Music critic Simon Sweetman relays the stories behind thirty New Zealand pop classics with his new book, On Song.
“Annable Fay’s album Show Me the Right Way is a horrible collection of tasteless and meaningless mangles of notes masquerading as music… It has nothing going for it—her voice is without character. The songs are bland. The element of “polish” to mask the cracks and gaps in the songs leaves it as a cold experience.” “If fans want to take their frustrations out on me because I said something that didn’t sit well with them about their favourite artist then I understand that. I’m baffled somewhat by the stupidity that comes along with it a lot of the time,” Simon Sweetman. The lively, engaging critic is also a talented interviewer, as previous chats with the likes of George Clinton and Damon Albarn record. With hundreds of posts over at Blog on the Tracks, from the Fay takedown to a recent Bob Dylan critique, Sweetman’s fierce productivity is intimidating. I asked Sweetman about his passionate, enjoyable first book, which covers thirty New Zealand classics, from ‘She Speeds’ (“a giant wave that pulls in the listener”) to ‘Jesus I Was Evil’ via ‘Can’t Get Enough’.
* * *
ALEXANDER BISLEY: Lots of people came to your recent, colourful launch at Slow Boat Records. I particularly enjoyed your marvellous reading of Martin Phillips’s masterpiece: “‘Pink Frost’ is one of the South Island’s siren songs; a Flying Nun touchstone, a song that New Zealanders can recognise as distinctly their own, evocative of our unique landscape.” Could you elaborate why you chose this extract from On Song’s thirty?
SIMON SWEETMAN: I figured I should read something—I’ve seen and heard people read at book launches before. But I wasn’t sure that my book was necessarily one that extracted well—simply because it’s non-fiction. I certainly didn’t want to read one entire chapter. I really enjoyed writing the piece about ‘Pink Frost’ and it features a lot of my writing/my voice—some of the pieces are based more on interviews, others have more of me in them. I interviewed Martin Phillipps for the book and he gave great answers, but I really wanted to try to convey a tone that I hear and feel with ‘Pink Frost’ as it’s such a mood-piece and moody piece. It seemed the right piece to read a portion of—I did my best to tie it to the geography of the region that it reflects.
AB: Music is your all-consuming passion, isn’t it?
SS: I guess so. I’ve never really thought about it that way—but if it’s all-consuming then perhaps I haven’t had the time to sit back and think about whether it’s an all-consuming passion. I’ve been very keen on music since I was a little kid. I remember asking questions relentlessly about The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley and then reading music bios, copying out lyrics and liner notes, keeping lists of purchases and wish-list records. So, yeah, obsessing I suppose.
AB: You write, “I wrote the book across 2011-2012. And it was a joy to get this involved—this immersed—in some of the defining songs from our country.” What was hard about the project?
SS: It was important to feel like I had an angle—a way in. I wasn’t sure at first that New Zealand needed another book about New Zealand music—but I really like writing about individual songs. You extract a song from an artist’s career and you’re free to just explore the song. But you can also bring in other information about the artist too—Jan Hellriegel for example. It’s interesting to me that she disappeared from the scene. But she returned and her hit song, ‘The Way I Feel’, was the song everyone wanted to hear when she performed in Wellington for the first time in some 15 years.
I decided fairly early on that the way I would pick the songs to write about would be based on songs I felt could only have come from New Zealand. That means it’s my interpretation—and that was important. It meant I was free to explore my connections and associations with these songs as well as getting the stories from the writers of the music.
It was also hard fitting it in—my first book. It felt big. Ominous—more so than writing blogs and reviews. They are not so much easy as achievable. I do them all the time—so that means I know I can do them. I didn’t know I could do a book until I had.
AB: I think Don McGlashan is New Zealand’s greatest singer-songwriter. You wrote about his Aramoana inspired ‘A Thing Well Made’, and, in your profile: “McGlashan’s songs are a huge part of the music that is typically, identifiably Kiwi.” How do you narrow McGlashan down to one song?
SS: Very hard to narrow McGlashan down to one song; very hard to narrow down the Finns and Dave Dobbyn and Jordan Luck too—but I would say that Don McGlashan was the toughest, definitely. And several of his songs were swimming in my head as I was making and refining the lists to work from. There was a very long first long-list. And McGlashan had the most entries on there. I decided straight away that there should only be one song per artist—because I wanted the book to not be lumped in with the Nature’s Best CD series. Obviously I’d be covering some of the same material but I didn’t want four or five Finn or Dobbyn or Runga songs to dominate, as had been the case with that series.
