Growing up in an ungentrified, diverse Ponsonby through the 1970s, she attended Ponsonby Primary and shared the classroom with a literal “melting pot” of pupils. Her earliest musical education was the waiata and poi she learnt from her teachers.
By contrast, the nuns at St Benedict’s School on Symonds Street introduced her to classical music and singing. This eclectic education and exposure to a diverse culture and community influenced her deeply.
“Ponsonby was Very vibrant, bohemian, family-oriented, Māori and Pasifika.”
“Growing up in Ponsonby/Herne Bay was pretty amazing, looking back. It was a hub of creativity. Very vibrant, bohemian, family-oriented, Māori and Pasifika. It was a wonderful experience to have access to all of that and will always be a part of me.”
A naturally gifted singer, blessed with a word-for-word perfect recall for song lyrics, her musical instinct may have been influenced by her father. Graeme “Trix” Willoughby was a jazz drummer who had played in various ensembles and genres in the 1960s. These included showband music with Sonny Day and The Sundowners, and avant-garde prog-rock with The Brew.
As a baby, her parents would put Kim to sleep in the bottom drawer of a dresser at her father’s practice room while the sounds of the rehearsals played at loud volumes. But Trix’s influence was brief: he moved to Australia when Kim was very young and tragically died of suicide when she was only 13.
After leaving school Kim had made no plans to follow in her father’s musical footsteps. Instead, she was attracted to the tangible outcomes of the diagnostics laboratory where she sorted and prepared blood samples. Her ambition was to further her training and become a lab technician.
But just as the training was due to begin, The Gurlz won the 1981 Battle of the Bands competition. The prize was a recording session at Harlequin Studios and a tour of the North Island’s pubs and halls. An underaged Kim fronted the band and during her time on the road caught the buzz of stage performance.
An eager and excited Kim signed up for the twenty-week course Supervised Performing Arts Training Scheme (or SPATS). The course was run out of TVNZ, and led by Howard Morrison and Joanna Paul; among the other trainees were Temuera Morrison and Margaret Urlich.
“There was no formal training, it was a fairly casual 20-week course. Our tutors were professionals from the industry willing to come in and share their knowledge,” Kim remembers.
Kim’s time at SPATS was cut short when she was talent scouted for Billy T James’s television variety comedy show. While Jay Laga’aia and Kim were practising an “acrobatic” dance routine they had choreographed themselves, a producer from the Billy T James Show happened to be in the studio. They hired Kim then and there as an actress, dancer and singer for the 1981 season of the show.
“Working with Billy was amazing, he was so kind and generous, and I had the feeling that he was like an uncle to me,” she says. Decades later she views the paternal closeness she shared with Billy T James in a different light. After reading the biography of James, she learnt that her father had been in his band in the early years. No one had ever thought to mention this to her.
Bruce Morrison cast her as a lead in his 1986 film, ‘Queen City Rocker’.
Kim picked up her acting experience on the job in her roles on the Billy T James Show and her on-screen charm was magnetic. Bruce Morrison cast her as a lead in his 1986 film, Queen City Rocker. They had met when Morrison directed the video for The Gurlz’ song ‘Out of Bounds’.
She played the role of Stacy, the teenage daughter of a wealthy family who meets and falls in love with a young man caught up in gang rivalry. Kim didn’t have to look far when it came to the character development research for the part of Stacy. As a teen living with her mother in a flat on Howe St between K Road and Ponsonby, Kim spent her Thursday evenings cruising the city.
“I’d take myself to George Courts on Thursdays on K Road or hang out at St Kevins Arcade. There were so many characters.”
These experiences helped to bring depth and reality to the role of Stacy and Bruce Morrison encouraged a method-acting approach. “He let us be free-range, which was good: it made it more a collaborative thing. Rather than [just] his vision. The cast came from a wide range of the community and we put our spin on it.”
Her role in Queen City Rocker led to other opportunities. After her performance in the film, she was offered the role of Joanne in The Quiet Earth, a part she declined on account of nudity that was required for some scenes.
Singing was always the primary passion for the multi-talented entertainer. When Kim met Annie Crummer during a performance on the live entertainment TVNZ show Hui Pacific, they formed an enduring personal bond that sustained a professional relationship for the years to come.
During the episode of the show, Kim was singing the Eurythmics song ‘Right by Your Side’, with Annie doing backing vocals. Sadly, there are no records of the performance when the pair met. “Live entertainment programmes were a popular genre in the 70s and 80s,” says Kim. “But tape was so expensive they’d just record over the last week’s show!”
The synergy between Annie and Kim was superb and, as backing vocalists were in vogue through the 80s, as a duo, they were in demand. They toured the country extensively in different bands alongside horn players the Newton Hoons (Chris Green and Mike Russell), with many popular acts, including Dave McArtney and the Pink Flamingos, Netherworld Dancing Toys and Suzanne Prentice.
