On her way to winning the Horizon Award at the National Country Music Awards in Hamilton in 2012, Direen caught the eye of CMC Rocks co-founder Rob Potts, a judge at the awards, who would book her on multiple country music festivals throughout Australia.
Seven months later, Direen was playing a St Patrick’s Day gig in Wānaka when television adventurer and survivalist Bear Grylls and his crew turned up, after having their shoot rained off. Grylls’s head of business affairs CJ Cardenas was impressed and arranged to meet up with Direen in Los Angeles later in the year.
Cardenas set up writing sessions in Nashville, backstage access to the Grand Ole Opry and the recording of Direen’s second album in Music City. But when a contract with Bear Grylls Ventures was offered to Direen she decided against signing.
Back home in New Zealand, she again came under Rob Potts’s guidance. He instigated Direen’s deal with ABC Music in Australia and his connections brought regular flights across the Tasman Sea for gigs and festivals. These included CMC Rocks and Australia’s first staging of the massive European C2C Festival, headlined by Nashville’s Tim McGraw and Kelsea Ballerini.
Direen has been nominated for Country Album of the Year three times at the Aotearoa Music Awards, winning the Tui in 2017 for Shake Up, and has toured Australia with The Wolfe Brothers and supported US stars Kenny Rogers, LeAnn Rimes and Scotty McCreery in New Zealand.
Jody Direen was born in Mosgiel on 26 March 1989, and raised in Wānaka. The family home was full of the country music of The Dixie Chicks, Shania Twain and Garth Brooks, punctuated by the likes of The Eagles, Queen, and Fleetwood Mac.
She learnt her first guitar chords from her grandmother Shirley Guy, a talented singer who used to perform at local bars. “My grandma was really quite an influential factor behind my music,” Direen told AudioCulture. “She grew up in Middlemarch. Her family was a big family; there were 13 kids all together and they all played instruments on the farm out in Middlemarch.
“Growing up, when Mum and Dad went on holiday, we would always go and stay with her and we developed quite a close relationship with my grandma, and she would always sing to us and play guitar. So, I guess that kind of sparked that curiosity from quite a young age.”
DIREEN WORKED ON A CROPPING FARM TO EARN ENOUGH MONEY TO RECORD HER FIRST ALBUM.
While at Mount Aspiring College in Wānaka, Direen was involved in school productions and theatre and was among the first to put their hand up when volunteers were called for to sing at the end-of-year prizegivings.
Going on to Lincoln University she found a ready-made audience in the mostly country music fans of the surrounding rural communities. Her first paid gig was in Rolleston, just a 10-minute drive from the university, and before long she was away most weekends playing solo all over the South Island.
After graduating in 2010, Direen spent summer on a farm in Western Australia to earn enough money to record her first album. Inspired by the production on Gore friends The Heartleys’ self-titled album, Direen booked time with producer and Bushwackers multi-instrumentalist Roger Corbett at his Valley Studio in the Hunter Valley region of New South Wales.
Here We Go was released independently in 2011 and featured such Australian studio luminaries as Kasey Chambers guitarist Glen Hannah, fiddle player Mick Albeck, and pedal-steel wizard Michel Rose. That year, Direen placed third and gained valuable TV exposure on the Good Morning show’s Find A Star segment.
At the seventh annual National Country Music Awards, guest judge Rob Potts immediately noticed her potential and became one of her biggest supporters. Having spent many years in Nashville as an artist manager, promoter, and festival director, Potts had returned to Australia and formed a partnership with Michael Chugg. He co-founded CMC Rocks, the Southern Hemisphere’s largest country music festival, and was a booking agent for Australian country stars Lee Kernaghan, James Blundell, and Keith Urban.
The following St Patrick’s Day, Direen was playing a one-off bar gig at the Lone Star in Wānaka when in walked English TV personality Bear Grylls and his crew, who were in town filming American reality competition Get Out Alive With Bear Grylls. With bad weather stalling filming, Grylls and his entourage hit the Lone Star.
Afterwards, Direen was approached by CJ Cardenas, the head of business affairs for Grylls’s media, branding and licensing firm Bear Grylls Ventures (BGV). He said BGV were looking to expand and would be interested in representing her in the United States.
Already travelling to the US as part of her Horizon Award prize – a spot on the 2013 Global Artist Showcase in Nashville – Direen flew into Los Angeles for initial meetings with Cardenas. In Nashville, he organised backstage passes to the Grand Ole Opry where Direen got to hang out with superstar Carrie Underwood.
Direen was soon working with some of Nashville’s top writers as well as recording with drummer/producer Jay Tooke. The single ‘Loud’, written by Direen, Fiona Benefield and Matt Scullion, was released in September 2013. As work on an album continued, Direen moved to Nashville. But when BGV tabled a long-term contract, Direen consulted a lawyer and after much consideration opted not to sign.
“To be honest, I so wasn’t ready,” Direen said. “I didn’t feel I was good enough yet to be in that space. I think in a way I actually self-sabotaged that whole thing. It was just all too scary for me at the time.”
She returned home, choosing to focus on New Zealand and Australia, releasing the Nashville recordings independently as Breaks Out in 2015. The album was released on ABC Music in Australia after Direen signed with the label through her connection with Rob Potts.
From then, Potts booked her on various country music festivals in Australia with such frequency that she was almost flying to Australia every weekend to play. At one point she gave in and relocated to Australia for a while.
“He opened up so many doors,” Direen said. “It’s just testament to the whole ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ sometimes. He really opened up so many opportunities for me in Australia, which had just a natural on-flow effect to New Zealand. He connected me with ABC Music, he really believed in me. He had so many connections and it really just took off from there.”
Direen’s world was shaken when her champion Rob Potts was killed in a motorcycle accident.
Along the way, Direen met Brisbane pop producer Stuart Stuart, who produced Australian indie-pop group Sheppard’s Australian No.1 hit ‘Geronimo’ and their corresponding album Bombs Away; he also worked on The Veronicas’ second album Hook Me Up. With a lot of Australian country artists working with one or two key producers, Direen went out on a limb and enlisted Stuart to take the helm for her albums Shake Up (2016) and its follow-up Smokin’ Ashes (2020).
“I wanted to try working with a pop producer just to really bring something different,” she said. “I just felt like everything was starting to sound the same. I really wanted to just take a risk, really, and it really worked.”
Direen’s world was shaken to the core when her great champion Rob Potts was killed in a motorcycle accident in Tasmania in October 2017. Potts had served as a member of the Country Music Association (CMA) board in the United States and, at the time of his death, CMA CEO Sarah Trahern said in a statement: “He was a key driver of our international expansion for the past years and waved the country flag proudly in Australia.”
As Covid-19 made its effects felt in New Zealand and Australia, Direen took the interruption as a chance to reset. Burnt out after eight years of touring in both countries she used the pandemic as an excuse to have some time off, during which she and partner Barny Young undertook the development of a 30-acre wilderness block on the South Island’s West Coast.
Having established herself on the Australian festival circuit over the past decade, Direen is now in a position where she can fly her New Zealand band there instead of using a pick-up band or backing tracks. The band comprises guitarist Elliot Steven, bass guitarist Rob Caig and drummer Chaz McLeod.