All of that said ‘A Thing Well Made’ was my first choice, because it is exactly that: A thing (very) well made; a song that always gives me chills/sends shivers. And it wasn’t one of the Nature’s Best songs from Don, so that appealed too. There were certain songs that had to be written about (‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’, ‘How Bizarre’), songs that have put New Zealand on the map or talked about New Zealand’s map, or both. I also wanted to have a few songs in the book where people were perhaps a little surprised by the inclusion. ‘A Thing Well Made’ has the Aramoana inspiration to it also. And in fact it was battling with picking just one McGlashan song that inspired the profiles of key writers in the book.
AB: The work of the Finns, Knox, Dobbyn, and Runga are also highlighted.
SS: That in turn was hard; I would have liked to include sidebars for more writers: Martin Phillips, Jordan Luck, Anika Moa.
AB: You blogged: “One of my favourite stories in the book On Song is the story of ‘Victoria’. Because I wanted to reflect the time spent talking with Jordan and his passion for music—his own, and in fact everyone’s. And where he could have wanted to promote any of the songs I’ve named or any of up to a dozen others, he was so very proud of ‘Victoria’. He said he owes his career to that song. It was the band’s first single. It was the one that made them. That and the early performances. It was his reason for being who he was as writer, performer, entertainer, rocker. It was the start of everything in so many ways. And I found that form of honesty refreshing,” Tell me a bit about another favourite story?
SS: Some of the selections in the book come from my idea of what has made an artist; others were obvious selections; and then you find that it really is what made the artist. As is the case with Jordan Luck and The Exponents and ‘Victoria’. But sometimes I was going on a hunch too, hoping that what I heard would be reflected when I spoke to a song’s author. I got it right—and was very lucky about that—when talking with Anika Moa about her song, ‘In The Morning’. I pushed for this song to be included, it was one that the publishers were less sure of, in that it wasn’t necessarily a classic, or any sort of hit. But the song speaks to me on several levels. It is, as far as I’m concerned, Anika’s proudest moment as a songwriter. And it’s a stunning performance. It’s a very powerful song, it comes from deep within her—it’s a very personal song. But I saw all of that as the real start of her career; or at least the re-start and the beginning of the (very) real Anika Moa. She’s so good at playing up the stage banter and she’s sharp, witty, and talented. It’s not that she’s faking any of that but she has mastered a certain shtick. ‘In The Morning’ is so very real that I wanted to get behind Anika’s feelings and motivations in writing the song. I hoped to hear that she was sure it was the start of her songwriting career. And she did say exactly that, she considers it a very important song for her because it was the trigger for her second album. And her second album is what really announces her as a talent. That debut album is a good record for a young kid to make. But Stolen Hill is a great album for anyone to have made.
And then Anika talks also of the publicity and promo surrounding the release of Stolen Hill and ‘In The Morning’. She was coming out, publicly. Her label warned her off doing that, suggested she stay quiet. She took every opportunity to out herself in interviews and with this song, about an abortion, she had a vehicle to show so many sides to herself and she made herself a spokesperson—she made herself approachable, showed strength and vulnerability. I love the song. And I love Anika’s interview for the book. It was one of my favourite chapters to write because it felt like a lot of what I had hoped for had played out. And then Anika was so candid, revealing, warm, and honest in the way she described it all.
AB: I find ‘In the Morning’ powerful also. Speaking of candid, what about a Bill Withers song you would you like to hear the full story of? I agree that Bill Withers, Live at Carnegie Hall “is a bible… for teaching the good word in regards to dynamic control; great musicians playing for the song and with each other rather than attempting to show off their chops whenever the chance arrives.”
SS: Bill Withers is pretty special. I’m not sure I need to know the stories behind any of his songs so much though; I think I get enough just from taking in the songs. And that amazing documentary. And the song-intros on Live At Carnegie Hall definitely help tell part of the story behind some of the songs. ‘Grandma’s Hands’ for instance. But you put on one of the great Bill Withers records—particularly that live album—and you are taken to a place. You are transported. He sings with soul and of his soul. He is offering so much of himself in those songs. And I love that.
AB: Name an important local live album?
SS: I think probably there have been a lot of missed opportunities and a lot of things still lying in vaults perhaps. I’m always surprised that more bands haven’t done the cheap live album, minimal packaging, sold only at gigs—near enough to a bootleg but the actual artist is getting the money. I have a very good Mutton Birds live album that is exactly that—a bootleg that McGlashan was selling at his solo shows.
I still believe that Dave Dobbyn needs to tour behind his trilogy of great albums: Lament For The Numb/Twist/The Islander—that would make an amazing live double-disc. Or cherry-picking from it.
