The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many a band to find alternative ways to create new songs, whether by email, Zoom, FaceTime or any other platform available. For the duo Big Little Lions, nothing has changed. They’ve always written together by email.
“We’re no good at writing in person,” said Helen Austin from her home in British Columbia. “We tried that when we were on tour, and we went, ‘meh!’”.
“The problems of goofing off and not staying focused happen when we’re in person,” agreed Paul Otten from Ohio. “That’s how [Big Little Lions] was born. We were born out of working via the internet.”
“It works for us,” Helen said. “When someone sends you something, it gives you that space to look at it. We have a bit of a sibling relationship, so we like goofing off and being stupid. I think people who respect each other a little more – I say that in the nicest way – they probably give each other the space, whereas we don’t ‘cause we’re stupid around each other! I see people on Facebook talking about writing sessions they do all the time. I think I’d be exhausted by that. My brain can’t be freed up unless I’m alone.”
Helen and Paul first met at a Los Angeles songwriting conference and found common musical ground. While writing songs long distance might work for Big Little Lions, performing those songs together had its challenges at the beginning.
“When we started performing in 2014, it was frustrating because we’d get together for a little while, play, and by the end of that short tour we’d finally kind of gel,” said Paul. “Then it would be months on end, and it was like starting over. We finally got to a point where we played so much that it was no big deal. We’d do a little rehearsal on our own and then get together and play, and it was seamless. So this is the longest break we’ve ever had.”
Helen is optimistic that when the border opens between Canada and the U.S. it won’t take long to find their performing mojo.
“I think it’ll be like riding a bike!” she said.
“In some ways it will,” interjected Paul. “I think for the fact we’ve done these online shows once a month. Even though we’re not in the same room, we’re putting videos together of us so we can show us playing together, because through the internet we can’t sing together.”
“We do a concert once a month the same day as the monthly single release. We started off going through an album each time and play the new video at the end,” said Helen. “After we ran out of albums, we’ve been doing covers. We did early Simon & Garfunkel, The Police and now we’re doing Bee Gees.”
“Helen will play a song by herself, and I’ll [do one] and we’ll just kind of trade off that way, but we also pre-record videos so we can have a live performance of us together singing, because that’s our sound.”
The idea for a monthly single release came about after their last album, Are We There Yet? came out.
“We [thought] with the current climate and the way people listen to music nowadays, why not just release a song a month?” said Paul.
“And it would give us something to do as well because we can’t tour,” said Helen. “Especially for me ‘cause Paul does a lot of production work all the time, and my world had become just Big Little Lions. So it gave me a momentum each month to do the cycle of getting it out there, pitching it to Spotify, PR, all that stuff, making a video, and so there’s a nice kind of turnaround each month now.”
Recording and releasing a song a month without the concern of how they would hang together sonically in an album has freed up Big Little Lions to experiment with new production elements.
“We started introducing more electric guitar and just different sounds,” said Paul. “It’s still us but we said, ‘Why not?’ We’re not having to perform these live. We kind of went Sgt. Pepper’s on it.”
“But it’s also interesting to find out what people were drawn to as well,” said Helen. “So we went out of the box a few times and interestingly people wanted us to be more ‘original’ Big Little Lions.”
At the moment, Helen and Paul are optimistic about the prospect of touring again. In fact, Paul has a few gigs lined up with his own band in Ohio, and Helen has signed up the duo for the next Folk Alliance conference.
“The irony of this whole thing is in 2020, both of our youngest [children] graduated and we were like, ‘Yay, we can do what we want!’ and Paul’s wife, Jenny, loves coming along with us. She’s one of my closest friends now so we had plans to be all over the place. Our lives have kind of opened up, so it’s going to be very different. We’ve got this one song called, ‘Make It Up As We Go Along’ and that’s pretty much what we do.”
For more information on Big Little Lions, go to biglittlelions.com.