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Pauline Bellamy – Hinterland Artwork

Pauline bellamy ruruLate last year I was trying to figure out what image to put on the front of my new album, “Hinterland.” About that time, I was asked to play a fundraising concert for a Solomon Island flood relief fund that a friend was putting on. Included in the night were art exhibits, including the work of Dunedin’s Pauline Bellamy. I was immediately struck by the stark simplicity of Pauline’s work, and the way her etchings seemed to summon up the ghost of the wind. I asked her to do the album cover and to my very good fortune she agreed.

artwork_disc copy

My only creative direction to Pauline was that I was thinking of a morepork, or ruru (New Zealand’s native owl) for the cover – a reference to a lyric from “Remnants of Ruminants.” Pauline and her husband John have a house in St Bathans, up in Central Otago, and on her regular trips up there Pauline began painting the landscape around her. Painting the cover for my album grew into a run of work exploring the “Hinterland” theme, and the result was this beautiful series of paintings.

It’s pretty thrilling for me to see another artist interpret the spirit of the Hinterland that inspired me, in a different medium, and to see that spirit captured so beautifully. When I saw all these paintings displayed at the Bellamy’s gallery, I felt like I could have chosen any one of them as the cover for my album

pauline bellame windmill

pauline bellamy house on loop

In a couple of weeks we are doing an album launch at Taste Merchants in Dunedin and some of these works will be on display, tastefully framed and available to purchase. (They are also available to purchase direct from Bellamy’s). I’m lucky enough to have the original “Hinterland”cover at home, something I will keep and treasure for the rest of my life. Thank you Pauline.

hinterland cover framed small

New album, “Hinterland” imminent.

In the next few weeks ‘ll be releasing my new album, “Hinterland.” Keep an eye out for it – I’m thrilled with the work producer/engineer John Egenes and engineer Danny Buchanan have done to bring these songs to life and the amazing playing from everyone involved. I’m simultaneously releasing the album in Europe and will perform a string of New Zealand album launch dates later in the year. It’s hard to know what to do about an album launch and I have opted for a “soft launch,” and will be gradually feeding the album out to the world over the next few weeks in the hope that people might get a chance to have a good listen before I take the material around the country, probably about August or September.

In the meantime, feast your eyes on the beautiful cover art, a painting by Pauline Bellamy of MacAndrew Bay in Dunedin..

Hinterland album cover artwork smalla

For more about Pauline and her family’s work, check out their gallery website..

And if you haven’t already seen it, here’s the first single off the album. Video by Christopher Tegg

Heavy metal dreaming in Adelaide

Last time I was in Adelaide I was 17 and had been working on a sheep and grain farm north of here, driving tractors through the long hot Australian summer.

I came down to Adelaide to see Metallica play. I remember getting there early so I could make the front row; feel the rush of air from the speakers when Lars hit the kick drum and see Kirk Hammett shredding up the neck just metres away. Quite a moment for a 17 year-old country boy out in the big world for the first time.
The next day I caught a bus for the long overland trip to Sydney and as I gazed out at the country rolling by I decided that when I returned to Adelaide it would be as part of world-dominating hardcore industrial metal band, in which I would be the guitar god rock star.

metal god

My next job was at another farm near Mudgee and one of the first things I did on a trip to town was walk down the main street, past the farm supply shops and tractor saleyards to the music store, where I proudly bought myself a $300 Ibanez electric guitar, in black.

And now here I am, back in Adelaide for the first time after a decade and a half away , returning not as a tattooed, seven-string ESP-wielding metal god, but as a f***** folk singer.

Funny how things works out.

Tasmania, Davy Lowston and the Frère Jaques effect

Tasmania, Davy Lowston and the Frère Jaques effect

With a few days to spare before my gig in Adelaide I’ve headed over to Tasmania to visit some friends and escape the grind of Melbourne. Because in my mind, Hobart was a quaint and antiquated stone-walled little port town with not much more than a handful of fishing boats and a few souvenir shops. So I have to admit I was somewhat taken aback to find myself touching down in a sprawling, busy Australian city, complete with high rise buildings, malls and motorways.

oldest pub

Hobart was once a whaling and sealing port, the kind of place the heroes of the Davy Lowston song would have frequented, and so I was keen to visit the wharves and museums and see what remains from this time. Maybe those same sealers whose ordeal is told in the song once haunted the town’s foreshore, looking for work on one of the creaking vessels that lined the wharves, willing to forsake all trace of civilization for the dangers of the sea and the brutal life of sealing on remote shores far across the horizon.

This morning I spent half an hour on Skype talking Davy Lowston with Warren Fahey, who is perhaps Australia’s foremost collector of old songs. There is so much about this song that is wrapped in mystery – its origins, its antiquity, its author. It is a wraith of a song, which to me what makes it so appealing.

