In 2019 Jan Hellriegel released her fourth studio album, Sportsman of the Year: A Suburban Philosophy, simultaneously with a book of essays of the same title. Based on the album’s 12 songs, the essays cover “from being the next big thing in her early 20s, to giving music away altogether at 30; raising a family, starting businesses and returning to music with fresh enthusiasm, a new-found well being and a sense of purpose.” In this piece, ‘Neptune and Me’, she recounts some of her experiences in the music industry in the 1990s.
Neptune and Me
No matter how uneven the playing field, I resolve to work with what I have on hand today because the alternative is to quit and, quite frankly, that is not going to happen.
These words took me a long time to write because I kept remembering little anecdotes, which introduced me to other memories that I had long since placed in the forgotten-about folder. But now, finally, I can give you a little insight into my experience as a musician and a woman working in the music industry over the last thirty-three years, and how I handled those infamous music industry events and the power players.
This essay is a very long view over a period of time that is older than most of the young women who find the industry so hard today. Fortunately I am no longer the starry-eyed girl who thought she could take on the world and win, because sometimes I absolutely lost and it was very gruelling. What this has meant, however, is that I have learned how to pick myself up against any odds and get on with the job of producing music to the best of my ability with what I have on hand. Things are easier for me now and I am relatively unscathed by my past, and I still have a very positive view of my craft and the majority of the people I work with.
I have always had one goal when it comes to music and that is to write great songs. In that respect my determination has been singular so I have never really thought much about the demarcation between women and men when producing works. Writing and recording have always been foremost in my mind, however the #timesup and #metoo movements are hard to ignore.
Writing and recording have always been foremost in my mind, however the #timesup and #metoo movements are hard to ignore.
The biggest challenge I face now is to remind myself – and everyone else – that even though I am middle-aged it doesn’t mean I am invisible. I still have music to write and, if anything, my stories and songs are more interesting and gritty because I have seen things that have changed my twenty-something worldview. I have gone from black and white to all sorts of colour. My songs now tell stories from the other side of youth’s “sturm und drang” – and the view from here is so much clearer. Quite frankly, life is good when you’re older and there is no way I would want to go back to what I call my “young and dumb self of yesterday”.
If at any time I have felt aggrieved or thought things were not fair because I was a woman, then I have tried not to let this define me and, even though the music industry is still a boys’ club in many ways, as I head towards finishing my next studio album all I can say, “I’m still here”.
Now I see the music industry from two perspectives. One is the industry which is controlled by business, contracts and accounting, and the other is the art form: the human potential and the musical ideas which fuel the music business and give it a reason to be. Sometimes the controllers of the cheque books or those with fame and notoriety can take advantage if they so desire but I was very fortunate in that I started my career in an all-girls band and was in that band for over five years, so by the time a record company signed me up I was already staunchly independent and only did things I was comfortable with.
Simply put, and from what I have seen, sexism is something that exists in all areas of business and society, not just the music industry. And to all women who are faced with the day-to-day choice of handling it the best way they can, I salute them. It’s hard to navigate at times but if we want to get to the top of our game then I guess we have to learn to work with what we have got because until things change – that is all we’ve got.
From a sociological perspective I believe I had more experience dealing and communicating with boys and men in my formative years, as I grew up in West Auckland with three brothers, surrounded by a neighbourhood full of lads. I was very much a tomboy and dressed in jeans and tee shirts like my brothers and I was mistaken for a boy on more than one occasion, but I was happy enough in my own skin.
On Saturday mornings I would beg my dad to take me into his panel shop and wrecking yard, much to the chagrin of my poor mother, because I loved being around the car wrecks with the broken glass that looked like diamonds, dented bonnets, and the smell of petrol. It wasn’t dolls and clothes for me – it was hanging out with the panel beaters, smoko, overalls, pies, roll-your-owns and powdered coffee for morning tea.
The prepubescent me always thought I was accepted as I was and never ever thought that somehow my sex would set me apart from the opposite, but things did start to change when my hips started to shape up and breasts appeared. It was obvious I wasn’t one of the boys anymore and from then on I remember the stark reality of being shut out of the male dominion I felt so welcome in, but when I think about it – it wouldn’t have made me very happy to stay there anyway.
UNIVERSITY WAS A BIT OF AN EYE OPENER FOR THIS GIRL FROM WEST AUCKLAND.
Around the age of 14, I was at a party in Kelston and when I went looking for my friend I found she was paralytic and two guys were trying to take her up the driveway – to have their way with her I guess. One of my sort-of boyfriends at the time helped me and we grabbed one arm and played a tug of war with the other brutes while she was in the middle flopping from side to side like a rag doll. My sort-of boyfriend was punched and it was a very scary scenario. I learned that night that even though the majority of men in my life were wonderful, there were some who were not and of this I have always been mindful. Not all men are good but mostly they are and that truth has always kept me safe.
University was a bit of an eye opener for this girl from West Auckland. My first experience with feminism was visiting the Women’s Room and the posters on the walls were shouting, “ALL MEN ARE RAPISTS”. I could never agree with that and said so. Some yes, all no. My lyrics around that time were more socially orientated, confronting the chardonnay socialists that feigned concern for the unfairness of our society, but who would, as I correctly foretold in those songs, end up running the country and controlling all the resources just like their parents.
