Ryan Chartrand

Armed with a love of rock history, layered instrumentation and American pop culture, New Zealanders Heather Mansfield and Jonathan Bree have propelled themselves onto the American music scene with the latest album from their band, The Brunettes.

Recently released on Sub Pop Records, “Structure and Cosmetics” is a sugary-sweet pop album with pop culture references to Scientology, Roswell, Mann’s Chinese Theatre and hairstyles, among other things.

Although The Brunettes have always referenced pop culture in their lyrics, which Bree described as one of the things that inspires him, many of the songs for “Structure and Cosmetics” were written while Bree was house sitting in Los Angeles, one of the pop culture-generating epicenters of the world.

He wrote the song “Small Town Crew,” which mentions giant animals in front of Mann’s Chinese Theatre, while considering applying for a job as Batman.

The Brunettes’ new album is a bit of a departure from their previous albums, although it still retains its fun pop charm. “Structure and Cosmetics” is chalk-full of longer songs with more haunting, drawn-out melodies. This is due to Bree’s fascination with pop records from the 70s at the time of the recording, in which the pop-song format was more drawn-out than the modern-day two-and-a-half minute standard.

“I normally try to keep the songs short and sweet,” Bree said. “On this particular album I guess I just found that if it feels good to let the outtro go on for two minutes, then that’s how long it will go on for.”

The Brunettes’ sound has widely been characterized as a mix of 70s New York punk and 60s girl groups, although Bree said the band draws its inspiration from a variety of influences.

“I feel we’re inspired by this huge array of bands and artists and musical movements,” Bree said. “But those are just easy ones for people to probably latch on to.”

Most of the songs on the album were written and recorded by Bree using home studio equipment in bedrooms, per usual Brunette recording style, while tinkering around with different instruments.

“I think the fun thing about creating is being able to use and not limit yourself to any one particular instrument,” Bree said.

Mansfield and Bree are each credited with playing six different instruments on the album, which is a stark contrast from other modern bands whose members are lucky if they play more than one instrument.

“(Modern-day) bands like being able to represent what their recordings sound like live and so they kind of aren’t as adventurous in the studio with using trial-and-error and different sounds,” Bree said.

The Brunettes manage to recreate their studio sound by frantically switching instruments and by employing the use of a backing band. Mansfield will switch from keyboards to clarinet and back to keyboards with hectic familiarity. Initially it almost looks like a bad scene from an elementary school play until it all pulls together and the audience is left drowning in a perfectly mixed outpour of layered voices, harmonized hand claps, and instrumental coatings.

Bree and Mansfield make it an intimate show, joking with each other throughout their performances, introducing themselves with the name game and challenging audience members to dance-offs.

The camaraderie and togetherness of their live shows is a stretch from their recording process, in which the band was spread out around the world.

With Bree in Los Angeles, Mansfield lived in New York and their backing band was back in New Zealand at the time of recording. “We tried to push forward with recording the album while basically squatting at peoples’ houses,” Bree described.

Sound bytes were e-mailed back and forth while Bree mixed them on this computer. He was also forced travel to various instruments instead of having them readily available.

“If there was a piano set up somewhere then I’d just go around there with my laptop and record the piano,” he said.

He even went up to Portland to borrow guitars from The Shins, whom The Brunettes had previously toured with. “It was kind of fun to record like that,” he said.

Bree and Mansfield have a history that involves more than musical collaboration. The pair started dating shortly after leaving their individual bands to form The Brunettes in Auckland, New Zealand. When their romantic relationship turned sour, The Brunettes briefly disbanded.

But like Fleetwood Mac, No Doubt, Rilo Kiley and countless other bands which survived broken relationships, Mansfield and Bree decided to resurrect The Brunettes.

“It just felt too important for the both of us,” Bree said.

Although their musical reunion wasn’t initially easy, they managed to work through their differences and continue an artistic relationship. “Having found someone that shared similar musical inspiration, influences and that talented, and we worked together that well . We had to go back to each other,” he said. “There was no choice.”

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