17 May 2020

A locked-down NZ Music Month

From New Horizons, 5:00 pm on 17 May 2020

We’re just over halfway through New Zealand Music Month. How’s it faring for our local musicians in these Covid-19 times? William Dart features new music by Kate Owen, Aidan Fine, and Olivia Foa’i among some other surprises.

This audio is not downloadable due to copyright restrictions.

From the video to Olivia Foa'i's song 'Fai Pea'

From the video to Olivia Foa'i's song 'Fai Pea' Photo: Screenshot

The internet is a-buzz at the moment with lists of the best songs for coping with coronavirus and isolation.

You can mellow out in the plush vocal harmonies of The Beach Boys’ ‘In my room’; or perhaps contemplate idyllic domesticity as Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young dally on the pop side for Graham Nash’s ‘Our House’.

If you’re brave enough, or deliberately searching out despair, Morrisey’s ‘Everyday’s like Sunday’ could make for a rather bleak earworm.

A few weeks ago, the Rolling Stones’ new single – their first original song for some years — provided eerily appropriate travelling music for me during a ride into the ghost town of central Auckland for an overdue flu jab.

‘Living in a Ghost Town’ was already in the works last year. Now, with its lyrics topically tweaked, it’s the new anthem for our Covid-19 times.  A song that’s easily surrendered to as Mick Jagger cruises over the back-and-forth sway of its three chords, reflecting on how life was so beautiful till we all got locked down.

Well, maybe not everyone will miss what the chorus describes as crashing cymbals, smashing glasses, screaming trumpets and blaring saxophones. Still, it’s a good deal safer to hear it coming out of a CD player, with a volume control, than cram oneself into a crowded and medically dangerous venue.

This year, in the interests of public safety, May’s annual New Zealand Music Month is very much an on-line celebration.

The industry, of course, continues to produce new music to be sampled and purchased from the appropriate websites.

But there have been casualties. One being Lyttleton singer, Kate Owen, who released her debut album, Not a Proper Girl, in mid-March, for just a short time of over-the-counter sales. But she had a subsequent launch tour cruelly cancelled.

Owen talked to RNZ National’s Jesse Mulligan last October and, as a woman in her mid-thirties, had some engaging perspectives on her musical journey, with that gargantuan gap between writing a song and getting it recorded.  

Introducing one number from her new album, titled ‘Lullaby’, she unwittingly pre-empted what would happen to us all in less than sixth months’ time. This was, she told us, a song about isolation.

I was very much taken with Owen’s live performance, especially with its nervy throb of guitar and atmospheric backing vocals – features that are even more effective when it turns up on the new album, with Ben Edwards in charge of production, even if, at times, harmonies don’t always speak as firmly as they did on radio.

Kate Owen has got together some enterprising videos. For ‘Lullaby’, Destiny Beynon offers a choreographic response to the song, devised with Hayley Marie Watts.

For another track, ‘Lover’, Owen herself shares the video with Christchurch mime artist Danny Lee Syme.

This one’s more sombre in tone, looking at the sometimes dark underbelly of relationships, with the pretence and subterfuge that they can involve. All of which is accentuated by the sometimes anguished expressions of a white-faced Syme.

And if this song has the occasional flutter of focus, there are still definite musical compensations. Knowing of Kate Owen’s Greek heritage, it’s difficult, listening to the rushes of electronic arpeggios, not to think of the plucking bouzouki that you hear from Greek composers such as Manos Hadjidakis.

Referring back to the making of lists – it’s an activity much encouraged in social media at the moment, totting up everything from favourite tunes to significant life moments.

Contrary creature that I am, I’d be more inclined to enumerate my least favourite songs and, if I did, this unctuous little ballad by Stephen Schwartz would be a chart topper.

Oh dear. Robin Lamont’s flat-as-a-pancake D (on the word “pray”) should be ample justification for casting this one into the recycle bin.

But, on a more cheerful note, I’m glad to say that the song’s title has been reclaimed and renovated by local hip hop singer, Aidan Fine. Here is a young man with a nice bristle in his attitude.

Back in 2018, his single, ‘Zombie’, saw him hiding behind an animated video. Now he faces up to his fans, lying on astroturf carpets for one song, fishing in the bath for another and, in his new single ‘Day by Day’, caught in bathroom isolation.

Older ears will be bemused by the jazzy piano loop that spawns the song, which he tells me was obtained from a free samples library on the internet.

