Published in Rip it Up: Eb & Sparrow Interview
20 August 2015 | 1pm | Tim Gruar
Continuing their haunting journey into the depths of Americana, folk and sweet gloaming, Wellington based eb & Sparrow return this month with a new album ‘Sun/Son’. I met up with composer/singer Ebony Lamb at the appropriately named ‘Home’ cafe in the National Library. It’s a place surrounded by heritage, perched on the site of an ancient river that flows directly into the harbour. The connection to nature, the land and to people is very strong here. And so is this new work. The striking, upbeat cartoon-like cover by Grimoire is a bright juxtaposition to Lamb’s often brooding vocals and her band’s uniquely understated but very catchy melodies.
The album starts with memories of small town New Zealand – “Kimbolton” – where Lamb’s family chose to spend the Christmas holidays. “It’s the Rhododendron Capital of the Country. It’s really an old lady flower, sort of a reminder of past times, when these little towns used to be destinations. We spent the summer down by the local river, and in hammocks and running on the grass – even sheep in the back garden!” The perfect Kiwi summer – as portrayed through a Vaseline-smeared lens of golden light and happy memories.
The last time we talked Lamb told me about her endless car trips back and forth to the Hawkes Bay to visit her sick father. Lamb was raised by her solo dad and had a strong connection, which is not only evident when she speaks but in her songs, too. “I want you” features the ominous lines “I went through my father’s things. He passed away three years ago. He was a huge influence on me, growing up. His music collection and his collection of philosophy books. Such a great wealth.” But the song, she tells me is more than just about her father, it’s about a wanting of a man, strong love, safe love, holding tight, comforting. In a different way, the song “Coward Son” is Lamb’s challenge to love a man for whom he is, and for that man to be proud of himself: To be strong. “I’m saying ‘You don’t have to be frightened. You don’t have to be a soldier. We should accept men for who they are, not to change them into something they aren’t. And that goes for men who are a bit dark, difficult, as well.”
Men are prominent in Lamb’s life. Her band features some of the country’s most talented and experienced players. Chris Winter infuses a delicious soulful, Latin trumpet, like Calexico, into many of the songs – when he’s not playing guitar or bass, that is. He also adds a unique tone, with a mellophonium to (the ghostly “Libertine”). Jason Johnson, who has a background with the Auckland Boys’ Choir, lends his pipes to many of the harmonies scattered across the new album. Bryn Heveldt’s lap-steel is a reminder that at the heart this has a folk/American feel. Whilst former Vorn Drummer Nick Brown keeps everyone to time. Also giving voice to the ‘ambience’ on this record was one prominent player: a vintage 50’s, time worn ‘Selmer’ brand amplifier, which “creates guitar warbles and distortions, making these finely crafted tunes more timeless and slightly ethereal,” Lamb suggests.
Contrasted with Lamb’s haunting vocals, which slide along between Margo Timmins, Cat Power and Gillian Welch, it’s the sound of a band that’s used a whole year, she tells me, to design their own aural architecture. But also very prominent on this album is Producer Brett Stanton (Phoenix Foundation, The Surgery). “I’ve known him for 2 or three years and he’s a good bench mark of what is good music.” Lamb tells me that he recently relocated to the small Hawkes Bay beach town of Te Awanga, where the band converged to take over his parents’ house to record. Lamb talks fondly about her time there, with the band spread out into different rooms, leads connecting each like an umbilical chord to Stanton’s control desk, set up in the master bedroom. “We’d also tried to record on the balcony, before the competing cicadas completely took over the evenings. It’s a beautiful place, in the middle of this tranquil olive grove.”
Eb & Sparrow’s last album was made in Lyttleton’s ‘The Sitting Room’, home of bands like The Eastern. Whilst the connections with the Southern music scene are still there, Lamb was determined to make the next record in the North Island. “It was easier to travel to the Bay, not so far to go but also the vibe was different this time. So we made it over three separate sessions. We had less time but I had a very capable and energetic band. So we made all of it, except “Little Hands. I made that with Tom Healy (Tiny Ruins).”
The title, Lambs tells me is an amalgam: a reference to the many males in her life although she notes that it is ‘her’ on the cover, “the Woman amongst these ‘slightly grotesque’ men”, she laughs. It’s also a reference to the sun. “It’s about enlightenment. You have to be in the dark, to find the light. The sun is the ultimate light.” The album is a collection of new material and material that has finally “found its way” – like “Mother Mary”, which Lamb says is an old song that the band brought back to life. “By adding some violin, we were experimenting. Because we’d not done the song for a while it felt that we could experiment. The song goes from a quiet nothing to a huge building tension. Like an appellation.” Other songs were almost inventions of their environment, like “Mighty Wind” which featured a recording of a rattling cutlery drawer. Brett’s parents might still be counting the silver after that session. None the less, the final result shows Eb & Sparrow has grown both from the road and from working with each other. They’re about to go on tour – so there’s a chance to see that for yourself.