The tune of Davy Lowston has its origins on the on London’s Execution Dock, where the alleged pirate William Kidd was hanged in 1701. In those days, vendors made a penny selling “broadsides” – single-sided printed sheets of paper bearing songs detailing the goings-on of the day. They would stand on the street corners and sing the songs as a means of attracting buyers. One of these broadsides captured the plight of the condemned privateer, which later became the well-known folk song Captain Kidd:

My name is Captain Kidd
As I sailed, as I sailed,
Oh my name is Captain Kidd as I sailed,
My name is Captain Kidd
And God’s laws I did forbid,
And most wickedly I did as I sailed.

Another song that appeared around the same time was “Sam Hall,”  which uses the same tune and tells the story of an unrepentent murderer as he makes his way to the gallows. (This song was recorded by Johnny Cash.) The tune and meter of Davy Lowston is almost certainly a plagiary of one or both these songs. Both “Captain Kidd” and “Sam Hall” would have been on the lips of sailors for more than a century before the composition of Davy Lowston, so it’s likely whoever authored Davy Lowston simply grafted their words onto this old melody and rhyme scheme.

I caught the bus into the city this afternoon. An Indian woman and her young daughter got on at the same time as me and as we travelled through Hobart’s streets the little girl starting singing the nursery rhyme “Where is Thumbkin;” which I remembered well from my own childhood;

Where is Thumbkin?
Where is Thumbkin?
Here I am!
Here I am!

How are you today, sir?
Very well, I thank you.
Run away.  
Run away.

The song, with its simple, repetitive melody is sung to the famous old french tune, Frère Jaques;

Frère Jacques, frère Jacques,
Dormez-vous? Dormez-vous?
Sonnez les matines! Sonnez les matines!
Ding, dang, dong. Ding, dang, dong.

Frère Jaques was first published about 1811, around the same time as Davy Lowston may have been composed. It has been theorized that it was originally composed to taunt Jews or Protestants. Since then, the melody has become ingrained in the cultures of many countries around the world, including China and India, with different lyrics being retro-fitted in many languages to suit many purposes. It has been used by gloating football fans  and patriotic Chinese communists; by the Beatles and the British military, and of course by mothers and children all over the world, including a 4 year old Indian girl on the number 39 bus into Hobart on this overcast Tasmanian afternoon. The process by which a song can travel through the centuries and around the world like this, morphing and changing as it does so, is the real subject of my inquiry into Davy Lowston.

P1000223I finally made it down to the wharves, where a handful of crayfish boats were tying up for the day. The fishermen here still use wooden cray-pots constructed from sapling branches, identical to those a century old you can find in the Tasmanian Maritime museum across the road. I got talking to one of the fishermen – he reckoned the crayfish are better attracted to the natural materials. When he saw me taking photos he rummaged around amongst the pots on the deck of his boat and pulled out this little bird – which he said they call a “Jesus bird” on account of its ability to “walk” on water. They often land on the decks of these boats and nestle down in the pots. I’m not sure what the species is – anyone?

jesus bird

On the trail of Davy Lowston: Neil Colquhoun

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Yesterday I borrowed a car and hit the motorway north of Auckland to visit Neil Colquhoun and his wife Barbie – the first foray into my film documenting the story of Davy Lowston. Neil is a former music teacher and composer and was one of the principle figures in the New Zealand folk revival. In the 1950’s and 60’s he was part of the Song Spinners, one of the first groups to bring old New Zealand folk songs back to life in the modern era. His book “Songs of a Young Country,” is one of the definitive collections of old New Zealand folk songs. It was Neil who returned Davy Lowston to New Zealand after locating it in the hands of an American song collector.

Neil Colquhoun at his home near Warkworth

Neil Colquhoun at his home near Warkworth

Earlier in the day I had spoken on the phone to Michael Brown, who has previously researched Davy Lowston and other New Zealand folk songs for a PhD thesis. He told me there are many uncertainties about the true origins of the song – although it refers to a New Zealand story, it is almost certainly impossible to ascertain where and by who it was actually composed. Michael made the observation that although many performers and academics have claimed it as a New Zealand song, it is in reality a “song of the sea;” one that probably drifted around the ports of New Zealand and Australia in the early-mid 1800’s. I like that idea a lot – I have begun to see Davy Lowston as a landless song, an oceanic drifter, like an albatross or a shearwater. An idea of tragic beauty that formed in some long-gone sea-fearing mind and blew with the winds from port to port, only to vanish from sight, then finally to reappear, thanks to the work of people like Neil Colquhoun.

After finding Neil and Barbie’s place about 15 minutes on from Warkworth, I parked the car and walked in through a generously verdant garden, the centrepiece of which was a tangelo tree laden with fat orange fruit, a strange sight for a southern lad in the middle of winter. After lunch I sat Neil down in a  chair and we began talking. At the end of the interview, conversation turned to the grand piano in the corner of the room. On a whim, I asked Neil to play something so I could film it. He sat down and played the chords to Davy Lowston. The grand piano thumped and bellowed and from behind the camera I imagined I was on some old ship, bound for Australia with a hold full of whale oil and a headache from the previous night’s drinking –  with that tune rolling around in my wandering mind.

