I was born in Hastings in the Hawke’s Bay, the most ideal place for a young sports-mad kid to grow up in. We had a quarter-acre section with tons of fruit trees in our backyard, each of those making great cricket stumps. Then my dad got transferred to Wellington and my parents in their infinite wisdom brought a house twenty minutes out in a place called Camborne on top of a hill and I wasn’t ready for such a change.
It was unbelievably windy and you couldn’t play outside because you’d just tumble down the big hill. My mother would always say, “We’ve got an incredible view,” but as a nine year old all you know is that you can’t play with a view. So that was quite a big deal for me, but as it is now, I’m really glad, because I still have some absolutely amazing friends from my days at Tawa College.
There’s two specific moments which I remember very clearly that mark when music became huge for me. The first was when I heard Mull Of Kintyre by Paul McCartney and Wings. I was only about five years old when it came out but the song just blew me away. I think it was the bagpipes that made it really stick with me. Following that, I started a short-lived Mull Of Kintyre club at school. There was only one other member and we managed one meeting which took place on the monkey bars at lunchtime. The second moment was when my sister came home with the Simon and Garfunkel live in Central Park album. Listening to that on vinyl was the first time I really appreciated harmony, it was an absolute game changer for me.
Starting out in radio broadcasting, I got the feeling that I was on the wrong side of the microphone very early on. I was working at ZM in Wellington and doing quite well but I was young and soon realised that I didn’t know anything. I had no reference and context because I hadn’t lived so I couldn’t add any value to the radio. Other than reading out jokes, there was nothing I could give, so I asked my boss if I could come off air and write ads instead. It turned out that I was a good writer and ended up leaving New Zealand to live in London where I applied my trade as a copywriter in ad agencies. Around that same time I signed my first management contract as a singer/songwriter.
It was music that really drew me to London because Britain had always had such a huge influence on me. I love English humour and am without a doubt a big fan of The Beatles, Dire Straits and The Cure. When I got the chance to go overseas everyone asked me why I wasn’t going to Australia. I didn’t want to go next door and see people who were a bit like me, so I flew to England with a guitar and started playing the London acoustic circuit and that was brutal. I was playing every stage that I could get and I soon realised just how hard music was. I went through a few managers and we did some great work, but we never really managed to get to that next level, but I still played and enjoyed being a New Zealander in London.
Radio was also the beginning of a really difficult period for me. As it happens in a de-regulated industry, what they tend to do is get young people who are keen and work them unbelievably hard. In fact three or four of the guys who worked at the station in Wellington had break down episodes, because of the hours and the demands that radio put on them. At that point I was doing the over night shift from midnight to dawn and then they would have me driving the station vehicle around for the next two hours before I went home to write ads for another two hours, then doing it all over again the next day.
I didn’t have a break down and I don’t believe that I was suffering depression but I do believe that I went through a real down turn where I just couldn’t cope. People suggested everything from meditation to going to church, but they were all trying to help me get better through their own experiences rather than necessarily finding out what was wrong. My sister then recommended a counsellor and over four sessions with this lady, she had absolutely cured me. It was enough to let me know that I’m not a crack pot, I’m normal and I just need to give myself a break. The reason I tell this story is because in 2009 when I moved back from England with my family, my wife’s mother became very ill and died over six gruelling months and I’d been made redundant at the same time. My entire world was completely and utterly turned upside down, but it was those four weeks of counselling that made me understand that it would be okay and that I just needed to let it happen and not make any rash decisions during that process.
It was around that time that I decided to start singing again. I recorded an album and donated all of the proceeds to the charity that Martin Sloman and I set up to help men’s mental health. I thought back to that moment when I didn’t know which way was up and I was spinning between people and their advice, like a whirlwind, so that’s what we ended up naming the album and I believe it’s a great snapshot of what was going on in my world at that time. That was the beginning of my work within charities. My strength as a songwriter is to see things others don’t. My wife calls it being nosey, I call it being observant, but it is that ability that has seen me be involved in a lot of different projects. I’ve written for Huntington’s disease, the neonatal trust, homelessness and of course, men’s mental health.
I think there’s a certain honesty in what these people go through and being a person who observes it, it really hits you. I turned up to play at the Parkinson’s society one day and thought I would sing my own songs and think myself a bit of a special troubadour character. But then I looked at those people who were going through such a profoundly difficult journey and I realised that they don’t need me to come in here and think I’m some special guy, so I played every single Simon and Garfunkel song that I knew while everybody sung along and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
One day I read an article in The Listener about a girl I went to school with, Bridget Lyon, and her mother who was suffering from Huntington’s disease. I wasn’t friends with Bridget at the time, but through the wonders of Facebook I got in touch with her and we had this very awkward and amazing meeting where this girl who was in my class when I was nine years old, sat across from me and told me about how bleak her world was. I asked her if I could write a song about her story and so I wrote, ‘The Gift,’ about her Great Grandfather setting sail for Scotland, unaware that he carried this dark and terrible gift for his offspring called Huntington’s disease.
The biggest thing I’ve learnt is that every experience, especially the bad ones, gives me something to write about. So in that essence, every bad experience makes you richer in a way that you know more because you’ve been through more. I’ve also learnt that music is so much better than the music business. Music in itself is so exciting, beautiful, lovely, important and world-changing, but the music industry is not. I think the music industry lets the world see the artists that it wants them to see and while the internet has certainly allowed us to discover more artists, they might not stick around for quite so long because they’ve got bills to pay. It would just be really lovely if artists were able to apply their trade and be recognised and paid what they’re worth because music and art makes the world such a better place.
I was listening to Mel Parsons on the radio recently and I just sat there and thought, I hope she’s a superstar. I hope great things come to that woman because she’s inspiring and amazing and we have so many incredibly talented artists in New Zealand and around the world that I hope can all continue to do what they do, rather than have to go write jingles for somebody else or change their lyrics to suit a soundtrack, ad or company.
My daughter wants to go to Berkley School of Music and I tell her that while she can probably learn a lot from that, songwriting comes from living and experiencing life. It’s about taking the time to stop, listen, think, see and appreciate what is going on in the world. While going to a flash university overseas will give you some great experiences, it may not give you great songs. So my advice is, why not go overseas and do another degree you’re interested in because you can be a songwriter without a piece of paper, but if it doesn’t pan out, or you no longer want to write songs, then you’ll have something to fall back on, which is never a bad idea. Whilst I would love to say don’t worry about it, just go and study music, I have seen too many people having breakdowns and being at institutions, on substances and losing their way in life because their foundations weren’t right. Depression, drug addiction, sadness and suffering is not part of the job description of being an artist, but it worries me that my daughter wants to get into an industry where there is such a prevalence of mental health and suffering.
Throughout interviews artists tend to constantly reassure us that everything is great because that’s what the industry wants people to hear, but behind that, it’s tough. The world of an artist is very insecure and frightening at times, but beyond all that I am constantly blown away to this day by beautifully and brilliantly conceived songs which make it all worth while.