23 Jan 2021

Shona Laing: 50 years later

From The Weekend with Karyn Hay , 10:04 am on 23 January 2021

Shona Laing, one of New Zealand's most fêted musicians, is the subject of an exhibition which opens next week at the Waihi Arts Centre and Museum, entitled: '50 Years Later, Shona Laing: A Pictorial Journey Through A Life of Music'.  

Laing joined Karyn Hay on The Weekend to reflect on her long career as a singer-songwriter, and the highs and lows.

Shona Laing, 1987

Shona Laing, 1987 Photo: Shona Laing collection

The exhibition starts with the beginnings of her career in 1971, while still in high school, when she wrote the first songs that she later performed on national television, on the talent show New Faces, in 1972.

The idea to create the show evolved from what was originally a "personal review".

"It was really... a whole sequence of events that led me to look at all these press clippings through the ages, and I thought 'I've got to put these in some sort of order'.

"It's been a fascinating process ... any creative project, you start off with one thing and it ends up as something entirely different.

"I would have loved to include absolutely everything, but that would have taken up three rooms."

The show includes memorabilia, a timeline of newspaper and magazine cuttings, and Laing's own mixed media art.

"It's purposefully low-tech. My mum died at the end of 2019, and she had kept so much stuff... and my sister... arrived at the door and handed me this humongous amount of history."

An early memory from that time is of a production she and her sister Virginia helped create; "We were both part of the Eastbourne Youth Club, and we put on this rock concert at the Day's Bay Williams Park. I remember The Underdogs... the line-up was incredible ... and probably over 1000 people showed up, it was a huge success.

"The newspaper clippings were just so funny, about how the head cop in Petone said 'this must never happen again'. The only real anti-social behaviour was this woman who got into the pond and scooped out an eel, and was spinning it around her head ... I think it might have been dead to start with."

On display also is material from her time spent living and touring overseas.

Shona Laing

Shona Laing Photo: Supplied

"I've started to tell a few stories ... in '81 I represented Great Britain at a song festival in Bulgaria. The stories are endless, it was insane.

"The East German woman won it... it was very dramatic in that 70s orchestral [way]. My guitar got smashed on the way, so I didn't even have the safety of hiding behind my guitar."

Looking back, a strong theme Laing struggled with throughout her career was people trying to tell her what to do.

"It's been probably the most difficult part of it, really. They sign you up and they say you're amazing, and the next thing they're trying to tell you how to be better, or how not to be what you are.

"I hope it's not like that any more, but that was certainly part of my story. I was thinking about the success of [hit song (Glad I'm not) a Kennedy] in Australia, that took off over there, but the minute I got there they started to do my hair and tell me what to wear, and hair and makeup every day."

"It just always made me feel uncomfortable and disconnected from the artistic energy that brought the whole thing about in the first place - a real disconnect for me actually, even to this day.

"But I think it's about gender, I think it was about being a young woman with opinions, I just broke the mould in a whole lot of different ways and made men in record companies extremely uncomfortable."  

After an initially successful foray into the US, a record deal with Atlantic turned out to be a mismatch and the 'worst decision of her life', and led to a hold-up in creating and publishing new work.

Laing said she continues to write and play music for herself; "I can't stop the music". But she's ruled out publishing again.

"I've found being in the public eye very difficult, I haven't enjoyed one minute of it, and I've just reached a point in my life where I don't want to do it any more. So there is a full stop involved."