One of three singers in 10-piece Auckland country band The Waltons, she had been invited by a man she knew only as Bones to record a demo at Mt Tiger Studio outside Whangarei. A solo mum at the time, she drove up there in a frenzy, played her songs and burst into tears.
“I was so kind of green about the whole thing; I was just like a deer in the headlights,” she told AudioCulture. “It was all free, no money was exchanged. I don’t know how the hell that happened. It was just like someone rubbed Aladdin’s lamp and I had a demo!”
When her big sister, former Crocodiles singer and Australian recording star Jenny Morris, invited her to sing backup on her 1991 tour, Shanley slipped the demo cassette into her luggage as an afterthought.
Less than a year later, Jenny had played the songs to the head of an Australian label and he offered Shanley a seven-album deal. “He liked my name and told her to tell me that I had a record deal,” Shanley said. “So I’m like, ‘Great. What’s a record deal?’”
She recorded three albums for the label, including the 1998 ARIA (Australian Recording Industry Association) Music Awards Best Country Album My Own Sweet Time, and has toured Australia and made several trips to Nashville where she performed on the Grand Ole Opry with US country institutions Loretta Lynn and Skeeter Davis.
The seventh of nine children, Shanley Del Morris was born in Hamilton on 9 November 1962. Her mum loved classical music and opera while her dad leaned towards Western swing and big band music. “I think he was a frustrated musician,” Shanley recalled. “He used to sit at the table and pretend to be playing piano. And he was the guy who would jump up on stage and perform with the band.”
her mother loved classical music and opera; her father western swing and big bands
The home was filled with all manner of music. While doing dishes the children would try to catch each other out by singing the first three notes of a song and guessing its title. And the family would sing together, especially on car trips. “In order to stand out you learned to pick a harmony that no one else was singing. I got quite good at that.”
An older sister, Maxine, returned from three years in London with lots of new music. Her husband had worked at Trident Studios and she had met David Bowie and The Beatles. Oldest sister Bronte bought Jenny her first guitar and all of the brothers and sisters had a crack at it.
After the family moved to Mangakino, Shanley was selected to be part of the National Youth Choir led by University of Auckland music lecturer Professor Peter Godfrey. By way of an audition, her teachers recorded her singing and sent in the tape.
“I think they sort of wanted to choose someone from a regional area,” she said. “They kept talking about they had people all the way from Mangakino. I thought, ‘Oh, okay, I’m the token country bumpkin.’ But it was amazing. I just could not believe how joyous it was to sing with a proper choir and learn those parts and to sing classical music.”
Having seen Wellington actor and playwright Michael Wilson on TV, Shanley wrote him a fan letter. When he wrote back and the correspondence continued, Shanley moved to the capital in 1979. She got a job at the Bank of New Zealand and she and Wilson, 10 years her senior, started dating.
They toured the country with a comedy revue written by Wilson. With the money she made, Shanley undertook a university science degree. When the money ran out, she dropped out and found work as a hairdresser.
She began rehearsing with Callie Blood and members of her sister Jenny’s former band, Wide Mouthed Frogs. They went as far as naming themselves K-Tel & The Patty Stackers but Shanley admitted it was mostly about tea and cake. “But we did sing madrigals; songs like ‘Mother, I Will Have A Husband’.”
an early, female band called k-tel & the patty stackers “was mostly about tea and cake”
Her job took her north to Auckland in 1983 where sister Maxine was working at New Music Management. Maxine sent Shanley for an audition with ex-Grammar Boys Simon Alexander and Martin Williams’ new covers band Gigolo.
For the next year she worked two late nights at the salon and played Friday and Saturday nights with Gigolo at gay bar Alfie’s. It was 1980s Top 40 from the likes of Eurythmics and Wet Wet Wet, from midnight till three. “The audience were all on amyl nitrate and just dancing,” Shanley recalls, laughing. “They loved us. It was really good learning your chops, paying your dues. And it was a good band.”
Inevitably, Simon Alexander longed to again flex his songwriting muscles and Gigolo transitioned into Chrome Safari, retaining Shanley and Williams with the addition of Brett Adams and Tim Wedde from The Mockers, and guitarist Eddie Pausma. They signed to Trevor Reekie’s new Pagan label and released the singles ‘Fight’ in 1986 and ‘Anything For You’ in 1987.
Shanley Del then put her singing career on hold as she concentrated on a TV producer role with ad agency Ogilvy & Mather. But life took an unexpected turn with a marriage break-up and becoming a single parent – her son Max being born in November 1989.
