gotta sell tickets for the tour somehow. [Laughs]

I guess we’ll just see. If I come back to New Zealand on a holiday, I’d love to play with Street Chant, but those guys might be into it or they might be busy.

Do you ever listen to the record?

I listened to it the other day. A couple of songs. I can’t really do it. I don’t really like listening to my own stuff anyway. I listened to Means this year and I’d never listened to it before.

How did it sound to you?

I feel like my voice has dropped. My voice was really high and I was like ‘Why did we play those songs so fast?’ I just feel like we always over complicate everything. For the first album, I feel like there was too many drum fills or whatever. And for this one, we really overcomplicated by making it take ages and being really particular with the lyrics and very particular with the production. So it just reminded me of that.

So what are your plans doing for your solo record?

I basically had recorded it all by myself. I have a little studio in my house here – a tiny little closet basically. And I recorded it all, but I did it with midi drums and it was basically finished, it just needed to sing some vocals and then I came here and played one show and got some good opportunities and met some cool people, so now I have the opportunity to go into a really nice studio here and record it all again. So I’m super excited about that!

* Note: The finalists are selected by ballot, but the winner is selected by a panel sitting in a room talking about the comparative merits of the albums.

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