New Locations brought glowing reviews from the rock press in both countries, with New Zealand Herald critic Colin Hogg writing: “Gillespie’s rich, sad voice and his 10 self-penned songs shine with a dark brilliance here, a long step from the folkie flavour of Wayward Son. An outstanding record.”
But it would be another six years before third album Living In Exile came out in New Zealand, during which time Gillespie felt increasingly as if he was stuck in the middle of the Tasman, unsure on which side he belonged.
“My sister was in Australia and I had a girlfriend in Australia,” he said. “My heart was thinking I needed to get back to New Zealand and be a New Zealand musician, but it just got too hard to go back because of the relationships in Australia. And I was making money doing nightshifts at Kings Cross pharmacies to fund my musical habit!”
Sent to pharmacy school in Wellington by his pharmacist/jazz pianist father Mick with the intention that Wayne might one day “take over the family business”, the training certainly came in handy when music wasn’t paying the bills.
With a healthy dollop of self-deprecating humour, Wayne Gillespie describes his career as “a series of wins and disappointments with just enough wins to keep me doing it.” And continue doing it he has. In the past 25 years there have been EPs, a live album with guitarist Nigel Gavin, a turn as producer on a Narcs CD, and the recent release of his band Famous Blue Raincoat’s album FRAZZ.
Parallel with writing, recording and touring, Gillespie became interested in psychology and completed an honours degree at Macquarie University. A paper from his research project The Personality Of Rock Musicians was published in the UK journal Psychology Of Music in October 2000.
Growing up in Auckland with a semi-pro jazz pianist father, Wayne Gillespie had music all around him but was too intimidated to pick up an instrument. He had songs and poems in his head that he would pester his father to transpose while he hummed them; the old man constantly telling him he did not possess a melodic voice.
When he was about 14, Gillespie for the first time heard Leonard Cohen on the radio and something clicked. “I was mad on music before that. Even as a 10 and 11-year-old I would be reading who’d written the songs. So I was already pretty obsessed with songwriters and things, and listening to a hell of a lot of different music.
“But Leonard Cohen was a bit like love at first sight. It just, like, spoke to me. And I think how it spoke to me was, well, this guy can’t sing that well, he’s not Eric Clapton on guitar, and he’s got this really poetic way of putting words together. And in some deluded 14-year-old mode I thought, ‘I think I can do that; I think I can play guitar not very well and I can sing not very well and I write little poems about daffodils, so, you know, I can do that.’”
Tired of transposing his son’s poems and songs, Mick Gillespie gifted him a guitar for his 17th birthday. Gillespie Junior bought the Leonard Cohen songbook and set about teaching himself the instrument by copying the tablature. There were also a few lessons from his dad’s jazz mates, including guitarist Johnny Bradfield.
Gillespie learnt guitar from a Leonard Cohen songbook, and a few lessons from his dad’s jazz mates.
While at pharmacy school in Upper Hutt, Gillespie tried his songs out on a couple of close friends and even made his debut in front of an audience at the Central Institute of Technology Folk Club, performing something by Cohen, as well as The Rolling Stones’ ‘No Expectations’.
But it wasn’t until returning to Auckland and attending a songwriting workshop run by former Hamilton County Bluegrass Band member Dave Calder that Wayne Gillespie truly found his tribe.
“That was really the turning point for me because I met other songwriters; maybe 12 other songwriters there, swapping songs around in a circle. And then a few of us kept supporting each other and trying stuff out on each other, and then we’d turn up at folk clubs on open mic nights.”
Gillespie headed off on his OE in 1979, buying a guitar in Mexico and later finding work in London hospitals and playing his own material at folk club open mics and busking in Paris. A nervous performer, he appreciated the anonymity of honing his craft away from people who knew him.
After two years abroad, Gillespie spent three months or so playing in wine bars in Oxford Street, Sydney, often at open mic nights run by former Auckland folkie Bill Worsfold.
