When you think of a ninja, a few images may come to mind. Maybe you picture someone dressed head to toe in black, suspended in the air mid-kick. Or maybe you picture four green turtles with an affinity for pizza. The ninja I met last Friday night didn’t look like either of these though. Dressed in casual pants, a tank top, and an oversized jacket, Martha Brown (aka Banoffee) appeared much more unassuming than the characters we were introduced to during childhood. But once she started speaking, she left no room for doubt. Banoffee is a warrior; resilient, powerful, and strong.
Ever since we were introduced to Banoffee last summer with her debut single “Ninja,” the Australian singer has become one of the most exciting and consistent new artists around. Her lush electro-R&B productions provide the perfect backdrop for Brown to share her emotive and compelling stories. Tucked away in a quiet area at the Mondrian Soho Hotel in downtown New York City, Brown took some time before her second CMJ show to speak about her love for Drake, what it’s like being a female artist, and how musician Oscar Key Sung literally lives in her backyard.
Where did the name Banoffee come from?
I chose the name Banoffee pretty randomly. It’s an old English dessert that’s made from banana and toffee pie. Aesthetically I love the word. I wanted something that had a lot of double letters in it, something that didn’t look rounded but instead a bit chunky. But also, I think it really represents this project I’m doing now. I’ve always played in bands that have been really conscious about the songs they release, but I’ve never done anything that’s been straight pop before where I’ve thought, “I want this to be tasty.” So with Banoffee, I just want to be indulgent and tasty and do whatever I want to do. It’s all about me doing whatever makes me happy, which means using synths even if I think it’s cheesy.
Before this you were in a band with your sister, who now runs your record label Two Bright Lakes, right?
Yea, we actually toured the States in 2010 as Otouto, which is the name of the band. After that, we split but I really wanted to keep playing music. Hazel’s three years older than me. I grew up listening to a lot of R&B, Mariah Carey, and Janet Jackson and she maybe listened to different things, so we just sort of split ways, musically. But I feel like it’s been really good for us as sisters to be doing different things in the music business.
Right. Not having to be on top of each other but still being connected in some way.
Exactly. She was my manager for a while as well, but we realized we just wanted to be best friends rather than business partners.
What is the difference between your music with Otouto and Banoffee?
Otouto there were three of us, and each of us brought something to the table. It was kind of like an electronic/folk/pop project. We used drum machines sometimes but we also had a drummer who was fantastic and he did more alternative drumming with jazz influences. Hazel played baritone guitar, and I played synthesizers. It was a lot more folksy and incorporated a lot more organic instruments than Banoffee.
I read you went to a Steiner school. Did you get your interest in music from your time there?
Steiner school is more of a creative school with arts and crafts, and it’s also a more active school with camping and hiking and things like that. Steiner is a huge part of my life, it had a big influence on me musically. I think those types of schools teach you a lot of life skills, which helped me become aligned with my values, which is a big part of my music. Also in Steiner, you have to learn music. You pick up an orchestra instrument in year three. So I started with viola, then went on to guitar and that’s when I started writing songs. The songs were like folk-pop solo stuff, and then I found synthesizers by playing toy Casios. I used to collect Casios and I wanted to be able to make all those sounds.
Who were some of the musicians that influenced you growing up?
When I was growing up I listened to a lot of folk and country, people like Gillian Welch and Arthur Russell. I played a lot trying to mimic those people, as well as listening to Boyz II Men and Mariah Carey. But actually, a lot of it was stuff my parents listened to growing up. We went to a folk festival every year and we watched independent folk musicians. I think the way I approach song writing comes from that, it’s quite honest and there’s lots of story telling.
I was wondering where that came from, because–we’re about the same age–and we didn’t really grow up having music that contained a strong narrative like the folk musicians our parents grew up listening to, like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, among others. But your songs have a really strong narrative.
A lot of the country music I listened to was like that, as well as artists I started to get into in my teens like Lauryn Hill. I mean, every song on her album is a story. Every song is communicating some sort of value or lesson learned, and so I was sort of mimicking the ways they wrote because I listened to that music all the time. I also wanted to be a writer as a kid, so I was always writing stories and I guess when I decided to stop writing and start doing music, I still wanted to be able to do still write stories. Journaling has always been a huge part of my life, I did social justice type articles at uni, and I wanted a way to bring it all together. So yes, I guess it is narrative based. I’d never thought of that.
Speaking of writing, I read your article for GoodGoodGirl, “I’m A Girl But It’s Not What I Do.” In it, you brought up how people often ask whether you think you’re the “new Lorde” or “new Grimes.” I loved your answer to that, where you said there’s no reason why you all can’t coexist simultaneously. I think it’s so important for you to speak on this as a female artist, because it’s not an issue male artists often have to deal with.
It’s not, and I think it’s a huge problem for women in a lot of areas of life. We don’t feel like we have enough space. If you look at the media and you look at the music industry, the way we try to get in, it’s like we have to sell ourselves and prove that we’re worthy instead of just taking it. It’s been a huge lesson for me playing music because I feel like every time I walk into a venue I say sorry before I say who I am like, “Sorry to interrupt I’m Martha.”
It’s funny you say that because I recently read somewhere that women our age are the “generation of sorry.” We always start with “sorry” instead of just saying what we need.
Exactly, and it’s all about that idea. I actually have a song on my album called “I’m Not Sorry.” I find myself saying it constantly, even just in response to little things like people being surprised I’m a solo female act or that I play synthesizers or that I know how to work my computer. Then I get this paranoia that I have to know how to work my computer because if I don’t then I’m not a strong woman. Whereas if a guy didn’t know how to use his computer, he could ask the question and not feel weak. So there’s a whole conflict of emotions going on there and I think there’s a really big field that we as women need to be exploring.
