There are musicians around the world whose sole goal is to make you want to dance. There are those who want to challenge how you perceive sound. Then there are those that want to entrap your mind and take you to places, sometimes to an unknown landscape, sometimes above the clouds, or sometimes even to dark places that you did not know exist.
Wellington, New Zealand’s Black City Lights‘ music is a little bit of all of the above. The trio’s dark-wave, electronic synth can be at times stunningly gorgeous and dreamy; other times dark, haunting, and brooding; and yet always enthralling. Their unique sound made them one of our favourite Hidden Gems of the past year, and a band that we are extremely excited to hear more from in the future.
This past November while in Wellington, I had the opportunity to sit down with Julia Catherine Parr, who along with Calum Robb founded one of New Zealand’s emerging indie acts. Their popularity over the past 6 months has increased significantly, thanks to an extensive tour that took them across the US and parts of Europe. Julia and I spoke about the band’s formation, that life-changing tour, and, of course, somewhat irrelevant but fun things. Unfortunately, Calum could not join us due to prior commitments, but there will be another opportunity for him to share his side of the story.
Hi Julia. Thanks for meeting with me. How are you doing?
I’m doing fine, thanks. Calum apologizes that he couldn’t make it today.
I understand, and I wish that the two of you could be here to talk about Black City Lights.
Well, there are three of us now. We recently added Caleb Clayton to our little group.
I did not know that. That’s really cool. Anyway, to get started, could you please explain who Black City Lights are and how you formed.
Calum and I met through a mutual friend a few years ago. We were just walking down the street, and my friend introduced me to Calum. He was talking about some music he was working on, and I said, “Oh, I’m a singer.” And my friend was like, “Yeah, she’s a really good singer.” From there, he asked if I wanted to be featured on one of his tracks on his EP, as he was doing mostly instrumental stuff at the time. I said sure, so we got together and recorded that track. We had heaps of fun writing and recording it, so we decided to re-write the whole EP with a vocal element. And from that day, we formed the band.
And what was that first song?
It was called “Collapsing Horizon”. We actually don’t play that song anymore.
Maybe you could bring it back and tell the audience this is how it all started.
We’ve definitely come a long way from that track, but maybe one day.
Did you and Calum click right away?
We did, and having to travel together just further showed how we have become really good friends. I think we have a really great friendship, which makes writing and performing really easy. We always joke that we have a very brother-sister type of relationship, where we trust one another and can sense when something is not right with the other person. We have that mutual respect for one another, so we know we can be honest with the other person without fearing of having things fall apart.
What was the first song that you two originally wrote together from start to finish?
That was “Rivers”. We wrote the lyrics together and that was really great.
When you write a new song, where does it all begin?
Calum will write most of an instrumental track and then he’ll send it to me. I’ll play around with some vocal ideas and send him back some demos. He’ll then re-arrange the track to fit the form of what I’m going for, so we play off each other in that way, but it all starts with the instrumental track.
Let’s talk about your first live show. What was like it?
It was at Meow, which is a great venue in Wellington and actually our last show was there. Calum was so nervous because it was the first show that he got to play his own music. I’ve performed before, and for that show I was only going up for a couple of songs because we had yet to write all of our songs. It was a great show. We had all of our friends there, and it was a great turnout. But the one thing I remember is Calum being so nervous.
Did you perform all original songs or were there any covers?
They were all original – 7 tracks in total I think. After a while, we did start to do a cover of “Pa Pa Power” by Ryan Gosling’s band, Dead Bones.
Any plans to do any future covers?
We did a cover – actually a “3-in-1”, which was really fun. It was “Ready or Not”, “No Scrubs”, and “Umbrella”, all put together in one mix. Everyone loved it.
Photo by Frankowski Photography
So like a dance remix?
Yeah, but in a dark, moody way.
Which fits in with Black City Lights’ sound – that dark almost brooding synth electronica.
Yeah, we have a dark wave, synth sound, which Calum definitely brings.
So before you met Calum, what kind of music were you performing?
I was actually into blues-inspired music. I was a singer-songwriter. I had a keyboard, and I would write my own songs and perform solo around Wellington. I use to write songs from the perspective of a strong female character, put myself in that more theatrical element. With our current music, I’ve been able to explore so many different lyrical ideas. It’s really coming from me instead of from a different person’s point of view. Oh, I also played in a country blues band at one point.
So from blues to country to dark wave synth. What’s next?