I write this from Auckland airport. I am bound for Australia today, not under creaking sail but in the cabin of a Boeing. My first stop is Sydney – where the Davy Lowston story has its genesis. Stay tuned for more…

Bound for America

I’m coming to the end of my current job in Dunedin and preparing to head out into the world on an amazing adventure. First stop is Australia, where I have a few gigs lined up; one each in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. From there, its on to America, where I have the thrilling opportunity of filming a documentary about New Zealand songwriter Donna Dean, who is touring over there with her Dunedin-based band. I’ve never been to the States before, so this is an opportunity too good to refuse!

donna dean

As well as filming for a documentary on Donna, I plan to work towards another couple of creative projects, which will give me the impetus to travel from one side of America to the other, taking in both coasts and the vast mythical landscape in between . The first is a film exploring the song “Davy Lowston,” which I have alluded to in previous posts. I plan to track the journey of this old New Zealand folk tune from the remote shores of the South Island to America and beyond. Another area of interest for me is Massachusetts on the north eastern shoulder of the continent, and particularly its whaling ports such as New Bedford and Nantucket. I have been researching for a whaling documentary for a while now, so I plan to make my way up there after Donna’s tour finishes and see what I can dig out.

I have a strong sense I’m going to be uncovering some pretty fascinating stories on this trip, so stay posted to this blog because I’ll be regularly posting updates. For now, it’s prep time – I’m organizing all my video equipment and booking flights and of course loading up the MP3 player with appropriate tunes to guide me on my way. My research into Davy Lowston has already led me down some interesting musical paths. A few days ago I started listening to Seattle duo Pint and Dale. They specialize in music of the sea and recorded Davy Lowston for their 2001 album White Horses. I emailed William and Felicia the other day and they sent me a download of their latest album Blue Divide. My first stop in the US may be Seattle, where I hope to catch up with these two. Stay tuned.


Lessons from Bruce Springsteen – Matamoros Banks

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I had the pleasure of teaching a songwriting seminar with Dr Graeme Downes in Gore last Thursday as part of the 2013 New Zealand Gold Guitar Awards . Graeme, who is lead singer of legendary Dunedin indie rock band The Verlaines and a professor of music at the University of Otago, comes from quite a different part of the musical spectrum from me, so I was really interested to hear what he had to say. The big surprise for me was to discover on arrival that we had both brought Bruce Springsteen songs to play to the students.


I was approaching the seminar from a storytelling perspective and to this end had chosen Springsteen’s “Matamoros Banks,” off the Devils and Dust album, as an example of how narrative structure can be played with for increased effect. In this song, Springsteen tells the story of an illegal Mexican immigrant’s doomed attempt to cross the Rio Grande river and start a new life in America with his sweetheart.

Springsteen starts the story at the end, describing in gruesome detail the demise of his character…

For two days the river keeps you down
Then you rise to the light without a sound
Past the playgrounds and empty switching yards
The turtles eat the skin from your eyes, so they lay open to the stars

Your clothes give way to the current and river stone
‘Till every trace of who you ever were is gone
And the things of the earth they make their claim
That the things of heaven may do the same

He then goes back to the start of the story and in two verses describes the migrant’s journey across the desert at night to stand on the banks of the Rio Grande, before diving in to meet his fate…
Over rivers of stone and ancient ocean beds
I walk on sandals of twine and tire tread
My pockets full of dust, my mouth filled with cool stone
The pale moon opens the earth to its bones

Your sweet memory comes on the evenin’ wind
I sleep and dream of holding you in my arms again
The lights of Brownsville, across the river shine
A shout rings out and into the silty red river I dive

By changing around the structure of the story, Springsteen has given himself a couple of very powerful weapons. Firstly, it means he can start his song with the confrontingly visceral image of his protagonist’s body being eaten by turtles as it floats down the river. Secondly, because we have already seen the tragic end of the story in the first couple of stanzas, the third and fouth verses now carry profound pathos….we know that we are witnessing this person’s last journey in life.

The chorus therefore carries a weight that becomes more tragic as the song progresses….
I long, my darling, for your kiss, for your sweet love I give God thanks
The touch of your loving fingertips
Meet me on the Matamoros
Meet me on the Matamoros
Meet me on the Matamoros banks

Graeme had brought the song “Walk Like a Man,” from Tunnel of Love – another of my personal favourite Springsteen songs (from, in my opinion, one of his finest albums.) Graeme showed us how Springsteen uses chord patterns for impact in this song – mapping out where each chord will best fit the lyric. According to Graeme, Springsteen has mastered the use of quite basic chord progressions and gives his lyrics musical power simply by knowing exactly where to put the minor chord, when to go to the IV chord, or the V and so on…

I found it interesting that two songwriters with very different approaches would both be drawn to this particular artist – even if only from an academic point of view. As Graeme noted in the seminar, with as big a following as he has, Bruce must be doing something right!