Bonnie Schwarz (vocals, cello) and Pete Shaw (accordion) have been creating folk-inspired music since October 2019. Together, they are pushing the boundaries of their instruments while drawing listeners into their stories. Their debut album Going for Broke was a product of lockdown, but a continuation of their genre-pushing soundscape. We sat down with Good Habits to talk about their album, being nomadic musicians, creative processes, music and much more!
OSR: How did the band get together?
Schwarz: Before we launched as a duo, Good Habits was simply us enjoying making music with our friends amongst many projects whilst we were studying music at The University of Manchester. We started as a 3, then 4-piece with our great friend Lydia Taylor on viola, Benji on bass, Pete on the cajon, myself vocals and cello.
After graduation, Lydia and Benji we’re involved in exciting Manchester based projects whilst Pete and I decided to launch Good Habits as a duo full time, which saw the addition of the accordion. We kick-started the duo project with a UK tour supporting the Trouble Notes (Berlin), a performance at our favourite Band On The Wall (Manchester) before setting off on our debut international tour to New Zealand where we’ve been happily stuck since Covid, and we haven’t looked back!
OSR: When you started playing together, did you have an idea of the sound you wanted or has this manifested organically over time?
Shaw: Our sound has definitely changed a lot as we’ve developed as musicians. We like to label ourselves as ‘alt-folk’, as it gives us a lot of wiggle room to do whatever we feel like doing.
As our combination of cello and accordion is already quite unique, we don’t aim for a sound or style. Instead, we follow a story, song or musical technique on our instruments and see what happens when our mixture of folk-jazz-pop influences collide on these instruments. It’s been a journey to discover how our instruments can behave differently within different styles of music.
OSR: Is there a backstory to your debut album Going for Broke?
Shaw: Yes, and it’s quite a hectic one. When Bonnie and I decided to go full time, we put all of our time into making the 3 month New Zealand tour as successful as possible; the songs were all written for, and on, the tour. We were about to leave at the end of March when the pandemic hit and New Zealand went into lockdown hard and fast.
We were very fortunate to already have a place to stay for lockdown with some other musicians who were recording their debut album. We saw an opportunity and used lockdown to learn how to record and mix so we could create our first full album Going For Broke, which is a scrap-book travel album about encounters, travels and moving forward/letting go. We’re now happily stranded in New Zealand and are planning to stay out here for another 6 months. This album has really changed our lives in more ways than one, mainly because it’s taken us 18,000km from home and stuck us here.
OSR: What was your creative process for the album? Do you create each song together or does one person take the lead?
Schwarz: Normally one of us will bring the skeleton of a thematic and lyrical idea to the table, then we’ll workshop it together where it then follows a direction and becomes a full song. It usually happens this way, as one of us will be discovering something on our instrument or something that sparks an interest. Sometimes we’ll have lots of musical content that is waiting for a story/lyrical content, and sometimes vice-versa, and usually, lots of songs all come together in one go as lots of ideas have been building up over time.
Our writing process happens quickly but is never finished, we are constantly building on, improving and shaping our songs over time. When recording Going For Broke the songs had already given over 50 live performances, and so we had very clear and strong ideas about their ‘feel’ and how they could be expanded in their record re-arrangements to achieve the same character as in their live performances. The self-recording process gave us a lot of time to try out loads of ideas, and so the recorded album has become really its own piece, and a very new articulation of our songs, as we had the time to push them to where we wanted.
OSR: Is there one song on the album that holds a special place for you?
Schwarz: ‘You’re Not Alone’ is actually originally written by my mum, Zoe Schwarz and we began performing it as part of a more interactive piece of musical storytelling in Manchester. We then brought it to New Zealand with us and it was a special way of staying close to my mum whilst on the other side of the world. My mum is a singer too, and I grew up in a gigging house, so it carried lots of mixed emotions including nostalgia, homesickness, gratitude and love. Live it’s a warm-soft duet, although in the album ‘You’re Not Alone’ is an exposed, stripped back song with just my vocals and cello. As the penultimate track, it takes the album to a place of stillness before launching into the final track ‘Racing The Hour Hand’.
OSR: What was the biggest challenge you faced when creating Going for Broke?
Shaw: We were pretty strapped for time, we had about 6 weeks between being able to begin recording and when we were due to be back on the road. So we had to work around the clock in order to give the creative, and release process enough time!
Fortunately, our mixer and great pal, Benji Marrington-Reeve, was in lockdown in Manchester, so was able to work on it whilst we slept in NZ. Our mastering engineer, Matt Waters, was also in the US, meaning we could take advantage of all the different time zones to get 24/7 productivity. We had a beautiful setting too, we were living with Kapiti coast acoustic duo In The Shallows during this time, so we were in a very gorgeous and creative space to do so.
OSR: What do you enjoy most about being nomadic musicians?
Schwarz: Meeting new people and discovering beautiful places. It’s a wonderful way to combine music and travel, enhancing our enjoyment of both. We have to keep reminding ourselves how lucky we are to still be able to perform and travel. The state the world is in and how that has affected the arts is so saddening. Being all the way in New Zealand and still being able to perform live is such a luxury that most people don’t have at the moment.
Being nomadic is fun, its ultimate freedom and we can optimise our performing ability when constantly travelling to new audiences. It’s not rock and roll, we live with few possessions but we’re often trading our music for encounters and wonderful experiences and it’s really really special.
OSR: If you could play at any venue in the world, where would it be and why?
Shaw: Right now we’d love to play at a small, sunny festival somewhere in the UK where we could see all of our family and friends again. It’s been a while and is looking like it’s going to be even longer until we can see them, so it would be great to be able to hug, dance and kiss all of the people we miss. Our friends and family are all pretty crazy so it’d be a whirl too.
OSR: If you could have people remember one thing about Good Habits, what would it be?
Shaw: Accordions are an awesome instrument and should be treated with respect. I am determined to reinvent the image of the accordion: it isn’t just an um-pah instrument played by old men, it’s an incredibly diverse instrument that can play a range of genres.
Schwarz: That accordions suck.
No, I’d like to hope that people remember us as two very excited and energetic performers who enjoy creating and sharing positive experiences and Pete’s funky shirts are quite something too.
OSR: What do you have planned for the next 12 months?
Shaw: That is a big question that we don’t have a solid answer for, nothing is certain and change is the only constant. We’ve got an exciting new project in the works which takes us into the realm of gig-theatre once again. We won’t say any more, but we’re really excited about what’s around the corner!
In terms of getting back to the UK, all the flights we’ve booked have been cancelled, so it looks like we might be out in NZ for a while. We’ve been booking gigs and festivals in NZ up to April 2021, then the plan is to return to the UK for summer 2021, where we are due to perform at Purbeck Folk Festival after winning the Purbeck Rising Competition this year.