Reb Fountain's New Album 'Iris' Is A Vibe

Her new album pushes its extremes close to the edge but the award-winning singer-songwriter isn’t about to topple over into the dark. And she won’t let you fall either

Singer-songwriter Reb Fountain. Photo / Marissa Findlay

*Warning: descriptions of depression, mental health and suicidal thoughts.

“I’m in bloody lockdown,” Reb Fountain says, laughing off my apology for letting our chat drift towards the one hour mark. “I’ve got all the time in the world.”

It’s nice of her to say, even though I know that’s not entirely true because we’ve just spent a considerable amount of time talking on the phone about everything she’s got going on while also trying to plan for when/if life reopens again. Under level four normal life screeches to a halt; its demands, however, rumble on.

“Lockdown feels hard and challenging this time,” she sighs. “It feels heavy and quite hopeless, in a way. For me, this resonates at a low level — sometimes medium level — of anxiety. This constant feeling of slight panic. There’s such a level of unsteadiness and uncertainty. It’s a complete mindf**k really.”

It’s a helluva time to release an album. Yet in a couple of weeks Reb will release Iris, the follow-up to last year’s breakthrough self-titled record. Loved by audiences and critics, the album was nominated for five NZ Music Awards, saw her win the Taite Music Prize, and be shortlisted for the Apra Silver Scroll Award.

This would normally be an exciting and busy period, instead it’s deflated into an awful sense of deja vu.

“It’s so weird. I released that record last year on May 1st, amid lockdown,” she says. “It was a surreal feeling. I had no idea if anyone was out there or listening or connecting. You’re isolated and alone and it feels like such a strange thing to do, to release your work. That’s how I felt last year. This year it’s like, “Oh my God. I’m doing it again ... ”

She jokes that perhaps her album releases are jinxing us but then quietly says, “I’m just resigned to whatever will be, will be. We’ve all learnt, particularly in the creative sector, that we have to be ready to adapt. It’s painful, it’s hard, but you have to move on quickly. What I thought was gonna happen, none of that’s happening so I’ve gotta change tack. Lockdown or no lockdown, my album’s coming out.”

Photo / Marissa Findlay

Even for an artist like Reb who revels in mood and tone, Iris is a vibe. There’s moments of great beauty that emerge suddenly out of dark passages to bask in the light. But it’s also quick to scuttle back into the shadows lest you get too comfy in the warmth. From the moment you press play it envelops you. Given the circumstances of its birth, its moods, its highs and lows, become more understandable.

“During the last lockdown I made this decision to write a song a day. It was a mental health practice to keep me focused and to find ways of feeling productive and not feeling so stuck,” she explains. “That’s what Iris was born out of. I didn’t plan to do anything with the songs.”

She didn’t know if they were any good, she didn’t know what a lot of them even meant. But she thought exploring them could be good for the mental health of her band, her team and herself by giving them focus after all the uncertainty.

“The extremes on this record are pushed to the edges further than on the last record,” she continues. “When I listen to Iris I’m still learning about how I felt writing it and what the songs are about. It’s quite deep and intense for me. I’m still unpacking it.”

As she sat in lockdown, writing a song each day, the news cycle was broadcasting back the chaos from America, her home country; George Floyd’s murder by the police, the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the global awakening to its woeful inequality, ruling patriarchy and the true extent of its systemic racism.

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“All of that was going on, so they’re in the record. But how do you say that without getting really f**king heavy? Because it’s so heavy. But there are ways you can create mood in song and art that help people process and think about things a little differently.”

Then she pauses and says, “I hope so anyway.”

Because that, really, is all Reb wants from her music. To connect with people and gently nudge them towards a personal realisation or greater awareness. Because that’s what her music did for her.

“I’ve always been really nervous performing. When I was younger I’d have a bottle of some horrendous cheap bourbon next to me and smoke cigarettes the whole time. I was really scared. Not so much of the audience or that fear of rejection, but scared of myself. Scared to step into my own light and be the fullest me that I could be. That’s frightening. It’s incredibly hard work. But that’s what creative artists do. They say, ‘I’m going to do the daily work to be my fullest self and through that I can reflect something about humanity or something that others can relate to’. It reminds people that they can do that themselves.

“When I go on stage I still get nervous but I make the choice each night to commit to myself. We can all do that. We’re worth fighting for. We’re worth listening to. It seems like a simple mission but it’s definitely an impetus for me.”

Photo / Marissa Findlay

When asked how she conquered those fears and gathered the strength to leave the bottle backstage, she wearily replies, “It’s a really long journey. Unravelling trauma is a lifetime of work.”

“We’re all just trying to make sense of who we are in the world. It’s a hard road. Not just a hard road back, it’s hard to stay alive. The traumas that I experienced, the things that were challenging for me, meant that I didn’t feel that there was a place for me to exist, really. I was so dissociated and fearful and alone.

“That energy resonates in your body and makes you sick and makes you choose to hurt yourself in different ways because you don’t love yourself. I witnessed in myself what it takes to try and do something different. For some reason I found music and thought that it could be my guide. There’s some process in it that helped remind me that there was a way out.

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“I’ve been to rehab, been on different health kicks, had shit loads of therapy. All the things, right? But really, it’s the daily practice of trying to be free. You wake up and go, ‘right, I want to be alive today’. And that’s not easy.

“The wonderful thing is when you start to do that for yourself, you start to see how hard it is for others. Even those who have harmed you. You grow out of your demons. For me, music, and my children, were what helped me get out of the insecurity and self-doubt and move beyond that. The things you do to yourself really impact other people and I want to impact people positively.”

She explains that there’s no shortcut — “though we certainly do our best to try and find them” — but asserts that those small, incremental changes will add up. Being kinder to yourself will change your trajectory for the better.

“There’s not an easy answer. It’s a slow road. But it’s worth it,” she smiles. Then with genuine warmth in her voice Reb Fountain says, “You’re the greatest artwork that you’ll ever have.”

Reb Fountain’s new album, 'Iris', releases on Friday, October 1.

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