In Conversation: Braids and NZCA Lines

Raphaelle Standell-Preston and Michael Lovett talk Prince, Drake, and not caring what people think anymore.

Raphaelle Standell-Preston is the Montreal-based artist who performs in the bands Braids and Blue Hawaii; Michael Lovett performs as NZCA Lines, and plays in the English electronic group Metronomy. To celebrate the releases of Braids’ Shadow Offering and NZCA Lines’ Pure Luxury last year, the two hopped on Zoom to catch up.
— Annie Fell, Talkhouse Senior Editor

Raphaelle Standell-Preston: Hello? Hello!

Michael Lovett: Hello… Let me see if I can start my video.

Raphaelle: Oh, hi!

Michael: How you doing? 

Raphaelle: Good, how are you?

Michael: Doin’ pretty good, I’m just waking up. Sort of slowly — oh, look, at some point I turned on the smooth skin setting!

Raphaelle: It looks great! [Laughs.]

Michael: I’m looking really good, actually I’m a lot puffier than this. [Laughs.] Let me see if I can turn this off… I was messing around with it when we were having a band Zoom meeting.

Raphaelle: What?

Michael: It’s on video settings — it’s on “Touch Up My Appearance,” and you can click it.

Raphaelle: Shut up. On preferences?

Michael: [Laughs.] Yeah, if you go to the little video icon there’s an arrow where you can add the virtual background. 

Raphaelle: That is so crazy. I guess, you know, sometimes you dont wanna have to like, wash your face or something. Here let’s both put it on, let’s both just feel great about ourselves. [Laughs.]

Michael: I feel fantastic. I was about to say how me and my wife have been getting allergies recently, I think our apartment is really dusty, so we’ve been waking up like, “Eugh,” but this just solves the issue completely. 

Raphaelle: It really solves the issue, exactly! We’re all just living in a dream… So did you have some questions for me? I have some questions for you! 

Michael: Yeah. I wanted to ask you — I was enjoying listening to Braids and to Blue Hawaii, as well, which I kinda didn’t realize you were a part of. So when I was listening to the most recent EP that you released—

Raphaelle: Oh, Under 1 House

Michael: Yeah, I believe so. I really like the artwork.

Raphaelle: Like, I’m half-naked on the cover? 

Michael: Hey! Not just for that reason! [Laughs.]

Raphaelle: No, no, no! I’m just asking. [Laughs.] Cause that’s the one, right?

Michael: Uh, that’s the one. But you’ve made it look like the foldout from a tape almost, so you’ve got the picture going around the spine. 

Raphaelle: Well, we made a tape because we were just kinda nervous releasing it in the pandemic, and so we were like “Ah, I don’t know if we should put a bunch of money into pressing vinyl.” Cause everything’s just so digital and online anyways, so if people want something they can have tapes. Because a lot of people who buy vinyl don’t even have vinyl players, it’s just for the artwork. 

Michael: Yeah, it’s just an article or collection thing, yeah. I have a vinyl player but barely play it. But, yeah, the album and the sound of it — I was enjoying the sort of Chicago house, or kind of ‘90s house influences. And your voice sounds very different from the Braids stuff.

Raphaelle: It’s very different, yeah.

Michael: It’s really interesting to hear those two sides from you, from the same person. It’s that sort of big emotions, extrovert, soul inspired thing here. 

Raphaelle: Yeah, it’s kind of like diva vocals in a way. I spent a lot of time listening to so many vocalists and just, like, learning to belt. It’s some of my favorite types of singing to do, vocals on house records. I find it so fun, and it’s so enjoyable to sing. It’s always been my angle with Blue Hawaii, making it as enjoyable as possible. Whereas Braids is more, What’s in my soul? Or my, like, dark heart, or the psyche I’m not dealing with, and having that come out on record. So it’s a lot less conscious with Braids, whereas with Blue Hawaii it’s like, Oh, I like that singer, I wanna learn how to belt like that

Michael: That’s really interesting. I’ve always had that conscious decision myself — am I trying to sing stuff that’s really confessional and emotional and feel like I’m pouring my heart out? And often I don’t really like that side of my musical output. Or I find it uncomfortable, for good reason, because it’s more direct. But also, I really enjoy listening to stuff and taking on a voice and trying to learn from others as well. 