Annie and Kim contributed to the highly popular Netherworld Dancing Toys song ‘For Today’, which shot to No.2 in the charts and went on to win an APRA Silver Scroll – and best and most popular song at the New Zealand Music Awards. The song endures to this day as a much-loved anthem.
In 1983, alongside great vocalists Jacqui Fitzgerald (‘Dear John’) and Suzanne Lynch (ex-The Chicks), Kim joined DD Smash on stage at Auckland’s Mainstreet cabaret for a live recording of a Radio With Pictures special, later released as the mini-album Deep in the Heart of Taxes.
At the 1985 New Zealand music awards, Debbie Harwood, Annie Crummer, Dianne Swann and Margaret Urlich were all in attendance, either nominated or presenting awards. That evening they formulated an idea to form a band together. Kim was in Canada promoting Queen City Rocker at the time and it wasn’t until a few months later that the four women developed the concept of When the Cat’s Away, and decided a fifth member was needed. Annie and Debbie proposed that Kim’s skilled pop vocals would add the perfect balance to the rest of the group.
“I’d worked with Annie, met Margaret at SPATS, and Debbie had tour managed The Gurlz and Blam Blam Blam tour. It was very, very hard work being in an original band back then, so it was just meant to be a bit of fun,” Kim recalls.
The mission statement of When the Cat’s Away was simple: to sing for the love of singing. Each of the members craved the freedom of something light and easy as an antidote to the challenges of steering their solo careers.
The success of the group was beyond anything the five women had anticipated.
“We grew very close very quickly. And worked hard. Annie was the music director, Debbie’s strength was in logistics, I sewed some of our clothing – we didn’t have money for fabulous clothes.”
The success of the group was beyond anything the five women had anticipated, says Kim. “We expected our mums to come along to the first gigs and we were absolutely stunned when there were lines around the corner at the Gluepot.”
The resilient group of women were all well-experienced in the music scene. They hand-picked an outstanding band of musicians to back them, but Kim adamantly confirms the singers called all the shots. “We were in charge. We didn’t have a Svengali. It all came from us. Nobody bossed us around, [though] they tried. We were undoubtedly girl power and we were fit by the end of the tour!”
In 1988 the group recorded a cover of Blue Mink’s ‘Melting Pot’ to promote their summer tour. The song stayed in the charts for 15 weeks and when they hit the road for another tour it was an enormous success. During the summer of 1988-1989, they performed to nearly 100,000 people across New Zealand.
Kim cherishes the memories of her time in When the Cat’s Away. “There was nothing else like it. People singing along to ‘Melting Pot’, from kids to grandparents: big happy, smiley faces. It was mind-blowing. Adoring fans calling out, ‘Oh my god, I love you.’ Who wouldn’t like that?”
Kim had met guitarist, engineer and producer Ian Morris early on in her career when he engineered The Gurlz’ song ‘Out of Bounds’. They’d worked together on projects through the years and had been in a romantic relationship for two years during the early 80s. The couple became serious again in the early 90s; their twins Julia and Maude were born in 1994.
In the early 2000s the family made the move to Hawke’s Bay, where Ian’s father lived. The slower pace of Napier was welcomed. When the twin girls were born, Kim’s son James – from a previous relationship with Temuera Morrison – was only three years old, so there was very little time to focus on anything but the twins and James.
Kim’s feeling about putting her career on hold to raise the three children is one of gratitude. “I was very fortunate to be able to stay at home with my three children as a young mum. My son James and Ian loved each other dearly. We had twin babies when James was three, so that was quite intense. I loved Hawke’s Bay and I was very happy to go. They welcomed us with open arms.”
By the time the twins were doing well in school, Kim was ready to take on a new challenge. In 2008 she threw herself in the deep end, by becoming a radio co-host on Hawke’s Bay’s Classic Hits Breakfast Show. She also branched out into voiceover and MC work, and continued to sing in reputable established bands.
But, after the sudden and devastating loss of Ian in 2010, Kim’s focus again turned entirely to her children to help them navigate their grief.
Today Kim is still singing and it remains her greatest pleasure. She has been performing gigs around the North Island, billed as Kim Willoughby and the Bandoleros (which includes former members of Hello Sailor and the Pink Flamingos).
She has always maintained that learning an instrument was surplus to requirements. For years, the inconvenience of being left-handed put her off learning the guitar. Besides, “I didn’t need to play, I was surrounded by the best musicians in the country!”
But now, settled in her new home in Waerenga, Waikato, she is starting to feel that taking on an instrument might be her next challenge.
Kim Willoughby and Ian Morris’s daughters Julia and Maude perform and record as the duo Lexxa, releasing the album Toxic Love in 2019.
Among the many recordings to which Kim has contributed backing vocals are Greg Johnson’s Sea Breeze Motel, Wayne Mason’s Same Boy, and Right Left and Centre’s anti-tour single ‘Don’t Go’ (the b-side of the latter, ‘You’ve Got to Move, Cecil’ featured Willoughby with Annie Crummer).