In Conversation With Annabel Fay

It’s still a month or so before the release of her recent album, Show Me The Right Way, when I meet Annabel Fay at her favourite Herne Bay café. Half the customers appear to be friends.

Witchdoctor – So, it’s all about to get crazy.
Fay – It will be. Give it a month or two, and it’ll be crazy.
Witchdoctor – When does it come out?
Fay – The album is out April 11th, so the second single just went to radio about two or three weeks ago. It’s called ‘Show Me The Right Way’, which is the title track of the album. It’s kept getting pushed back. Typical musical life, you’ve gotta wait, on-hold pretty much all the time. It’s been finished since October 2009. I’m extremely patient, one thing people don’t know about me. You kind of have to be. It’s been finished for a very long time, it took us a very long time, because I went into the studio firstly in September 2007, and it’s been done for years, completely finished. So it’s been a bit frustrating.
Witchdoctor – Why the delay?
Fay – I think that with the market I’m going for you people need to like the song, need to relate it to your name. The pop industry is a little bit different to when you’re like underground, have got a huge devoted fanbase. You need to win people’s musical love through time on radio and Juice TV. If you just put a song out it’ll get swept under the rug.
Witchdoctor– What you’re saying is that this market is more fickle.
Fay – Yeah, I reckon people have a 15 or 20 second listening time, when people are flicking through the radio stations. You’ve got to get them in and grab their attention, and don’t let them get bored. My market is very unpredictable and tough, to be honest.
Witchdoctor – It’s like a slow roll out.
Fay – It cranked until the middle of January, so that (‘The River’) had a really good lifetime which was nice, but I’m leaving like a good six weeks for this next song to get some traction, because people need to be talking about you in the pop industry to get people to want your album. To get that traction you need to have people interested and really anticipating it, which right now… they won’t be (laughs).
Witchdoctor – Everything’s changing so quickly at the moment, so I guess from the first album to this one it’s like a lifetime.
Fay – Yeah, even the way we’re dealing with it, going about it, and the music industry’s falling apart and at the same part changing and evolving. So just dealing with it… it’s not what I was used to with the first one. It’s a lot more hands-on for me as well, I’m doing everything. I had a lot of control of the last one, but this one is even down to how I want the print printed… every side of it I’m getting involved in.
Witchdoctor – And you’re going to get your website up and running? [It wasn’t when we checked].
Fay – Yeah, I have someone doing it but they don’t like to listen to me very much. This is a sore subject for me. Unfortunately I’m as tech-savvy as a piece of paper. I’m old school. I write everything down in my book and tick off my lists, I know what I want to have done, but I don’t know if it’s possible. I’ve talked to them, but they don’t really like to listen to me very much.
Witchdoctor – How is this album different? Last time you used an overseas producer.
Fay – Went all over the show.
Witchdoctor – Is this one similar?
Fay – Yeah, I don’t think it was supposed to be, but it’s kind of ended up being like that because the producer that we met, he’d done Opshop’s album, Greg Haber. He’s married to a Kiwi girl so I met him. I met him through Siren records, and that’s Opshop and Goldenhorse, and we went to the studio, and I don’t think he’s worked with an artist before who hasn’t gone in and said ‘this is the song, and this is how I want it made’. Like, he works with bands, and I kind of came in with some lyrics and said (helplessly) ‘so what do you think we should do?’ And we ended up doing like covers of Martha Reeves & the Vandellas and all this crazy stuff. But he kind of noticed that as an artist I like to collaborate, and I learn as I go, I kind of figure out, I’ve got to trial and error, which is a very long… way to make music. So he introduced me to a production team called Future Cut. I was writing with them. They did Lily Allen’s first album, Shakira, Dizzy Rascal. They were the producers, but I was writing. They met me, and I was writing less, and they were like ‘what are you doing? This is a really bad way for you to go down’, and it was kind of going a little bit countryesque, which is not my kind of jam, so they helped me strip back the album and I went and worked with them for three weeks in Europe because we had to go see them, because they’d already come to see us. From there the album really took shape, we probably wrote like 80 percent of the album then. I had a whole album that I had to scrap.
Witchdoctor – So you’ve got a whole album you haven’t used.