Raphaelle: It’s really inspiring. I think it also helps you to get outside of yourself too, which is really important. It just offers you different avenues to go down. Sometimes when you’re just pulling from yourself as the only inspiration, I find the well can kinda run dry. When you’re referencing something else and making it your own—

Michael: Yeah, and it leads you back into your own thing anyway.

Raphaelle: Exactly, cause you’re the one doing it. Cause no one’s gonna be able to sound like Whitney Houston, except for Whitney Houston. But I can absolutely enjoy singing “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” and pretend that I can hit some of those notes, and bring it into my own repertoire. 

Michael: Yeah totally — I went down a kind of Prince route, which, I have no chance of ever singing like Prince in any way, and I never even thought of myself as being able to sing really high, but I’ve gradually inched closer to doing falsetto stuff. Listening to his way of singing is really fun and liberating to try and do things in that way. But even for him, I think the main thing is playfulness. Even if you get away from the technical skill and stuff, everything is so playful and fun with all the little vocal inflections and stuff. 

Raphaelle: Oh, yeah, it’s so fun. I was listening to Prince the other day — my boyfriend is a big, big Prince fan, and I grew up listening to Prince as much as my stepmom played Prince. I was really slow at coming into, like, looking into music for myself, whereas Taylor [Smith] from Braids, for instance, was the kid in high school who always had headphones on who didn’t really talk to anybody. But I always took to music my stepmom was playing — she has really good taste in music. She always played this Prince record, I’m not sure which one, but I remember “When Doves Cry.” Such a good song.

Michael: That’s from Purple Rain, I think. Yeah, that’s such a great song. There’s no bass in that song either. 

Raphaelle: Oh, really? 

Michael: Yeah there’s no bassline, I’m pretty sure! I guess the kick is the bass. It’s got that great Linndrum pattern. But, yeah, really interesting instrumentation. We actually watched Purple Rain on Saturday, me and my wife, which she hadn’t seen before. I got really emotional as well, just cause the music’s so good in some bits of it. It’s just bloody good and the songs are so great and the performances are so great. 

Raphaelle: Prince is also such an important cultural icon. His ability and willingness to bring forward femininity in men is just so important and so beautiful too. He just does it so honestly. I just love everything about Prince. And he can also do the Russian splits! Have you seen it? Does he do it in Purple Rain

Michael: He does! He does some amazing turns.

Raphaelle: Yeah, he’s a guitar player, he’s a crazy singer, he can play the keys, he can do the splits, play the drums. 

Michael Lovett: He’s an amazing producer, and yeah he can do the splits! He’s an amazing dancer, he’s got James Brown dance moves. Oh, I’m going deep now, but have you seen — There’s this great YouTube video of Prince, James Brown, and one more person…

Raphaelle: Is it Michael? 

Michael: Michael Jackson!

Raphaelle: I’ve seen that, its insane, it’s like too much. [Laughs.] 

Michael: Prince gets up and he doesn’t do much musically, he plays a bit of guitar and goes “ooh,” and he does some weird stuff vocally, but then he does some amazing dance moves. He does the thing with the mic where you let the mic drop and kick it back up. 

Raphaelle: I miss live shows. [Laughs.] So something I’ve been thinking about lately is people pivoting in the pandemic — I’m wondering if you feel like you’ve reinvented yourself, or have had to reinvent yourself during the pandemic?

Michael: Like as a person, or as an artist? 

Raphaelle: Like as a number of different things. It could be the business side, it could be personal, it could be artistically… Or do you feel like you’re cruisin’?

