Flip Grater: Song bird
It was a night, as my dear departed granny used to say, as cold as a witch's tit. Stars glittered like ice crystals in a clear black sky above as I sat cradling a warming whisky amid a clump of half-frozen friends, some of them incorrigible optimists foolish enough to have arrived wearing shorts. We were sitting outside Nelson bar The Free House, a converted church with a Mongolian yurt pitched outside in the front garden as a music venue.
The woman we'd come to see arrived wearing a thin black evening dress and low heels, as if she'd just flown in from a warm spring night in Paris, which was in fact not far from the truth.
She had no jacket, no jersey, no scarf. Her pale skin looked almost as blue as her eyes as she stood outside the venue door, clutching a glass of red wine and shivering.
Alas, Christchurch singer-songwriter Flip Grater had forsaken her new home in France and headed back to New Zealand for a tour just when the weather crapped out.
"Shit, it's so cold!" she said as we all drifted inside. "I promised my French boyfriend we'd get here and it would still be summer, so he's pretty unimpressed. It's freezing!"
But when she began to play, the warmth soon spread. Perhaps it was the heat generated by our clapping.
Grater was back for a few months to promote her new album, Pigalle, recorded in Paris, and as she peeled out one burnished ballad after another, it became clear that this was her most compelling collection of songs to date.
Last time I saw Flip Grater was in 2008, when she still lived in Christchurch. On the eve of her second album's release, I was dispatched to interview her by Sunday magazine.
I flew through a thunderstorm to get to her little warm kitchen in New Brighton, and we ate a delicious vegan lunch and drank Korean soju, with the fire raging and a beautiful sunburst yellow Diplomat guitar gleaming in the corner.
We talked about her strange life: a relative unknown in the country of her birth; a tireless troubadour, endlessly touring the nation in her beloved Lada, playing in provincial cafes for 16 people and the owner's dog, yet all the while, her songs were out there in the wider world, paying their way; one of them had even soundtracked the season finale of hit United States network television series Brothers and Sisters.
As if to illustrate the point, an Australian music publisher called while we were eating dessert, wanting to know if a new American series could use one of her songs. It starred Law and Order's Benjamin Bratt and a woman who'd been in Californication. Grater said she'd call them back.
She had more pressing things to consider, chief among them being she was just about to head off into the unknown, flying overseas to see what might happen.
"In a way, turning up alone with my guitar in Rome or Paris or Amsterdam or London will be no different to what I do here at home," she told me at the time. "No-one will know who I am, but that still happens in New Zealand. It's an adventure. You just have to put yourself out there and hope for the best."
Since then, Grater has travelled extensively around Europe and America, sleeping on couches, playing anywhere she could get a gig, writing songs along the way and slowly building an international audience.
Three years ago she returned home to do some house-sitting, then she was off again - to Argentina, Los Angeles, Italy. Eventually, she washed up in Paris in 2011 and
decided to stay, working on the not-unreasonable assumption that, if you were an impoverished musician in New Zealand, you might as well be an impoverished musician in Paris.
"I had a few good contacts there from previous tours," she says, on the line from Christchurch where she's visiting family before the rest of the album release tour. "But as soon as I arrived in Paris, my new French manager got pregnant and moved to San Francisco, and my booking agent had a breakdown and quit. And my guitar got stolen from the foyer of the apartment building the night I arrived! It was a tough year. I survived on savings, and the occasional gig, and a little money drifted in now and then from songs that had been licensed for TV shows. Fortunately, my rent was low, but it was still pretty grim. Sometimes I didn't even have two Euros € 2 to my name. I couldn't even afford to get the Metro! I'd go out for long walks, and I couldn't even stop to buy coffee in a cafe when I needed a rest."
Grater lived alone for a year, trying to scrape together sufficient cash to convene a band and record this album. Eventually, she met some local musicians, and talked her way into a studio with promises that everyone would be paid at some point further down the track.
The sessions took place at one of the city's oldest studios in the Quartier Pigalle, a neighbourhood of brothels, topless bars, guitar stores and wide-eyed tourists.
