INTERVIEW: Sugarcane

Brazilian bossa and indie music are not natural bedfellows in most people’s eyes, but in the hands of  Birmingham-born, London-based Robin French and his band Sugarcane, it’s a marriage made in musical heaven.  They’ve been picking up plaudits from blogs and mainstream press alike for a string of singles that will, eventually, lead to the release of their debut album.

To mark the arrival of their latest offering, ‘Midland Girls’, a melancholy story of adventure and broken dreams released by Frizz Records on November 13, we tracked down French – also a comedy writer and playwright of some renown – to answer a few suitably sweetly phrased questions…..

Photo Credit: Marc Sethi

First things first.  How did the idea for Sugarcane happen and who is in the band?

I used to play bass in a band called Mr Hudson and the Library, who did lots of stuff including playing Jools Holland and supporting Amy Winehouse. Playing the bass sends you into certain musical areas where it is most fun – like reggae and soul. But when I left the band, I was travelling around a lot – including in South America – so I was carrying a nylon string guitar – and I fell deeply in love with that instrument. And then I heard Jorge Ben and became totally obsessed with how he used it rhythmically. That led to a bigger obsession with Brazilian music – and songs just started appearing which combined that with my first musical loves which were very much classic British indie – like The Smiths and Blur.

After I demoed that stuff I got some game-changing collaborators who made it all work – especially important early on were producer Raphael Mann, Brazilian drummer/percussionist Xande Oliviera and a friend of mine who you’d usually know as an actor, Antonia Thomas (Misfits, Lovesick, The Good Doctor) who just so happens to have a gorgeous voice too – she did lead vocals for our first single “One Specific Thing”.

In the band now, there’s Xande, as well as Claire a professional dancer and artist who sings BVs and plays steel pan and percussion, Klaus another Brazilian who plays double bass, and Enya from Portugal who just joined us on Cavaquinho. I should also mention Sian Herbert who played flute and steel pan on the album.

What have you released music-wise so far?

It’s been one EP and two singles so far – you can find it all on Spotify etc. Antonia sings two of them “One Specific Thing” and summer single “Clear Blue Sky”. I take the lead vocals on “Shambala Mess” and the new single “Midland Girls”. I’ve always been a fan of albums with some female and some male lead tracks like Elis and Tom, or the first VU record – so our debut which is coming out next spring is mostly me but has got a sprinkling of Antonia singing too.

You’ve described yourselves as a combination of Brazilian music and British indie…    Give us a few key influences from both sides of that equation and tell us how the fusion works.

Yeah – Jorge Ben is my favourite – but there’s amazing riches in that 60s and 70s golden patch of Brazilian music. There’s Joao Gilberto doing Tom Jobim stuff. Caetano Veloso, Chico Buarque, Novos Baianos. It’s really the classic stuff – it’s a bit like an English person saying they like The Beatles and The Stones – but yeah – the rhythm, the songwriting, the sound picture is just really compelling.  

There’s also some more modern artists that were inspiring because they were taking South American influences out of the jazz/easy listening world and into the indie-folk worlds. That one Little Joy album is incredible – and generally Rodrigo Amarante is great, I’ve also really enjoyed Devendra Banhart, Erlend Oye, Laure Briard and Clea Vincent. 

Then British indie wise – yeah, I love The Smiths, Bowie, The Kinks, Blur/Damon Albarn – I think you can hear those elements. The big influence that isn’t in that formulation of ‘indie’ plus ‘Brazil’ is Serge Gainsbourg who is a big planet of ace-ness we certainly orbit. There’s a French-ness too.

Tell us about your current single ‘Midland Girls’… both the music and the lyrics….

It’s one of my favourite Sugarcane songs. There’s a Portuguese word saudade that they use a lot but there’s no exact English translation, it sort of means grief for something lost. Specifically, I guess it’s about the way me and my mates all left Birmingham and came to London – and lost our Birmingham selves. It’s about how you spent your twenties pursuing your dreams and that sort of hurt you, even if certain stuff did come true. It’s about feeling of exile – when neither London or Birmingham really feels like home anymore.

You also write plays and TV and film scripts, but you’re especially known for co-creating BBC comedy “Cuckoo”, starring Greg Davies.  What music makes you laugh (in the right way?)

The songs that really make me laugh probably don’t mean to. I adore old soul – like Womack, Marvin, Teddy – and old reggae and ska – Prince Buster is pretty funny. Quite often the lyrics are totally sincere to the point of absurdity. I both love and find funny the boldness of a long Womack monologue like “Facts of Life” or his version of “Close to You”, or the ‘I’m not even embarrassed about it’ full on sex vibes of “Close the Door” by Teddy. I guess there’s a similar sort of thing in Bowie at his most out there – my favourite album is “Diamond Dogs”, where he’s almost at a point of self-parody but at the same time it’s absolutely incredible.  

Are there elements of humour and drama in your music that you can see parallels with or are they very separate ways of communicating and creating?

You would think that because I’m using words all the time, lyrics would be easier for me – but it’s the opposite – the music almost always comes first. If I’m really patient the lyric generally just pops out quite fully formed. Creativity is in a way the same engine whatever you’re making – and certain rules like patience apply equally. But screenwriting is a lot more like doing your homework – it involves logic and thinky-ness in a way that song-writing doesn’t really.   

It’s a unique looking and very colourful video too.  Tell us about the director (artist Archie Proudfoot) and what you were trying achieve with it.

Archie is a friend who is a really talented artist and sign painter – he makes loads of cool stuff including stuff with glass, gold leaf and steel. He’s done stuff for the Tate, Soho House and V Festival – but he’d never done a music video. So yeah, it was a bit of an adventure for us all – we had a couple of other friends Max Brill (cinematographer), Erin Hopkins (editor) and Sophie Russell (hair and make-up). The vision was all Archie’s though – I can’t lay claim to it. His aesthetic is all over the video.

How would you describe Sugarcane’s lyrical content in general.  What subjects do you cover?

Hmm – there’s a wistfulness but also quite a barbed sense of humour in my lyrics. I think it’s a lot about my relationship with London – and my relationship with elsewhere too – with Birmingham and Brazil and France. London is quite a punishing city to live in in some ways, but really exciting and inspiring too. I always travelled quite a lot, and I’ve always had dreams of escaping somewhere very un-London. I guess my lyrics are about here-ness and there-ness at the same time – does that make sense? I guess that’s reflected in the music too.  

What’s coming next for Sugarcane, both in the short and medium to long term?  You must, like most musicians, be gagging to get gigging again.  How has the Covid crisis affected your creativity? 

Well, there’ll be a couple more singles before the album is released in Spring. Yeah – would be ace if we could be gigging by then, it has been way too long. I’ve carried trundling along creatively during Covid – but I do think seeing people, and being in new situations is creatively good – I am certainly on the anti-Covid side, not the ‘let’s carry on having Covid’ side.