I was thrilled when AudioCulture asked me to do a songwriter’s choice piece back in 2020. Indeed, so thrilled that I’m just getting round to it in 2023. “Why the long delay, you ungrateful bastard?” you may ask. Mainly ’cause I got overwhelmed with the choices, but also I’m a bit useless at organising my time. I used to think this was because I was lazy and well, useless. But after years of struggle, I finally went and got a proper, professional diagnosis for my myriad mental health issues, and, among other things, it seems I have an ADHD brain. So, the anti-depressants over the years were just like throwing bricks into the Ngauranga Gorge, trying to fill it up. I’ve been doing that with songs my whole life anyway, and frankly I think songs do a better job.
Anyway, here are 10 Kiwi-penned tunes that I reckon are worthy of your closer examination – they are bigger rocks and more likely to fill the hole than most. I could easily chuck 30 or 40 more down the gully for your consideration, but I’ve hit my rock count, so for once I’m shutting up.
Songs to fill chasms ... and go!
Kingfisher – Windy City Strugglers
It’s no secret that I’m a massive Bill Lake fan. I “discovered” him while at high school, back in the early 80s, through his then-band The Pelicans. I even snuck up to the Clyde Quay Tavern to see them play. They were a fun band – my kind of funky rhythm and blues. But it was Bill’s songs that really got me. ‘Banana Dominion’ blew my young mind. ‘Kingfisher’ is from the Windy City Strugglers album of the same name released in 2004. It’s pure country blues, but it’s also pure Bill Lake. What I love about Bill’s writing is that he works in a fairly conservative, some would say restrictive genre, but he still manages to unselfconsciously write about where and who he actually is. It’s beautiful. Bill is still making incredible, soulful music from Wellington. “My eyes will be bright, my bill will be sharp ... the Kingfisher of your heart.”
Girl About Town – Miriam Clancy
I knew nothing about Miriam Clancy when I stumbled across this song on YouTube in the mid-2000s. ‘Girl About Town’s three-time feel and lyrical directness smacked me around the ears immediately. There’s something about songs in E minor with that C/B7 turnaround that just speaks to me. And let’s not forget that hanging diminished chord, aching to resolve … which does. Eventually. I don’t want to get into the good-song-versus-good-record debate, but this is most certainly at least the former and I reckon it would work in many musical settings. I was very surprised this one didn’t get more attention at the time. But it’s timeless and great, and Miriam is still making powerful original music on her own terms from Pennsylvania, USA.
Snow on The Desert Road – Windy City Strugglers
This is always the first Rick Bryant song I play to anyone I’m proselytising at. (Yes, I do that about Rick. Sorry not sorry.) Less a song and more an incantation, with a semi-stoned, Kiwi beat-poet vibe, it nonetheless never comes across as hippyish or pretentious. There’s basically a drone underneath Rick’s amazing voice while he sings, moans, and plays with time, in his own masterful way. “What is this?” I asked myself when I first heard it. It’s not really blues, but it kinda is too. Imagine Sam Hunt writing a duet for Blind Willie Johnson and Tom Waits, and you’re sort of halfway there. Actual genius. Rest in peace, Rick.
Straight To My Heart – Hans Puckett
Wow, can these guys write hooks?! Yes, yes, they can. I first saw and heard them on a Radio One livestream a few years back and they owned it musically. A really tight band, they immediately reminded me of that early 80s “power-pop” era. But it didn’t sound like they were trying to dial in anything in particular. They were just a trio playing and singing the songs they’d written together, with killer arrangements. ‘Straight To My Heart’ was about third up in that set. I was already sold on the band, but then that hook got me. I reckon good songwriters know instinctively what the hook is and how to use it. This band should go on to much bigger things. It’s like they’ve been gifted the entire canon of pop/rock songwriting from the last 50 years, and in their hands almost anything is possible. (Yeah, gush, gush … they’re really good.)
