The sounds of Aotearoa – a New Zealand Music Month playlist

Aldous Harding, Neil Finn, Reb Fountain

It’s the final few days of New Zealand Music Month, an annual celebration of all that makes Aotearoa music great. 

I’ve lived here more than 15 years now, and I’m still amazed by the depth of NZ music, from the melancholy beauty of Crowded House to the hugely influential post-punk sound of Flying Nun’s The Chills and The Clean to the rousing waiata of Māori anthems to the Kiwi-fried country of artists like Tami Neilson and Delaney Davidson. There’s the inescapable strength of amazing New Zealand women like Aldous Harding, Reb Fountain and Lorde or the madcap adventurousness of folks like Troy Kingi and SJD. 

Troy Kingi.

In this pandemic world, borders have been pretty well closed to international music, so the few concerts I have seen lately have been homegrown – a wonderful Crowded House show between Covid surges, Reb Fountain and Marlon Williams tearing up the stage, a celebration of Flying Nun Records’ 40th anniversary. 

Every country has its own sounds, and there’s something wonderful about becoming an immigrant to another land and learning about its own unique sounds. New Zealand is a melting pot of Māoritanga, British influences, Pacific emotions, the echo of the vast seas and the echoes of a few dozen other cultures who’ve also ended up calling these lands home. 

The first New Zealand music I ever heard was more than 30 years ago, a fuzzy dubbed cassette of Crowded House’s Temple of Low Men given to me by a long-vanished girlfriend. The music sunk deep into my genes, although I had no idea then I’d ever end up living in the place that band came from. 

I can’t make a definitive list of the “best” New Zealand songs, but these are 30 that make me happy every time I hear them, and represent a pretty broad cross-section of Aotearoa sounds, tilted toward my own listening preferences, of course.

Some are old, some are new, some of them are bloody obvious choices that are embedded deep into the kiwi brain, others are a bit more obscure but just say something essential about this strange little oasis at the bottom of the world where I’ve somehow ended up living a big chunk of my life. Another 30 songs could easily have been added, but let’s save some for another year!

Have a listen to my eccentric playlist Noisyland Music: NZ Music Month 2022, and celebrate the sounds of Kiwiana!

So, this is 50

It’s not quite the 50th birthday I once planned – from pre-COVID plotting of having an epic holiday in Japan, to maybe going over for a weekend in Sydney. Then as countries locked down it became possibly a jaunt to Wellington or maybe just stay in Auckland for a nice restaurant dinner, to today, under ongoing Delta lockdowns that hopefully will be a thing of the past by my next birthday.

So, for my gala celebration, it’s takeaways with family, Skype with parents and maybe a quick ocean swim to shake off the cobwebs.

That’s good enough, really.

Kurt Vonnegut, 1990, by Yousuf Karsh

There’s a quote by another guy who was born on the same day as me, Kurt Vonnegut, that kind of sums up the vibe of being here, alive and at a half-century in a world not quite like I imagined it would be when I turned 20, or 30, or 40:  “I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.”

I’m 50 today, and Kurt would be 99 years old.

It’s a kind of happy accident that I’m here at all, that any of us are, and in the end, you get what you get.

Again, to quote my birthday buddy Kurt:

“That’s one thing Earthlings might learn to do, if they tried hard enough: Ignore the awful times and concentrate on the good ones.” 

Songs To Help Me Survive 2021

It’s a tough time out there. Auckland’s been in lockdown for just over two months now and New Zealand’s finally coming to grips with the coronavirus in the community. We’ve had great success compared to an awful lot of places, but right now we’re in a battle to vaccinate and stamp things out so it doesn’t get as bad as so many other places.

Still, like most of the last two years in this troubled world, it’s weird and stressful and I think we’re all kind of over it at this point.

In the end, when life starts to feel like a Groundhog Day of working and sleeping and walks around the neighbourhood and masks and health alerts and the increasing insanity of what feels like a good portion of the online world … well, music is one of the few things that makes sense, right?

I made a playlist nearly a year ago of Songs That Helped Me Survive 2020. For a while there, this year looked like it would be more cheerful, but it turns out this thing has a while to go yet.

But we’ve got songs, we’ve always got songs. Happy songs that remind us what it’s like to be human, angry songs that remind us it’s OK to feel freaked out and frustrated, lovely songs that remind us the grace in between the bad times. Here are some of those songs that are helping me survive 2021. I hope you might dig it too if you need a way to get away from it all.

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the internet…

I’ve had a few posts half-written but life has kind of been overtaken by events here in New Zealand this week and it’s been a bit crazy as we deal with an unfortunate outbreak of the Delta variant. It’s been the first time in more than 6 months for any lockdown here and this is the strictest one since April 2020, but it’s a persistent beast of a disease out there…

Hopefully things will improve soon and most of us haven’t forgotten for a second how incredibly fortunate/lucky/grateful we’ve been not to have it as bad here as so many other places in the world have, and so many friends and family have suffered in the past 18 months or so.

In the meantime, I’ve been busy doing a lot of work with Radio New Zealand, and in bloggable content I wrote about 10 recent (and a couple not-so-recent) shows to watch during lockdown, which is applicable in an awful lot of places in this troubled world at the moment. Go and have a read!

Hanging out with Neil Gaiman, and the glories of book festivals

Auckland may be tiny on the global scale, but we punch above our weight on festivals and events. With the pandemic thankfully under control here for now, this past weekend we held what’s probably the world’s largest literary event, the Auckland Writers Festival. 

It’s always a highlight of the year for constant readers like yours truly, and I was gutted that last year’s was a COVID cancellation.