My whole EP is so personal, and that particular song is like reading out a page of my journal to everyone saying, “Hey guys, I’m fucked up, but aren’t we all?” It’s trying to find strength in admitting that we’ve all experienced weakness.
Your music does explore those ideas. Your music is really empowering. When I listened to “Ninja” for the first time, it hit me on such a personal level. There was a point in high school where I went through a really tough time that coincided with this horrible break up, and it’s one of those songs I just wish I could’ve heard at that time in my life.
Thank you so much, I’m tearing up just hearing you say that. It’s a very important song for me. I think all of my songs serve a purpose for me. For instance, sometimes if I’m playing a really bad show and I feel like no one’s listening to me, I’ll just play “Ninja” even if I was going to play it last, because I need something that says, “Fuck all of you I’m OK!” [laughs]
“Ninja” was really difficult to release because I didn’t know how people were going to react. My whole EP is so personal, and that particular song is like reading out a page of my journal to everyone saying, “Hey guys, I’m fucked up, but aren’t we all?” It’s trying to find strength in admitting that we’ve all experienced weakness. Being human sucks. Being human is awesome, but it also sucks.
Do you draw more from life events, or do you draw from situations you see happen to others?
It’s a bit of both for me. Coming through my early twenties to 25 was a big time in my life. I feel like you really start to solidify your values, how you see yourself, and how you feel about yourself. For me, there was just so much material from those five years. Not just from my life experiences, but from my friends as well. I also started to realize I didn’t value myself the way I would have liked to. There are a lot of things that have happened in my life where writing music has helped, and people seem to relate. It’s made me seem a lot less alone. So most of my songs will have a personal aspect, but I try and write them in a way that people can relate to. “Ninja” can be about a break-up, or it can be about a break-up with yourself. I want all my songs to be a metaphor for other things that people can be going through so I don’t have to be as specific as saying names or events.
I want to ask about your Leona Lewis cover. Some people were surprised about the choice of song, but I think it makes a lot of sense when you take into account your sound and style as a whole.
Thank you. It was a difficult song to cover because I released it in a very raw form. I did it just on a microphone in my bedroom. Really. I just sung into my laptop on Garageband. That song is written so well I wish I had written it!
Which is so funny because Jesse McCartney wrote that song.
I know! It’s great.
I know you’re a big Drake fan, is there anyone in hip-hop or outside of it that you want to collaborate with?
If I was thinking top of the range, of course I’d say Drake. But I listen to a lot of A.K. Paul and Jai Paul, and also Tirzah and Micachu, who just produced Tirzah’s EP. I would really like to collaborate with some women, some female producers. But my taste goes all over the joint. Right now I’ve been playing and working with some people in L.A. and it’s been really fun, so I think I just want to come back and keep doing that. I want to share knowledge and share skills. I’ve been doing this on my own for a while now, it’d be nice to do something with someone else and feel like part of a team.
I like that. Speaking of collaborations, you work closely with Oscar Key Sung. Were you guys friends before, or did that come through being on the same record label? I know he produced your EP except for “Let’s Go To The Beach”
Yes, Oscar Key Sung is one of my best friends. We met about about seven years ago now. We dated when we were teens and then became best friends, we’ve been playing in each other’s bands forever. So with the EP, he knew where it was coming from and what I was going through at the time. I was really sensitive about it. I remember I couldn’t even play it for him, I was shaking and red in the face. I thought if anyone could produce it, it was him because I don’t respect anyone the way I respect him and the work he does. It was such a relief that he liked it. He wanted to put it out and help and protect me through the process. We’re hoping to do more as well. He lives in my garden.
Yea, in a room in my garden at the house I live in with my mum. So after breakfast I can just walk outside and talk to him. We’ll definitely be doing more together. We have a lot of fun and I think that shows. Even recording the EP, we would make one song then play some basketball. It’s just very fluid and easy.
It’s so nice because when you make music, especially since I usually do it at home alone, I don’t know what it’s like to be a consumer of music. I’m on the other side of it. So to be here with the consumers, and to see that people love to go to shows even if they are not in the industry is great because sometimes I wonder who is listening to my music. I wonder if people can relate.
So this is your first CMJ festival, what do you think so far?
I like it! It’s messy and chaotic, and even before I came here I was thinking there’s was I’m going to survive. I had a 9am show! But I don’t know, there’s something magical about NYC. It’s buzzing with creativity. It’s so nice because when you make music, especially since I usually do it at home alone, I don’t know what it’s like to be a consumer of music. I’m on the other side of it. So to be here with the consumers, and to see that people love to go to shows even if they are not in the industry is great because sometimes I wonder who is listening to my music. I wonder if people can relate. I feel really disconnected.
Have you been able to see any shows?
I haven’t been able to see anyone! It’s so sad because there are people I wanted to see. Well actually my plan was just to wander around and find new things. So I’ll be out and about after my last show.
Okay, last question and it’s not going to be easy. Is there an album that changed your life and what is it?
People have asked me this before, this is so hard… I’m trying to think of an album I can listen to over and over again. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was huge for me growing up. I’ve listened to every song on that album so many times. I feel like I’ve recorded some of those lyrics in my head as reminders so if I enter a situation I can think to myself what would Lauryn do? Then Love Is Overtaking Me by Arthur Russell. That man. I wish he knew before he died how much everyone was going to love him.