Michael: Cruisin’… I wouldn’t say I’m cruisin’. It’s been tricky for me. On the one hand, I’ve been super lucky because I haven’t had to yet get a job in the iron foundry, because I’ve just been managing to scrape by. But it’s been difficult because I released an album in July, which I put a lot of work into and was super excited about. I felt like I pivoted in that I put a lot more attention on my image for my music, and was more comfortable with putting myself front and center for promotion, and taking care of having nice photographs done, and trying to have fun with it, and feeling OK with doing that. 

Raphaelle: Ah, yes 

Michael: I often feel a bit shameful about promoting myself, like I shouldn’t be pushing myself in front of people, or people are gonna make fun of me because there’s a photograph where it looks too much like I love myself, or something. All this kinda stuff. 

Raphaelle: Mmm, yes.

Michael: But I feel like I got through that discomfort for this record, and did what I wanted to do. But then the process of the pandemic happening, and releasing something during that time, and not being able to make the video ideas I wanted, or play any gigs… Who knows what could or would have happened in any respect. I’d like to imagine if I was able to promote it in a more conventional way maybe I would have reached more people with the record. Maybe not. But that’s what’s going through my mind. 

There’s a little bit of that enthusiasm which I was drawing from in making the record, being in this fantasy world — when you’re making music, and you’re excited about it, and that music is just for you, and there’s the potential that is only limited by your imagination. But then once you release it, obviously it’s a different thing, and it’s out there, and you kind of have to move on, and make the best of it. So I feel like I am in a bit of a transitional phase of making some music now that is slightly more… I guess heartfelt. In making the last record I was making it while in a slight persona. And you’re talking about personas — it sounds like Blue Hawaii is like, Let me try and bring this thing and make it a persona

Raphaelle: For sure it’s a persona. 

Michael: I love that, and that’s what I was doing with the last record. The idea of this persona with this sort of sleezy… Some of the lyrics were quite sarcastic, and sort of overblown. Everything was overblown, but now that has allowed me to feel OK with making something more minimal, and [that] I am channeling my emotions more into. 

My form of pivoting, to answer your question, has been leading myself back into making music that is more heartfelt and being OK with that. Being more simple.I felt like I had to prove to myself in making a heavily produced, instrumentally dense record. And now I am like, Well, OK, I can do that, and I definitely don’t feel like doing that again. I am now moving forward with a more intimate way of making music, I guess. How about you? 

Raphaelle: Well, first, just to speak to your point: I wonder if the lack of having to perform or of having to be really public in any way — other than in how you decide to put yourself out there — I wonder if not having that pressure is allowing yourself to make something that is more honest. 

Michael: Maybe, yeah. I definitely haven’t played those songs live, in a way. The thing that is disappointing for me is that I was really looking forward to the live performance, and also conversely, I have probably played the songs a lot more than I would have done otherwise, because I was doing so many online sessions. In doing that, I was having to learn to play the songs in such stripped back ways. Especially at the beginning, in April and May, I was just playing the songs on a keyboard, and I’ve never been fully confident in just doing that, in just playing them simply. They’re always really layered. I found I could do it, and enjoyed doing it. You have this real time response of playing to people on Instagram, or whatever, and I think doing that really contributed to playing it more simply. It’s going to be better if it’s just one voice and a keyboard. 

Raphaelle: I think if you can do that you should do it! I’ve actually wanted to make an acoustic record for the longest time. And I’m going to — I was talking to one of my managers who manages Blue Hawaii, Sebastian, about doing a folk record, kinda like adult contemporary. I feel like that genre gets pissed on way too much. It’s a great genre — Sarah McLachlan is a part of that genre. I don’t know how to do it yet, but if you can make a song with a keyboard and your voice, that’s wonderful. That’s a good song. There’s so much capacity now to hang all these bells and whistles on it and dress it up, and you very quickly can lose the integrity of the song and not know if it’s a song to begin with. I’m all for a return to song. But I’m not doing it at all with any of my other projects — well, I kinda am. 