I’ve gone along to the festival for years now, and it’s astonishing the talent we get way down here – not just some of New Zealand’s best writers, but some of the world’s. I’ve seen Haruki Murakami, George Saunders, Kazuo Ishiguro, Marlon James, Gloria Steinem, Peter Garrett and Jeff Tweedy, among others, been introduced to new writers like Paul Beatty or Andrew Sean Greer, and enjoyed the brilliance of homegrown authors like Elizabeth Knox, Eleanor Catton, Steve Braunias and Michelle Langstone. I’m not an obsessive stalking fanboy of my favourite writers, but it’s always rewarding to actually see them speak, and maybe even get a signature or two. 

Myself, my bald spot, Neil Gaiman.

This year’s festival felt cathartic after the chaos out there in the world, and a particular highlight was getting to spend a few hours listening to Neil Gaiman, who’s been an honorary New Zealander for much of the last year and living right here in Auckland with Amanda Palmer of late. I wasn’t going to miss a chance to say hi to Neil, whose words have meant so much to me over the years.

I’ve been reading Neil Gaiman for decades now, since those first Sandman comics blew my tender mind way back in my final year of high school. Through his prose and essays and comics, Gaiman’s been there as one of the voices in my head and a prime influence on my own hesitant scribbles and comics. I waited for 45 minutes or so to briefly meet Neil and exchange a few words about his living here and how a Californian like me ended up here. 

The Neil queue, extending well outside the convention centre.

Astonishingly, Gaiman went on to sign books for more than five hours for hundreds of fans like me. And by all accounts, was disarmingly gracious and kind to all of them. That’s pretty amazing, and I sure wouldn’t have the patience for it. “I like to think of my readers as friends,” Neil said. Hey, that might sound a wee bit corny, but I’ll take it.

We read alone; you can listen to music, watch movies or Netflix with your mates, but when you read, it’s your brain decoding the worlds, your mind putting the pictures in your head.

Maybe that’s why it’s so refreshing going to writers festivals and making a community of all these solo readers, and why getting to tell a writer face to face that you’ve loved having their words dance about in your cerebrum feels so good. For a minute, the beautiful solitary experience of reading expands into something shared.

Review: Crowded House, Auckland, March 21, and we’re all in this together

The first time I heard Crowded House was on a fuzzy mix tape from a high school girlfriend. 

She put most of their entire second album Temple Of Low Men onto this tape, and it felt strange yet familiar. Neil Finn’s voice was gorgeous yet kind of tense, and songs like “Into Temptation” and “I Feel Possessed” felt like a secret code to me in the age of MTV and Bon Jovi. Finn’s lyrics marry the universality of the Beatles with a wry Kiwi humility and eye for detail. The music felt wiser, older somehow than the typical ‘80s pop hits I usually listened to. It felt built to last.

Ever since I think of rainy afternoons, fumbling teenage heartbreak and the impossible fragility of things when I hear Crowded House. 

I barely knew what New Zealand was, and Neil Finn and company were my first introduction to the place I’d one day end up living. 

I moved to New Zealand 15 years ago, the place that hissing cassette spoke of. I’ve now seen Neil Finn a live a few times solo and with other acts, even run across him in the crowd at other shows (it’s a small country, you know), but I never did see Crowded House live. 

Last night, I entered an arena and stood 25 feet or so in front of Neil Finn and the reunited House in one of the only countries in the world such crowded stadium shows can still happen these days. Like the best of Crowded House’s music, it was broad and intimate at the same time. 

Neil and the band, now joined by his amazing sons Liam and Elroy, put on a soaring, cathartic show, doubled in strangeness by seeming so normal with much of the rest of the world still howling in the heart of the storm of COVID-19. All around me, people kept looking at the nearly full arena, almost 12,000 people unmasked and very grateful to be here. 

The lovely little earworms have turned into national anthems – “Better Be Home Soon,” “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” “Something So Strong” – and it was kind of beautiful to have them become stadium sing-alongs. Sometimes the crowd sing-alongs are pretty cringe stuff, but it’s been a weird year or so and it felt good to be part of a crowd. We’re all in this Crowded House together. 

I’ve been here 15 years ago now and so I know what Neil’s singing about in “Four Seasons In One Day” when he talks about “the sun shines in the black clouds hanging over the Domain,” because I’ve walked the grassy fields of the Domain probably a hundred times now. 

And there were the deeper cuts that I’ve listened to over and over through the years – a mesmerizing “Private Universe,” the sultry “Whispers And Moans,” a right fierce bang-up on “Knocked Out,” or a marvelous cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes” dedicated to all the front-line workers here and everywhere who’ve made New Zealand a safe island in a world of worries. 

That lovestruck teenager playing that cassette tape over and over couldn’t have imagined how things would end up. The teenage girlfriend and I didn’t last long, but the music echoed forever. 

Neil Finn was singing last night to a very crowded house, yet he was also singing to me, alone in my room a million years ago, listening to gorgeous lonesome pop music and never imagining where he’d end up in this life. 

It’s literally been decades since I got that mysterious mix tape that introduced me to Crowded House, and I’ve got no idea what happened to the quirky and cool girl who gave it to me.

If I could, I’d tell her how I saw Neil Finn sing those songs last night, about the wonderful Kiwi woman I ended up marrying, how strange it was that I ended up in the place that all that haunting music came from, that I’m doing OK and that I hope she’s OK too.

I’ve been stretching my mouth / to let those big words come on out

…In a nifty little coda to the piece on Peter Gabriel I wrote late last year, I was invited on Radio New Zealand yesterday for their Afternoons Music Feature to talk all things Gabriel with host Jesse Mulligan and play a selection of his grooviest tunes. Listen to my occasionally coherent babbling! Hear some good songs!

You can listen to the full audio right here!

And here’s the playlist of the songs I selected if you’re interested: