Anna Coddington has the voice, the look, the presence, and the songs.
New Zealand’s finest female singer-songwriter talks to Alexander Bisley about her new single ‘Bird in Hand’, stalker songs, Azealia Banks, and Charles Bukowski. At Kingsland’s Shaky Isles cafe, ‘Little Islands’s scribe is at once feisty and relaxed, earthy and sophisticated, serious and funny. Photography by James Black.
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ALEXANDER BISLEY: Recently you performed at Wanaka’s Festival of Colour with Don McGlashan. Your song you want to be remembered by was ‘Underneath the Stars’?
ANNA CODDINGTON: Yeah. ‘Underneath the Stars’ is about being a human in the context of the universe and feeling insignificant and like your life span is so short in that context and you’re so tiny. But it’s the relationships between yourself and other people that make life significant.
AB: It’s a beautiful song. One of the cool things about being down here on these little islands is our view of the Southern Cross.
AC: Yeah I went through a phase of reading about quantum physics, the Universe, the lifespan of stars and planets, there’s so much going on. We get caught up in our own little lives, which is human and fine, but I find thinking of those things really liberating, it puts your life in context, you come and go. So all the stuff that happens in between, you’ve just got to enjoy it. There’s one sun and we all have to share it. No one gets a special star.
AB: You did backing vocals for Shayne Carter’s There My Dear, brilliant songs like ‘Don’t Even See Me’. Your favourite Shayne Carter track?
AC: Shayno—gee, he’s written a lot of great songs hasn’t he? Hard to pick one. ‘If I Were You’ [Straightjacket Fits], that is a really great song: stalker song [sings some ‘If I Were You’].
AB: What speaks to you particularly on ‘If I Were You’?
AC: I quite like writing those songs too. I’ve written quite a few stalker-songs myself, because it’s not appropriate to be like that in real life, but when you really have a strong feeling for someone that’s how you feel, you want to wear their clothes and steal their friends, just be psycho and love them in psycho ways. But you can’t, so you write a song about it. It’s cool, it’s really intense. I like intensity.
AB: You got that line “I feel somewhat like a stalker” in Duchess’ ‘You Buried Me Alive’.
AC: Yeah, that’s a break-up song [laughs]. You know when you break up with someone and you’re obsessed with them like ‘What are they doing? Who are they hanging out with?’ because you’re so used to being in contact with them everyday, and then suddenly you’re not and you feel like you still have a right to know exactly what they’re doing but you actually don’t. So you feel like a stalker.
AB: I think you’ve got some enduring songs.
AC: I think that’s a good thing about being an artist like me, and there’s loads of us, our fans are very loyal because they feel like they’ve found you. It’s not who’s got the number one single, who everyone knows. When you find something for yourself it feels special.
“I like [Bukowski’s] crazy, real-life writing style. He’s always writing about someone’s shitty life and how they just get on with it… From the narrator’s point of view his life’s not shit, it’s fine. I like it; it’s got this real detachment you know? It’s got that sad story but not in a sad way.”
AB: You tweeted recently about how you loved the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik when you were younger, quoting “I’m on the porch coz I lost my house key pick up my book I read Bukowski!” from ‘Mellowship Slinky in B Major’.
AC: Blood Sugar Sex Magik was one of my first musical obsessions. When I was 13, I was really heavily into that album.
AB: How is Charles Bukowski an influence?
AC: I like his crazy, real-life writing style. He’s always writing about someone’s shitty life and how they just get on with it. He’s always writing about this alcoholic who’s got no job and no money who just hangs out with out-of-it prostitutes, and alcoholic slags, and spends all his money on the horses but isn’t depressing. From the narrator’s point of view his life’s not shit, it’s fine. I like it; it’s got this real detachment you know? It’s got that sad story but not in a sad way.
AB: Writers and musicians are going to be broke, so just enjoy it.
AC: Well yeah, exactly; partly that. I like books where the character’s language is very specific to them.
AB: There’s a good Bukowski quote I read recently, “Find what you love and let it kill you.”
AC: Pretty much [smiles].
AB: Do you have a desert island Bukowski book?
AC: I really like his stuff, I really enjoyed Ham on Rye and Post Office. I’ll tell you whose books I really really like, Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything is Illuminated. I love the Russian kid. Instead of saying “spending money” he talks about “dispensing currency”; he’s trying to be fancy with his language but he says really weird shit. One of the weird things he says, when he feels down, “my boots were so heavy then.” I wrote this song on my last album called ‘Heavy Boots Blue Skies’. I thought it was such a great way to describe that feeling, having heavy boots.
AB: You got good reviews for Cat and Bird, words like “breathtaking”, “captivating”, “sensual”, “thoughtful”, “harmonious”, and “sophisticated”.
AC: You try not to put too much stock in that stuff because you don’t know which way it’s going to fall. I think someone from Pluto once said you put an album out and then you brace yourself for a battering. There’s always going to be someone who hates it. You have to believe in it enough yourself. But then when people say nice things about it, it’s very good and it’s very handy to use them in your press releases [laughs].
