interview by Michael McCarthy
In the following interview, Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter Auni and I discuss many things. Chief among them is her wonderful, self-titled EP, which showcases every side of her dreamy folk music perfectly, and the award-winning video for her current single, “The River,” which has been making the rounds on the film festival circuit recently.
Auni was born in the Valley, just outside Los Angeles, and lived in Paris for four years before deciding to return to the States to put greater focus on her music career. If you like organic music made with classic instruments, and have an affinity for folk, then I suspect you’ve just found your new favorite artist. If, of course, you’re not already a fan. Either way, you’re about to get to know her quite well. Make sure to watch the video for “The River” while you’re here because it’s nothing short of brilliant.
MM: Where are you from originally?
A: I am from Los Angeles. Los Angeles native. Technically, it’s the Valley. If you differentiate between the Valley and Los Angeles proper then I’m a Valley girl.
MM: I noticed you had my former 818 area code.
A: [Laughs] Yeah. Where did you get the 818 from?
MM: I lived in Glendale for a few years.
A: Got it.
MM: Where have you lived?
A: I grew up in Encino in the Valley.
MM: Cool. Do you still live in Encino?
A: No, I don’t. I actually went to UCLA after I graduated from high school and then I spent a couple years after graduating in Los Angeles and that’s when I made my EP and that’s when I moved to Paris for four years and then just moved back a year ago to Los Angeles.
MM: I love LA, but Paris is my favorite place on earth.
A: [Laughs] Really?
MM: Yeah. I’ve been there four times. One time I stayed for about five weeks but that’s the closest I got to living there.
A: Well, that’s a good amount of time.
MM: Not enough, though.
A: I guess it’s never quite enough, right?
MM: Yeah. Why did you leave Paris?
A: You know, it is such a beautiful city. And I really did enjoy living there. In the end, I felt like it was not dynamic for the path that I wanted to take musically. There is a big appreciation of music and art in general, which is amazing, but in terms of like the folk music scene, there is one, but it’s pretty small. Yeah, I just sort of felt called back to LA to be able to put more time into growing my career.
MM: Did you take vocal lessons when you were growing up?
A: I did. I think I started when I was 12 or 13 and I started with musical theatre, actually. That was what first drew me into voice lessons. I just loved old Hollywood musicals and watched them obsessively. That was my early teens, so I wanted to sing like them. Then I think I was 14 and my voice teacher just for fun gave me an aria from an opera to sing and that moment sort of changed everything. I loved it so much and fell headfirst into opera. So, then I did classical voice from I guess when I was 14 to about 20, 21. And for a while I was really serious about becoming an opera singer then when I was in Paris another time before the last two years I was living there, I studied abroad there my junior year of college. At that time I was trying to figure out if I still wanted to do opera or wanted to do something else. I had gone to a couple of folk music concerts that year and took a little ukulele with me and when I was living in Paris my host mother lent me her guitar and I started fiddling around with writing things. And that year in Paris is where my songwriting sort of bloomed and I decided that of all of the styles I had tried, that was really my voice and where I felt the most at home. That was the last of my big musical evolutions.
MM: I understand you wrote “The River” while you were especially bored during one of your classes in Paris.
A: [Laughs] Actually, it wasn’t in Paris. It was back in LA. My senior year of college at UCLA.
MM: Oh, OK, I think the press release might have it wrong then. Unless I’m just mistaken. So, do you speak French fluently?
A: I do. Yes, I do. I actually work part-time as a translator as well.
MM: That’s great. Very cool. Did you do any performing live in Paris after you started doing music in Paris?
A: So, when I had started writing, no. I sort of for about six or eight months just kept most of it to myself and a few friends. So, I would definitely play my music for friends, but I wasn’t brave enough yet to go out and try to have other people [hear it] – especially in a foreign country. So, I waited until I got back to Los Angeles at the end of that study abroad year. I started playing open mics and then a friend of mine who is a cellist decided he really liked what I was doing and we started a duo collaboration that lasted for a couple of years, actually. Then we started adding other instruments and we added violin and then the band sort of grew from there.
MM: When you were the duo did you have a name like a band name or did you just go by your regular names?
