Long-time collaborators the Bads are about to release their best album yet, writes Lydia Jenkin
When you've spent 12 years performing in London, toured and collaborated with Radiohead, supported Oasis, released an EP and album that got radio play in the UK and the US, and signed a record deal, only to have it all crumble in front of you when that label disintegrated, it would be easy to feel jaded by the music industry.
But when Dianne Swann and Brett Adams returned to New Zealand after reaching the cliff edge of success as the Julie Dolphin in the late 90s, they found themselves writing songs together again quite naturally, and decided to start a new musical project as the Bads.
"We didn't have any great plan, we just sort of started writing together again. And I guess we also had a slight change in direction. Because we were doing home recording, it had a slightly softer sound, and we weren't writing for a band anymore, we were writing for writing's sake, so that had a bit of an impact, too," Swann explains from their cosy, rural West Auckland home.
The pair, who've been performing and writing together for more than 25 years, and are also a couple (Swann used to be in Everything that Flies, and When the Cat's Away, and followed Adams to London where he was playing with the Mockers in the late 80s), are releasing their third album as the Bads this week: Travel Light finds them sounding their best yet.
"I feel like this album is kind of connecting what we did in the UK, and what we did when we came home. This new one has quite a full band sound and, musically, we reference some of our older songs - within some of the songs there's these little twists and turns and, if you knew the Julie Dolphin songs, you might recognise some things."
They remain a duo, but throughout the recording process at The Lab they'd ask other musician friends (and they do have a talented pool to dip into) for help adding extra layers - keeping the sound spacious and economical, but playing with the colour and dynamics. Producer and drummer Wayne Bell was a key figure throughout, while Pluto/Nightchoir's Mike Hall added bass, multi-instrumentalist Dave Khan contributed everything from violin to mandolin, Chris O'Connor brought his inventive percussion and drumming expertise in on a couple of tracks, and Goldenhorse's Ben King added some extra vocals.
"Brett and I have sung together for so long, we blend really well, and we wanted something that maybe stood out from that a bit more. Ben's got a truly amazing voice, too - he can sing higher than any man I know. He spurred me on actually, because I like to be able to sing the highest, so we were actually having a high-off competition," she laughs.
Swann and Adams (whose stylish guitar playing keeps him in demand with artists like Gin Wigmore and Tim Finn) have a very comfortable, equal writing relationship, and it seems their West Coast home is an oasis very much conducive to song creation.
"It seems to be on the weekends, first thing in the morning," Swann laughs, thinking about when she's most productive. "I have quite a vivid memory of See the Light - it was a Sunday morning, and Brett went to the shop, about five minutes down the road, and I'd pretty much done it by the time he came back. It was one of those ones."
If that all sounds a little easy-breezy, rest assured the album is not.
There are plenty of bittersweet tales, and the kind of emotional perspective that can come only from life's trials.
One noticeable trait is the many references to light.
"I couldn't believe it. I think it's practically in every song, and it was completely by mistake. It's been a tough few years for a lot of people though, some terrible things happened in New Zealand and, personally, I lost my mum, so I guess looking for light is something we do in response. And then thinking philosophically about it, the way it's human nature to search for light and lightness."
First single California is an ode to the life of touring, and to all their musical friends who have left.
"It's about that feeling that you'd love to do it again, too, but also knowing the hardships behind the romance of the story."
That's not to say the pair won't be heading back overseas again, but for the moment they'll be keeping the restlessness at bay with a New Zealand tour - and, yes, they'll be trying to travel light, even with a full band behind them.
Who: Auckland-based alt-country duo the Bads
What: New album Travel Light
Where and when: Album release show at The Paddington on Friday, March 15, and Leigh Sawmill on Friday, April 19