She was introduced to the music business when only 16 years of age. Shona came to the attention of Phonogram’s John McCready in 1972 when Chris Bourne, the producer of TV talent show New Faces played Laing’s audition to the record executive. McCready moved quickly and signed her before the country saw her on screen.
Cabaret style singer Steve Gilpin (who would front Mi-Sex) won New Faces that year, but Laing, who came second, was the real winner with her February 1973 debut single ‘1905’ going to No.4 on the NZ Singles Chart and staying on the charts for 14 weeks.
In the 1973 NZ Music awards Laing won Best Newcomer, Best Female Vocalist and Performer of the Year.
The single and the album Whispering Afraid were both certified gold. There were two more hit singles, ‘Show Your Love’ (No.4) and Masquerade (No.11) in 1973, and in that year’s NZ Music Awards (then known as the RATA Awards) Laing won Best Newcomer, Best Female Vocalist and Performer of the Year.
Early 1974 Laing recorded her second album Shooting Stars Are Only Seen At Night in Sydney at the EMI studio. The second album was not as well received as her debut but she once again won Best Female Vocalist at the 1974 Music Awards.
In 1973 and 1974 Shona represented New Zealand at the Tokyo World Song Festival and in 1974 she took a top prize with 'Masquerade'.
In 1975 Laing moved to England to develop her career but she was still contracted to Phonogram Records in New Zealand. A third album was recorded on a limited budget at R.G. Jones Studio in Wimbledon, but it was never released.
In May 1976 Laing and two other New Zealanders left London in a Volkswagen van en route to Nepal. She celebrated her 21st birthday in New Delhi. The trip inspired her to write 20 songs that gained her a manager Chips Chipperfield in 1977 and a publishing deal with Essex Music in 1978, with 15 hours of studio time per month.
A singles deal with EMI followed and ‘Don’t Tell Me’ was released in 1980 and was on BBC Radio One’s A-playlist for five weeks. The positive media response to the single meant that EMI gave Laing a healthy budget to record at Rockfield Studios in South Wales for five weeks. The final mixes for the album Tied To The Tracks were done at Marquee Studios, Wardour St, London. There was a delay in releasing the album, although further singles ‘Overboard’ (1981) and ‘Whistling Waltzes’ did receive airplay in London and the North of England.
Manfred Mann heard Laing’s song ‘Don’t Tell Me’ and she was asked to join Manfred Mann’s Earth Band for the two years it took to rehearse and record the 1983 album Somewhere in Afrika. Chris Thompson, the group’s lead singer, was also from New Zealand.
When Laing returned to New Zealand in 1983 for a month’s holiday, she found her homeland difficult to leave and she stayed. There was no immediate opportunity to record but Larry Parr’s Mirage Films was about to start the Pagan Records label, managed by Trevor Reekie. Shona Laing went into Mandrill Studios with producer Bruce Lynch and recorded the album Genre (1985). Lynch had also returned to New Zealand after working in London from 1973 to 1981 where he played on six albums by Cat Stevens and many tours.
The single ‘America’ reached No.44 on the NZ Singles Chart. The song that created a buzz on Genre – ‘(Glad I'm) Not A Kennedy’ – became the key track on her next album South (1987) where Laing wanted to explore modern synth sounds, co-producing with Stephen McCurdy and Graeme Myre.
Australian song publisher Chris Gilbey heard ‘(Glad I'm) Not A Kennedy’ on Genre and signed Laing’s publishing. Gilbey’s belief in the song led to Australian and European releases on Virgin Records. It was remixed by English producer Peter Wilson (Style Council). The Top 20 success of the single in Australia and Sweden led to the release of South on the indie TVT label in the USA. Shona Laing would tour Australia opening for Midnight Oil (with guitarist Gary Verberne), and opening for Erasure in the USA (with guitarist Dave McArtney).
‘(Glad I’m) Not A Kennedy’ reached No.2 in New Zealand.
The biggest chart success for South was in NZ where Pagan got ‘(Glad I'm) Not A Kennedy’ to No.2 on the NZ Singles Chart in August 1987. The single stayed on the chart for eight weeks. When Pagan’s parent company went into receivership in 1988, the rights to Laing’s recordings reverted to her.
Laing had created enough interest in the USA to sign to Atlantic Records in New York but the deal went sour partway through recording her album, after the A&R person who signed her left the company. Atlantic dropped Laing and made it difficult for her to gain access to the recordings.
She explained the difficulties with Atlantic to Rip It Up (June 1992): “Eight months of legal negotiations. The tracks were incidental though, it wasn’t really over the material, it was about whether I ever worked again or not. We had to pay back some money, which I have never heard of before in my life. Their main reason for terminating the situation was that we would have been over budget had we finished, which is absolute crap.”
Fortunately Laing was able to work with Sony NZ to rectify the situation. Paul Ellis, her former manager, was now Head of A&R and Sony MD Michael Glading was a longtime fan. During the 1990s, Laing released on Sony: 1905-1990 Retrospective (1991), New On Earth (1992), Shona (1994) and the live album Roadworks (1997).
Laing’s most recent independent album is Pass the Whisper (2007) that revisits ‘Soviet Snow’ and ‘(Glad I'm) Not A Kennedy’ in a more acoustic setting.
In April 2020, Shona Laing's South was named the 2020 Independent Music NZ Classic Record.
Read more: Southern Comfort: Shona Laing on South.
In 1983 Shona was briefly in a band in Wellington with Dan Birch (ex-Beat Rhythm Fashion) and Andy Drey (ex-Body Electric and Steroids) called Colonial Bandits. They didn't record.