A: Just my name, actually. It was Auni. And then we would say featuring Bryan West, who was the cellist at the time. Now for the last few years I’ve been playing with another cellist, Hillary Smith, who’s the one who’s in the video.
MM: According to Spotify, your EP was released in 2012. Is that correct?
A: That is correct. This is the year that I’m due for my next big recording.
MM: You’re working on a new album, right?
A: I definitely am, yeah. I have more songs – well, not to say than I would like, but I have songs written and now it’s really a matter of choosing which ones. I actually have begun the basic recording process just with some basic guitar and a few banjo and mandolin tracks. The second half of this year is going to be about thinking about how to record the whole project. I was toying with the idea of doing a crowd-funding campaign, so that takes a lot of work and strategy, of course.
MM: Have you looked into the different ones, like Pledge Music and all those different things?
A: I have. I think for right now I’m leaning toward Indiegogo. But, again, I have to really compare all the options and see what makes the most sense. But that would be a full-length album.
MM: Now, does the album have a title yet?
A: No, it does not. I probably won’t get a feel for what the title should be until near much closer to the end.
A: No, I think I would. Definitely “Canary.” For “Devils and Gods,” I’m not sure yet. “Devils and Gods” is a more period-specific song, I would say, because I wrote it after the shooting of Philando Castile last year. It was really a reaction to all of the violence between cops and black men. So, not to say that I wouldn’t put it on the album. I’d just have to make sure I want to put a hot-topic song on something that’s hopefully gonna be around for a while.
MM: Unfortunately, I think the issue will be around for a while, too.
A: Yeah. And, of course, the song is really about who our devils are and how we create them, you know? The whole concept of good and evil and what that means to two different people. The young men who have been killed have been described as threatening and dangerous by the cops who confront them, and yet they are described as community heroes and special people by those who know and love them. And vice versa: when the cops were shot in Dallas, they were more or less described as demons by those seeking revenge, and as gods by those who see cops as our guardians and protectors. It’s such a complex issue with no clear black and white.
MM: Sure. When I was reading the lyrics while I was listening to it I was thinking about how different people from various religions fight with people from other religions because they think their god is better, or the true god, or that sort of thing.
A: Absolutely. That was definitely going through my head when I wrote it as well. It’s sort of one of those deep topics that runs throughout human history. Yeah, so I think it’s really just a question of figuring out what the tone for the album is going to be and what the story arc I want to tell is as well. Because I really like putting together a set of songs that is going to have some sort of arc. So, that part remains to be seen. I do have a lovely string arrangement for that song.
MM: Now “Canary” is something of a protest song? Or am I interpreting it wrong?
A: Definitely. Oh, definitely. Yeah. I mean, “Canary” is based off of the old process of taking a canary into the mine to detect poisonous levels of carbon monoxide. Alert humans to its presence by sacrificing the life of the canary, which is the first to go since it’s so small. And I thought that was kind of a perfect practice and, really, a metaphor for the way we treat so many members and parts of our society as being disposable. People standing on the backs of other people to make progress or whatever. That song is really about the beauty in that canary’s sad little song.
MM: I found myself relating to the canary when I was reading the lyrics because I’m a disabled individual and I depend on things like medicaid. So, I’m one of the small people who may get impacted if they make these ridiculously big changes.
A: Yeah, to healthcare? Definitely. Definitely.
MM: Your songs are very organic and you always have people playing live instruments in your videos. How important is that to you?
A: That is kind of everything for me. And not to say that I wouldn’t ever dabble in electronic, but I think, personally, as an artist, I’m drawn to the most raw and organic form of the music. Every string instrument I add to my arrangement becomes this living thing that embodies the music. That’s really what I have a connection to when I’m imagining the expanded arrangement form of my songs. Most of the time I write songs on guitar. But the string instruments are so important to me. Maybe as part of my classical background as well. But I think strings are just so expressive and really can do so many things texturally. I definitely see my music going forward with this kind of set up.
MM: Have any of your songs appeared in movies or television series or things like that yet?
A: They have not yet. I would love for that day to come. But, no, not yet.
MM: The video for “The River” was directed by David S. Marfield. How did you connect with him?