When I Grow Up – Mahinaarangi Tocker
It’s still a bit annoying, nay a crying bloody shame, that a lot of “non-music” people say, “Who?” when you mention Mahinaarangi Tocker. An incredibly gifted artist, she was nominally a folk act, but, really, she just carved her own path. Mostly because she had to. ‘When I Grow Up’ is from later in her career. (2002’s Hei Ha!) I reckon Joni (yes, that Joni) would be happy with that opening verse, melodically and lyrically. And the chorus is utterly beautiful – “I want to be mad with courage, lost in living.” Sadly, Mahinaarangi Tocker died way too young in 2008 after a serious asthma attack. A huge loss for Aotearoa music. (Can someone please make more of her extensive catalogue available online to buy or stream digitally?)
Billy Bold – Graham Brazier
Working class heroes. Don’t we love ’em. (Well, we used to, folks.) Weirdly, I think of this song as very “Kiwi”, even though the whole thing is about northern England and the class system there. A specific UK event inspired it, but I hear Graham Brazier singing it and it seems like it’s being described from a weary and grateful distance. It’s full of pride and yet there’s a very real sense of futility and disappointment. Less “paradise lost” and more “glad we dodged that hell”. That Brazier baritone too. This one is a great record and a great song. I love it so much that I tried to cover it. (Do not try to find it.) Graham departed the planet a few years back, but he sure left us some magic.
Misty Frequencies – Che Fu
What a set of lyrics! Che Fu’s ‘Misty Frequencies’ is an utterly perfect description of the joy of discovering the power of music. I imagine a certain Stevland Hardaway Morris would be smiling with the feel and the harmonic structure, too. It’s almost as if this is a song that somehow slipped though Wonder’s neural net in 1976 and missed out on sitting next to all those bangers on Songs in the Key of Life, only to appear in early 2000s Aotearoa. It’s really that good, and I hope people know that. Che has that ear-for-a-hook thing I talked about earlier. Long may he continue to write fantastic music – big on groove and melody but also lyrically brilliant.
Guilty Through Neglect – DD Smash
How can you pick one Dave Dobbyn song? Well, I can’t think of Dave without his amazing singing on the live-at-Mainstreet version of this song popping immediately into my head (from 1982’s Deep in the Heart of Taxes – Live). The song sounds like it’s being conjured into being out of thin air as we listen. Alternately encouraging then berating himself in the second person doesn’t fool anyone, but it sounds like he wants us to be in on the ruse anyway. The perfect lyrics matched to the perfect tune. Also, Dave’s singing! Daaaayummm!
Tears – Crocodiles (Fane Flaws, Arthur Baysting)
THAT song. It features in other lists here? So be it. It’s the elusive almost-perfect pop song. It starts with a piano riff seemingly unrelated to the key of the first verse and then proceeds to use every device known to songwriting in its delightful almost four minutes of constant twists and turns. Modulations, tick. Inversions, tick. That bassline! Jenny Morris’ perfect vocal performance. The at-times almost jazzy close harmony backing vocals. The jarring, bluesy middle eight. It’s a strong song, but the production makes it a perfect pop record too. Gifted songwriters who went on to do some really cool stuff, Fane Flaws and Arthur Baysting, sadly, both recently passed on.
My Mistake – Split Enz (Eddie Rayner, Tim Finn)
Back when I was a gigantic “the Beatles are the only band in the world that matters” type, I phoned into a competition on radio 2ZM to win a copy of that “weird” New Zealand band Split Enz’s new album Dizrhythmia. And I won! A copy of the album promptly arrived and I frigging LOVED it. There are some great songs on it, but the one that really got me was ‘My Mistake’. I was an instant sucker for its almost McCartneyesque melody. The juxtaposition of those sad-as-hell, resigned-to-doom lyrics just makes it even sweeter. I found out later that the album was produced by one of the Beatles’ engineers … duh! But 11-year-old me was just blown away that such a cool song (almost as good as the Beatles!) could come from New Zealand. Tally ho, your health Tim Finn and Eddie Rayner!