BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM asks songbird Flip Grater about heading to Europe is search of recipes and to play music.



CHRISTCHURCH based Flip Grater is about to head to Europe to grab recipes for a cookbook and travel around the place. She’s also going to play music there too, taking her Cat Power-esque minimalism for a sixteen date tour. Her music has been slowly gaining a foothold in New Zealand, with mainstream coverage, a cool music video for ‘Your Suit Hangs Well’ created by Kieran Rynhart, and a couple of winning albums. She’s got a beautiful voice – reminiscent in tone to Bic Runga – but her music is hewed with a much harder edge. Her last album, Be All and End All was released in May, and featured spare riffs built up through some unconventional layers and an impressive melodic sense. The end result of the European tour is going to be a second cookbook, a celebration of food and its variations, due to be released in 2009. Plus, it’s also going to be a chance to showcase some of her beautiful alt. countryish sound to a wider audience.

Grater says that she had been “tinkering with guitars since I was ten and wrote my first song (which was rubbish) when I was seventeen. At twenty-one, I returned from living in Sweden, broken heart in tow and completely lost for career inspiration. After a time, I started writing again and decided to perform my songs in public.” She’s an equal opportunist when it comes to writing lyrics and music, though she confesses the way she goes about writing has changed as her song-writing has progressed. “I used to write pages and pages of lyrics one day, then sit on the guitar the next day and try to put them together. These days, it's more common for a complete song to happen at once.”

The minimalism of the songs is a conscious design, and is something Grater pulls off well throughout her work. “I do make a decided effort to keep my songs un-complicated so that they don’t stray too far from the underlying feeling of the song. I like simple, sparse songs. Therefore I like to write simple, sparse songs.” The comparisons to Cat Power are something which Grater finds “completely flattering.” Of course, it’s a lazy parallel for a writer to make, but it doesn’t annoy her either – “I understand why people need to make comparisons.”

The solitary nature of the music is matched by the way she releases her music. Like a number of contemporary artists, Grater set up her own record label, Maiden Records, and maintains a rigorous self-independence in her work. “DIY is a shit load of work – and often for little return financially. I have a suspicion that going a major label route is just less work for the same money... but I need something to justify not having a 9-5!” This whole process is something she admits can be both scary and tiring. “It can be both. It can also be awesome. What’s tiring is constantly putting yourself out there. That’s the unnatural thing about self-management. You really don’t always feel like telling people you’re great.”

The whole process was aided by Grater having self-released her debut album Cage For A Song already. It was particularly useful in terms of learning how to get her music out to people – something which has been particularly evident by the fact wider media coverage has ensued from this latest album. “I learn heaps with every release so it was quite a different experience. The best thing I did for Be All was to get a publicist involved so I wasn’t having to self-promote and could focus on performances and just enjoying the whole process.”

She also was able to do things differently musically as a result of this extra experience. “I had some new influences for this album and the recording process was quite different. For Cage For A Song, I worked with an incredibly talented producer and I didn’t know what I was doing with recording so I mostly left him to it and that trust paid off really well. This time though, I really wanted to be more involved in the production side of things so I worked closely with the guys at The Sitting Room and we had lots of musicians come in who could add their own spin to each song. It was a really satisfying way of doing it.”

Her music has benefited from some wider exposure. Her song ‘Long Awaited Sigh’ ended up on first season finale of the Calister Flockhart/Rachel Griffiths American TV show Brothers and Sisters, an experience which Grater admits was a somewhat strange experience. “Yeah totally! I barely heard what else was happening in the scene because I was listening intently for my song! It was pretty surreal.” She also covered Tom Waits, something which ought to scare off a lot of people (or at least it should have scared off Scarlett Johansson) given the sheer weight of character Waits brings to his music. “I did that before I knew better, which was probably a good thing. I’d never have the guts to do that now. I learned the song from a backpacker that I used to busk with in Queenstown so I had heard cover versions of Blue Valentine more than the original – that helped!”

Grater has been working with a wide variety of Christchurch musicians, suggesting an active and burgeoning amount of music exists down there. To be fair, Christchurch has traditionally been underrated as a musical hub in itself too – perhaps more so up in the North Island – which might lead to Christchurch scenes being a bit neglected at times. Grater says “possibly, but Wellington has always been really supportive of me so it hasn’t been too disabling being from so far south. Christchurch has a wonderful community of musicians that are incredibly supportive and encouraging. I suspect all musicians from outside of Auckland are all considered to be on a back foot so that makes us feel close and non-competitive.”

Grater’s plan for Europe however is not really world-domination centred. “I expect to have awkward conversations. I expect to eat some wonderful food – and go hungry at times when meat and cheese dishes prevail. I expect it to be cold. I expect to meet some lovely people. I expect to be hit on by some slimy French men. I hope to enjoy all my gigs and sell enough records to pay for a couple of whiskeys.” Part of the brief for the trip is a making a cooking book of shared recipes, a previous trip around New Zealand in a Lada (which broke very recently) garnering up the first rendition of her cookbook. I ask if there is a correlation between cooking and making music. “What they have in common is that everybody loves both. They are uniting. It’s a great angle for a tour because it automatically gives you something to talk about with anyone you meet. It’s like wearing your interests and hobbies on a t-shirt, but since food is a hobby of almost everyone – especially in France and Italy, it’ll be a great way to make friends.” She’s also been practising her Italian cooking in preparation too. “I’m hoping to come across some great artichoke dishes and I’m really looking forward to eating plenty of mushroom varieties since that’s my biggest food gripe about NZ – that we only have like, two types of (edible) mushrooms available. I’m going truffle hunting in Italy so I’m really looking forward tasting white truffles for the first time.”

And while her cookbook will certainly be of interest to her fans, Be All And End All is a worthy and impressive showcase of her musical talent. The spare and moody sounds, the almost uncommunicative guitar playing, and the swooning voice suggest considerable talent, and plenty of scope for her music to capture some attention.