A: Dave and I met years ago when I was a waitress at a little Italian restaurant in Encino. This was during the time when I was finishing up my EP. After having graduated. And he and his wonderful partner Adana would come in pretty often to the restaurant and we got to talking – it’s that sort of restaurant. Everyone’s really friendly and chatty. And I think at one point I mentioned that I was working on an EP and had been spending really late nights trying to work on it. And he said, oh, yeah, he also stays up really late working on projects so we sort of connected over that. And I think just out of politeness they told me to keep them updated on the project. Dave has told me now that he didn’t really think much of it, but that he liked me as a person and wanted to stay updated on what I was doing. When I finally released the album I sent it to them – I don’t know if I sent it to them or they bought it, they were among the first people to get the album. It was very sweet. And I remember getting this huge, long email from Dave after he listened to it. Basically, saying he was shocked and that he had kind of become a fan right away. And it was so nice for me because he had no obligation to say he liked it that much. So, we kept in contact after that – I moved to Paris shortly after releasing the EP – and we stayed in contact, mostly via e-mail. We’d talk about different artistic things. Different songs or videos that we liked. What I was doing. What he and Adana were doing. And we would get together when I came back to LA and then Dave had mentioned for a while that it would be cool to do a project together and I said absolutely and it wasn’t until he had this idea for “The River,” that he sort of just e-mailed me with – completely out of the blue one day – that he really took it seriously and got to work. But, yeah, we had Adana Gardner who did the production and costumes and make up and my now husband Bruno, who was the only crew member. It was the four of us and we set out to make this music video and I’m pretty happy with how it turned out.
MM: If I recall correctly, the press release said that was Bruno’s first job doing what he did. Am I remembering right?
A: His first job doing anything film, video, cinema-related. Yeah, he is a software designer, actually. So, it was a pretty far cry from what he normally does, but it was such a beautiful collaboration. He sort of fell into it naturally.
MM: How did he get involved with the project?
A: Well, being my, at the time, boyfriend. We were living together. So, whenever I went to LA he would come with me so we had begun to hang out with Dave and Adana as two couples, actually. And so then it made sense for the four of us to do the project together.
MM: Is he from France?
MM: From Paris or some other part of France?
A: From Paris, yes.
MM: That’s awesome. Do the two of you speak French in the house?
A: Actually, we speak a lot more French than we do English. I think probably because we started off speaking more French because Bruno didn’t feel as comfortable with his English. Now his English is fantastic, but we still sort of default to French.
MM: Now, was the whole story and video of “The River” all Dave’s ideas or were there certain things you asked for. For example, did you ask for the old typewriter or anything in particular?
A: So, Dave had the initial idea of the video, the story arc and all of that. But after that we did have a lot of e-mail exchanges. Dave even had a few different versions of how the video could have played out. A few darker versions that maybe would’ve been better suited to a punk song or a metal song. But we ultimately went with the one that sort of was a balance between light and dark, but focusing more on the light side. But there was a lot of give and take in terms of details, in terms of certain shots that he did. I have to say I was so impressed by his method of working. He memorized every nuance of the song and had all these shots he wanted at exactly the moment in the song. He was just ready-to-go during the entire shoot. He had such a vision. But, definitely, the rest of the team also had input on the general direction of the video. And then, of course, in editing as well. There were some notes on different shots to put in and things like that. But Dave, this was really his baby. Really his vision. He put the whole thing together. And I could not be more impressed.
MM: How do you interpret the video? There are a few possibilities that have gone through my head while watching it. I’m curious as to what the official interpretation is.
A: Honestly, I think our official interpretation is that we encourage all of the interpretations. I think that’s sort of what makes a work of art interesting. That possibility for different ways of seeing it. I never tie it down with one interpretation. But one of the ways I like to look at it is that it’s a girl sort of trapped in an attic, sort of of her own creation. She’s trapped by her memories, by her past. Looking to make a leap into a new phase of her life where she can move past that stagnation of her past. But sort of not sure how to do it. So, her initial attempts at transformations are a little bit tentative. She’s still transparent for the first half of the video. She tries to make that leap into the beautiful woodsy and coastal realms and gradually gains more confidence and more strength and sort of more solid as she’s appearing in the other worlds. And then by the end, her musicians recognize that she’s not coming back and put her shoes away, which I love. I love that. That was such a beautiful thought on Dave’s part. Yeah, but again, there’s so many ways of looking at what it’s about and how literally to take it and all of that.