I don’t really know (laughs), but I’m enjoying what we’ve been able to achieve with Black City Lights.
You recently went on an extensive tour, including a stop at CMJ. What was it like to to go overseas and perform across North America?
It was such a great experience. It was my first time overseas other than to Australia. It was Calum’s first time to North America, but he’s originally from Scotland, so he’s already done that big overseas trip. It was so exciting to arrive in L.A. We were extremely lucky as well. Three years ago, we got to perform with Baths in Wellington, and he’s such a nice guy. So when we arrived in L.A., he picked us up and let us stay with him for a couple of nights. It was so nice to have a person that you knew greet you upon arrival and take care of you. But beyond that, it was so different – bigger cities, bigger places. Everything was just bigger.
How was the first show in North America? How did the audience receive you?
Our first couple of shows in LA were really small. They were on a weeknight, and we didn’t know where we were. We played a couple of shows with Spazkid, who is doing so well now. Overall, the crowds were just awesome. In San Francisco, there were a couple of people who came up to us and said, “We heard your songs on Pandora Radio, and we were so excited to learn you were coming to town.” We were so surprised to know people in San Francisco knew who we were and that we had fans.
What other things that really shocked you about being in the US?
I don’t know if there was anything else. Just that everything was so much bigger and these crazy open roads, endless highways, and vast deserts. I had some friends traveling in the US at the same time, and we took a little break in the tour and drove to Vegas. It was just so intense, so hot, and just so different from what I was use to in New Zealand.
How was CMJ?
It was really great. We were part of the New Zealand Showcase, which was a lot of fun and an amazing opportunity. It was also the first big show that we did – actually, our second as we did a show at the Power Station in Auckland, which was a really big and awesome show. But CMJ was our first big, overseas show, and it was the first “professional show” that we were part of, as we had been playing mostly in little bars. There was a stage manager and someone there to the onstage sound as well as the front-of stage sound, and we had never experienced that before. That experience has given us the desire to take things bigger or to take that next step up.
Most bands traveling across the US almost always experience a breakdown with their vehicle. Did you experience anything like that?
We actually flew a lot, so we didn’t drive a whole lot. At the time, there were only two of us, and we didn’t have much gear. We had a lot of plane delays, but no breakdowns or weird road experiences.
What was your favourite city?
I really liked Chicago because, despite it being a large, modern city, it felt older. The brick buildings, the architecture, etc. People later told us that we probably wouldn’t have liked Chicago if we visited in the winter.
Chicago is a great city, but yeah it gets quite cold in the winter. Any upcoming tour plans?
Nothing right now. We just hired a management company, who’s now taking care of our future travels. I would love to do the European festival circuit one summer. But who knows? We haven’t even done Australia yet, and that’s so much closer.
Let’s take a moment to talk about the emerging Wellington music scene. How has it helped you grow as an artist?
I have a friend who was talking the other day about how you couldn’t walk down the street in Wellington without meeting someone involved with the music or who played in a band or played an instrument. Wellington is really good for that – finding people to work with, meeting people who inspire you, talking to people to share ideas.
Who are some Wellington-based artists that people should get to know?
There this guy named Race Banyon, who is this incredible producer. He’s also involved in another project called Lontalius. UNMAP, another fantastic producer.
Are there plans for a new album?
Yes, we’re currently writing new music. We have a few solid tracks done, and we’ve also performed some new songs but we have yet to record them. We hope to have our second release out soon.
Time for some random questions. First, what would be the title of your autobiography?
The Art of Looking Busy because I spend a lot of time looking busier than I am. I use to work in retail, and you have to look like you’re busy. I would often think if I had to write a book it would be called that, The Art of Looking Busy.
Do you have any bad habits?
When I’m nervous, I pick at my nails and fiddle with my hands a lot.
Do you do that when you’re looking busy?
(Laughs) That and staring out into space.
When you pass away, what music would you like to be played at your wake or funeral?
You know, I’ve never thought about that. I think it would be quite ironic to not have any music played at my funeral. I’ve done music all my life and I’m known as a musician, but to have no music would be poetic. Just silence at my funeral.
That’s kind of creepy. Speaking of which, do you have any guilty pleasures?
I can’t think of anything I would consider to be a guilty pleasure. I can’t think of anything that I feel guilty for liking it.
Excellent answer. Finally, what superpower would like to have?
To be able to breathe underwater, like a mermaid. I love swimming and I love the water. That’s my final answer – I would want to be a mermaid.
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