Photo by Rayana Chumthong
Martha Brown lost a lot in what she calls the pandemic swamp. Last year, the Melbourne pop singer better known as Banoffee saw her label contract expire, her management company go broke, a break-up and now the tragic passing of her friend and mentor, SOPHIE. But somehow, Brown has recovered peace.
We meet at a Fitzroy cafe in February, almost exactly a year after the release of her debut album, Look At Us Now, Dad. On Gertrude Street, it's a panelled-blue-sky Melbourne day of old – sitting wedged between a thrift-store-styled barber shop and another cafe. It's a mirror image of last year's circumstances – the calm before the pandemic storm, and now the gentle decline to its end in Australia. I spot Brown in an urban camouflage hoodie at a parking meter, Airpods in – like she was ripped right out of Los Angeles, her home until last year. When I go inside to pay for a coffee, a pale blonde barista asks me who I'm sitting with. "Banoffee," I tell him. "We are doing an interview." "Oh. Do I call her that – Banoffee? I just meant 'cause she's been here almost every day for the last week, 'thought I should know her name. She seemed famous." How did Brown end up back in suburbia? The answer is a year-long cycle of loss and recovery.
Banoffee's debut record might be best described as struggle pop; cyber-bubblegum, with lyrics that actively repel glamour in favour of catharsis. "Chevron", a cloud rap beat with a ballad voice, is an ode to the affordability of a petrol station snack while being forced to sell a favourite synthesiser for cash; on the future pop of "Ripe", she personifies a dwindling relationship as a rotting fruit.
"Even when I try and write pop, there's something about the lyrics that are always kind of off," Brown explains to MTV Australia. "I got into this big argument in this session because I wanted to use the word spew in the chorus. They were like, 'Do we have to be that vulgar? I was like, it's not vulgar, it's fun'. They were like, really, you have to use the word spew? I was like yeah."
Look At Us Now… was adjacent to the US' groundbreaking PC Music label, but had emotional vulnerability that was only implicit in their other music, except SOPHIE. It felt so assured of success that Brown bared everything – exorciating abuse and intergenerational trauma. Before a planned world tour, she spent eight days in LA in March, immediately working on new music.
Then comes the well-trodden pandemic narrative: Brown was forced to return to Melbourne with a then-partner, taking a small suitcase and leaving most of her belongings in friends' garages. As the financial structure that upheld Brown's music crumbled – her management company failing, the expiration of a record company contract – she went through a break-up.
But she soon recast loss as freedom. Banoffee was in the strange position of pseudo-pop star status, with none of the taxing demands of being a real one. She built a new team on her own terms, and has now committed to independent releases. Brown opened the vault and shared demos and alternate cuts from Look At Us Now, Dad in a Soundcloud dump – all free and bracingly lo-fi. Brown is singing most of them directly into a laptop, without a microphone.
"Generally a label will want you to have 18 tracks and to release 12, and to have all of them mixed and mastered and ready to go so that everything is to plan," Brown explains.
"It's the equivalent of going in with a DJ set that you don't change, even though no one is dancing. I want to be able to release a track and be like, who's feeling it, who's not, what should I do next in order to keep everything buzzing? I'm excited to be a bit like, fuck it, let's just put it out."
In album interviews last year, Brown waxed lyrical about the personal and artistic freedom moving from Melbourne to Los Angeles in 2017 gave her. Despite making ostensibly pop music, she had struggled to find a place for it in Australia due its mutant, futuristic edges. Brown released two EPs over 2014 and 2015, working predominantly with then-partner Oscar Key Sung on production, existing at either extremes of the pop and experimental spectrum. Local industry wanted a marketable middle ground, something which limited Brown.
"I found that hard in Melbourne, with getting radio play and the numbers that some of the more indie pop bands would get," she says. "I was like, what do I do? Then I realized that I have to stop thinking about radio."
"The weirder you are in LA, the more people are into it. Everyone's so obsessed with finding the new thing. If you're doing something weird and owning it, they're like 'Oh my god, this could be it'. Most of the time you're like, sure whatever, but it does make you feel excited and accepted in the way that sometimes here [in Melbourne], you feel a little bit ostracized."
Brown jetted off to LA in 2017 with a lack of confidence, she says, because of an over-reliance on her working relationship with Oscar. "We did a lot together and it was a wonderful time in my life, but I don't think I had much confidence without him," she admits. "I went to LA with a bit of a chip on my shoulder about that."
Then Brown met SOPHIE. The late, influential avant-pop producer saw Banoffee perform at Laneway Festival in 2016, to a less than half-full crowd at midday. In a recent tribute post, Brown remembers SOPHIE taking her aside afterwards, making her "feel like I was worth people's time".
"I'd never had people I looked up to make me feel like I could be looked up to as well," she wrote.
When Brown moved to LA, she says SOPHIE helped knock the chip off her shoulder in their regular working relationship – often forcefully.
"Soph was one of the first people to me who was like 'What are you doing? Why are you asking me to produce on this, why are you getting Oscar to produce on this? Your ideas are really interesting. Who's told you that messy is a bad thing?'," Brown says. "Because I was always like, they're messier and I don't know how to EQ things properly, and nothing is smooth or silky. She was like 'Yeah that's your sound, that's what you're supposed to sound like.' I remember being like, oh okay, maybe I don't need someone to clean me up."
SOPHIE also introduced Brown to Charli XCX, the English hyperpop renegade. That chance meeting gave her the opportunity to join Charli's backing band for Taylor Swift's 2018 Reputation tour – an eye-watering adjacence to mega stardom that helped Brown build an LA profile. While her star began to rise, her friendship with SOPHIE grew tighter despite "constantly butt[ing] horns". Their disagreements were rarely about music, and more the extraneous demands of the industry or their personal lives.