Fay – I honestly don’t know what would have happened if we’d put it out. I don’t think we’d be having this conversation. I mean it was great music and stuff, there’s a few songs on the album left from it, which I had to strip back and rework, but they’ll never be singles.
Witchdoctor – Which are those?
Fay – A song called ‘Jessica’, which is my song for my sister, and a song called ‘Who You Are’, which are songs that over two or three years evolved into what they are. ‘Jessica’ is like my child of the album, the one I’m sensitive about. EVERYONE has to like it.
Witchdoctor – I really liked the electronic effects on that – the stereo.
Fay – Yeah it was crazy, it was all inverted drums and… so have you heard the album?
Witchdoctor – Yeah, Mark sent me a file.
Fay – Ooo! You’re probably the first person who’s heard it!
Witchdoctor – I have no idea whether the songs are in the right order, because at the beginning there’s two versions of ‘The River’, and I presume one’s supposed to be at the beginning, and the remix is at the end?
Fay – No! Yeah, one’s the remix, no, that wouldn’t be the track listening at all. It wouldn’t be ‘I want you to like it, so here it is TWICE!’ I’m not that egotistical.
Witchdoctor – You said about starting out with a different style. There are parts of the album where it goes a bit more rock, jazz…
Fay – Soul as well.
Witchdoctor – And r’n’b.
Fay – That’s why I find it so hard in the studio. The music… I’m all over the show, with what I like and what I want to make. And my voice… I have a very versatile voice that I can kind of fit to most styles. I don’t feel that I’m locked to anything, which is a producer’s nightmare. One day I come in and want to do a Christian death metal album, the next minute I want to be Beyonce. But that’s why I do it, what I love about music, so it’s a little bit of a double-edged sword.
Witchdoctor – It’s a weird one, because fans will expect you to sing in a certain way.
Fay – That will never happen with me. There are way too many stones to be unturned for me to be stuck in that pigeonholesque kind of thing. Which could be for my whole life a little bit interesting, because I could alienate fans by doing that, but we’ll see how that works in later years, if I’m still doing this.
Witchdoctor – There’s one song where you’re really going for it in a soul diva way.
Fay – ‘Love’s A Bitch’, maybe?
Witchdoctor – And you do that version of ‘Spooky’.
Fay – That’s what I kind of like about it though. There are some artists you listen to and they’ve got these unbelievable tones, but you can’t really tell the songs apart. This album, you can tell the songs apart. I call it a story book, because everyone has a favourite song.
Witchdoctor – A lot of r’n’b albums, you can’t tell one song from the next.
Fay – There are the standout tracks (on those albums), the hits, and then the “album” tracks. I didn’t want to have many of those. I think having fillers is pointless.
Witchdoctor – So the producers had quite a big impact on you focusing on a methodology to bring more focus to what you were doing.
Fay – Yeah.
Witchdoctor – Left to your own devices you’d be doing a completely random…
Fay – That’s the thing though, because I don’t have a method for writing. Every song’s created differently. And some of them I went to New York and met up with a good friend of mine and we sat in the studio there and just picked through… this studio was so small it could literally just fit the two of us… and we would just pick through beats that I liked, and from that I would probably just take the guitar line, and from the guitar line I would write my chorus, and have to get someone else to help me evolve that. I would be a nightmare to write with, because I don’t speak well when I’m trying to talk about music, so all these hand motions are going everywhere and I’m going ‘it’s supposed to be like this’, because I’m not classically trained, so it’s always fun and games in the studio, but if I have a vision I’ll get there eventually.
Witchdoctor – Are you starting to wish that you had gone to music college?
Fay – Nah! Life training I’ve called this. I was in school for audio engineering, and I’m still enrolled in school in Chicago to this day, I kind of never said I wasn’t going, for performance art and audio engineering. But I kind of think that doing this, I would have just finished my degree now, and I would be starting just where I was when I was 18, except that I might know a little bit more about the roots of classical music or something, which would be amazing but irrelevant to what we’re trying to do. What I’ve done is I’ve learnt aspects of the industry, and you only learn by being in the middle of it. I kind of know how to do everything now. Not that I’m the best at doing it, but do you know what I mean? I’m kind of lucky in that sense. Kind of thrown into the deep end, and I’ve just been swimming around for like five years.
