Feature interview: Happyness

Joel Oliphint

Last year, the bandmates in Happyness went to see legendary songwriter Randy Newman perform a solo show in their hometown of London, England, and they became quite taken with him.

“We got really, really into Randy Newman,” said Benji Compston, who handles keys, guitars and vocals in Happyness. “He held the crowd so well, with such charisma. It was really amazing to watch. We thought it was just wonderful. I think for a period of time in the writing sessions for this record, we went pretty far down that Hawaiian shirt Randy Newman thing and had to remember ourselves a little bit.”

Rather than turn 25 song demos into a Newman-inspired double album, Happyness began culling and editing the ideas to make 10-track albumWrite In, the follow-up to its 2014 debut,Weird Little Birthday, which rightfully drew raves from critics and garnered comparisons to acts like Sparklehorse, Wilco and Pavement.

Despite the vintage indie-rock sound, Happyness does share Newman's mix of sincerity and wry humor, which surfaced most memorably inWeird Little Birthday song titles like “Great Minds Think Alike, All Brains Taste the Same” and on fan favorite “Montreal Rock Band Somewhere” (included on the album's 2015 reissue). “I'm wearing Win Butler's hair / There's a scalp-less singer of a Montreal rock band somewhere,” Compston and bassist/vocalist Jon EE Allan sing in a violently funny reference to Arcade Fire. (Drummer Ash Cooper rounds out the lineup.)

While Happyness' humor remains intact onWrite In (“Victor Lazarro's Heart” is a reference to a character from the 1997 so-bad-it's-good John Travolta/Nicholas Cage action flick “Face/Off”), the band also embraced earnestness more than it had in the past. The first line of leadoff track “Falling Down” serves as a statement of intent for the record: “How much better to write in, looking to the real action.”

“From the beginning we wanted to make a more open and emotionally positive album,” Compston said. “I think maybe when we made the first record we had to isolate ourselves a bit and disappear and make music for each other. It was a bit angsty — ‘We're doing this, fuck everything else.' That way of working and making music is always going to breed a certain attitude, so I think because we were closed off, and it was just us three, we probably weren't feeling massively empathetic and in touch with other people's emotions and things.

“That, and also we were terrified of turning into a certain breed of British rock band that is a bit embarrassing and serious. We never wanted to go down that direction.”

In the middle of writing and recordingWrite In at Jelly Boy, Compston fell ill. “It threw our whole meticulously planned schedule completely off course,” he said. “I was away for a couple of months recovering, so we had to press pause. And that's why when we came back in June of last year, we had this burst of, ‘Well, fuck it. We've gotta just make this record.' It was a pretty crazy year. The record's the prize at the end of it.”

For the last time, Happyness also returned to its own Jelly Boy Studios to record and produceWrite In; the barn-like space is now being redeveloped, and recently the band had to clear out the equipment it had amassed since recording its debut there.

“It was really intimate, because we had the space 24-7. It was our space. We could fill it with loads of gear and have loads of time to play around with that gear, so it massively influenced the record,” Compston said. “It felt like our own little world.”

While Compston mourns the loss of Jelly Boy, he's also excited for what the change will bring. “I think it'll be challenging and good for us to find a new space … and try out some different things,” he said. “We're constantly trying not to fall into a bit of a ridge. We try to push ourselves and do something that's not massively predictable, at least for ourselves.”

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