Brooke Fraser
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Brooke Fraser

| INDIE

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Held every year on verdant polo grounds in Indio, California, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival is many things to many people: A way to hear the best alternative music, a giant lawn party of hipsters wearing hemp sunhats, or the one place you can gawk at famous people as they ride around on golf carts. For Brooke Fraser, Coachella 2009 was the event that re-awakened her desire to make music. It was April and the New Zealand-born singer and songwriter was burnt out after completing a three-year tour supporting her second album, 2006’s Albertine, debuted at No. 1 in New Zealand where it reached five times platinum, and remained in the Top 20 for nearly a year. “I think I was on the edge of some kind of mental break,” Fraser says. “I was so exhausted, I could barely get out of bed, let alone think about writing songs for a third album.”

As the sun went down over Indio on the Saturday night of the festival, Fraser found herself watching one of her favorite bands, Fleet Foxes. “Robin Pecknold began to sing and the purity of his voice seemed to melt away every memory of trauma and disillusionment,” she recalls. “Then the other voices joined his and it all felt so human and honest. I and everyone around me was enthralled. We were all being spoken to, and we were all listening. It was a moment where I remembered the power of music as a language, a connector. I remembered that I’ve been given the gift of speaking a particular dialect of this language and realized I didn’t have the option of being resigned to silence and I didn’t want it.”

The experience inspired the song “Coachella” — one of several emotionally resonant and uplifting tunes on Fraser’s new album Flags, a dreamy, alternative-pop collection that showcases her agile soprano, lilting melodies, and knack for telling her stories through the lives of vibrant characters on songs like “Betty,” “Crows and Locusts,” “Jack Kerouac,” and “Ice on Her Lashes.” “I’ve never used as many characters or as much narrative in my songwriting as I have on this record,” Fraser says. “On my previous albums [2003’s What To Do With Daylight and Albertine], I was singing completely as myself, which is why I think I got so burnt out from touring. Albertine was inspired by incredibly significant events and people and every time I’d sing I’d go back to that moment where my heart was ripped open. So singing such heavy songs nearly every night for three years took a toll. On Flags, it’s still me speaking, but it’s me speaking through the voices of different characters and their stories. It’s more survivable.”

“Betty” (co-written with Switchfoot’s Jon Foreman and Ben West of Detroit indie duo The Real Efforts of Real People) is about a cool, unapproachable girl who hides her Canadian-shaped birthmark — a thinly veiled metaphor for all the other things she is afraid to show people. “Crows and Locusts” is a Steinbeckian story of a farming family helplessly witnessing the decimation of their crops through various forms of pestilence, told through the eyes of the young daughter. “Ice On Her Lashes” is about the cycle of grief. “There’s that moment when you get a phone call and find out that something life-shattering has happened and you look around and wonder how other people are still going about their daily lives, sitting in traffic or buying milk, when yours has just been changed forever,” Fraser says. “The song is about how most of us will at some point be somewhere in that cycle. Life goes on and the pain doesn’t go away, but it becomes livable.” Other album highlights include the first single, a high-energy, summery romp called “Something in the Water,” the rollicking pub song “Orphans, Kingdoms,” title track “Flags,” a meditation on injustice, and “Who Are We Fooling?” — a duet with Aqualung’s Matt Hales, co-written by the two.

Fraser wrote the songs in bursts, making writing trips to the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina and Northern California’s Bodega Bay before she and her husband decamped from their home in Sydney, Australia, to Los Angeles in February 2010. Once in L.A., Fraser invited a group of local musicians, including guitarists Michael Chaves and David Levita (who played on Albertine), to join her in the studio where they set Fraser’s powerful stories to exquisitely textured backdrops of acoustic and electric guitars, bass, drums, piano, strings, horns, and body percussion — creating an earthy, organic feel to the proceedings. The album was engineered and mixed by Joe Zook and produced by Fraser herself.

“Perhaps it was a bit of the feminist in me, but I’ve always written and played my own songs and had my very particular say in the way they sound,” Fraser says, “and it just began to get to me the way people would ask, ‘Who’s going to make your next record.’ Just this idea of ‘What man is going to help you to be a musician?’ I’m a good musician and I know what I want. People hire a producer because they like the sound that particular p