Jordan Reyne on How The Dead Live

ARTS, Features, Interviews, Music

The dark folk/experimental musician talks about the making of her latest—and last—album.

Jordan Reyne may go down as one of New Zealand’s most underrated musicians of the last decade. She has decided to give up releasing music—despite (and because of) her fifth and latest album How The Dead Live. Part-funded through the Department of Conservation and Creative New Zealand’s “Wild Creations” programme, Reyne spent time at Karamea on the West Coast. From her research there, Reyne conceived of a narrative based around an early settler to the area—Susannah Hawes who time and history have forgotten. The result is a highly idiosyncratic album, full of great songs and an ambition rarely seen in New Zealand music. It’s also highly listenable, with beautiful melodies and Reyne’s lauded voice carrying through stories of New Zealand’s forgotten past.

Reyne grew up near Westport, and was influenced early on by a music teacher. “I had a really inspiring teacher. I think I was Standard One in Westport when I was living there. He used to play old Beatles songs and Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan and things. I found him really inspiring. He noticed that I really enjoyed it and encouraged me to sing.” She’s also always been interested in found sound, and mechanical sounds in her music—and her music has made full use of non-acoustic instruments throughout her career. “I’ve always found mechanical machinery really interesting and some of the sounds they make. I made rhythms as a kid before I could play an instrument. I lived on a farm as well in the middle of nowhere. I remember distinctly banging bits of metal together and singing to it, before I could play the guitar.”

Reyne initially started by releasing a solo album—1997’s Birds of Prey. However, she faced stereotypes surrounding solo females and guitars despite the industrial tinged sounds she created. “There was a time in the mid-90s when solo female artists were always assumed at first to be guitar strumming sort of hippy music. Having released the first album, it got well reviewed but I didn’t get much of a response, and a lot of it was from having a single person’s name.” She started up a ‘band’, Dr Kevorkian and the Suicide Machine. Dr Kevorkian “was basically a move in the direction of darkwave and also a marketing lie to help people imagine the context of more than just a girl and a guitar. On the band, there were actually live musicians, but they were musicians that I’d worked with for years, and I worked with a metal band. But the majority of it is just me—the things I had done with the first one but with invented characters. And it worked. People assumed there was a lot more to it than just a girl and a guitar. What they got was more in the line of what they had expected, which is what hadn’t been with the first album. They put my first album on and it’s like ‘oh my god what are all those machine noises?’ Dr. Kevorkian was quite a helpful manoeuvre, if somewhat offensive to people outside of the darkwave scene because it was an inflammatory name.”

From early on in her career, Reyne conceived of albums as narratives. “The other thing I always wanted to be was a writer, right from an early age. I possibly just tried to combine the two. Actually my other influence early on was folk music, the type that would tell a long tale—and The Wall by Pink Floyd, which I think is one of the best albums of all-time just because it managed to make the characters hang together throughout the whole album. You become more engaged in the music, as with reading a novel. You can buy into the characters; you want to know what happens with the character development, what changes.” This also does mean that individual songs become, in effect, subservient to the bigger picture. “With song-writing, you’ve got to have more than just a song as a finite thing. It’s part of a larger whole. So hopefully if you do it right, I don’t know if I do—but I certainly do try—is you need the development of the overall album. What has to happen is like a chapter. This chapter, how is it going to affect the following chapters? That’s how I look at songs. I am actually quite happy for people to copy and pass on my stuff, but I’d hate it just being one song. It’s like someone taking a chapter out of your book and saying ‘read this’. It annoys me.”

With How the Dead Live, Reyne applied for the “Wild Creations” programme. The entry included choosing a DOC site in which to stay for six weeks. Reyne chose the rugged Karamea with it being close to Westport. “I wanted to do something about the West Coast, the harsh lifestyle down there.” She had spent time holidaying in Karamea as a child, but she found it a different place as an adult. “It felt just as magical as it was as a child, but it’s a dark and overwhelming kind of magic. The nature down there is so untouched, it’s one of the last pockets of coastal nikau forests for a start, and you just get the feeling it’s nattered and ancient and you are really just nothing. It’s continued through time and unchanged for probably millennia. You are just a blink in the eye no matter how long you stay there. Even the families that have mostly been there since the time they arrived, things don’t really change, and you haven’t found your place in that. I was overwhelmed by it—it’s a brutal kind of beauty. It’s kind of an old beauty.” There was the feeling of ghosts too—not in a literal sense—but one of historical figures and untold tales.

“With song-writing, you’ve got to have more than just a song as a finite thing. It’s part of a larger whole… That’s how I look at songs. I am actually quite happy for people to copy and pass on my stuff, but I’d hate it just being one song. It’s like someone taking a chapter out of your book and saying ‘read this’. It annoys me.”