But, as he dresses and preens himself in front of the mirror, preparing for an outing that perhaps never happens, it’s very much a song for these times.

And in times of such unpredictability, what else is there to do but take it day by day, counting down the alert levels.

While Aidan Fine is trapped in a bathroom for that song, fully occupied in a one-way relationship with its mirror, there are four rather grander mirrors behind Olivia Foa’i for her latest video. 

‘Fai Pea’ is a track from her debut album, Candid, which is up for three gongs at this year’s Pacific Music Awards.

While Fine is droll and hip, with a touch of the devil-may-care, Foa’i sings of eternal optimism, as befits a Disney heroine, having sung on the soundtrack of the studio’s Moana movie. She tells us to bide our time and not expect it all to happen today or tomorrow … just be patient and keep heading for the sun.

Grant Gillanders is a man perfectly able to keep locked on whilst being locked down.

You can find a number of his cleverly curated compilations of Kiwi rock and pop in record shops, but there are also over fifty digital releases available on his Frenzy label.

The two most recent are great fun, with one of them zooming us back to Napier in the early sixties to hear The Rockets, five young men who livened up local pubs and clubs with covers of old reliables, from ‘Yellow Bird’ and ‘Johnny Guitar’ to ‘The Breeze and I’ over Grant Alexander’s lusty Latin percussion.

But the gem of Grant Gillanders’ new releases gives us 51 tracks comprising the complete singles released on the Kontact label between 1972 and 1982.

Johnny Devlin started the label with his own money and not a little ambition, gathering up artists from Maria Dallas and Angela Ayers to Gerry Merito of the Howard Morrison Quartet.

It’s a fascinating time capsule, and not without relevance for today when Merito sings Shel Silverstein’s ‘The Unemployment Line’, ending with a sour snippet of the national anthem squawked on kazoo.

Passing over a rather lame would-be anthem for Christchurch’s 1974 Commonwealth Games, written and sung by Devlin, its flip side, titled ‘The Wanganui River’, is far more interesting.  

Devlin’s river doesn’t quite have the funky ripples of The Band’s Cripple Creek, but, darn it, this studio band, produced by Bernie Allen of C’mon fame, does its commendable best.

The musical camaraderie in that studio, almost half a century ago, is utterly palpable, a tightly-knit camaraderie, possibly elbow to elbow, which might bring out envy in today’s musical circles, forced to observe social distancing.

One of the less happy products of our restrained times is the profusion of Zoom-inspired recordings in which a host of performers create a group effort from individual home studios.  Necessity, alas, is not always the mother of invention. Mind you, I’ve yet to hear anything that even remotely approaches the mind-numbing awfulness of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ caterwauled a cappella by a line-up of celebrities from Natalie Portman to Jimmy Fallon.

How much happier is this group effort singing a homegrown waiata titled ‘Stay’, a project brought about by Te Māngai Pāho and Loop, enlisting over 20 local artists to tell us that it’s best to stay at home.

There may be something a mite trite with a chorus that chirrups the roughly-rhymed homily, “This isn’t forever; we’re in this together”. But this is a minor criticism in the light of such generous-hearted and very Pacific exuberance.

A roster of artists from Anna Coddington and Hollie Smith to Stan Walker and Troy Kingi, who was awarded the Taite Music Prize just last week, is reward enough. And the dancing rhythms and breezy buoyancy make it utterly irresistible.

Music Details

'Song title' (Composer) – Performers
Album title

'Living In A Ghost Town' (Jagger, Richards) – The Rolling Stones

'Lullaby' (Owen) – Kate Owen
Not a Proper Girl

'Lover' (Owen) – Kate Owen
Not a Proper Girl

'Day by Day' (Schwartz) – Robin Lamont
Godspell, Original Cast Recording

'Day by Day' (Fine) – Aidan Fine
single ex New Tracks 236
(NZ on Air)

'Fai Pea' (Foa’i) – Olivia Foa’i
(Olivia Foa’i)

'The Breeze and I' (Lecuona) – The Rockets
The Rockets: The Complete Recordings 1961-1964

'The Unemployment Line' (Merito) – Gerry Merito
Kontact Records, Vol. 2: The Country Singles

'The Wanganui River' (Devlin) – Johnny Devlin
Kontact Records, Vol 1: The Pop & Rock Singles

'Stay' (Coddington et al) – Anna Coddington and over 20 others
(Te Māngai Pāho, Loop)


Get the RNZ app

for easy access to all your favourite programmes