White Swan Black Swan’s new double mini-album contains gorgeous tunes, and moments of real beauty – a gentle and winning release. BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM chats with the ‘White Swan’ of the collaboration, Sonya Waters.


WHITE SWAN BLACK SWAN have a particularly apt name. Two different sides to the music, but one kind of unifying thread. The band have released a double mini album – an album’s worth of songs, but on two separate discs. The two driving forces of the band – Sonya Waters (white swan) and Ben Howe (black swan) have an extensive music career, having been in iconic and cult bands for decades. Howe runs the brilliant Arch Hill label and was a member of the great Superette, and Waters has led a nomadic existence, which included being members of bands in London (The Woodentops, ICU) and San Francisco (Orange). The two have been in Fang together since the early 2000s, but have found themselves making music in another project, White Swan Black Swan. The result is music which blends idiosyncratic melodies and evocative imagery, with warm vintage sounds. Their music is as comforting and familiar as a pair of brand new pyjamas, but their music floats through dark and expansive shadows.

Waters and Howe have been playing together for some time now, but the story over how they met was “very boring” according to Waters. “Ben and I have worked on Fang together for quite a while. We started doing this new project and we’ve only been developing this new sound since this last summer. We’re still developing. I was playing piano for a country band, The Broken Heartbreakers, and Rick and Ben were playing in that band as well. I invited them to come and record with us. I liked their playing.”

Waters and Howe could easily have incorporated the two mini-albums into one album, however, stylistically and aesthetically the two do work well separately. Each mini-album covers a multitude of styles and genre – Nick Cave-esque murder ballads, Latin-tinged melodies, ‘alt. country’, shoegazer among many others all get thrown into the mix. Waters says “we had recorded quite a lot of material and we just decided it might be nice to split the styles up a little, but not in a ‘his or hers’ way, or ‘towels in a bathroom’ kind of way. We thought it might be nice if listeners feel like listening to a woman’s voice one day they might put my one on, or if they felt like listening to a man’s voice, put Ben’s one on.”

This suggested that each was responsible for the creation of each’s own mini-album, and that the White Swan Black Swan moniker is a loose term to cover their collaboration. Waters says however there was considerable collaboration, not just between the two artists, but also with the wider band. “We tend to write separately and Ben and I get together and work on them. We then take them to the band. We actually recorded all the songs over a couple of months. I think we recorded mine first, because Ben has been working on some recordings and then he decided to re-record his and he did his again using the same band that I was using. He thought his songs were turning out quite good in the band.” The band, made up of drummer Ricky McShane and bassist Ben Furniss play a key role, according to Waters in the music-making process too, despite the distinct personalities evident in the recordings.

The eclecticism of the White Swan Black Swan sound probably comes down to the duo’s background. Waters’ band Orange for example was a 4AD-esque shoegazer-y/dreamy popscape band, while she cut her fingers initially in local punk bands. You’d expect a bit of tiredness after her musical and locational drifting. “I’m not sure what really drives me. I just know if I don’t do it I’m miserable. The good thing about it, I keep discovering new things I like in music. I just do that because I feel like I have freedom to do whatever I want. I feel I don’t have to stick with a style and I can explore whatever territories I want to. When I’m sick of this one, I’ll do something else. I’d like to think I’ll carry on somewhere else, even when I’ve got a walking stick.”

I ask if this means she’ll start to feel the itch to move on somewhere else soon. “No I’m really into this at the moment. But I was listening to a guy on National Radio, this French guy doing Latin, but I thought ‘that’s a little bit of what I’m doing at the moment’. I just want to explore that area a little bit more. For me, it’s the alt. country and that sort of European gypsy Latin-y stuff, and a bit of folk-y pop music and psychedelic folk. I’ve got quite a few territories to go off and have an adventure in.”