That’s something that’s been really interesting artistically about the pandemic, because with the Braids record, in the same way that you did, we tried to make a record that was really blown out, where we checked off all the stops. Like, “OK, are the guitars sounding super crazy good, how is the songwriting, does this sound absolutely massive, would this sound really good at the club?” Actually what we would say is, “Could you play this song in a stadium?” Even though Braids is, like, never ever going to be a stadium band. [Laughs.]

Michael: That’s a good thing to think about. 

Raphaelle: And yeah, we pulled out all the stops, we worked with Chris Walla, the former producer and writer for Death Cab For Cutie. He became a really good friend. We had a mix engineer — we had never involved anybody else really. Then the record came out and it didn’t do anything. We had all this hope to grow the band, where we showcase our skilled songwriting or whatever, and nothing changed. [Laughs.] It was this weird let down in a way, where we had worked on something for four years, and we just really felt this was going to be our statement. And it didn’t really grow the band, and that’s OK! Our fans who listened to the record really loved it, but it didn’t increase our audience. Ultimately, our goal for the growth of Braids is just so we can play better shows, so we can play better venues. It’s never been so much about money or popularity, it’s just so we can have a nicer stage to play on, because we feel like our music lends itself so well to, like, not a 150-cap venue. 

Michael: Right, the two go hand-in-hand though. That’s the thing, naturally. But that’s a good thing to strive for, because that’s a concrete thing. 

Raphaelle: Yeah, I strive for power now. [Laughs.] 

Michael: Influence! I want influence!

Raphaelle: [Laughs.] But, yeah, I don’t. It was this interesting place that we found ourselves in — like, “Wow, we tried really hard.” And, like, life just has a way of deciding for you what it is that’s going to happen. And so I think my whole approach, or my pivot in the pandemic is just, I dont give a fuck about writing anything that people would call a song, or [would] concretely get. I don’t care if you can sing the chorus! I am not writing another “Young Buck”! It reminds me of our ethos when we were 17. Where we just didn’t care, we just didn’t know to care. 

So we’ve just been writing these 11-minute songs that are super interesting and meandering, and do still have chords and movement and stuff like that, but it’s not like a song, necessarily. It’s just an experiment. With both bands, it’s just an experiment. And having so much fun while doing it. 

Michael: That’s so good. I actually did a bit of that on this last record, where I was — actually, speaking of being 17 — trying to get back to this frame of mind I was in at that age, which was making very ambitious, complicated things, because that was just the direction I wanted to go in. So as some of these songs made it onto my last record where there’s either tons of different sections, or it’s much longer than anyone ever would think it should be. Or really complicated time signatures — not just for the sake of it, but because that was the thing which was exciting me, and it went in that direction. But then I keep pulling myself back and being like, Now I need to make a song that is gonna be played on the radio

Raphaelle: Three-and-a-half minutes long. [Laughs.]

Michael: And the thing is — it’s really good you say this, it’s nice to hear another musician talk about this. Your album does sound really great, I mean the songs are great, but also the production does sound amazing. Everything sounds really crisp and warm, as does the earlier stuff. Like a song like “Miniskirt” is really great. I don’t know how you recorded that, but that also sounds really good.

Raphaelle: Thank you.

Michael: But, yeah, the song of mine on this record that did best on the radio in England, which seems to be the main place where I can get stuff played — BBC Radio 6 Music is great — was the single “Pure Luxury,” which got playlisted for, like, five, weeks.

Raphaelle: That’s a really long time for playlisting!

Michael: It is a long time, they really pummeled it. Which is great! But that was a song that I was really into, I made it using a lot of different samplers. It was really inspired by ‘90s Beck stuff, and just really exploring, having fun with it. It was originally five minutes and I got it down to three-and-a-half. But I was never thinking like, Now I’m making a radio single! But then of course, the track where I was like, Now I’m making a radio single! — like, it got playlisted but it was on the B-lists and it was only on there for, like, two weeks. So that just shows me — and it’s really hard to remember this — to do the thing which is exciting to you and people will respond to it. Don’t try and second guess it. 

