7 Jun 2021

Dr Graeme Downes honoured for contribution to music, education

5:17 pm on 7 June 2021

Composing songs and teaching music have always complemented each other for the founding member of The Verlaines who has been recognised in the Queen's Birthday Honours.

Graeme Downes

Graeme Downes is composing new music as he deals with some health problems. Photo: Supplied

The rock musician and former senior lecturer at Otago University Dr Graeme Downes has been made a Member of the Order of Merit for services to music and music education.

Dr Downes is the songwriter, vocalist and producer for The Verlaines which he founded in 1981 at the heart of what came to be known as the Dunedin Sound - along with Toy Love, The Chills, The Clean, Straitjacket Fits and many others.

The group has released 11 albums and two EPs over the past 40 years.

Downes has a classical background - his PhD was in the symphonies of Mahler.

He went on to become a senior lecturer at Otago University teaching band performance, songwriting, analysis, music theory and in the process developed New Zealand's first rock music degree.

He told Queen's Birthday morning with Karyn Hay the best way to describe his career is like being in "a constant circular feedback loop".

"I write music and it helps me understand what the hell I'm trying to do.

"You try and explain it to somebody else in the teaching environment and if you do a good job of it that's good.

"If you don't do a good job of it, you go actually, I don't understand this as well as I should.

"One thing keeps informing the other - for me anyway."

He said both teaching and writing songs have been the love of his life "and the two things have always gone together really".

Dr Downes retired last year so that he could deal with some health issues, saying today: "I'm here; I'm all right."

He is composing music and is working on another record.

"It's a bit slow in terms of writing the music side of it. It's a thing you have to get yourself into the right mode to be able to do."

He said the last album, Dunedin Spleen, came out on CD and digital last Friday and a live album with music performed in 1996 comes out on 12 June.

Martin Phillipps, Shayne Carter, Graeme Downes, David Kilgour

Martin Phillipps, Shayne Carter, Graeme Downes, David Kilgour Photo: RNZ / Tim Dodd

The album title is a reference to some Baudelaire poems called Paris Spleen so it's "just a poet being crotchety".

He said it's a privilege to be a recipient of a Queen's Birthday honour. He is celebrating today with some family and friends in Otaki where he relocated a year ago.

Graeme Downes was also a longtime music reviewer for Nine to Noon and recorded this interview just before stepping down from the role in November 2020.

This audio is not downloadable due to copyright restrictions.

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