Suffering from cabin fever, Shanley was urged by her cousin to approach inner-city country band The Waltons, led by Tim Werry and including his former Rank and File bandmate Jeremy Dart and Californian pedal steel guitarist Glenn Ross Campbell of 1960s-70s cult bands The Misunderstood and Juicy Lucy.
The Waltons took her on, introducing her to the music of Hank Williams and Lucinda Williams and giving her the chance to sing old standards by the likes of Patsy Cline. “It was just, like, a 10-piece, yahoo country outfit,” Shanley said. “They were always hammered, but it was fun. People used to love that band.”
It was at a Waltons gig that ex-Mangaweka Viaduct Blues Band guitarist Jack Lloyd-Jones, aka Bones, spotted Shanley. He offered to record a demo for her at Mt Tiger Studio. Encouraged by Crocodiles songwriter and scriptwriter Arthur Baysting to write songs, she arrived with her own ‘Together Alone’ and ‘Dream Rider’.
Jenny Morris invited her sister Shanley to move to Australia in 1991
Knowing her sister was struggling with solo parenting, Jenny Morris invited Shanley to move over to Australia in 1991 and tour with her while their mother cared for Max. Intending to be away for just three months, Shanley put her possessions in storage and joined Jenny’s tour in support of the album Honeychild and its Australian No.3 single ‘Break In The Weather’.
Along the way, Shanley dropped the Morris name. Her family had always called her Shanley Del, so it seemed a natural progression. “I’m a fiercely independent person and I didn’t want to be seen as getting a free ride in any way. I thought it was a good idea not to hang on to her coattails.”
But it didn’t hurt having a sister who was at the top end of the Australian charts when Jenny played the Mt Tiger demo to the rooArt label boss and he signed her. She was sent on the road with some of Jenny’s band as support act for Australian country’s latest poster boy James Blundell and ex-Australian Crawl frontman James Reyne’s Way Out West Tour in 1992. Jenny also produced Shanley’s debut single ‘Funnel Of Love’ and EP Red Roses.
Meanwhile, “to pay the rent” Shanley teamed up with former Narcs singer and guitarist Andy Dickson in a covers duo called KitnKaboodle that would last nine years. Dickson was also her right-hand man in backing band Vested Interests that included New Zealanders Josh James, Matt White and Pete White.
The band played interstate, the Sydney Opera House and at festivals at Tamworth and Gympie and even flew first-class to Noumea for an Australian cheese-and-wine event where they had to shake the sand out of the PA before playing.
In Nashville, she learnt the craft of songwriting and worked with studio luminaries
rooArt flew Shanley to Nashville to learn the craft of songwriting and co-writing and she met Canadian record producer Ralph Murphy, whose songs had been recorded by Jeannie C. Riley, Randy Travis, Shania Twain and Ray Price. Murphy produced Shanley’s 1994 debut album What’s A Heartache For? there using Nashville session luminaries such as Danny Parks (guitar), Milton Sledge (drums) and David Briggs (piano).
For the fact it was recorded outside of Australia, the album was disqualified from the 1995 Golden Guitars, aka the Country Music Awards of Australia. Ironically, the rule had been changed in 1993 to stop entries from New Zealand singers such as Suzanne Prentice and Patsy Riggir who had won Female Vocalist of the Year six times and the Top Selling category twice with records made in Christchurch and Auckland.
“So I made a typical Kiwi ‘stamp your feet, make a fuss’ about that publicly,” Shanley said. “I just thought that was ridiculous. They’ve actually changed the rules [again] since.”
Another trip to Nashville brought her a meeting with ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ Loretta Lynn. She had shared a caravan at the Fan Fair festival with Lynn’s singing twin daughters, known as The Lynns, who had suggested applying clear nail polish as the cure for chigger bites.
Soon after, Shanley was introduced to Loretta Lynn outside the Grand Ole Opry. “She pulls up in her apple-green bus with ‘Loretta Lynn’ written all over it and she gets off in this apple-green chiffon number to the floor, this huge, sparkly dress and her hair high, piled up on her head.
