Interview with Breakfast at Phoebe’s


Mikael contacted Cat On The Wall a few weeks ago and introduced his French/Finnish ensemble ‘Breakfast At Phoebe’s’. Intrigued we headed over to their myspace page and listened to the cool jazz tinted melodies and fantastic musicianship of the band members. Cat On The Wall’s Jo Whitby caught up with Mikael and asked him how ‘Breakfast At Phoebe’s’ came about. Mikael also gives us a track by track rundown of their latest release ‘Birds Are Singing With Me’…

Cat On The Wall: Breakfast at Phoebe’s has members in Paris and Finland but it seems the distance hasn’t stopped the band from making music together. Can you tell us about how the band initially formed? How did you meet singer Tua Sofia? Then onto Paris… how did you come across Aurélien Vacher?

Mikael Kuosmanen: Well actually the name of the group became to my mind many years ago after my previous band split out. First it was a name for a short project, and then I kept the name for my upcoming group. I was looking for a new singer with who to start to work with. Then I met Tua in the fall 2007 in the same music school. I really liked her voice and she liked my songs so little by little we started to work on the songs. We did a first demo in the summer 2008 with 8 musicians in the band. The first gig was in fall 2008 in Helsinki but then I moved to Paris, which meant really big changes. Musicians had to be changed, and I had to think how this could work when I’m there and Tua in Finland.

First six months in Paris we were 6 musicians in the group. I met Aurélien when I was looking for a cellist. A guitarist who I played with introduced him to me. For me the cello is really important because I simply adore that instrument. Then after last summer I had to think the group form again, we were simply too big to work between two countries without any budget. So since last fall we’ve been working mainly just three of us. Nowadays every time when it’s possible we play with our Finnish drummer Jooel.

COTW: On the EP ‘Birds Are Singing With Me’ there are also other musicians present. Do you write the music in notation form? What’s the creative process when creating songs as a band?

MK: Well this depends on the songs. I almost never notate the whole song, just some instrument parts if necessary.
Usually if I have to write down something it’s for the cello or blow instruments. Depends if there’s some impro things or specific melodies.

In the Studio there were also Jooel, who don’t need any notes. After couple listen of a new song he quite gets it. With Nicolas and Aurélien we had worked in Paris and I wrote some main lines that were important. It really depends on the player and the song and the combo if the musicians need notes or not. When there used to be 6 or 8 musicians i had to write down more. But now as a quite small group we prefer working without too much notes, you learn the songs also more quickly without having the paper all the time in front of you and that gives you different kind of ideas and more freedom.

Then about the creative process. First I have my personal writing and composing process which can last from 1 day to many years. If I have a problem with a song when composing or arranging it, I try not to play it too much on my piano, I try to listen to it in my head and hear where it wants to go. Kind of meditate with the song in my head; staying calm and not trying anything too much, often the best solutions comes without forcing. I use also a lot of a small recorder to remember the ideas and to try different layers and ways of arranging.

Then I show new ideas to the others. I work at the beginning separately with the singer and with Aurélien. Normally I do a demo for the singer where I show new idea and then we work together on it and change some ideas. When we have a rehearsal we might fix the text or just play the new thing through quite freely and try to get to know with it and if there’s some problem we try to concentrate on that.

For the cello I write some main lines but it’s just a starting point. We practice a lot with just Aurélien and me, so it’s easy to improvise and try different ideas. We try different sounds and specific effects that we could do with a cello.
For the piano I sometimes compose specific lines what I play, but I rarely write them down.

Then at some point we put the elements together when we’re all in the same place.. Whenever we play with Jooel, if we have a song ready it’s quite easy to just add the drums on the stuff.
Often before a concert period we have time to only one practice all together. So we don’t have really active band practices, we have to work in a bit weird and slow way as a band.

COTW: Could you explain the ideas behind the tracks on ‘Birds Are Singing With Me’? What are the songs about? Where were they recorded? (Please share anything of note that happened during the recording or perhaps your own feelings about the songs… this question is completely optional but I always feel it’s nice for the readers to get inside the musicians heads sometimes!)

MK: Okay, I can try.

Birds Are Singing With Me: It’s a song I made in Paris last spring. This song is kind of multilayered. Basically it’s a song about having a strong crush or being in love, but feeling unsecure about what’s gonna happen, it’s kind of a one-way crush, not sure about the other’s feelings. It’s about being a bit sad, but feeling really alive at the same time. And it’s also about being somehow connected all the time to this world and earth, whatever we feel and whatever happens. You have to keep walking and breathing, whatever the situation is and whatever might come. The main melody of this song came to my head when I was waiting a metro.

Taxi Driver: It’s about different kind of lonely people in a big city. I made this in Paris when didn’t have yet that much good friend who knew me well. So it’s about being socially active but lonely, which I think many people can relate to. Musically this song was inspired by African music, I was in a record store in Paris and listened some African music and got an inspired by it. But the rhythm that is on the base of this song has been in my head for several years, now I used it.

Rain of Ash: It’s about a fire I saw. It’s simply just a real-story of one night. I woke up at five to a huge bang, looked out and saw something flying down, thought it was snow but it was ash, I realized that something is burning, then I jumped out of bed, hurt my ankle and ran to the window. I saw an apartment completely on fire; it was on the other side of the yard few floors higher. I panicked and didn’t know what to do, if I should leave the building and if someone had already called the firemen or not etc. I also heard some screams. But soon the police and firemen rang the doorbell to open the front door.
This was a melody that I had already written and then I did this text about the fire and I thought they were a good match. I wanted to keep the song really simple and just let space for the melody and harmony.

