Taihape, 1998: Barry Saunders is on the move. His album Magnetic South is out in a few days and, restless until then, he goes for a long drive. He visits friends in the country, watches the scenery go by, and composes songs in his head.
THE CHARACTERS IN SAUNDERS’S SONGS ARE ALWAYS BEING PULLED SOMEWHERE ELSE.
For some reason, he’s always being pulled somewhere else. The characters in his songs are a bit the same; think of Maureen shooting through to Melbourne in the classic Warratahs song.
Every so often he packs his bags and heads out on the road, either solo, with that inveterate road scholar Sam Hunt, or as part of the trio Saunders has been playing in the past couple of years. At home in Wellington, Saunders has finally sold his shopping basket, an old Land Rover. From his cottage by the heads at the end of the North Island, he putters round in his dinghy and gets in trouble on the Strait.
“I like touring,” he says. “Movement produces things for me. I’m not one to sit in a room at a table, I’ll just wind myself into a ball. A true Aries: I’ve got to be doing something.”
When he thinks of the South, he thinks of his family and his childhood in Canterbury. “The Southern Alps, those rivers, the Waimakarere and the Rangatata, the Selwyn. The Port Hills. Banks Peninsula where I spent a lot of my teenage years roaming around those hills, driving old cars.
“I like the softness. It’s funny, the south of any country seems softer than the north. Don’t know what brings that about, and the light changes a lot. I’m a south person really.”
Saunders, who has played country halls down the end of dirt roads throughout New Zealand, identifies with small towns and old yarns. “It’s where my heart is.” A couple of years back, he narrated and sang traditional ballads for the TV documentary Songs for a New Country.
He says that his own music “has more rock’n’roll in it. The folkies are much better at that sort of thing than I am.”
More recently, he recorded several of James K Baxter’s poems for another documentary and, combined with his friendship with Hunt and recent discovery of Denis Glover’s poems, plus all that touring, it has given his songwriting its determinedly New Zealand flavour.
“I left school at a very early age, in the fourth form. I worked on the Railways, went overseas.”
“I left school at a very early age, in the fourth form. I worked on the Railways, went overseas. It was a time in New Zealand when Baxter and Glover were writing, but I missed out on that. Sam is part of that pool, he’s the one that carries it on.”
Hunt was the first person Saunders toured with after the Warratahs went their separate ways. “We probably touch a lot of the same bases. I like the honesty of just getting up there and doing it.”
Did he miss the Warratahs? “Yes and no, mostly no. Missed would be the wrong word. I appreciate it for what it was. And realise how good we were. But not missed. The reason I stopped doing the Warratahs as a full-time thing was I had to be my own person. The Warratahs was primarily a dance band. I’m not in that situation anymore, I’m playing songs for people – though sometimes it turns into that.”
Inevitably, Saunders is still perceived as a Warratah. The Interislander ad and the constant touring has ensured that. “I still do a few Warratahs songs. It’s like they’re my covers. You’ve got to do them, otherwise people get pissed off. And I like doing them. I like the idea of taking the past with you.”
For a couple of years, Saunders has been making music and touring with Caroline Easther (ex-Chills and Let’s Planet) on stripped-down drum kit, and Alan Norman (ex-Bill Lake’s Living Daylights) on honky-tonk piano and accordion.
“A three-piece is a very honest situation, the ideas go round very quickly. You’ve got to be on your toes. Now, we’ve developed into a band. They seem to know what the songs need, and it comes very easy to them.”
Magnetic South was recorded in a variety of locations, among them a small theatre in Greytown, Wairarapa. “I was crossing the street, and ran into a woman called Noeline Ball. I told her what I was doing, and she said, have a look at our theatre. It was a rehearsal room called the Little Theatre. It had a really good sound, a lovely upright and a Zip on the wall. All the things you need. And decades of costumes they’d collected and made, hanging there. Policemen’s uniforms, boas, sailor suits … decades of it. Now and then you’d throw something on.
“There had clearly been a lot of stuff done in there. There was music in the walls.”
The album was recorded by ex-Radio New Zealand engineer Neil Maddever, using his mobile equipment. “It’s a good, workable system. He sets up in two-and-a-half hours and uses three DA88s to make it up to 24 tracks. It’s a version of DAT for film. Then we mixed at Air Force.”
The recording is warm and uncluttered. “It’s quite an old-fashioned way of recording, but it’s really good. You can hear the room a bit through the cans, but I like that a lot.”
“WHEN MY FATHER PACKED ME OFF TO GUITAR LESSONS WHEN I WAS nine, HE WAS GIVING ME A JOB FOR LIFE.”
Saunders says Magnetic South is “lighter in spirit” than the meditative landscapes of Weatherman, even though many of the songs are 12-bar blues based. “It’ll probably take a year to work out what it’s all about. There’s a lot of family in there, I’ve connected with them quite a bit over the last years. I’ve spent less time on the road, comparatively.”
But, he admits, “There’s a lot of movement in there: ‘Truthful Train’, ‘Magnetic South’, ‘At Kaipara’, ‘Postcard’.”
Saunders has been in bands since his early teens in Christchurch. “For me, it’s changed. It’s now a way of saying what I want to say. When you start off, you’re emulating people. I’m a product of a lot of things – I’ve been in rock bands, pop bands, country bands – and I’ve landed somewhere.‘Magnetic South’ the song is based on the walking bass riff from Joe Ely’s ‘Boxcars’ (“though that belongs to everybody”). “It comes from our first tour, probably the Kaikoura coast. Movement, and some family stuff: ‘Tell me friends and family make a life of steel’. It’s quite a lyrical album in a way, heavier on the top than the bottom. I managed to get more colour into the lyrics than before. But, like those trees over there, they’re less dark than they were.”
“Most people peel off. But I spent a lot of years meandering and travelling. Where I’m up to is what a lot of people were doing in their twenties and thirties.”
Playing live is still a joy. “It is work, but I’ve got a job. That’s the way I look at it. When my father packed me off to guitar lessons when I was nine, and I didn’t really want to know, he was giving me a job for life. I’m realising that more and more. This is my job.”
First published in Real Groove, June 1998