The live albums I think of from New Zealand acts are usually not all that strong at all—like the Pacifier Live album (from Shihad’s name-change daze) and the Finn/Runga/Dobbyn album, which was very sloppy.
AB: Your greatest Kiwi love songs are ‘E Ipo’ by Prince Tui Teka (our first chart topper performed in Te Reo) and Chris Knox’s ‘Not Given Lightly’. “How very Kiwi, how very lo-fi and No. 8 wire to take a line from a song about sadomasochism and turn it into an endearing, enduring love song,” you write sharply on the latter. Further top tunes about aroha?
SS: Anika Moa’s song ‘In The Morning’ has so much heart in it and to it. I would have to include that. Don McGlashan would get a bit of a sweep here—but certainly his ‘Andy’ is beautiful; heartfelt. And Jordan Luck’s ‘Know Your Own Heart’ has always been one of my favourite songs. I think we do love songs well here. I think we’re pretty good at coming up with new ways of expressing it. We either remove the cliché or we play with the cliché, fall into it and then subvert it, as I believe Knox did with ‘Not Given Lightly’, and The Mutton Birds’ ‘There’s A Limit’ is another example for me. The 3Ds’ ‘Spooky’ gives me shivers every time. And going back to my book I included Emma Paki’s ‘System Virtue’ and Sisters Underground’s ‘In The Neighbourhood’ for many reasons—chiefly because both are great songs. But they have a lot of heart. And they are all about heart. And love. And passion. And it’s there not so much in the words with those songs as it is in the spaces between the words, in the way the melody has been shaped.
AB: I generally see pungent criticism of a reviewer as a badge of honour. When I panned Mel Gibson’s Jesus BDSM The Passion of the Christ for The Dominion Post, I got a (feeble) death threat. You’ve had one or two people object to your journalism. On Amanda Palmer’s childish blog, a commentator upped the puerile whinging: “He is a nasty douchebag of the highest order. He hates women, particularly women in music, is an arrogant misogynistic arse. I wouldn’t piss on him if he was on fire… Note to Simon, I know you wrote these “supportive” comments all yourself. You have a personality disorder and delusions of grandeur, you need help.” Has any of this criticism ever bothered you?
SS: No, I am not bothered by what people say. Fans are—by definition—fanatical. It’s not their job to see through the hype. That’s my job. And if they want to take their frustrations out on me because I said something that didn’t sit well with them about their favourite artist, then I understand that. I’m baffled somewhat by the stupidity that comes along with it a lot of the time—like people telling me that I’m an anonymous internet warrior that would never say these things to someone’s face. They tell me this on my blog, which has my name on it and my photo and they’re telling me this under a name like Wingnut357. There’s an irony.
I’ve had people pick at my weight, my appearance, I’ve had people tell me they will throw bricks through the windows and set my house on fire. And the fact is none of this will ever happen.
People get upset. People don’t like being told they have bad taste. They strike out. They accuse me of getting personal, but if they have that much of themselves invested in the music then they’re the ones that have made it personal from the get-go. This is what happens with music and arts-related experiences and products. I invest a lot of myself and my time in music and arts too. I love far more music than a daily blog can ever explain. And yet I’m very lucky to have that platform, that forum to at least have a go at expressing some of it. But I don’t want it to be the only thing I do—express love for music. If you love everything then that creates very little actual value, if everything is five stars then it might actually all just be three stars too.
AB: How do you produce so much work?
SS: One key after another. Beating the keys of the computer as if they owe me money. That’s all, really. Some days I wish I didn’t have to do this as much as I do it—other days I can’t get enough. I’ve recently started my Off The Tracks site where I’ll be adding more reviews and blogs and keeping the dialogue going.
AB: What do you tell kids who want to get into music journalism?
I tell them to be prepared to work a job, probably full time. Music journalism in New Zealand doesn’t really work as a full-time gig. The pay is not good, and if it is, it’s because you are actually doing PR. Possibly it’s a case of you not even knowing that. I also tell them that if they’re passionate about music and writing and wanting to be involved with both then they need to just hop to it. In a basic sense it’s never been easier: start a blog, get active with social media, create a voice, and see, through that, whether you actually have anything to say, whether you in fact do have a voice. And if anyone is listening; if there’s any weight and worth to the voice. If not, hopefully you didn’t quit your day job—because you were always going to need that anyway. But if the grand plan falls over at the first hurdle at least you’ve got some money coming in. And you’re doing your best to keep the wolves from the door.