You ask me why I don’t understand the way you feel
I don’t have the time to understand myself at all
You don’t know what it’s like not to have the time to read or write
To come home to a fight at night ’cause you can’t pay the bills.
– ‘Worker’s Lament’, The Cassandra’s Ears Story, 1990
For me I thought feminist activism at university didn’t last longer than that initial visit to that Women’s Room, however over the course of my career I have always lived as an independent and determined woman so I guess I have walked the path of a good feminist and still do to this day.
While I studied at Otago in the mid-1980s I became a member of the all-girl band Cassandra’s Ears. There is no way I would be where I am today without the opportunity to get up on stage with the fine women in that band. I wanted to write the songs myself and because we were invited to play at a lot of women’s festivals, university gigs and parties – by the end we got really good at what we did. The stories I can tell you about being in an all-girl band around this time are pretty intense but my favourite one was when we got kicked off stage in Papakura. Our music was turned down mid-set. “Take your money and run,” said the manager. I guess it didn’t help that we were advertised as a “leather and lace all-girl band”. We got up on stage ready to sing our songs in earnest and they were probably expecting us to do a strip show. In our time that was our biggest payday ever. I think now that perhaps we were in the wrong trade.
After Cassandra’s Ears disbanded and I went off on a solo career, most of the touring I did was in predominantly all-male entourages. I was always fine with this and don’t recall any uncomfortable times with my male cohorts and have certainly never had a Weinstein experience. For a little while I did go through a period of dressing like a lad to ensure none of my female curves were visible – hiding my femaleness for preservation because I got a little tired of standing out. But I left this side of me behind after a while because trying to be one of the boys when you are not one is not good for your health.
I also didn’t like being called a “Rock Chick” and wanted to change that perception so I started wearing pretty dresses. The reason I didn’t want to be referred to as a rocker is because I have always thought of myself primarily as a songwriter and I found labels very limiting. Granted, some of the songs I have written are a bit loud e.g. ‘Manic (Is A State Of Mind)’ is a bit grungy and could cause a bit of confusion about my writing style, but the song is about going mad and losing the plot so it hardly conjures up a sweet soft ditty in terms of musical timbre.
Manic is at my doorstep
looking in with bloodshot eyes
Cursing if I ignore him
He likes to sway as he spins his lines
– ‘Manic (Is A State Of Mind)’, Tremble, 1995
Not wanting to be labelled is also the main reason I didn’t record a lot of the songs that were on the Lost Songs album (a collection of demos and unreleased recordings I found in old tapes in my garage). I abandoned most of the songs I had written after It’s My Sin and bypassed them, making the album Tremble instead. Now I realise that those songs were quite good and I shouldn’t have been so judgemental about them, but there you go. They did see the light of day in the end but not until I was a middle-aged mum in the suburbs and as far away from being deemed a “Rock Chick” as I could be.
“You and people like you Jan [musicians] are the reason people like me have a job – you are welcome in our office any time.”
– Tim Murdoch, Warner Music NZ, 1991
When I first signed to Warner Music it took a long time to record my first album. For a little while Tim Murdoch encouraged me to write with some old dudes he knew from Australia and the US but I just said, “No thanks, I don’t want to.” And once I was asked to have singing lessons and I said, “Why? I like my voice the way it is,” and when J.D. Souther who was producing some of the It’s My Sin album suggested I get my tonsils out I said, “Why? It might ruin the tone of my voice.” I never did listen to anyone who tried to change the way I wrote music or sung and when I think about how much easier my musical life could have been if I got a little more “commercially orientated” – I do wonder, but then because I am still releasing music now, it makes me think I always made the right calls in terms of my career.
“I never did listen to anyone who tried to change the way I wrote music or sung.”
In the end my label just let me make my album the way I wanted to and believed in me from then on, never asking me to change anything or write with anyone else. When it comes to big, bad music industry stories I don’t really have one because Tim Murdoch was one of the good guys and he always championed my music and looked after me.
I was also very fortunate when I signed to my record label Warner Music NZ because my A&R guy, Jeremy Freeman, was gorgeous and gay. It was the early nineties when we flew to Australia to promote It’s My Sin and meetings were held in a sea of male industry executives. They always wore denim shirts and jeans and it was always very blue. I remember I always covered up my skin and wore volumes of black and Jeremy Freeman wore well-cut colourful suits. We enjoyed standing out.
When we toured main centres in Australia promoting the album we had to share the same hotel room to save costs. We had a lot of fun and I will always appreciate how much Jeremy shielded me from the tidal wave of “blokedom” in Australia that probably would have preferred me to wear sexier clothes and be a bit sweeter than I was ... so thank you Jeremy. I lucked out when I got to work with you.
I have been to many industry functions, parties and concerts, and yes I have met the odd lecherous famous muso or industry pervert but my overt disdain for them must have been a bit of a turn-off because they never gave me any trouble.
Secretly I always thought I was way cooler than them anyway and I think that was a really good buffer.
