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Pop CultureJune 30, 2017

‘It’s therapy for me’: Kane Strang on how writing sad songs helps him feel less miserable


Hussein Moses talks to Kane Strang, whose album Two Hearts and No Brain is out today.

Kane Strang just got fired. Well, he thinks he might’ve. “I don’t even know if it was serious,” the Dunedin-based songwriter says. “But I work with my guitarist and he came home the other day and told me that my boss said I was fired because I gave them too short notice about going to Europe.”

Such is the life of a New Zealand musician on the brink of something much bigger. By the time you read this, Strang will have left behind his job in a Dunedin cafe and wrapped up playing a dozen or so shows across Europe and the UK. A couple of months prior to that, he took off on a 25+ date tour of the US to test out some of the heavy-hearted indie-pop songs from his new album Two Hearts and No Brain. It’s the polar opposite of what his music career was like for him just a few years ago; right now the opportunities feel endless. Not once did he think he’d ever have the chance to go to America, let alone be there on the strength of his records.

Two Hearts and No Brain is finally out and if the song titles are anything to go by – ‘My Smile Is Extinct’, ‘It’s Not That Bad’, ‘Oh So You’re Off I See’, ‘Don’t Follow Me (I’m Lost)’ – you might think Strang was being a little melodramatic, but the sound he creates doesn’t necessarily reflect who he is outside of his songs. In fact, a lot of the time, he’s pretty content with his life. He just didn’t notice how miserable he came off on record and on stage until more people began listening to his music. “I think the thing is that I just got into a habit of only writing songs when I’m feeling sad,” he says. “It’s because it’s therapy for me. It’s how I process things. Once that song is written, it’s like that’s it. I don’t feel like that anymore about that certain thing.”

That same darkness that inspires Strang’s own songs also informs much of the music he tends to gravitate towards himself as a listener. For him, there’s nothing better than walking around to a good chugging bassline in a gloomy minor key. During the recording of Two Hearts and No Brain, Strang rediscovered Elliott Smith, but the record that truly made him stop in his tracks was Puberty 2 by indie-rock rising star Mitski.

“I don’t know why, but [it was] as soon as I heard that ‘Your Best American Girl’ song. Maybe it was because she was on my label [Dead Oceans] as well, but I was just like ‘I need to do better; this shit’s amazing’. Not in a competitive way. It was just super powerful and it made me want to push myself and not keep doing the same thing. Not just pumping out the same album year after year. I didn’t want to make Blue Cheese 2.”

Blue Cheese, his first album, is what he describes as “very straight indie-rock music”. He wrote it in 2014 and by the time he came to start working on new material, he felt a need to push things forward. “I wanted to go back to the song, make something with a bit more meat, get a bit more songwriter-y again and really give people a bit more to digest,” he says.

Strang had once again retreated to his bedroom to work on Two Hearts and No Brain, which was where he wrote and recorded the entirety of Blue Cheese. The downside to that, he says, was that it took too long to actually get anywhere – he’d end up going in circles with no one there to tell him to move on from a song when he needed to. After about six months of recording, Strang realised he needed to get outside and collaborate with someone, so he hooked up with Dunedin producer and musician Steven Marr (who is a member of Doprah) and the pair finished the record at the now-defunct Dunedin venue Chick’s Hotel.

Two Hearts and No Brain is an album about relationships, which will be obvious to anyone who hears it. But they’re not always romantic connections, says Strang. “I wanted listeners to be able to mould these songs to fit their own lives and their own problems with family and friends or with themselves. A lot of it is quite introspective too. I’m almost talking to myself some of the time, you know what I mean? It’s based on conversations a lot of the time. There’s a lot of call and response, but you can’t really tell who’s saying what. It’s quite abstract in that way.”

His personal favourite track on the album is also the most personal. It’s called ‘Don’t Follow Me (I’m Lost)’ and it taps into the paranoia, angst and helplessness that you can hear at the heart of his music. The story behind the song came about after some friends of his had been at a gig by a young Dunedin band. They had come away sure that the band had been taking inspiration from Strang.

“They might’ve been wrong, but the idea of that just freaked me out because I feel like I still have so much to learn and there’s heaps out there that I’m not happy with,” Strang says now. “I guess it’s just about the idea that heaps of people are listening to my music, scaring the crap out of me, and just telling them straight up – it’s in the title – don’t follow me, I’m lost.”

Dunedin is still home for Strang and it’s a place he loves. But he does get the feeling he’ll wind up overseas at some point, if he can make a decision on where to go. It’s expensive to tour overseas when you’re so out of the way. Plus the lack of venues in New Zealand right now doesn’t help things.

But you don’t really realise the quality of New Zealand bands until you spend some time away, he says. “Of course America has heaps of great bands but I think you just can’t forget how crazy that such a small country like this has so many good bands. Everyone’s trying to do their own thing here. Whereas I found overseas, you can tell a lot of bands are trying to be something else or trying to sound like what’s popular. But here you don’t want to be told that you sound like your mate.”

As clichéd as it sounds, Strang says that at the end of the day, he just wants to make music that people can relate to. It seems to be working, even if he still finds it horrifying that more and more people are beginning to discover his records.

With the way things are going, it might just be time for him to get used to it.

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