Waters’ extensive CV meant she was in San Francisco around the time when “alternative music became mainstream” in the eyes of a few idealistic and misguided commentators in the early ‘90s. (though to be fair, Waters’ band Orange, never gained anything more than highly respected cult status). She recorded on the Dewdrops Label, a label that is now sadly relegated to obscurity, and extremely difficult to find recordings of. “That was in the ‘90s. It was quite hard in San Fran because at that time it was all grunge. I loved 4AD bands, and more ethereal music. I started a band with a guy over there. Dewdrops heard that we’d been playing around a bit (they’re from LA) and they came up to see us. They wanted to release our music. We had a one page contract and it had about six sentences. I’ve still got it, it’s such a weird contract. They had some really great interesting music on their label. I think the first album was a tribute to 4AD and they asked us to play on it. We did ‘Gigantic’ by the Pixies – quite an ethereal version of it.” There are still plans for reunion gigs over the States, and Waters keeps in touch with all the original figures in both Orange and the label.

This extensive musical experience assisted in the recording of the White Swan Black Swan album. The duo self-recorded in their home, and their backgrounds assisted in the ruthless process of recording. “I think so, we’ve just got a lot more relaxed about recording. We’re not afraid to throw things together on the day if they’re not working. If you go into a big studio and the clocks ticking, you feel a little bit tense. I guess the downside is you can take too long and not finish anything. I like the recording process. It’s surprising what it sounds like after you’ve just done it. You think ‘oh wow that sucks I’ve got to change this’ or ‘oh wow, that’s really working’. Things turn out in an unexpected way.” This also meant they had to be quite ruthless with the editing. “I have dumped a couple of songs. There was one for ages I was really liking, and then I heard it finished and thought ‘that is the dumbest song I’ve ever written’. Ben got the drum tracks and looped them and used them for one of his songs so it wasn’t all wasted.”

The song subject matter is quite eclectic too, and includes, for example, a song about victims of kidnapping in Mexico (‘Zona Rosa’). “I don’t know how that came about. It just fitted with some of the words. I didn’t quite have a full concept of what the song was going to be about. I knew it was about leaving somewhere and trying to get away, I hadn’t quite decided how to finish it. I love Mexico and have been there. I just incorporated it into the song.”

A unifying factor in the album is the minimalist tone of the album, something which works wonderfully well throughout. “We wanted to go for something that was quite moody, and also after Fang – Fang has a lot of textures. I felt it was quite busy at times. We just wanted to do what suited the new songs. A lot of those big roomy sounds were what we’ve tried to create, and I think Mark Nevers had a bit of a say in that. He’s got some great vintage gear he’s run things through that’s created some nice ambiences.”

Working with Mark Nevers was a bit of a coup for the band. Nevers, who has recorded work by Lambchop, Calexico, Andrew Bird and Will Oldham (for example) agreed to mix the White Swan Black Swan music in his Nashville studio. “We like some of the bands he’s worked with. We thought it’d be great if we asked Mark Nevers if he’d do our album, it was really just a wish. We asked him and emailed him. We sent him some stuff and he listened to it and said ‘yep’. He was pretty good. David Kilgour helped us get in touch with him because he’d worked with him. He took quite a long time, being so far away and he has some unusual ways of working. He has quite an eccentric touch.” Waters says he was particularly useful in the editing aspect. The distance he provided allowed for independent viewpoints. “He was quite good about that, either getting rid of something or bringing something up that had been muted. Ben’s done some mixing before and it has been quite gruelling. It’s especially hard when you think someone’s put so much effort into that guitar part, and so you make compromises to keep people happy. I think with Nevers, he could just make those decisions without worrying about people being offended. It was quite nice, and freeing for the songs. It just worked out how they should be.”

The songs have an expansive, country feel to them, evoking wide open spaces while still retaining a strong emotional core. “We had gone for that [country] sound. Ben had done quite a bit of editing work and we were aiming for that so we were pretty pleased he definitely picked up on what we were trying to achieve. I think the songs were leaning towards the treatments he gave them. I think having him work on them gave them something we hadn’t got to ourselves.” While Howe and Waters’ place in New Zealand music history ought never to be disputed, their new project White Swan Black Swan suggests that they’re continuing to make compelling music despite (or more likely because of) their extensive careers. The double mini-album contains gorgeous tunes, and moments of real beauty – a gentle and winning release.