Edith Piaf was once a busker here, singing on the streets for small change just down from where the Museum of Erotica now stands.
The famous Moulin Rouge cabaret is here, too, former haunt of Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
"It's an area where there's lots of whorehouses and grime and general nonsense. You get there early in the morning and there's still people hanging around from the night before. But the studio is one those hidden Parisian gems; you have to go down these little alleyways to get to it, and you'd never find it unless you knew exactly where it was. It's full of beautiful old furniture, and you can feel the history the place. It was used by famous French singers like Serge Gainsbourg back in the day. The only downside is the owner chain-smoking at the mixing desk all day, but that just adds another layer of very French ambience to the place."
Flip, in case you're wondering, is short for "flipper". Her given name is Clare Marie Grater, and she acquired that dolphin-esque nickname in her teens because of her views on animal rights, in particular, their right not to be knocked on the head so as to appear on our plates.
A committed vegan to this day, she has written a couple of vegetarian cookbooks to share recipes collected on her various local and international tours.
Now 32, Grater started writing her own songs at age 21, as therapy for a busted heart after moving to Lapland with a Swedish boyfriend, her "first true love", who promptly left her for a Swedish girl called Camilla. Prior to Pigalle, there were three other albums: Cage For A Song (2006), Be All And End All (2008) and While I'm Awake I'm At War (2010), all released via her own label, Maiden Records.
All had their strengths, framing Grater's fragile voice with a blend of southern gothic Americana, melancholy country waltzes and stripped-back indie rock. Some tracks were perhaps a tad self-consciously pretty but, in her best songs, you could hear luxuriously glum echoes of Mazzy Star, PJ Harvey and Cat Power.
But Pigalle is stronger, simpler, more assured. As seems appropriate for an album recorded in Paris, the dark romanticism of French chanson has wormed its way into the mix, albeit with a pared-back 60s folkie spin. The lyrics remain ceaselessly introspective but also, as they say in California, highly relatable.
The Buddhist daughter of an Anglican archdeacon, Grater writes convincingly about sin, loneliness, damaged faith, and the many and varied parallels between heroin addiction and romantic love.
"I think being in Paris on my own and having a rough time has led to a grittier album. It's less floaty than my previous stuff. I left New Zealand to be challenged, and I was. We live in such a comparatively safe and wonderful place that one of the dangers of being a Kiwi is that you get too comfortable, and your art can stagnate as a result. Living in France hasn't always been fun, but it led to some different mental states that helped generate new songs. It stopped me just falling back on songwriting tricks I already knew. When you spend so much time by yourself in an unfamiliar place, it leads you into nostalgia for things you haven't thought about for a long time. You reach into different areas of yourself, and you come back with different sorts of songs."
Different, yes, and better, too. Any past tendency to cuteness has been curtailed, and the new album is studded with diamond tunes more notable for their hard clarity than their surface glitter.
Standouts? Marry Me, Hymns and The Quit have the exhausted intimacy of Californian folk singer Gillian Welch's early ballads, the voice weathered and grainy and lagging behind the beat as if it's too tired to catch up.
Justin Was A Junkie contemplates mortality and risk over a gorgeous melody and languid see-saw rhythm. Diggin' For The Devil unleashes some unexpectedly dark electric guitars. And Hide And Seek? Tom Waits on oestrogen, mate.
"That song sounds like Tom Waits because it has a Chamberlin on it. It's this very rare keyboard with tuned loops of tape of different instruments inside it that play whenever you touch one of the keys. Tom Waits owns one, and the Pigalle studio had one, too, so I just had to use it. It's so old that all the tapes inside it are really stretched, so everything's slightly woozy and out of tune. It sounds like a keyboard with a drunken ghost band trapped inside it. And who wouldn't want their songs to be backed by a band of drunken ghosts?"
Pigalle will be released on Friday via Maiden Records/Rhythmethod. Flip Grater's plays at Wellington's Mighty Mighty on April 3, Dunedin's Queens Bar on April 11, Christchurch's Wunderbar on April 12, Auckland's Wine Cellar on April 24, and Banks Peninsula's Hilltop Tavern on April 25.
Sunday Star Times