Back in Auckland, Gillespie submitted a song to the Hauraki Homegrown ’81 compilation that, although initially included, was ultimately ruled out due to the recording quality.
“I was just about to give up music at that stage, it was just too tough, and that got in,” Gillespie said. “It didn’t actually go on the record, but just hearing my name being announced over Radio Hauraki as a winner … that little win like that and, ‘Maybe I’ll keep going.’”
Filled with a new confidence, he embraced the Auckland acoustic scene spearheaded by Chris Priestley out of the Varsity Folk Club. There he encountered like-minded songwriters such as Kath Tait, Mahinaarangi Tocker, Chris Thompson and Priestley’s own Acoustic Confusion. At The Poles Apart, he met and teamed up with singer Denny Stanway, harmonica player Brendan Power and bass guitarist Bob Shepheard.
A couple more trips to Sydney brought Gillespie to the attention of Warner Bros Music Australia professional manager Neva Jakich. She put him in touch with Auckland promoter Paul Walker who started booking Gillespie and his band as support for the All-Stars Play the Blues amalgam, a revolving line-up of New Zealand luminaries such as Hammond Gamble, Beaver, Sonny Day, Dave Dobbyn, Peter Warren and ex-Hello Sailors Dave McArtney and Ricky Ball.
“And then Paul gave me these amazing gigs, and I met the guys from Hello Sailor,” Gillespie recalled. “So I went from a folkie player in my bedroom to suddenly being quite accepted by those guys. Like, they were really encouraging, open and friendly.”
Over the next couple of years, he took his band into Azimuth Studios in Parnell to lay down tracks, and in June 1984 came the self-produced, self-released Wayward Son. The LP garnered a four-star review from New Zealand Herald critic Colin Hogg and was praised by Russell Brown in Rip It Up.
In 1984 his song ‘Away With You’ was highly commended in the APRA Silver Scroll Awards.
Later in the year he was rubbing shoulders with members of The Narcs and Coconut Rough when his song ‘Away With You’ was a finalist for the APRA Silver Scroll. Hammond Gamble won the prize for ‘Midnight’ but for the first and only time the judges presented an additional award to Gillespie because they had great difficulty in separating the songs.
He was a most promising vocalist finalist at the NZ Music Awards and Wayward Son was a finalist in folk album of the year. The accolades increased his profile and he found he had to coordinate gigs with country band Gentle Annie, with whom he at times shared Brendan Power and Denny Stanway. He also shared production duties with Chris Knox on songwriter Nick Smith’s Flanker EP.
CBS A&R man Gilbert Egdell encouraged Gillespie to submit his demos and they eventually found their way to Australian producer and former guitarist with Fotheringay and Fairport Convention, Trevor Lucas. Lucas agreed to produce a Gillespie album as long as it was recorded in Australia.
“I got a letter back from his manager saying, ‘Trevor would like to work with you.’ That actually put CBS in a position where they sort of had to come to the party a little bit, otherwise I just would have been taking cassettes in there for years!”
The month-long sessions at the Music Farm in Byron Bay were a real eye-opener for Wayne Gillespie. Lucas banned him from playing guitar and set about making a commercial record with a rock vibe and some of Australia’s top session players, including bassist Greg Lyon, guitarist Phil Emmanuel and Goanna singers Marcia Howard and Rose Bygrave. Stanway was flown over late in the piece to contribute extra backing vocals when time and money were running short.
“There was some tension in there at times because it was so outside of, you know, what I’d experienced. I’d never played with a drummer, so I couldn’t keep time. It was quite a trip. It was, ‘Okay, well, you can’t keep time, you can’t play on your album.’ And it was totally electric, really.”
Released in New Zealand in 1987, New Locations was again critically acclaimed, but it didn’t equate to success on the road with a backing band of Stanway, guitarist Nigel Gavin, ex-Peking Man bass player Tim Calder, ex-Narcs drummer Steve Clarkson and saxophonist Rick Robertson.
