The mental mix tape that pops into my mind whenever I think about the time I spent in New Zealand begins with ‘Why Does Love Do This To Me’ by the Exponents, a song repeatedly played at Danny Doolans along Auckland’s Viaduct Harbour, followed by Liam Finn’s ‘Second Chance’. It always ends with ‘Catch The Light’ by Fly My Pretties.
Those were the songs I came to love in 2007, when I lived in Auckland for six months. Back then I knew nothing about the connection between these artists and their homeland. Their songs seemed to be random tracks on an equally random soundtrack. But ultimately, that Kiwi mix tape launched me on a journey into New Zealand music – a journey that has unveiled a strong relationship between Aotearoa and its artists.
The journey starts in K Road in Auckland, where, sitting at a table at Alleluja Café, Mikee Tucker and LA Mitchell introduce me to the world of Fly My Pretties. The project, rather than a band, is more of an ever-changing collective of artists from all over the country who meet to play and record songs every couple of years. Always live. None of their four albums has been recorded in a studio, a peculiarity that makes each one an intense, bold experiment. Each album is also a unique tale: Fly My Pretties III (A Story) focuses on the need to preserve the environment; while the newest release, Fly My Pretties IV, mixes art, fashion and music to portray contemporary New Zealand. All together, the four albums create a macro-narrative, where history, the environment and the arts come together to give a humble, blooming and colorful portrait of the Land of the Long White Cloud.
From the cultural hub of K Road I walk along Great Northern Road and down Bond Street to end up in Auckland’s second cultural hub, the hip neighbourhood of Kingsland. Home to the Kingslander pub, this ’burb is also the headquarters of Amplifier.co.nz, the website you want to bookmark to keep up to date with the latest news in Kiwi music. Here, I meet Richard Setford, aka Bannerman. With two albums and an EP under his belt, Richie draws inspiration from movies and writes songs that sound like John Steinbeck landscapes.
“People talk about how we get some things last,” he answers when I ask him whether it’s the isolation that makes New Zealand’s music so special. “We have to think for ourselves. Or maybe we are like a filter. From where we are, we get bits from here, bits from there and then we’ve got the time and the location to work with that.
“There’s a certain type of New Zealand music that connects to a really big part of the culture and that’s the reggae/dub/roots music driven mostly from Wellington. I don’t know why, but I have a feeling that maybe, because of its geographical situation, it is central to both islands. And, if you’re travelling through the South Island – slow journeys through those farm landscapes and hills – it seems to get along very well with reggae/dub/roots music.”
The same happens with Bannerman’s music as I drive from Christchurch to Lake Tekapo and back. His two extremely diverse CDs (Dearly Departed and The Dusty Dream Hole) manage to express, in 24 folkish and stripped-bare songs, the variety of landscapes peculiar to New Zealand.
Even rock music seems to be influenced by the Kiwi landscape. After 18 months in England, Sven from the Checks came back to Auckland and discovered it was easier to write music in a familiar environment. It’s something he continues to do in his Kingsland apartment, even after the band split up in August 2012. Barefoot, with a cup of coffee in his hand, a Dr Dre album on his stereo and a photo of the Huntly power station hanging on his wall, he reflects upon the fact that, no matter what, in New Zealand artists can’t take themselves too seriously.
Nick from Cut Off Your Hands agrees, adding: “If you act like a star, people are going to laugh at you.” It’s a surprising revelation considering that Cut Off Your Hands are very popular in the UK and US.
LA Mitchell’s words, Sven’s bare feet and Nick’s way of nestling himself on one of the trees of Albert Park in Auckland reveal a discreet but ever-present awareness of the surrounding environment.
This Kiwi peculiarity becomes Dudley Benson’s distinctive feature. Based in Dunedin but a native of the Canterbury region, this singer-songwriter crafts songs connected to Papatuanuku (Mother Earth) and has released two albums: The Awakening (2008), “a song cycle that weaves together memories of New Zealand’s colonial past with a personal and emotional nostalgia for childhood”; and Forest (2010), “that, recorded almost entirely with only the human voice and sung largely in te reo Ma¯ori, tells the stories of New Zealand’s native birds.” In his music, hip-hop, folk and a cappella mix together to re-create the feeling I experienced several times when confronted by some of New Zealand’s stunningly beautiful landscapes, including Cape Reinga, Milford Sound and Franz Josef Glacier.
No matter where they live, New Zealand’s artists are fully aware that they occupy an environment that is isolated and fragile in one sense, yet domineering in another. Every one of them seems so serenely aware of their place in the world, as if they’re living out the Maori proverb ‘land is permanent, man disappears’.
Discover more music from New Zealand on Amplifier.