AB: ‘Little Islands’ is another favourite of mine.
AC: That’s about feeling like there’s a glass ceiling in New Zealand. You can see the rest of the world, you’re really aware of what’s going on in the music industry, or whatever industry, but it’s very hard to get out there and be a part of it from here because we’re so far away. It’s also about what’s awesome about living here.
AB: Tell me more about ‘Bird in Hand’?
AC: I wrote that song towards the end of last year. And it’s a song about letting go, in a way, without wanting to go in to too much personal detail, it sums up that feeling of watching someone fly away from you, and not really wanting that to happen. The lyrics say: “To watch you fly it hurts me, why can’t I be the one with my face to the sun.” It’s partly about letting someone go without really wanting to but knowing it’s the best thing, and it’s partly about watching somebody else succeed and being happy for them but also feeling a bit left behind. It’s like a dream, you know what it means, but some of it’s your sub-conscious throwing up crazy shit that you don’t even know where it comes from.
AB: What’s your creative philosophy?
AC: I’ve come to realise over time that song writing is a craft and the more you do it, the better you get. I’m really into that. My creative philosophy at the moment is trying anything, being open to anything, being open to influence. My ex-boyfriend [Ned Ngatae, got together at Bic Runga’s Birds launch party] and I were together for seven years. He was my guitarist and we just made music between the two of us for so long so it was hard to branch out of that. But now I’m collaborating with lots of different people, producers, and I’m getting so much out of it. It’s a creative philosophy but it’s also a work ethic. Be always looking for new, better ways of doing things. You’ve got to try hard all the time… I liked your piece on Mara [TK], what a groovy dude.
AB: He told me, “Anna makes outrageous demands. One time she wanted a banquet table just for herself for some alone time, and was it too much to ask for a completely new wardrobe full of Karen Walker pieces? That’s not too much to ask for. She’s awesome, an amazing songwriter, one of the funniest people I know.”
AC: [laughs] I can’t believe he knows Karen Walker. He gave me a great rap name, Pania of the Streets.
“I just finished a month of writing a song a day—30 songs in 30 days and I had this rule that I wouldn’t go on the Internet until 3pm, once you start getting sucked down that path it’s difficult. To write a song I have to be in a certain frame of mind, and going on the Internet takes me out of that.”
AB: You’ve just done that rappish song with Latinaotearoa and rapper Tom Scott.
AC: That’s true! I’m in there; I’ve got my foot in the door. [Homebrew beatsmaker] Haz is doing a remix of ‘Bird in Hand’.
AB: So tell me about your favourite female rapper, Pania of the Streets?
AC: Azealia Banks is my current fave, love her. Listen to her heaps when I run. I saw her live and she was fuckin’ awesome. She’s so sexed out it’s crazy. Vector Arena was full of wasted yoots going mental, so it was vibing. I quite like to hear a female rapper be quite gangsta, so I occassionally enjoy Lil’ Kim. MC Silva is amazing. Fuck she’s badass, I just watched her video with Bulletproof. Not shy, man, when she goes for it I find that really inspiring, to see someone cut loose.
AB: You wrote Cat and Bird mainly on the back deck, in an early morning haze writing down dreams you didn’t want to forget?
AC: Yes, I definitely think that’s my best writing time—early in the morning before I do anything else. Because once I start answering the emails and doing business things my brain switches that way. I just finished a month of writing a song a day—30 songs in 30 days and I had this rule that I wouldn’t go on the Internet until 3pm, once you start getting sucked down that path it’s difficult. To write a song I have to be in a certain frame of mind, and going on the Internet takes me out of that.
AB: On Cat and Bird you have that bird-like, free, spacious feeling. I reckon ‘Bird In Hand’ producer SJD gets that spacious feeling, also?
AC: For ‘Bird In Hand’ I was interested in achieving the best result with the most space. I like that spacious vibe because it’s a good head space to be in, cluttered anything is not my buzz. I live by the mantra tidy house, tidy mind. The first thing I do every morning is tidy up and I can’t start working until everything is tidy.
AB: You did backing vocals on SJD’s best album, Songs from a Dictaphone, terrific songs such as ‘Lucifer’ and ‘Black is a Beautiful Colour’. How has he influenced your process?
AC: SJD was doing 50 songs in 50 days and I thought that’d be great, I’ll do that when I have time, but I adjusted it to 30 songs in 30 days coz I’m slightly lazier than him.
AB: It’s a good feeling when you get into it, isn’t it?
AC: Five out of 30 were good, you normally wouldn’t write five good songs in a month. I decided I do have time, I’m just not using it in the right way, I’m spending too much time on fucking Facebook and the Internet. So I had to take those variables out for a month and yeah, it was good.
© James Black 2013. All Rights Reserved. More images at blackphotographic.
More about ‘Bird in Hand’ at annacoddington.com. This is part one of a three part interview. Thanks to Alice May Connolly and Kimaya McIntosh for some transcription assistance.
 Along with Bic Runga, and possibly others.