Reyne spent considerable time researching in Karamea, and was attracted to Susannah Hawes as a character. “There were a lot of descriptions of people—mostly of men who’d go over to get food supplies from places like Nelson, there were no road access, and they’d go over the hills to Collingwood and it’d take weeks. They were very, very un-emotive in their descriptions, even when their horses had died and quite terrible things had happened to them. I thought, ‘wow, how could they write like that?’ It was interesting, but I didn’t connect with it, just because of the way it was written. I think that was the roots of how our nation deals with darkness to some extent, we don’t talk about it directly, we’d rather just say ‘it’s ok’. I got the feeling, for a lot of people there, things were so bad that they couldn’t begin to talk to about it. If they did, it would have been too much. It was in a basic, adverb free way of dealing with things. Susannah, in one of her first letters [wrote] ‘when I arrived the scene was so desolate that I simply sat down on a stump and wept.’ And I thought ‘wow ok’, it really brings it home. She wasn’t one to wallow in melancholy at all either, but I could picture myself in that situation—giving up everything in middle class England in her case to come to a settlement that was supposedly planned in this paradise, and you ended up with this place where nothing grows and half the people have to leave, some of whom die.”

How The Dead Live features a personified History, going back into time to tell Hayes’s story. However, History soon bores of this ‘nobody’ and leaves for more ‘exciting’ stories like the Boer War. “One thing I’d noticed in New Zealand is that we do deal with minor narratives a lot more. We are a lot more interested in the lives of everyday folk perhaps because our population is so small. But on the whole, in a world scale, we’re really interested in big overviews, where grand things happen that change the status quo, and in things that are seen as quite causal in human development. Everyday life isn’t like that. Susannah’s life wasn’t like that. It wasn’t causal in a grand sense. It was just a person doing the best they could in a relatively difficult situation and getting on with it. History’s trying to look for something big and undiscovered yet she’s confronted with a bunch of small lives and a hard land.”

While also critiquing the operation of History, Reyne herself adopts the persona of History through the artistic process. “I’m rummaging in there thinking, how will I choose this life over that life? And eventually I chose it because it resonated, but you do feel like the History character, decreeing what gets to be talked about and what doesn’t. I chose Susannah over a bunch of other people who had probably equally interesting lives—they all gave up their lives in England and came here to work on hard land. But in a sense I’m History, because I said ‘I’m going to treat this person arbitrarily and self-interestedly as History does’. That’s why she’s in there.

This focus on ‘small’ stories is also an antidote to nihilism—a riposte to the idea that life is meaningless. Reyne talked about nihilism in a print interview a few years ago, but admits “it got very misinterpreted when I said ‘technically speaking I suppose I am a nihilist’. That doesn’t rob anyone of the value they vest in themselves. And you’re right in that sense, that’s why I chose a small life. If you want to be utilitarian or judgmental about it, it was pointless because she didn’t change anything, she wasn’t causal—this is why History gets pissed off with her. However, this was her life, and it was an incredibly interesting story. From my own perspective she did something incredibly adventurous, leaving a comfortable life going somewhere she had little idea about and it turned out to be harsh. That’s worth something to me, being inside that kind of narrative yourself, as long as it fits your set of values you’ve chosen (which are unfortunately arbitrary). That’s to me what the meaning of life is, people acting on a sense of what is the right thing.”

The music itself carries a tension between the present and the past and the natural world, and the subtle soundscape underneath the primary music links between the three ‘worlds’. In effect, the history feels alive through the music. “I did try and get samples from things that would have happened in the time—obviously they were recorded in a contemporary context. I did go through lists of stuff they had in Karamea—it’s all in the museum, which is good. You’ve got chains, and hammers going on iron, a lot of agricultural sounds. It’s all very nicely recorded, it’s background noise, it’s filtered through the modern kind of music.”

However, this great album ends up becoming a eulogy for Reyne too—who has now decided to concentrate on writing solely. “I decided that it would be my last album. Basically, it has become quite an untenable position in New Zealand, doing something that’s kinda fringe and I sort of stayed in the same level pretty much since The Ironman (2000), for ten years. It just becomes too difficult to survive.” Her sonic experimentation and thought-provoking concepts also struggled to maintain much commercial appeal in New Zealand—although she hasn’t struggled for critical support. “We don’t have the population base to support it, which makes life so difficult to support it. On the one sense [the New Zealand scene’s] instantly supportive, which you need, the people who like your music you meet them personally. Fans become your friends. I noticed that in the darkwave scene—it’s a wonderfully supportive scene. It’s just that there’s only 500 of us in the whole country. I kinda wish I’d left New Zealand a lot earlier, because perhaps I would have had the energy to do something with it over here in Europe. It’s a bit late for me, I’m a bit too old and tired.”