Festival smile: This is quite a different kind of song I made some years ago. I made this after one festival summer and it’s about the festival spirit and having a festival crush. Feeling young, free and alive and desiring someone there in the mud!

The session was recorded in Porvoo in Finland. It’s a studio built in an old wooden house, we didn’t have much time, we had the studio for 48 hours. In the studio there were lot of vintage instruments so I played mainly with Rhodes because there wasn’t a really proper piano. That changes also bit the sound atmosphere from how we normally sound when I play mainly with piano sound. We had this session while a concert period in Finland and in a situation where all the plans kind of changed within a short notice.
And we didn’t really sleep much during those 2 days (or actually during those two weeks when I hosted a lot of French and other people because of our concert period in Finland, lot of parties, rehearsals and stuff to organise). So it was quite exhausting because we had only two days and a goal to record an EP. But I also enjoyed a lot recording during the night in a tired mood; it was a perfect mood and atmosphere for the songs like Rain of ash.

COTW: I noticed on some of the live videos on your MySpace page that the performance was presented in a similar way to a classical recital yet the music on the EP is not necessarily just classical. Why did you decide not to focus on a particular genre? Do you feel it’s important to retain some freedom in how your music can be performed/listened to?

MK: I’ve never really been keen on categorising anything. I want to stay open on different influences and I want the music be quite natural, not forced to fit in some box. If it fits then it fits, if not then it doesn’t. For me genres are more a thing that I think when I hear the music, not that much when I create it. But thinking a specific style when composing can be really inspiring but it shouldn’t prevent your mind to be free on any direction, forcing is not good. I also love the fact that how for example in our concerts our music varies quite a lot. Already if we play with or without drums, it’s totally different kind of thing. The clips on YouTube are actually in kind of classical situation, from Aurélien’s conservatory where we played this spring. And of course that’s really different venue compared to a concert in a dirty rock bar for example. And yes for me it’s important to have this freedom of not thinking too much how we should be performing or listened to. I know that commercially it might be bit complicated if it’s hard to put the group in a one box, but yeah, should we care…

COTW: Can we expect a European tour? Do you enjoy performing live? How has the distance between members affected rehearsals, if at all?

MK: European tour, yes at some point, but first we would need some sure financial support to do it! Personally performing live is one of the best things of being a musician and a songwriter. It can be really rewarding and enjoyable.
It’s clear that the distance affects to rehearsals because we can’t have regular rehearsals. And every time when we are together, there’s travelling costs. Because of the distance Breakfast at Phoebe’s has changed a lot from the starting point. At the same time the distance is good and bad. We don’t practice too much, but not enough either.
We normally do concerts in periods, when we’re in same country, for example 5 concerts in one week. Sometimes we have time for only one rehearsal all together before the concerts. But maybe 1 good rehearsal is better than 10 bad rehearsals! 😉

COTW: What or who influences you musically?

MK: For me inspiration and influences is bit of the same thing. Anything can be inspiring, maybe even hearing a song that I hate can start a creative process inside of me. We’re all the time influenced by the things that happens around us, good or bad. It’s the same thing when doing music, of course it depends the character of the project.

But if we talk about similarities that you could hear clearly in the songs I’ve written and some other music, they are probably randomly from different things that I like to listen to, they’re quite rarely that conscious and chosen musical influences, sometimes yes but rarely. Personally the music I like can be any style, except that I rarely enjoy heavy metal. But whatever I enjoy, it just have to have something special and interesting that touches some part of me, whether it’s a classical masterpiece or well produced dance floor hit or a and old jazz piece or an another new indie artist or just someone singing in a street just for himself, or just some simple rhythmic sound of a train for example. They can all have the same magic that makes me enjoy it.

Normally music that inspires me the most gives me a feeling that it has caught something essential about life, about us. It has caught something essential about me and it kind of throws it back to me so that I can see it. And it’s beautiful and exciting.

I find old traditional world music somehow very interesting, beautiful and inspiring. That kind of music traditions that have very old roots are often very down to earth and connected to the everyday life of the culture where they come from. There’s something very natural, pure, wild, and essential in that.
Trying a new instrument that I don’t really know how to play can be often very inspiring, because it gives this experience about discovering something new, and even a smallest things you manage to do with it can feel really big and actually then you realise that even a one note or any sound can have all what you need to create something beautiful.

COTW: There is word that an album is in the works! Can you tell us anything about this?

MK: Well the next recording project is for sure a debut album, we have a lot of unrecorded material and new songs are all the time being born. We might start to record something in fall. But we’re looking for solutions to finance the album, so DONATIONS ARE MORE THAN WELCOME!

COTW: Finally, what are your plans for the near future?

MK: In July we’re gonna be in Paris, working on new material. And we try to find a way to finance the album and possible French tour. So basically right now the plan is to spread the word, find money, and work on new songs, plan the next concert periods and to do a music video.
Me I also have also couple new projects under construction in Paris on which I’m starting to work on July. Tua has just released her first solo album that is jazzy folk in Finnish, so she has also quite an exciting and busy time because of that.

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