Small voice from Down Under molds the world a new Shape
"I have the smallest voice in the world. It's hard to be heard above...anything."
At this moment, Angie Hart is doing her level
best to be heard above the speakers amid the dimly populated late afternoon
bar crowd of Schuba's. I'm having no problems understanding her (except for
the occasional thickness of her Australian accent), but nobody else can probably
catch a word through the din of Peter Gabriel. But five hours from now, the
stage area will be packed to capacity with people screaming to hear her do just
one more song in that waifish, childlike, crystalline voice that, without
a microphone, would be drowned out by a handful of people, let alone a crowd.
The serene charm of Hart's precious pipes is the pole that vaulted Frente! to the big time two years ago with an acoustic remake of New Order's "Bizarre Love Triangle" and finger-snapping, breezy original followup called "Labour of Love." (But lest you think their success was totally on the strength of a cover song, before hitting the American airwaves they had two singles on the radio in Australia, "Labour of Love" and "Ordinary People" before "Bizarre Love Triangle" ever heard the crackle of static.) After two years of touring for Marvin The Album, Frente is back again, minus an exclamation point ("it wasn't important") and original bassist Tim O'Connor.
Gone also is some of the light naivete of Marvin on the group's sophomore release, Shape. The new album has more depth and less frolic than Marvin, which Hart chalks the band's growing maturity.
"We didn't want to write Marvin again. That album came out in America in '94, but we recorded it probably three to four years ago. It came out in Australia first and then we toured it and finally got an overseas deal.So that's the reason the new album has a different feel we're just older basically. I was 19 or 20 when we did Marvin, I'm 24 now."
In the time between Marvin and Shape, Frente has gone from Down Under indie hopefuls to worldwide hitmakers on the strength of "Bizarre Love Triangle" and "Labour of Love." They toured for two years, and then finally decided it was time to work on the followup.
And hit the roadblock every artist dreads.
"We got off the road and tried to write a record and had total writer's block. We were going to take about two months off to write and it soon turned into six. By the end of that time we only had about four songs."
It was a hard time for the band. Not only were they coming up dry on new material, but after the grueling tour schedule, bassist Tim O'Connor decided to pack it in, just before the recording sessions began for Shape.
"Tim wasn't really interested in what we were going to do and he was sick of travelling. When we decided to record last summer in Spain, he was just like, 'it's over.'"
As it turned out, everything worked out for the best. Frente recruited new bassist Bill McDonald and O'Connor formed his own local band back in Australia.
"Now Tim's in his own band, playing guitar and singing, which he's loving. At the time it was horrible, but I'm glad that he decided to leave instead of us kicking him out because he was just hating it so much. Now we've got Bill in the band, which gives us a different feel. He's more of a groove man, whereas Tim played melodies on his bass."
With McDonald in tow, the group headed to El Cortijo studios in Southern Spain, where they wrote and recorded most of the new album over the course of five weeks with producers Dave Allen (The Cure, Psychedelic Furs) and Cameron McVey (a.k.a. Booga Bear) who's worked with Massive Attack and Neneh Cherry.
While Hart co-wrote most of the album with manic Frente guitarist and on-again, off-again boyfriend Simon Austin, having two producers working on the record with them made for a melange of additional collaborations and new directions for the band.
"We wanted to work with Cameron because we're big fans of his work with Massive Attack. But when we asked him to give us a real live feel, he suggested that we bring in Dave Allen. We love The Cure but we would never have thought of Dave in a million years."
The result was an isolated intensity of recording that produced a widely varied album. Shape opens with a Beatle-influenced hummer (and first single) "Sit On My Hands," moves into a Dr. Seuss tonguetwister called "Horrible" and then segues into a couple of light acoustic moments before a pounding rhythm of drums and a flute announces the Leave Me the Hell Alone anthem "Jungle."