Raphaelle: Yeah! Absolutely. There’s no formula. Well, there is a formula, and it sucks. I am really wondering where Rihanna is, and Beyonce, because their formula is great, [but] I’ve been turning on the radio lately, and there is nothing on that’s good. But it’s following the formula. I turn on the radio a lot, I call it my research — I am like, What’s going on with the pop? Everyone is trying to sound like Billie Eilish, but they’re bad at it. They’re doing all this dark shit. That’s bad. 

Michael: Yeah, Billie Eilish herself is great! She’s amazing. Fantastic. It’s amazing how people can pick up on this thing that is totally left of center, because she was basically whispering in the songs. The arrangement of the songs are really weird and don’t make any sense in terms of a pop song. But then people pick up on one element of it and take out all the good stuff. Which is basically all the innovation, and all the unusual songwriting. 

Raphaelle: [Laughs.] They’re all just, like, whispering and then there’s a bass drop. Or there’s a lot of Maroon 5 knock offs. Maroon 5 is bad enough to begin with. I’m like, Where’s Beyonce? Where’s Rihanna? Why aren’t you playing the new Ariana Grande record more? Like, where’s Drake!? 

Michael: Well, where’s Drake as in, where is the real Drake? Cause he’s slightly repeating  himself now. 

Raphaelle: I know, but I love it! 

Michael: Drake’s here. 

Raphaelle: I am into that Drake factory. Just sign me right up. Get me another “God’s Plan.” 

Michael: “God’s Plan” is great. He kind of did another “God’s Plan” — “Laugh Now Cry Later.”

Raphaelle: Oh, I love that song!

Michael: It is really good. I am enjoying it a lot more. And the video is really nice.

Raphaelle: Oh, yeah, that’s a music video that I actually like to watch. Like, I was also thinking about this in the pandemic — I don’t know if I ever wanna make another music video again. 

Michael: I mean, for me, it’s just cause it’s such a ball-ache to make them. And then I never have enough money to make them.

Raphaelle: OK, this is my grand idea: This is what I think is going to be the ticket for me out of music videos, which are so expensive. Intricate photos that slowly… zoom in… [Laughs.]

Michael: [Laughs] So it’s kinda like a fractal. 

Raphaelle: Yeah, like a fractal! Cause I really like watching those, anytime, even if I dont smoke a little weed. I actually get kinda scared of that kind of stuff if I’m high or something. But I just like watching it at all times, so I think that’s my ticket. I actually haven’t told my band yet, this absolutely brilliant idea. [Laughs.]

Michael: Well, I’d be interested to hear any new music you’re talking about, any demos — it all sounds really interesting. 

Raphaelle: For sure, yeah. It’s really weird, it’s cool. I’ll definitely send you some stuff. . You just can’t steal my ideas, and I won’t steal yours. 

Michael: That’s very true, yeah. Let’s make a pact. [Laughs.]

Raphaelle: [Laughs.] I have this on record now! 

Michael: This is true, it’s on record! You’ve got that collateral, it’s fine. 

Raphaelle: I’ll take you to small claims court, for my indie royalties.

Michael: Don’t send me anything, it’s not worth it! I can’t be responsible…

Raphaelle: I’m kidding! 

Michael: I’ll steal it accidentally! [Laughs.]

Raphaelle: [Laughs.] OK sick. Well, I’m gonna go make a coffee.

Michael Lovett: Cool, alright. 

Raphaelle: It was great to talk to you! 

Michael: Great chat! 

Raphaelle: Stay positive, keep the joy alive! 

(Photo Credit: left, Aleksandra Kingo)

NZCA Lines is the project of producer and multi-instrumentalist Michael Lovett. His third album, Pure Luxury, is out now via Memphis Industries.

(Photo Credit: Aleksandra Kingo)