When a guy from the Simply Red band suggested we get down and dirty at The French Café, or Slash started stroking my arm and asked me if I was “keen” at an after-show party, I was indignant. I always replied something like, “Are you kidding? I was invited to this party because I am a musician and I am your peer, I am not interested in you like that, hmph!” They always looked at me like I was an alien after that, which suited me fine because there was never any further discussion on the subject.
The scenarios where it got a little bit seedy were few and far between and mostly I got to spend time with amazing musicians: David Byrne, Robert Smith, Jeff Buckley, Gene Pitney, Diesel, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Johnnys, local and international bands playing at Mountain Rock, Strawberry Fields and Big Day Out; and many New Zealand musicians.
From my perspective I have always been treated like a musical equal and if I wasn’t then, to be honest, I never noticed. I was probably a little thick-skinned or perhaps it was blind faith but I never found myself in a position where I have felt out of my depth or in a situation I couldn’t handle.
What the world needs now is not
another helpless hapless pathetic being
when she’s OK so take a hold
and rock and roll and sell your soul too cheaply ...
– “Dumbfounded”, Pure Pleasure, 1995
After It’s My Sin, I was given a decent budget to make another album. I disappeared for a few months and presented my label with an album full of no singles: Tremble.
Tremble was an album that came out around about the same time as Alanis Morrisette’s Jagged Little Pill and no one had really come across anything like it, especially in New Zealand. Basically Warner Music just let me make a record and they didn’t get involved creatively at all. It was wonderful. I had a great budget and I had the best musicians – Martin Nightingale (guitar), Wayne Bell (drums) and Warwick Hornby aka Factor (bass). Aussie artist Robbie Rowlands was in the engineer’s seat and I had a wonderfully empathic producer, Daniel Denholm, who encouraged me to be authentic and brave and laughed at all my bad jokes. Tremble was as pure an art form as I think I could have made at the time and even though it didn’t fire commercially due to an absolute lack of radio friendly songs and probably me dropping out of the music biz – I wouldn’t change a note or a sound.
Because Tremble was so different and un-radio friendly no one at Warners knew how to market it (by then Jeremy and Tim had left) and the best angle was to get behind an opportunity which was presented at the time and that was me being on the cover of the More magazine. The cover story headline was “Rock’n’Roll Princess”. Now I love that picture to bits, I really do, and so do my mum and dad but the message that image portrayed was incongruous with the tone of the album so the marketing campaign confused the hell out of everyone, as well as me. Still it’s a great album and stands the test of time, maybe you might like to check it out. Tremble was remastered and it’s on all the streaming services now.
The only time that I remember being put in a position whereby a record industry executive tried to take advantage of me was when I was at a nightclub in Melbourne for yet another after concert party. A record company executive suggested that I come back to the hotel with him. He thought he would try his luck or perhaps he liked pain? Let’s just say I don’t think he wanted to look after my music after that but I didn’t care, I just wasn’t interested in blokes like that and I blanked him.
In my youthful haze I could always handle the “in your face come-ons” because I was prepared for them.
In my youthful haze I could always handle the “in your face come-ons” because I was prepared for them. I have always understood lecherous and stupid male behaviour and have known how to deal with it. What I have found hard and still haven’t come to terms with is the insidious belief that somehow women are not capable or as smart ... so I stay well clear of environments where people aren’t very evolved in that department.
Unfortunately no amount of blogging, social media banter or legislation is going to change the simple truth that sexism is still everywhere and there is still a long way to go, but I refuse to let it get me down. I just look for ways that I can improve my lot and use my disadvantage to my advantage wherever possible. If I have to work three times as hard to get recognition for my work then I will work a hundred times as hard because I want to be the best I can.
Has a career in music been hard for me because I happened to be born a girl? Maybe. But I am the one who walked away for a while, no one made me. I believe subconsciously, because I was approaching thirty, that what I wanted to do was settle down and have a family, but I would have sneered at you if you had suggested that to me at the time.
If I had kept going after Tremble then I don’t know if I would still be recording music, running businesses, loving life and feeling extremely grateful for my lot. Had everything been easy and had I had early successes with my work, would I still have the courage and the strength to do what I do now? Was always swimming against the tide nothing but a wonderful blessing? All I know is that I am not resentful or angry, nor do I feel powerless to change things that I don’t like. If anything, I am very excited about the coming years and am free to do whatever I like creatively. So bring it on.
Once when I was in the bank in Ponsonby, around the time of the release of Tremble, one of the bank tellers said to me, “OMG I can’t believe it’s you! Wow, I love your album, it’s amazing. Can I get your autograph?” I was a little embarrassed and a bit surprised as I didn’t think anyone knew who I was until she said to the other bank teller, “Hey, it’s Alanis Morrisette, you should get her autograph too.”
“Neptune and Me” is a chapter from Jan Hellriegel’s book Sportsman of the Year: A Suburban Philosophy (Seahorse Swim, Auckland, 2019). Published with permission. © Jan Hellriegel
The book’s 12 chapters are also available as a podcast series, read by Jan and recorded by RNZ.