Witchdoctor – Are you based in New Zealand?
Fay – [Nods].
Witchdoctor – Why that decision? It’s a very small pond.
Fay – When I decided to do an album I thought where else to do it apart from the place where I’m from. I hadn’t lived here in years but I was just finishing school in America and I was like ‘I could go back to Switzerland but I don’t wanna go there’. I’d never really lived here, so I was like ‘I’m going to make music, I might as well do it here.’ So I came back, and I haven’t left yet, five and a half years later. It’s been an amazing place to get into the music industry, because it’s a family, kind of. There’s no hierarchy. It’s not ‘your people can talk to my people’ kind of separation, which I think is really good in some senses. I know all the people who play my music directly, and I can call up my label head and talk to him, and that I think is really great. Of course there’s a negative side to that, but as someone who is just starting it’s been a really supportive environment to be in.
Witchdoctor – I guess if you were in LA there would be security at the door of the record company, and…
Fay – Exactly. If I’ve got a problem I can just pop up and sit down and have a coffee. And for me, I really like that aspect of doing it here.
Witchdoctor – Having lived overseas so much, are most of your friends here or all over the show?
Fay – My solid friends are here now, a few of them are sitting at that table right there. When I moved back here I had like one friend, because I hadn’t been here for so long, and I kind of considered my friends to be in Europe and the States. But over time it’s… the beauty of Facebook’s kept me in touch with them, but in general I’ve got a really solid group of friends here, which is probably why I’ve stayed, because I get along really well with New Zealanders, I like how honest and blunt everyone is and it’s not so much like that in Europe.
Witchdoctor – Have you got plans to get the music out overseas?
Fay – Yeah, I’d love to, but at the same time you’ve got to live month by month in this industry, and I literally plan my life a week in advance. Even when I’m on vacation, I fly by the seat of my pants. But if something came up, of course I’d be willing. It’s every musician’s dream, the holy grail, America, it’s hard to do but everybody wants to do it.
Witchdoctor – Are your music interests… you were saying before about your iTunes library. Are they quite diverse?
Fay – Oh, ridiculously. It’s just ridiculous, in a good way. I’ve got a radio show as well, which is fun, because I get to broadcast all the strange music that I like in my life. Radio Ponsonby. You can pretty much say and do anything you like, which I find quite lovely. It’s on Mondays, it’s called ‘The Education’, I educate people on relevant stuff, which is good. But I think that music is something that when you look at it and you don’t know what you want it’s a really big beast to try to get into. To try and… I like jazz, how do I get into jazz? It’s hard to find a way to get into a certain style that you like. And all my friends are like ‘how do you find this stuff?’ and I’m like a lot of it I just download and figure out whether I like it or not. I find everything interesting. That’s why I’m in music, it’s not because I have this diehard inner ‘if I don’t make this music I’m going to die’ thing. I’m not that sort of artist, I’m more ‘I make music because I want to add to what’s already been made, and hopefully music can do for someone else what it does for me.’
Witchdoctor– So you’re obsessed with music.
Fay– Always have been. My whole life. I’ve got to have a soundtrack to my life at all times. So before an iPod came along it was very interesting because I was lugging around CD cases and big piles full of them and… my whole life it’s been more of an emotional gauge for me than anything else. It’s kind of like my therapy, music.
Witchdoctor – You obviously love a good lyric.
Fay – Yeah, you see, I listen to the lyrics, I’ll be with my girlfriends and say ‘this is the best melody but the lyrics are like’… and they’re like ‘What do they even say?’ And I’m like ‘you’ve been singing along the whole time!’ It’s a perfect example of pop, people aren’t really listening to what you’re saying, it’s more about can I remember the melody, and do I like it. Which is heartbreaking for some people who are in that side of the industry, but you need to respect what you’re doing.
Witchdoctor – Do you like instrumental music as well?
Fay – Yep. My favourite example is I just bought this old Louisiana funeral music, because I like Duke Ellington and Etta James and… I like old school. I’m very open to… except I’m not a big fan of country, I don’t know why, except for Johnny Cash obviously. Johnny Cash is a gangster so it’s hard not to like him.
