A close encounter with Brooke Fraser
As she announces her next national tour, Grant Smithies discovers the gospel according to Brooke Fraser.
Brooke Fraser is beautiful, with tumbling black hair, a long lovely face, a striking nose, dark eyes and full lips. She is talented too: her 2003 debut album What To Do With Daylight sold more than 115,000 copies here, and last year's follow-up album Albertine has already sold over 60,000.
But one thing Brooke Fraser is not is rock'n'roll. As a devout Christian, she is opposed to many things habitually associated with rock music - drug use, drunkenness, overt displays of sexuality, and certainly, that "throwing the goat" devil sign one makes with the pinky and thumb of one's hand at metal gigs.
But Fraser is cool, as far as I'm concerned, because she's honest about all this.
Today's music scene is infested with closet Christians who endlessly shut down questions about their faith in interviews and make millions from the secular music market by keeping their God-bothering under wraps.
Fraser, however, makes no secret of the fact that she is straight as a ruler, that it is her intention to abstain from sex before marriage, that - as she put it in a piece she wrote for Christian mag Soul Purpose a few years ago - her purpose in life is to "praise Him; thank Him, bless Him, obey Him, seek Him, love Him and live for Him", with Him being Jesus, not some exalted boyfriend.
"I've never felt any pressure to downplay my Christianity to appeal more to the secular market," she says quietly from Sydney, her home for the past three years.
"In fact, I once overheard someone from my record company telling somebody off for trying to censor something I'd said about God, and I really appreciated that, because it meant the company had my back in that regard."
Fraser also appreciates the fact that her label, SonyBMG, has never attempted to get her to squeeze into more provocative clothes so they could promote her as a sex symbol. "I'm much too geeky for that. Put me in stilettos and I'll be sprawled on the ground before I've walked two metres."
Most of Fraser's songs are addressed to God, but sound as though they're addressed to a lover. This is very handy, radio-wise, but Fraser insists it is not a deliberate strategy. "I can see how that confusion might arise. I have an intimacy and an affection towards God that means He feels closer to me than a lover. So, yeah, both sorts of song are ultimately about intimacy. You end up with a love song either way."
Whether or not you realise they are actually hymns, Brooke Fraser writes very effective love songs. Even a cynical old heathen like myself, with a pathological aversion to both religion and mainstream radio ballads, has to admit this woman has a rare melodic gift, a lovely voice, and a winning way with simple, evocative metaphors.
Of all the mainstream female pop singers to have emerged in this country since Bic Runga, Fraser strikes me as the one most likely to make a major name for herself in the States. Hollie Smith will make inroads into the urban hipster market, but Fraser is more likely to snare the Middle American masses.
Not that she's too bothered about success, at least, not for its own sake. "In this celebrity-driven culture, a lot of people think that fame and recognition is your goal, rather than the satisfaction of making the art. But for me, I make music because it has the power to change the world.
"As with all literature and art, music is something that connects with people on more than an intellectual level; it works on an emotional and spiritual level, too.
"Many people that buy my albums will never walk into a church, but I'm hopeful that if they have my album in their car or in their iPod, God might walk into their room instead."
Or He might not. It's unlikely that every suburban sinner who whistles along to one of Fraser's songs on the radio while doing the dishes will find themselves suddenly overwhelmed by the power of the Holy Spirit. Most listeners are seeking entertainment rather than enlightenment.
Even so, Fraser likes the idea that her music comes from a deeper, more thoughtful, less sexualised and materialistic place than most of the music that fills radio playlists these days.
"If you only feed your mind with songs that talk about booty and being the biggest pimp on your block, then that might become the limit of your aspiration.
"I recognise my responsibility as a writer to write about things I believe deeply in, like God and social justice, or - even if I'm not doing that - to at least provide an alternative voice to a woman who sings about how her `milkshake brings all the boys to the yard', or whatever."
Fraser is the eldest of three children born to former All Black Bernie Fraser and his wife, Lynda. She grew up in a state housing block in Lower Hutt, right across the road from the Naenae- Epuni train line. It was a fairly dramatic working class neighbourhood; she remembers several occasions when the armed offenders squad would knock at the door and advise her family to "stay away from the windows" before they swept in to carry out drug raids on the houses of her neighbours.
Now 23, Fraser started taking piano lessons aged seven, and wrote her first song when she was 12. A few years later she started writing for Christian magazine Soul Purpose, eventually becoming editor in 2002. Later the same year she moved to Auckland to pursue her musical career, which took off like a rocket.
"That was very strange, to suddenly be so well known. At 19 you've got enough insecurities as it is, and they get magnified by being thrust in front of so many people, but I think I managed to come through it pretty much unscathed."
One way of staying sane and grounded was to move away, which she did, relocating to Australia in 2004. "Once I moved to Sydney I felt like I was out from under the magnifying glass, and that lack of pressure really helped with my second album.
"Really, I've never been a person who can sit down and crank out a hit song. I have to let the songs come in their own time, and accept that I'd be screwed if I didn't get some divine help. Fortunately, with Albertine, that help came."
Beside a helping hand from the Big Guy, the Albertine album gained a lot of inspiration from Africa.
Fraser has been the public face of World Vision in New Zealand since 2005, and made her first trip to Rwanda the same year. It was a turning point in her life.
"It confirmed to me that I was put on this earth to do something in the aid and development area. On the last day of that trip, I met a young orphan called Albertine, who's now 18. A friend of mine had risked his life to rescue her during the genocide in 1994, and I was moved to write a song for her and for that country."
Since that trip, Fraser has become more involved with the plight of Africa's poor, and now sponsors 10 African children. "People might think that's overkill, but I've been back to Rwanda several times now, and I've seen that child sponsorship really works. Once you've seen the transformation it brings to those communities, it's impossible not to do it, if you have the means to."
In a couple of months, Fraser returns to New Zealand for an extensive tour. Audiences will hear some beautiful songs, and Jesus is likely to get a mention. Because that's why she's doing all this, isn't it, to bring people closer to her God?
"Yep. It is. Absolutely. There are a lot of people out there who don't think their life is worth anything, and a faith in God can change that. It can help you realise you have a greater purpose.
"From when I was really little I had a sense of God; I always knew that I wasn't alone. I believed that God was real and that he liked me, when I was, like, five.
"But I didn't really find Jesus until 1999, and there were some really dark times in between, so dark that I almost didn't want to be around any more. I thought that I was the most horrible person on Earth and that nobody could possibly love me."
But isn't that just what happens during adolescence? You feel lost and confused so you search around for something to give purpose to your life. If Fraser had stumbled over an old Siouxsie and the Banshees album instead of the Bible, she might have become a goth rather than a Christian.
"Sure, who knows?" she laughs. "I could have gone either way."
Sunday Star Times