"We'd write all day and then we'd record into the wee early hours of the morning...and then begin again. It was do or die.We threw ourselves into the deep end because that's the only way we write for some reason. It was so luxurious but very intense. We were just were totally absorbed in it day and night. On Marvin we'd go home for dinner after coming in to work for just an afternoon, so that was very different. And Simon was a real control freak back at that stage which made for big arguments and lots of compromises."
While much of the new album was written in the studio, it took its impetus from the band's time at home after the grueling Marvin tour.
"We went home during the winter, and we were with our friends who were going through that winter thing where you feel confused and you don't know what you're going to do with your life and the next year's rolling around. So a lot of the record is about looking at life and death. For awhile we were going to call the album Life and Death."
Complaints about pretentiousness soon shut that title down.
"But we were concerned with things like 'what do you do with your life' and 'what does life mean, what does death mean?' Instead of pondering love like we always do, we decided to go for something a little more mysterious."
Those difficult thoughts can be heard in the melancholic wail of Austin's guitar leads and Hart's plaintive cries of "What's Come Over Me" in the song of the same name.
"This album is about confusion," she says. "It's that stage of not having a real good hold on things before going to the next stage of enlightenment."
While Hart reiterates that all the band's best songs come from disagreements and arguments within the band, you'd never guess it listening to her smooth croons gliding over the expressive guitar lines of Austin through the course of the record. Shape is a quiet album in many respects, and as Hart suggests, "a grower."
"When we presented it to the record company, they were like '...So?' But at the time that we were recording it, we were so proud of what we'd done. I've found the more people listen to it, the more they understand. I think the slow songs take a while to get inside of. It's not as poppy as Marvin."
But it's honest. And it's Frente.
"People always ask 'what are your influences' and I find that I don't really like bands that sound like us...I listen to a lot of different types of music. I think it's just what you're physically born with that makes you make the type of music that you make."
But that inner music does grow. And Hart says it will probably outgrow Frente over the years.
"Once we've run out of exciting inspiring things to do with this band, I don't think will stay with it. Other people stay with a band after it's stagnant because it's an institution, but I don't think we'll do that."
From the back room of Schuba's comes the pounding echo of a soundcheck of` "Jungle," but I point out that somebody is faking Hart's falsettos.
She smiles knowingly.
"Yes, that would be Simon."
She and Simon Austin met and formed the band while Hart was working at a Melbourne club, and have been together ever since. But it hasn't been an easy road as the very personal new song "Goodbye Goodguy" details.
"Simon and I had a lot of shit to work out. We went out for awhile and then we broke up and then we went on tour. It goes in and out of being fine."
"Right now, we're tired and shaky," she grins.
That doesn't look like the feeling later on when she and Austin take the stage with McDonald, drummer Alastair Barden and sideman Frasier Brindley. As Hart, clad in a cheerleader-esque knit dress with a kitten embroidered across her middle croons about the trials of love, she makes frequent knowing glances at Austin, especially during Shape's ode to sensuality, "Burning Girl."
"At the moment 'Burning Girl' is my favorite song to sing," she confides. "It's just totally enjoyable; it's got this Spanish feel."
One might wonder about the difficulties of writing about relationships when the other end of the relationship is in the band. But Hart says the process of airing those feelings in song is freeing.
"You have to put aside your preconceptions about life and your assumptions about yourself and that's really hard. But then when you come through it, it's the most incredible feeling in the world."
As the interview winds down, Hart offers that the band is hoping Robin Guthrie of Cocteau Twins will remix "What's Come Over Me" from Shape this fall. She also notes that the band is scheduled to open for Alanis Morrisette for a month in Canada, which will certainly expose the band to a larger audience than Schuba's.
At this point, I admit that I've run out of questions, and am simply looking forward to the live show, later in the evening (a sweaty, but exhilarating performance).
Hart smiles, shrugs and with that powerfully tiny voice admits,
"I haven't anything more to say."
Music Reviews Index