Witchdoctor – It’s interesting that for every genre there’s someone who’s going to go against the grain.
Fay – And then you follow from there, which is why iTunes is amazing, because you can look on the little sidebar, and it’s like ‘if you like this you’ll like this’, and it’s usually right.
Witchdoctor – It must be really hard for you to decide on a style.
Fay – It’s my biggest problem, it’s me trying to decide… it’s all good that I’m experimental in the studio, but it’s so confusing for someone… like you need to let people know who you are. I get so excited when I make all these new sounds and new songs, and when you put it together it’s like ‘whoarr!’ This album, we did eliminate a lot of songs and strip it back, to make it fit, and still it’s a little bit eclectic, but it makes sense. It’s an album that was always freshly out of a moment, it was always very reflective.
Witchdoctor – So ‘Jessica’ is about your sister.
Fay – Yes.
Witchdoctor – ‘Love’s A Bitch’?
Fay – Yeah, that’s a fabulous song, it’s a song that when I sing it live I feel like I can run a marathon afterwards.
Witchdoctor – ‘Steal Away’?
Fay – That’s one of the ones that wasn’t written by me. It’s written by a guy called Taj Jackson, from a band called the Three T’s, actually Michael Jackson’s nephew, funnily enough. But we’re actually having a few issues with that at the moment, because the sample is Sam Cooke. Because Motown said yes, but… hopefully it will stay on the album. It’s in the chorus, like (sings) “Steal awayyyyy”, like that’s from an old-school Motown track, which Motown doesn’t actually own so they can’t clear that. Which we didn’t realise until now. So hopefully that will stay on the album. We could recreate the sample, but I think the problem is, I mean I love sampling which is terrible, but I just love the old sound, the way everything used to be recorded. So… when you recreate, you can do it, but it never sounds quite right to me. And the beat on it, the timing on it… it has to be sung like this, because it’s on a really weird, off-beat timing.
Witchdoctor – And ‘Show Me The Right Way’, that sounds almost Bollywood or something.
Fay – [laughs]. When we were writing it, these guys are jokesters through and through, they’re always taking the piss. That noise at the top is, he’s probably about six foot three, Nigerian, about 130 kilos, and it’s just him going ‘har-har-har’, and he just pitched it right up. It was hilarious writing it. It’s my kind of like, like ‘my girlfriends getting ready on a Friday night’ kind of song. In the end what it’s talking about isn’t exactly happy. It’s a little bit trivial, but it’s about somebody just repeatedly doing something really stupid, and… you know when people just don’t hold themselves accountable? That’s what it’s about.
Witchdoctor – I quite like songs where the feeling is a bit different to what it’s saying.
Fay – That’s exactly what all my music is. Even ‘River’ is a really upbeat song but it’s not a nice message. It’s nice but just kind of sad.
Witchdoctor – One thing that does strike me about the album is just how few upbeat tracks there really are.
Fay – Which a record label would look at and go ‘we need another ‘River’ ‘. We need another blah-blah- blah. There’s a lot of medium tempo tracks, but I really like epic songs, not like the typical pop crescendo, but like the song ‘Already Home’, which was going to be the title track. But we could never quite get it right. The drums on it now are kind of like an inverted hip-hop drum. I was like ‘if you’re going to do something like that, don’t make it cliché, don’t make it Christine Aguilera.’ So I was like take a drum that you wouldn’t put with it, which my producer Greg – he’s an incredible drummer, and he came back with that drum beat. And I was like there you go, it gives a twist on the pop ballad. So it adds a little bit more flavour to it. So I tried to do that with all of them, make them a little bit weird.
Witchdoctor – There are some nice production touches – really crisp.
Fay – I like that sound.
Witchdoctor – And not really booty bass but nice deep bass.
Fay – Yeah, kind of big.
Witchdoctor – But to me there does seem to be, not melancholy, but a reflective quality going through a lot of it.
Fay – There is a lot of that. But I’m a bit of a trickster. Like I would never write about something deliberately, or directly, I would write it in my own little kind of morse code, but the point is with those songs you could be talking about any one of the days of my life. My point is if someone’s having a really awful day, maybe that will pinpoint what they can’t say out loud, and my end goal is that to be someone’s kind of like crutch at the time. I don’t know how to describe it.