“We did play a few tour dates out of Auckland and I lost a lot of money because no one turned up,” Gillespie said. “Apparently there was some interest on the east coast, but I was too nervous to do that again so I just stayed in Auckland.”
With the release of New Locations in Australia, Gillespie committed to trying to make a go of things there and relocated to Sydney. But without a manager or a handle on the machinery of the record industry it was a steep learning curve.
“I came over to Australia thinking I was just gonna ring up and book my own gigs; turn up to the record company and say, ‘How are we going today?’ I had no idea of the difference in the level of it when I came over. I had no history in Australia and I was just thinking I could manage myself.”
Gillespie soon found out that just because CBS Australia were releasing his album that did not mean they were going to get in behind it. He made some TV appearances and played around Sydney but before long was forced to seek work in an all-night Kings Cross pharmacy.
A chance meeting with Dave Dobbyn gave Gillespie with the impetus to complete his third album.
Continuing to submit demos to CBS/Sony, it was a publishing advance from Essex Music and the support of a close-knit community of Sydney musicians that finally saw Gillespie’s third album Living In Exile come to fruition in 1993. Recording had stalled for six months when a chance meeting with Dave Dobbyn provided the impetus to complete it.
“I actually bumped into Dave Dobbyn at a party and said I had been recording this album. He said, ‘I’ll help you,’ and that really was the spark. I’d played with Dave and Margaret Urlich quite a bit in supports. Margaret was also really, really supportive. Once I had them helping me out I got the confidence to finish it off.”
On the cusp of returning to live in New Zealand, Dobbyn produced, sang backing vocals and played guitar and keyboards on the closing track ‘Just A Tear Away’. Urlich lent her vocals to three songs while other expats to help out included Narcs bass player Tony Waine, country singer Shanley Del, keyboardist Peter “Pedro” Bull and former Split Enz drummer Malcolm Green (an expat by default). Brendan Power and Nigel Gavin flew in to make their contributions.
Two years after its New Zealand release, the album came out on Ravenswood Records in Australia. Gillespie continued to perform solo and with his band Passionfish – drummer Rob Grosser, bass player Peter Maloney and later guitarist Dave Sparks. He also produced and appeared on The Narcs’ 1996 album Push The Boat Out.
“They asked me to produce their third album and I ended up co-writing a lot of that with them,” Gillespie said. “I’d done a lot of pre-production with the songs, we’d worked really carefully on all the songs before we recorded them. I’m not a technical producer and it was more just creating an atmosphere, and work on stuff as much as we could before we went into the studio so it was an easy experience, which it was.”
One of the songs, ‘Gabriel Street’, sung by Gillespie, evolved from his experience of making a living while keeping his music alive. He would finish a 15-hour shift at Blake’s Pharmacy at Kings Cross at midnight and then walk around the corner to play a Passionfish residency at the Round Midnight club from 1am to 3am.
Gillespie joined The Narcs for New Zealand tours in 1996 and 1997, as support act and second guitarist. His own band Famous Blue Raincoat (named after the Leonard Cohen song) played at the ill-fated Sweetwaters in 1999 and the Thredbo Global Music Festival in 2001 and 2002. Gillespie toured New Zealand and Ireland with Brendan Power in 2008-2009.
With Gillespie and Rob Grosser the mainstays, Famous Blue Raincoat’s latest project FRAZZ has been a slow process. Longtime cohorts Power, Nigel Gavin and Rick Robertson again feature. The name FRAZZ came about when trying to describe the fusion of folk, rock and jazz it contained.
“We were gonna call the album Delusions [after one of the tracks on the recording], which felt like it might be more appropriate for someone in their 60s to be going out after a long break, trying to get back and do all that.”
Delusional or not, Wayne Gillespie has remained true to himself. “The fact that I’m still doing this comes back again to the inspiration from Leonard Cohen, going out on the road again in his late 70s, so again I’m thinking maybe a late career revival is possible.” FRAZZ was released digitally in June 2022.