Clairy Browne's Rock 'N' Soul Bus Rolls To The U.S.

May 25, 2013
Originally published on May 26, 2013 8:03 am

Clairy Browne & the Bangin' Rackettes are an Australian band whose sound is a little bit of soul fused with blues, doo-wop, jazz and R&B. That musical diet, rich in harmony, is the same one lead singer Clairy Browne grew up on.

"My dad had a band in South Africa in the '60s called Browne, and so he really brought that into our home," she says. "We were always around the kitchen table with a guitar and four-part harmonies, playing on late into the night.

The band's debut album, Baby Caught the Bus, has just been released in the U.S. Clairy Browne discusses it here with NPR's Scott Simon.

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A few years ago, Clairy Browne was teaching elementary school in Australia, shushing children. Today, she wears sequin dresses and belts out songs as front-woman of her band Clairy Browne and the Bangin' Rackettes.


CLAIRY BROWNE AND THE BANGIN' RACKETTES: (Singing) My baby's on the phone, while I was out of town...

SIMON: The band just released their album "Baby Caught the Bus in the U.S." It's already been a hit in Australia, and the band's been catching fire here since their performance at South by Southwest earlier this year. Clairy Browne joins us now from the studios of NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.

CLAIRY BROWNE: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: You grew up in a musical household I gather.

BROWNE: I sure did. My dad had a band in South Africa in the '60s called Browne. And so he really brought that into our home, and we were always, you know, around the kitchen table with a guitar and four-part harmonies and playing on late into the night.

SIMON: What did you grow up singing? Do you recall?

BROWNE: A lot of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, because the harmonies are quite intricate. But he was very into the Beatles, so we were well versed in all the old stuff.

SIMON: You know, you've been called by various reviewers as soul group, doo-wop, ska, gospel, '50s and '60s rock and roll, blues, jazz, gritty funk - I'm even leaving off a few other descriptions that we could find. How do you react to any of that?

BROWNE: You know, musically, the influences that you described are all there. I think it's mostly couched in old R&B and soul, but there are those tinges of hip-hop or industrial sounds in "Love Letter," you know, that doo-wop of "Far Too Late." But I think mostly it is quite reflective of an old sound, but it's reimagined for now because we're all young people playing the music and we're telling the stories that we're experiencing now.


RACKETTES: (Singing) I'm gonna write you a letter, oh baby, for good or for bad or for better, you believe me, darling, darling, I'm yours once you're ready, I'm yours, never, ever forget it...

SIMON: Where does this song come from, the first track on your album, "Love Letter"?

BROWNE: This song was written by Dorothy McNulty. And the first time I heard it I was sitting at The Pound with him at the piano and he sang it to me. And...

SIMON: Sitting by The Pound...

BROWNE: Sitting in The Pound, yeah. It's not where the dogs live. It's the old coffin factory where we rehearse.

SIMON: You anticipated I was going to ask you a question about that. OK. So, there you were in the old coffin factory in which you rehearse.

BROWNE: Just sitting by this big, old piano. And he played me this song and it really did strike a chord with me straightaway.


RACKETTES: (Singing) Ooh, I got a love letter...

BROWNE: It's a blues essentially, but it's about this unspoken desire and frustration of wanting someone.


RACKETTES: (Singing) I'm gonna write what I want you to do to me in a letter. Ah yes. I'm gonna write it for good or for bad or for bad or for better. Ah yeah, love letter. I'm gonna write it for you so that you can be my lover. Be my lover, ooh...

BROWNE: When we recorded it, it just took on this whole other feel.

SIMON: Is there something to be said for working in a band with nine people after you've been an elementary school teacher?

BROWNE: Sometimes it feels like taking out a group of grade six kids on an excursion and you're endlessly counting to make sure that you haven't lost one of them at the zoo on tour.


BROWNE: And I think that there is that kind of excitement as well because we, you know, we come from Melbourne and we were just a sort of small-time band. And we just put out a record without any kind of major planning about where it was going to end up. But I'm glad I'm not shushing the children anymore and I'm just shushing the adults.

SIMON: This is a very upbeat album in sound, but some of the most poignant tracks - I'm thinking of the song "You Don't Owe Me Nothing." It's a very - well, let's listen to a little of it, if we could.



RACKETTES: (Singing) And you don't owe me nothing, no, no, no. We had our time and now our time is through...

SIMON: That's - and I've heard they call that a tender breakup song?

BROWNE: It is. You know, it's honest. If you listen really closely, you can hear the rain beating on the roof.

SIMON: I heard something. I didn't know that was rain. Really?

BROWNE: It came through on the mics, which is beautiful, I think.

SIMON: Sure.


BROWNE: It really helped with the mood that day. And I cried, from start to finish, recording that song. It was very touching.


RACKETTES: (Singing) ...oh no, no, we had our time, now our time is through. Sometimes when things are over, ooh, yeah, yeah, there ain't no one, no one to blame...

SIMON: Is it, in a way, harder to write a happy song than it is a breakup song, a sad song?

BROWNE: Absolutely. I'm constantly trying to think of, you know, happy tunes. And we all are - we write as a group. We write collectively. So, we're also trying to come up with happy songs and they always tend up to be heartbreakers.

SIMON: I wonder - is that because in a group of nine people there, you know, at any given moment there are always three or four going, no, no, that's not true or something like that?

BROWNE: We're a fairly emotional group of weirdoes. So, it's pretty common for us to share those sort of feelings. And the album is really reflective of love in so many ways. Something we know that and we feel it touches us and it's a way to connect, I think, with people through music.


RACKETTES: (Singing) One, two, a-one, two, three, four. Ooh. Yeah, I'll be fine, yeah. Ooh...

SIMON: I've been told your stage shows are quite a production.

BROWNE: That is true. A lot of work goes into the stage show.


RACKETTES: (Singing) The good Lord knows it, (unintelligible) been behind. I'm gonna be fine, yeah, make my mama (unintelligible)...

BROWNE: It's live and sweaty and gritty and over the top and aesthetically dynamic.

SIMON: I want to listen to another track, if we can.


SIMON: This is "Vicious Cycle."


RACKETTES: (Singing) You say it's no big surprise the way it's always been. You get scrutinized, criticized, fantasized, ostracized when you step up to sing, so you better be tall. Don't you let them aim...

SIMON: This sounds like the kind of song someone would write after being pursued by paparazzi through the streets of London or Santa Monica or something.

BROWNE: It does, doesn't it? It's kind of a story of all these artists that we look up to that, you know, have become eaten up by too much of the wrong kind of exposure. It's kind of about killing your idols and the tragedy of that. You know, it's dreamy and nightmarish at the same time.


RACKETTES: (Singing) I don't wanna shed no more tears.

SIMON: When you're out on the road, are there moments you think this is not the life you want to lead?

BROWNE: No, not once. You know, we get tired and grumpy and all those sort of things, but everything we do on tour is every day is working to that one show - although there's many shows - but that one show that day is the focus. And if you don't give 120 percent, you don't feel the benefits. And I think the best thing about it is the reaction that we get from people. And that makes me realize every time I get on the stage, it's exactly where I want to be, it's exactly what I want to be doing. It's, you know, it's a dream.


RACKETTES: (Singing) What color was Frankie's eyes? Was a vampire in disguise. It's time that I got wise. I know that it's a killer. Killer place in (unintelligible)...

SIMON: Clairy Browne of Clairy Browne and the Bangin' Rackettes. Their new album, out this week, is called "Baby Caught the Bus." She joined us from NPR West. Thank you very much for being with us.

BROWNE: Thank you very much.


SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.