Witchdoctor – Are you having a big launch?
Fay – Yeah [laughs]. I feel like New Zealanders don’t really do big launch parties, but I’m like ‘why not?’ It took me so long, so why not celebrate it for a second. So I think we’re going to do it at the Britomart, I’m not sure. I’ll pretty much get my family and friends and media together, just for a good party, hopefully, and I’ll just perform the whole album, and hopefully everyone likes it.
Witchdoctor – And you’ll be playing some dates around the place?
Fay – Yeah, as soon as that’s done, I’ll start playing anywhere I can. I love playing live, it’s what I love the most, so…
Witchdoctor – How do you do that? Do you have musicians that you use?
Fay – I’ve got… several options. I can do a stripped-back two or three person band, and I can get up to eight people on stage. I think it really depends on the crowd, where we’re playing. It’s dependent on what I’m being asked to play.
Witchdoctor – Are you at all worried about that negative stuff that’s been said in the press over the past few months?
Fay – I dunno, it’s hard for anyone not to notice. Initially I was like I don’t really care and I didn’t really notice, but it upset me a little bit. But if this is just the beginning of it, I’m kind of like trying to grow a thick skin around it. Because even if it’s not to do with that side of things, I make music, and reviewers get to review it, so my whole life if I keep doing this I’m going to be subject to people’s personal opinions. So I think I need to not take that on board personally now, start working up to not worrying. Of course it’s not the nicest feeling in the world, but at the same time I can’t do anything about it, so don’t let it get me down kind of thing.
Witchdoctor – To my mind they should just be assessing it on the music. Whether Air New Zealand should have paid for it… doesn’t have anything to do with you, or your music.
Fay – It was the label who took it, and blah blah blah.
Witchdoctor – And the other thing is NZ On Air have their criteria, and they can’t step outside their own rules. I don’t know if you’ve seen this site called Nerdy Frames…
Fay – Yeah I saw that article actually. Every once in a while I’ll Google myself a news alert, and I was like [gets very loud and demonstrative] ‘someone is wasting a lot of their time saying some really horrible things about me’.
Witchdoctor – But I thought it would be terrible if this thing goes ballistic. Like you said, gathers speed or whatever. I think Simon Sweetman has said some quite negative things as well.
Fay – Yeah, he’s not my biggest fan. [awkward laugh]
Witchdoctor –I did wonder what your perspective was on your independence from your parents’ wealth, and all that sort of stuff.
Fay – I dunno, I think at the end of the day if I was trying to be a banker, then it would be irrelevant. There would be the referencing to what my family had done in the past, and their jobs. But I think because I’m doing music the mark’s a little bit missed, and I have tried to establish myself as an artist purely because of that. Because I have never quite got the connect between my musical ability and what I do and apparently to some people it doesn’t exist because I come from a wealthy family. But at the end of the day I’ve kind of just got over that just living here. If people want to look at me with those eyes, it probably says more about them than it does about me. It used to worry me but now I’m like ‘people can say what they want to say, but I’m still making music either way’. I’m going to keep doing it, and you don’t have to listen to it. I’ve wanted this my whole life, and just one three-letter word at the end of my name is not going to get in the way of that. Everyone’s welcome to their opinions, but that will never be a factor in my career, to stop me doing what I love, and if it was I wouldn’t have started this job in the first place. I wouldn’t have been in something that puts me in the spotlight naturally for a job either.
Witchdoctor – You seem to be quite a resilient person.
Fay – You have to be. You have to be in this industry. So many things go wrong, and so many people tell you lies, and fake promises, and literally if you let the first couple slow you down and out of the industry, you haven’t even put your foot in the water yet. Even when you’re at the top of your game things are always going to go wrong, so I’m ‘deal with the moment, keep moving on’ kind of thing. It’s the only way to do it.
Witchdoctor – Those criticisms that were made, I guess the question is ‘do you think there’s any truth in you having a competitive edge due to the wealth of your parents’?