MM: I’ll tell you my three ideas. They’re only one sentence each. One was that it was a ghost daydreaming about the places she went when she was alive. Another one is that it’s someone who’s being held prisoner thinking about the outside world, which I wouldn’t have thought of necessarily, but I know Dave tends to go a little dark, so that’s why I thought that might be possible.
A: You are so right. That version was one of the darker versions of the script that Dave was toying with. Definitely.
MM: And the other one I probably only thought of because I’m writing a series of urban fantasy books for young adults and that’s the idea that it’s a fairy going through someone else’s mementos.
A: I like that one. We definitely did play on that wood nymph sort of imagery. I think there’s a little bit of all of those. And I like that all of those can be present for everybody watching it. Perfect.
MM: It’s not every day you can come up with something that’s open to so many different interpretations, so I think that’s part of the appeal. What is the instrument you play in the video called?
A: So, it’s called a zither and it’s basically a lap harp. And this particular one belongs to Dave’s mother. And the date on the zither is 1894. Pretty old. That being said, it was actually a guitar that I was playing in the recording, but we loved the idea of this ancient instrument so much that I learned to play the exact notes and chords on the zither. So, we managed to incorporate that.
MM: Whose attic was the video for “The River” shot in?
A: It was actually not a real attic. It was a set constructed in one of Dave’s spare rooms in his house. He had his friend Adam Esco come into town and he built us an attic set pretty much from nothing. He bought some wood and constructed the set really quickly. And then Dave and Adana furnished it with a bunch of old candle sticks and pictures and an old radio they had bought from a friend and the typewriter. All the rest sort of came together around this constructed attic. I think they made it look pretty good.
MM: I thought it was a real attic for sure. So, does it still exist or have they taken it down?
A: You know, it finally got taken down but it existed for over a year, actually. Over a year after we filmed “The River.”
MM: Now, the video has been making the film festival circuit. Do these film festivals normally show music videos or were they making an exception because yours is so much like a short film?
A: The ones that we applied to all had music video categories. That being said, it is more for music videos that are like short films. It’s like a sub-category of the short film component of a festival. We sort of were brainstorming for ways to put it out in the world and it felt very cinematic so the film festivals were just an idea for getting it seen, getting it to different audiences. It came through pretty brilliantly. [Laughs]
MM: I know it’s won some awards. What can you tell us about that?
A: It had its world premiere at the Newborn Short Film Festival in Berlin and we weren’t able to attend, but to our great surprise and delight it ended up winning the audience favorite music video award. Most of the time, the people who attend the festivals are also there to support their own films, so I thought there would be zero chance of us winning something since we weren’t even there. That was a pretty nice surprise. And then just recently we were selected for the Auckland International Festival in New Zealand and ended up winning best cinematography and best editing.
MM: Did you go to that one?
A: I didn’t get to go to that one either, no. I’ve just attended the Los Angeles festival so far.
MM: I saw your video for “The Pea Song” on Youtube. Was that an official single or was it just a track you decided to make a video for for fun?
A: Yeah, pretty much the latter. Similar to “The River,” this one I actually made in Paris. I have a friend who’s a really brilliant film editor – he does a lot of visual effects – and he decided, the same, over a drink he was like, “We should make a music video!” And “The Pea Song” felt like the most natural choice at the time because it was a lot of people’s favorite song from the EP and we decided to go with something really fun and whimsical. It really combines a lot of different techniques. We have stop motion. We have puppetering with our little peas – basically, they’re tennis balls, but we painted them and put on sticks – and then, of course, the live action. That was actually a much bigger production. My friend got together an entire team of people. Rented a sound stage – well, he didn’t rent it, it was at the school he had studied. Basically, put together a crew of 15 people. So, we had, you know, just people doing everything. Lighting and costumes and make up. Different camera assistants. So, it was a much bigger production. And very different in spirit and I think it captures the whimsy of “The Pea Song.” It’s a very simple love song. We wanted to put something simple and sweet out.
MM: Sure. What is your friend’s name?
A: Alexandre Donot.
