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Bret McKenzie

Bret McKenzie first rose to fame as half of the musical comedy act Flight of the Conchords, and has gone on to an award-winning career as a songwriter and composer for film and television. His first influences were singer/songwriters such as Leonard Cohen, Harry Nilsson, and Randy Newman, and his melodies are often rooted in 1970s-style pop and soft rock, albeit with a more modern production approach. The wit of his work with FOTC (best experienced on their self-titled 2008 debut album) meshed with, rather than distracting from, the clever and tuneful music. McKenzie had been a recording artist for two decades before stepping out as a solo artist with 2022's Songs Without Jokes, an album that dealt with more serious themes, albeit often with a playful side. Bret McKenzie was born on June 29, 1976, in Wellington, New Zealand. His father, Peter McKenzie, dabbled in acting, appearing in several films by Peter Jackson, while his mother, Deirdre Tarrant, was a noted dancer, choreographer, and educator. Attending the Clifton Terrace Model School, McKenzie would study beside several other future successes, including actor Antonia Prebble (a star of the popular New Zealand TV series Outrageous Fortune), and musician Age Pryor. His interest in music was sparked when he was 14 years old and became fascinated with Leonard Cohen's album I'm Your Man, with the cleanly crafted pop of the music contrasting with Cohen's smokey voice and dour lyrics. McKenzie later enrolled at Wellington College, where he joined a band, the Blue Samanthas, and they were regional winners in the Smokefree Rockquest, a national competition for high-school-age groups. After graduating from Wellington, McKenzie was accepted at Victoria University of Wellington, where he shared an apartment with fellow student Jemaine Clement. Neither proved to be especially keen students -- both left without receiving degrees -- but during their time at Victoria University, the two joined a student comedy troupe, So You're a Man, and honed their talents for humor. In 1998, the two split off from the group to form Flight of the Conchords. In 2000, Flight of the Conchords (self-described as "New Zealand's fourth most popular folk parody duo") made their television debut on a local Wellington TV outlet, and in 2002, they were invited to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. They returned the following year, and also performed at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. During this time, McKenzie was also performing in Wellington-based reggae group the Black Seeds; one of their tracks, "One by One," became an international hit after it was used on the popular TV series Breaking Bad. As Flight of the Conchords developed an international reputation, they starred in their own series for BBC Radio in 2005, and in 2007, they released the EP The Distant Future, which won a Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album. Later the same year, their television series Flight of the Conchords, a fictionalized version of their attempts to break into the big time in New York City, debuted on HBO, and the duo's careers took off, with live concerts, appearances at major music festivals, and a pair of albums for Sub Pop Records, 2008's Flight of the Conchords and 2009's I Told You I Was Freaky. After the second season of the HBO series was completed, McKenzie and Clement put Flight of the Conchords on hiatus as they pursued their own projects. While McKenzie had dabbled in acting, playing small roles in two of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films, he primarily focused on writing and music, and in 2010 he and Clement wrote several songs for an episode of The Simpsons, "Elementary School Musical," as well as appearing in animated form as camp counselors. A longtime fan of Jim Henson's work, McKenzie landed an especially cherished assignment when he was recruited to write songs for the 2011 reboot film The Muppets, and one of his tunes, "Man or Muppet," won an Academy Award for Best Original Song. McKenzie would pen music for 2014's Muppets Most Wanted, and he also wrote songs for 2012's The Pirates! Band of Misfits and 2019's Dora and the Lost City of Gold. McKenzie and Clement occasionally staged Flight of the Conchords reunion shows, and a 2018 tour produced the special and accompanying album Live in London, issued by Sub Pop in 2019. McKenzie returned to The Simpsons in 2021 to compose two songs for the episode "Panic on the Streets of Springfield," parodying Morrissey on "Hamburger Homicide" and "Everyone Is Horrid Except Me (And Possibly You)." As McKenzie's film and television projects had him dividing his time between Los Angeles, New York, and Wellington, he found himself wanting to write songs that didn't have to function as part of a narrative or include a lyrical punch line. Having worked in the studio for his film and TV projects with a number of the studio musicians who had worked on the 1970s soft rock albums he loved -- such as guitarist Dean Parks and bassist Leland Sklar -- he blocked out plans to make a solo album of personal songs with many of the same players. The LP, fittingly titled Songs Without Jokes, was issued by Sub Pop Records in August 2022.
© Mark Deming /TiVo


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