Fay – Um… I think it gives me the complete opposite. I have to work twice as hard to be considered legitimate. The typical line I get is ‘wow, you’re so much better than I thought you were going to be.’ Sometimes when I get up onstage people are genuinely surprised, but at the same time because of that I’m constantly working from minus-1 to zero, and then trying to work up from there. It gives me advantage in the sense that I probably get a little bit more media attention, and people find me a little bit more intriguing for some reason. But on the actual critical, musical side of it I reckon it’s a complete disability, because it’s hard to be taken seriously. But it’s like, again, I knew that was going to happen and it makes me want to play more shows, get everyone to my shows. So I try to turn it into a positive driving force rather than something I’m worried about or thinking about. It’s kind of a waste of time.
Witchdoctor – I can imagine if you let it get to you.
Fay – Oh yeah. If it ate away at you… it has a couple of times on a bad day, but in general I just kind of know… I believe in myself and believe in my music and I really like what I do, so I’m just going to keep going.
Witchdoctor – When I heard your first album I didn’t know who you were, but I thought it was good, for what it was.
Fay – I was very young. I was a kid as well. I was 18. It’s five years – for my age that’s a lot of time.
Witchdoctor – What do you think the real differences are between that and the new one?
Fay – I just know what I’m doing more this time. Even when I was making the first album I was working with people who were just really patient with me. And I’d be like ‘so what does this do?’ and ‘how do we do that?’ They really taught me the whole time. I reckon I probably learnt more in the studio in the two years I was there than I have in the whole time of doing this. Because I decided to try and take in everything from it. But also I just understand a lot more and kind of figured out a lot, and I’m starting to navigate my sound, because it is going to be quite different throughout my career, but I’m starting to pinpoint a bit more what was good for my sophomoric attempt. I wrote more and I met people more and I was way more confident in the studio, and… before I was way too reserved and not very confident in my voice. I just knew myself more, knew what I was capable of, wasn’t my own worst enemy.
Witchdoctor – Have you been, subsequent to the album, been working on even newer material?
Fay – I’ve been really thinking about it. It’s a daunting task. But also the more I work those songs, the more I play them, the more I know what I’m going to do next time. I need to get bored of my music, or play it enough that I could sing it in my sleep, and then from there, it’s kind of weird, it happened with the last one too, from there I kind of know what I want to do. It’s very strange. After like six months of playing live I’ll know what my next angle is. It’s bizarre, but it’s just kind of how I work.
Witchdoctor – Would you like to find regular or permanent collaborators?
Fay – Oh definitely. I’ve got a couple of people like that, but they don’t live here, and they’re in very high demand. So I love them but that doesn’t necessarily mean they love me as much as I love them. But they either understand who I am as a musician, or don’t. People either see what I’m trying to do, and they help me to bring it out, and I’ve had a couple of people like that and they’ve been like gems in my career.
Witchdoctor – There are so many examples where the artist’s name is in lights, but there’s someone – or a team – behind who are collaborating.
Fay – Like 95 percent of the people you hear on mainstream radio.
Witchdoctor – I think I’ve got enough.
Fay – What a chatterbox, Annabel, it’s hard to shut me up.
Witchdoctor – Anything else you want to say?
Fay – Buy my album. It’s really nice for me to be able to describe the album a bit more so that I can intrigue people to hear it. Because it’s so hard to get, like, a 15- year-old kid to sit down and listen to a whole album. That’s near impossible.
Witchdoctor – Albums are almost extinct.
Fay – Exactly. They’re like, obsolete, which is not ideal.
Witchdoctor – Chris Caddick in his NZ On Air report has recommended no funding for albums at all, just tracks.
Fay – I reckon if we do that it will change the face of music too much. Also, you’d have to find a different breed of artist who would be willing to live like that, to make a song, see how well it goes. For a band who all they want to do is make music, if you tell them they can only make one song, that’s like taking away their livelihood. I see the point, but he’s stripping back music yet again.
Witchdoctor – To me it seems like an industry decision rather than a musical one.
Fay – An album is a showcasing of who you are as an artist.
Witchdoctor – I can’t imagine life without albums.
Fay – I agree. Some of the best songs I’ve ever found have been those sneaky little album tracks. If you truly love a band you want to hear whatever they’ve got to say on their album.

One Comment

  1. Gary she sounds like she has a good head on her shoulders, and for a first up effort the music isn’t bad. She also happens to be extremely spunky, which I likey.

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