“I said, ‘Hello, it’s lovely to meet you. I met your daughters the other day.’ She didn’t look very impressed by that. And I said, ‘It was great because they gave me the remedy for chigger bites.’ And Loretta went, ‘What did they tell you?’ And I said, ‘They told me to put clear nail varnish on them.’ And Loretta said, ‘That don’t work! Ain’t nothin’ work for them lil varmints!’ Then she sashayed off in a flurry of apple-green chiffon.”
at the grand ole opry, singer Skeeter Davis could see Shanley was nervous about going on stage
Backstage later, she was given a reassuring hug and some kind words from country crossover singer Skeeter Davis who could see Shanley was nervous about stepping out onto the Opry stage. She also spent an afternoon drinking white Russians with seminal country songwriter Harlan Howard, who pitched her a song that arrived at her hotel the following day.
Her next project was the trio album Tea For Three, released on ABC Country/EMI in 1995 as Saunders, Kane & Del. The record came about after Shanley had done backing vocals sessions for producer John Kane. When she and Jenny Kane provided backing vocals on a Jane Saunders CD, the blend of voices convinced the women to do some shows and then make their own record.
It was on these sessions that Shanley first noticed double-bass player James Gillard. He had phoned her not long after the release of ‘Funnel Of Love’ to tell her he liked the track. As well as playing on sessions by the likes of John Williamson, James Blundell, Lee Kernaghan and Marc Hunter, Gillard was bass player for Mondo Rock for the second half of the 1980s before forming The Fargone Beauties. Shanley Del and James Gillard were married in 1998.
Shanley’s second album My Own Sweet Time was released in 1997 and featured the musicianship of The Dead Reckoners, the all-star conglomeration featuring Kieran Kane and Kevin Welch that launched independent Nashville label Dead Reckoning in reaction to the overly commercial direction US country was taking.
“By then I sort of wasn’t enjoying the more commercial country sound,” Shanley said. “I was looking to be more rootsy. I happened to meet a songwriter called Rick Beresford, and he knew [drummer] Harry Stinson, whose wife had gone to university with him. Harry was in The Dead Reckoners, and so we got the Dead Reckoners to play on my second album.
“I was so green, and by this stage – because of the evolution of my career – being much attuned with the record company telling me what I had to do, what I had to wear, what I had to say, what I had to sing. My Own Sweet Time was my first kind of push at trying to have my own say.”
Containing four of her own co-writes, My Own Sweet Time was also overlooked at the Golden Guitars in 1998 but was awarded the ARIA for Best Country Album ahead of offerings from Troy Cassar-Daley, Gina Jeffreys and supergroup The Wheel.
at the 1998 aria awards, Del’s ‘My Own Sweet Time’ was awarded Best Country Album
Shanley’s acceptance speech included a thank you to the first few rows of excited pop fans “for screaming for me even though you don’t have the slightest idea who I am,” but she forgot to thank her manager Louise Blundell. “I’ll never forgive myself for that. She was devastated. But the biggest thrill was that Paul Kelly presented the award.”
Despite the success, by the time of her third album, The Other Side, released in 2001, changes at her record company found her with little support. She had to battle to get young up-and-comer Matt Fell as producer. “They relented and we did the album, but they were asking me to make it more pop. It was an interesting album, but no one at the record company cared about it by then and it died.”
Shanley Del pulled up stumps for the next six or so years before taking up an invitation from New Zealand drummer Kere Buchanan, son of Christchurch jazz saxophonist Stu Buchanan, to join The Bodacious Cowboys performing the music of Steely Dan. Other band members included her husband James Gillard, guitar giant Rex Goh and New Zealanders Bernie Segedin (vocals) and Andy Bickers (saxophone). Since 2015 she’s been involved in a 1960s pop band – “Again, to kind of pay the rent.”
In 2017 she recorded the duet ‘The Basics Of Love’ with Melbourne alt-country artist Lachlan Bryan. “The video was a family affair, with my niece and my two nephews. My niece was the cinematographer and my nephew directed it, and my other nephew starred in it. So we all went down to Melbourne and did this video as a family thing.” She teamed up with Bryan again the next year for ‘I’ve Got All The Time In The World’ – the song Harlan Howard had pitched her back in Nashville in the 1990s.
Finally, in January 2019, husband and wife combined their vocal talents to produce and independently release the EP Shanley Del – James Gillard. “Being independent now, it’s so much better because no one tells me what to do anymore. I can do what I want to do.”
While working as a hairdresser in Auckland in the mid-1980s, Shanley Del trimmed and tinted one of NZ pop’s most recognisable mullets, that of Mockers keyboardist Tim Wedde. 20 years later, Wedde and Shanley’s husband James Gillard were bandmates in popular Australian roots band The Flood.