None of this stopped her walking away from the spotlight when she felt she had better things to do. And when, after almost a decade, she felt like making music again, she did.
Hellriegel grew up one of four children in Henderson, West Auckland, where her father had a panelbeating firm. Music ran in the family. Her great grandfather was one of several musician brothers – conductors and horn players – who had emigrated from Germany to Australia, eventually settling in New Zealand.
By the time she was at Henderson High, Hellriegel was taking vocal coaching from Sister Mary Leo, whose protégés included Kiri Te Kanawa.
She learned classical piano as a child, and by the time she was at Henderson High, Hellriegel was taking vocal coaching from Sister Mary Leo, whose protégés included Kiri Te Kanawa. Around this time she also began to write her own songs, but New Zealand was short of role models for an aspiring female singer-songwriter. “I remember Jenny Morris, from The Crocodiles. I really liked The Crocodiles,” she said. “But otherwise I listened to The Doors, Neil Young, and I didn’t equate those sort of people with having a career in music. Music in those days, especially for a woman – I didn’t think I could do it. I didn’t even have it in my plan. ”
It wasn’t until Jan went to visit her older brother Rob in Dunedin that the possibilities opened up. The city’s vibrant arts and music scene had an immediate impact on her. “All that original music. The Rip, Sneaky Feelings ... There were bands everywhere and I loved it all, the originality and freedom.”
In 1983 Jan moved to Dunedin to go to university where she began singing with Rob’s band, Working With Walt, an original alternative group that included future Straitjacket Fits members David Wood and Mark Petersen. She also sang with a covers band, The Flying Chicken Dinners.
Forming her own group came about almost by accident. “Someone came up to me and said they had seen me with Working With Walt and asked, would I form a band for a festival she was organising? It was a women’s festival, a ‘women only’ festival.”
Sympathetic to the feminist cause, Hellriegel agreed. “It was after the seventies, but the feminist movement was still very strong because we still had a long way to go. So we formed Cassandra’s Ears, I wrote a whole lot of songs and we went and played them.”
After enjoying some success with the feminist audience, the all-women band began playing more widely, touring around the country in an old Dodge van bought from Hellriegel’s dad. Some gigs went better than others. Hellriegel recalls an audience, “who just hated us. There were some lesbians in the band, which seemed quite confusing for them. And they kept asking, ‘Can you play ‘Ten Guitars’?’” (Though Cassandra’s Ears were unable to oblige, Hellriegel would perform a version of this unofficial anthem a decade later for a television documentary on the long life of this famous song.)
“But the scariest one was Papakura. We had this big sold-out room, but they had advertised us as this leather-and-lace all-girl band so all these guys came along and here we are, this feminist band on the stage. I thought we were winning them over, but then the manager started turning down our sound halfway through a song – it was ‘Man From The West’, I remember it vividly – and came over and said, “Look, get your money, and get the hell out of here, there’s going to be a riot.” And we had to pack up our gear and run.
“You don’t think about it now, but it was quite a radical thing to be, a feminist band. But I’m really proud of what we did.”
Cassandra’s Ears carried on for the best part of five years and released two EPs for Wellington indie Jayrem.
Cassandra’s Ears carried on for the best part of five years and released two EPs for Wellington indie Jayrem, but by the late 80s it was winding down.
It was around this time that Jeremy Freeman of Warner Music New Zealand approached Jan about signing to the major label as a solo act. Hellriegel, who knew Freeman from her days in Dunedin when he had been manager of Sneaky Feelings, had never seriously contemplated a solo career, but Freeman’s offer seemed more alluring than the office of her father’s panel business where she was currently working, and she had been continuing to accumulate songs. Freeman introduced her to Warners head Tim Murdoch and the deal was sealed.
It would be close to three years before the fruits of this new alliance would emerge in the form of It’s My Sin, Hellriegel’s debut album, which was released in late 1992. Part of the process was establishing just what kind of an artist Hellriegel would be. “I had a very strong vision of what I wanted. I didn’t want to be like a pop person, I didn’t want to dress up.”
Warners tried pairing Hellriegel with a variety of co-writers, but none of the partnerships clicked. Murdoch enlisted Texan singer-songwriter J.D. Souther (co-author of Eagles hits ‘New Kid In Town’ and ‘Best Of My Love’) to produce. Souther was captivated by Hellriegel’s use of the word ‘quagmire’ in her song ‘The Way I Feel’. Hellriegel and Souther got on well, but two trips to New Zealand, several weeks in the studio, a dozen-odd reels of recording tape and many bottles of whiskey yielded only a couple of tracks. One of these was ‘Westy Girls’, which would become one of the singer’s iconic songs. The album was eventually completed with engineer Nick Morgan in the producer’s seat and Don McGlashan of The Mutton Birds assisting with arrangements.
The album was critically well received and launched the hit single ‘The Way I Feel’.
Poised between slick pop and an edgier indie-inspired rock, the album was critically well received and launched the hit single ‘The Way I Feel’. The success led to headlining slots at shows such as the Mountain Rock festival and opening sets for international touring acts The Cure and David Byrne.
It’s My Sin was not a huge seller, but successful enough for Warner Australia chose to become involved in the making of the follow-up. Relocating to Melbourne, Hellriegel began work on the new album with Australian producer Daniel Denholm, moving towards a harder-edged sound, her lyrics delving into increasingly personal and sometimes discomforting subject matter. Warner Australia gave Hellriegel a generous budget and creative freedom to make Tremble, which was released in 1995. “It didn’t have any singles”, Hellriegel admits. “I remember all the Warners reps coming down to the studio to listen and just not understanding what was going on at all. This was before Alanis Morrisette, and they just weren’t prepared for it.”
The launch of Tremble saw Hellriegel touring Australia and New Zealand with Jeff Buckley, who was on the brink of global fame. The next two years saw her playing and performing in big budget television commercials for Ford, appearing in the television documentary Ten Guitars and an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess. In 1997 she made her last recording for Warner, the poppier single ‘Sentimental Fool’, moving to Universal the following year for a further single ‘Melusine’.
But by the end of the decade, with her recording career in stasis, Hellriegel was beginning to direct her energies elsewhere. She got involved in author Alan Duff’s Books In Homes scheme as a spokesperson and played a guest cameo on Shortland Street.
She kept writing songs but didn't release another record until 2009, the aptly-titled All Grown Up. Bankrolled by a private benefactor and recorded at Neil Finn’s Roundhead Studio, it saw Wayne Bell – drummer on both Hellriegel’s previous albums – taking the producer’s role, on a bunch of songs that reflected Hellriegel’s growth, both as an artist and an individual.
Hellriegel also played concerts in support of her new album, while continuing to develop a new role in the business side of the music industry – first running the New Zealand office of publishing company Native Tongue Music, then becoming managing partner of music supervision and licensing company Aeroplane Music.
In 2013 she cleared the cupboards with an archival release, Lost Songs, comprised of various recordings made over the years including one J.D. Souther-produced track left over from It’s My Sin. She continues to write new songs and is hoping to release fresh recordings in the near future. “Doing it my own way must have been the right choice," says Hellriegel, "because I am still making music and still optimistic about what the future holds.”
In 1999 the Greg Churchill remix of Melusine became a substantial Auckland club and dance radio hit and was placed on several club compilations