"We would really call each other out on each other's bullshit quite a lot, for different things. We kind of did the opposite, a lot of the time. Soph would constantly be saying 'I'm fine and I'm great and I'm doing XYZ', and she was the type of person who would be working on 6 records at once. In order to get all of the work done, she wouldn't sleep," Brown remembers. "It was crazy being her friend and watching it happen. My take was always 'Cut the bullshit, you can't live this way, you have to stop working on something or take a break'. Hers was the opposite where I would be saying 'I don't think I can do this'."
SOPHIE heard Brown complain about the constant delays to the release of Look At Us Now... (originally planned for release in March 2019), and told her to "leak your record or shut up".
"[It was] a 'Don't say you can't do anything because that's a really boring' attitude. Anyone can do anything they want to do and as soon as you start believing otherwise, you're just holding us all back. That was pretty confronting at times, but also very useful to have a friend to kick you up the butt," Brown says.
The last song the pair worked on together was Banoffee's "Count On You", a saccharine ode to the reliability of a relationship, driven by SOPHIE's deformed digital percussion. Brown laments that she doesn't have anything made by her and SOPHIE left to release (though SOPHIE's estate might), but believes it was a sweet conclusion to their work together.
"It's really nice to have that as our last song together because it's such a loving song. I'm just so glad that we got that finished," she says.
They didn't get to speak much during the peak of the pandemic, while SOPHIE was in Greece. She would often call Brown in the middle of the night – "That was classic Soph, to assume that everyone was on her timeline," she laughs. At 4AM local time in Athens, Greece on January 30, SOPHIE tried to take a photo of the full moon from her balcony three storeys up, before falling tragically to her death at age 34. In Brown's tribute to SOPHIE, she wrote: "I wish I was there when you needed me. I wish I responded to that last text".
"These things happen, and SOPHIE lived a very full life," Brown says now. "I think that time is an odd concept and no matter how many years someone's lived, they can stretch those years out to much longer than someone else's depending on what type of life they live and I think she did that pretty well."
Banoffee's renewed independent status feels like a genuine homage to her friend's transgressive spirit. Accordingly, her next (unannounced) album will challenge her narrative so far.
Brown spent most of Melbourne's 111 day lockdown last year working on it, with access to a secluded cabin near the Great Ocean Road. She wrote and recorded solely with a "shitty nylon string guitar", a mini keyboard and viola ("I don't even know if people will know it's viola because it's very effected and looped and all fucked up") – everything else you hear are plugins. The sessions build off the tracks Brown had begun in LA last March, featuring collaborations with PC Music band Planet 1999. They are also the most stripped-back music Brown has ever made.
Audiences will hear some of the new material at the upcoming Banoffee show at the Darlinghurst Sessions in Sydney on March 13. Their strange, sombre mood will be an interesting fusion with the widescreen pop of Look At Us Now, Dad, making the show a litmus test as to whether Brown will tour her first record nationally, or move onto the next.
"Part of me wants to jump onto the next thing, but the other part of me is like, I should give this record what it deserves, which was to be heard and be celebrated," she says. "I think "Look At Us Now, Dad" and "Chevron", are quite close to the next record. And then, even some of the more hyper pop songs like "Ripe"."
If you can believe it, Brown says the new record is also even "more vulnerable" than Look At Us Now, Dad – straining a breakup during lockdown and career losses to sift out feelings of hopelessness and despair.
"I was listening to a lot of Gillian Welch, old and pretty emo country. It was [a] pretty emo year, I was so pissed at the start of the pandemic for very selfish reasons. I was really sad that I didn't get to tour my record and do all the things I wanted to do. That eventuated in me writing a pretty pissed off Blink 182 meets Gillian Welch vibe," Brown explains.
"I think the difference [between the new album and Look At Us Now, Dad] may be that a lot of these lyrics don't have any symbolism to them. They're very much straight talking, telling a story, which I really enjoyed because I've been listening to a lot of country music. A lot of them sound like a weird hyperpop producer has been given a country song and been like, okay what do I do with this."
Brown's compulsion to again be brutally candid in her music and interviews makes her feel like everyone knows everything about her. She told the Guardian last year that a few interviews discussing the specifics of past trauma warded her off ever doing so again, for their legal and personal implications. But Brown remains emotionally unreserved.
"When I was younger, I had some pretty severe mental health issues. Part of receiving treatment for that was everyone sort of knowing my business. But it was like this big secret that everyone found out. That was the scariest part of it all, is hiding things hoping people didn't find out about you," she says. "I think what I learnt from that is that if you just tell everyone everything, you never have that feeling. Part of being really honest is not having that dread of being discovered, like oh my God, someone's going to find out that I'm like this or I'm like that. Everyone already knows."
The emotional candour might fuel Brown creatively, but she admits one day she wants to learn to write fiction – for her own wellbeing.
"With my most recent breakup, the first thing I did was hire a studio," Brown laughs. "Most people would be like, I'm going to my bedroom, I'm going to get wasted and go out. I was like, I need to book a studio. There's content here. There's something kind of sick about that.
"At least people take comfort in hearing about my woes so that they don't have to think about their woes."
Banoffee will perform at the Darlinghurst Theatre on March 13 as part of Darlo Sessions. Tickets are available now.
Written by Josh Martin, a Melbourne-based freelance music and media writer with words in MTV Australia, NME, Junkee, Crikey, etc. Follow him on Twitter @joshuamartjourn.
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