Despite living thousands of miles away from each other, the folk duo Big Little Lions has been making music together since their chance meeting at a music conference. In the last year, the duo has had success with their collaboration, even having their song, “This Road With You,” featured on MTV's "Catfish" and ABC's "The Vineyard," as well as three ads for Ikea. Not bad for only meeting each other once.
Big Little Lions is the collaboration between two already successful solo artists. Canadian singer/songwriter Helen Austin has been making music for years, releasing three full length albums. Her latest album, 'Colour It,' won Children's Album of the Year at the 2014 JUNO awards. Austin has also written and placed music for television shows, advertisements, and high profile events. American musician Paul Otten has had many of his songs placed in high profile television shows like "Keeping Up with the Kardashians,"Cougar Town," and "Teen Mom," as well as ads for brands like Duck Tape and Walmart. He has also released a number of solo full length albums, EPs, and singles.
The duo's sound mixes the new school folk of Mumford and Sons with a dance rhythm that keeps the music sounding light and upbeat. It also doesn't hurt that their songs are very catchy and aided by how well Austin and Otten's voices complement each other.
Big Little Lions will release their debut EP, ‘Paper Cage,’ on May 6. The EP’s first single, “Make It Up As We Go Along,” was released on iTunes in early April. A second single, “The Way Home,” premiered on guitarworld.com on April 16 and is also currently available on iTunes.
I had the opportunity to correspond with Austin and Otten via email about their collaboration, influences, the new EP, and the art of song placements.
How did the two of you start working with each other?
Helen Austin: We met at a music conference where we were both on a member success panel but it wasn’t until a couple of years later that I asked Paul to produce a song of mine (which is the title track of my JUNO 2014 Award winning album) that we realized that we enjoyed working together and BLL took off from there.
Paul Otten: What Helen said...
How did you guys know that you wanted to pursue music as a career?
Otten: In truth, there never was a choice for me. I think I knew the moment I learned guitar and wrote my first song that music was all I wanted to do.
Austin: Other than a brief period in my teens where I thought I might like to be a math professor (really!) there has never been any other option for me. I have played music my whole life and it has been my profession in one form or another since leaving university.
Who/what are some of your influences?
Otten: I grew up on The Beatles, Stones, Police, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon and Michael Jackson. Some of my more contemporary influences are Ben Folds Five, Ryan Adams, Death Cab for Cutie, and The Wood Brothers. I think my writing and singing style are a combination of all for sure. My collaboration with Helen has definitely influenced my vocal style lately. I’ve borrowed her whispery, breathy vocal approach, and I love it!
Austin: Songwriting-wise it has to be The Beatles, Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell. Vocally it has to be Iron & Wine and Feist but I am also influenced by a lot of the local songwriters here on Vancouver Island... and, of course, Paul :)
You will be releasing your debut EP in May. What can people expect from the EP?
Austin: They can expect a collection of feel-good alternative folk songs that will hopefully make them smile.
Otten: As Helen said, it’s feel-good, organic music that will either make you wanna get up and dance or, in some cases, chill out with your beverage of choice.
-What was the songwriting process for the EP?
Otten: It’s a lot of back and forth via email. Either Helen will shoot me over an idea of hers and I will add what I can to it, or vice versa. It’s definitely the smoothest collaboration I’ve ever had. I don’t think there’s been one song idea either of us has had that didn’t get the creative juices flowing, and I think it shows on the upcoming EP.
Austin: Each song process is different. Sometimes I send Paul an idea and he runs with it and vice versa. Lyrics get emailed back and forth until we are both happy with the end result and then it’s over to Paul to put his production magic on the song.
What would you like people to take away from your music?
Otten: Joy! I think our music sounds like 2 people that really enjoy making music together, even though we’re thousands of miles apart and have only met in person once. And I think people will feed off the energy that emanates from our songs and our collaboration.
Austin: I want the music to make people feel good about life. Most of our music is upbeat positive and even the sadder songs are reflective and hopefully still have an optimistic edge.
Your song, “This Road With You,” has been used in multiple TV shows and ads. What is it like for you to hear your music on television?
Otten: It’s pretty amazing and surreal. When I hear something I created playing on TV or in a movie, it’s a “is this really happening?” kind of moment. Considering 10 years ago it would have seemed impossible. And the fact that our Big Little Lions music is getting licensed so quickly is a proud moment.
Austin: It’s a fantastic feeling and it never gets old. Both Paul and I individually have had many placements but to hear our band music is extra special.
Music licensing is nothing new for you guys though, since both of you have had plenty of music in TV shows, movies, and ads individually. What do you think is the key for bands that want to go in that direction and get their music placed in such a way?
Austin: I think it is key to watch TV and observe the type of music that is placed and if you regularly hear stuff that makes you think “that could have been one of my songs” then you are on the right track.
Otten: I would agree with Helen, in that it is so important to listen to the types of songs that are being licensed on TV, ads, etc. currently, and draw from that. Use all the resources that are readily available for songwriters looking to get in to the licensing game: taxi.com, HitLicense, ReverbNation, etc. Find and collaborate with writers who are in the game. And most importantly, listen and learn from criticism. That will help you more than your mother or friend telling you how much of a big star you are.