MM: If you could have any one artist in the world cover one of your songs, who would you like to cover you and what song would you have them do?
A: Oh my gosh. So, it has to be a living artist then?
A: OK, just because he’s like my musical idol and it would make me go crazy if he even spoke of one of my songs, I would probably choose Chris Thile, who is an incredible mandolinist and head of Punch Brothers, which is my favorite band. So, I would definitely choose him. As for what song, oh gosh… I might go with “Cindy Lou,” the first track of my EP. Yeah. But I have to think about it. I think he would be more inclined toward “Tip the Jars,” the second track on the EP because it has a lot of interesting chord changes. I have to give it a little more thought. [Laughs] But that’s the artist.
MM: What was the first concert you attended?
A: It was Spice Girls. The Spice Girls when I was in fifth grade, I think.
MM: That’s funny because one of our questions, which I have here today, is can you name all five Spice Girls without looking it up?
A: Oh, God! Can I? Let’s see. Well, there’s Posh Spice, Victoria Beckham. There’s Baby Spice, Emma Bunton. Then there’s Scary Spice, Mel B. Sporty Spice – oh shoot, now I forgot what her real name was. Was it also Mel?
MM: Yes it is. She’s Mel C.
A: Then Ginger Spice, Geri Halliwell. Is that right?
MM: Yup. Most people can only guess their spice name or their real name. This is the first time someone’s gotten both.
A: Well, it was an integral part of my childhood, what can I say? [Laughs]
MM: What was the first album you ever bought with your own money?
A: Oh my gosh, you know, it may have been a Spice Girls album. Either a Spice Girls album or [Laughs] a Britney Spears album. I remember going to Costco. They used to have CD release Tuesdays and I would beg my parents to take me there so I could buy the new albums that had come out. I know I had also gotten the Backstreet Boys and N*Sync, all of those albums. Those were definitely among my first purchases.
MM: Do you like any French music? I listen to a lot of French music.
A: I do. I am a big fan of Charles Aznavour. Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf is wonderful. There’s this one guy that my husband loves to listen to that I’ve been getting into.
MM: Is it Serge Gainsbourg?
A: I do love Serge Gainsbourg, but that’s not who it is. I’m blanking on who it is.
MM: Do you like Mylene Farmer by any chance?
A: I actually don’t know this artist.
MM: She’s like the French Madonna, but darker and more provocative.
A: I’ll have to look into her.
MM: Name three things off your bucket list that you have yet to do.
MM: These questions always stump people, but they get the best answers.
A: I know. Let’s see. I don’t know if mine will be the best. [Both laugh] So, I think a lot of my bucket list involves traveling. Traveling to remote places. But that’s nothing compared to what other people have on their bucket list. I don’t know if I’ll – well, never say never, but I don’t know if I’ll ever have the courage to skydive. What would I really want to do? For me, I would love to travel to South America. I would love to do an Africa trip at some point, if that’s possible. Travel to Tahitian Islands and stuff like that. What other things?
MM: They don’t have to be big things. Just things you want to do that you haven’t gotten around to yet.
A: I think most of it is really traveling.
MM: Yeah, that’s what most of mine would be.
A: Whenever I think of what I would do if I had a lot of money it’s travel.
MM: Yeah, me, too.
A: I would also at some point want to do one of those like super expensive ten-course meals at a top restaurant in the world somewhere.
MM: If you could resurrect any one musician from the dead, who would you bring back?
A: Oh my gosh…
MM: Just say the first one that comes into your head if you can’t think of one.
A: Probably Mozart.
MM: Finally, how popular would you ideally like to be? Would you like to be as popular as Norah Jones or would you rather be more unknown?
A: Actually, I think Norah Jones’ career is pretty amazing. If you said popular like Britney Spears or Madonna or Beyonce, I would definitely say no. But Norah Jones is lovely and she’s managed to be popular without sacrificing her artistic vision and all of that. I don’t want to be like crazy stadium famous. Definitely not. Really, the goal for me has always been to be able to do what I love, make a living off of it, and have some people who would come to hear it. And to be able to collaborate with other musicians I admire and things like that. But the popularity would be more of a means to an end.
Extra special thanks to Auni for taking the time to chat with us!