They’ve been writing and performing for decades and have had a profound effect on the New Zealand music industry. Nicola Russell meets three of our ‘music matriarchs’.
This month, Kiwi music matriarchs Sharon O’Neill, Debbie Harwood and Shona Laing will take to the stage in churches around New Zealand (with Hammond Gamble) for the annual Church Tour.
We more often hear about the grandfathers of New Zealand rock – Dave Dobbyn, The Finns and Don McGlashan – but these women, all celebrated musicians and songwriters, are also an integral part of our music identity. Between them they have more than 20 albums, dozens of hit songs, and have clocked up hundreds of hours on the road here and abroad.
There have been times when they have wanted to quit – they’ve battled the negative attitudes towards Kiwi music in the 1980s, the fight to get air-time, the challenge of making a living from their art, and the sexism in the entertainment industry. But they haven’t stopped – because music runs through their veins.
So in their 50s and 60s, these sisters continue to do it for themselves, touring the country playing their own and each other’s songs – more comfortable in their skin and more motivated to write new music than ever before.
Maxine, Words, Asian Paradise, the theme to Smash Palace – Sharon O’Neill has written some of New Zealand’s biggest hits. In 1979 (in her mid-20s) Sharon caught the attention of CBS Records NZ, who signed her and released her first single, Luck’s on Your Table. The following year, her self-titled second album reached number three on the charts and Sharon became the darling of 80s pop in New Zealand. From 1979 she won New Zealand’s Top Female Vocalist for three years running. “When I look back at my old music videos I feel pretty queasy,” the slender 63-year-old admits with a laugh. “You get those ‘what was I thinking?’ moments, ‘who put me in that outfit?’ moments and the ‘why did I let them put me in that outfit?’ moments!” A support slot on an Australian tour with Boz Scaggs in 1981 propelled Sharon’s career into the spotlight abroad and inspired her move across the Tasman. Her star continued to rise with her third album, Foreign Affairs, in 1983, featuring the single Maxine. Recording that album is one of her fondest career memories. “We needed an extra harmony and the producer left the studio and came back with Don Henley [The Eagles]; I had Timothy Schmit [The Eagles] singing as well! It was a real treat,” says Sharon, who lives in Sydney with partner Alan Mansfield of Dragon fame. In 1984, Sharon’s new deal with CBS Australia went sour and she took a break from her solo career, regaining traction in 1987 with her beloved Danced in the Fire album. After releasing Edge of Winter in 1990, Sharon returned to writing songs with Alan for the likes of Dragon and Robert Palmer. Life slowed down for the pair after the death of both Mark Hunter (Dragon) and Robert Palmer. “It is a lot calmer these days. It used to be fairly hectic because Alan would be touring the world with Dragon or with Robert Palmer and I would go back and forth. Working with Robert was a highlight for me.” She and American-born Alan continue to write together – and Sharon says a release is now imminent. “We have a lot of songs on the back burner that we haven’t finished off, but they will be good to go soon. We want to do something… maybe an EP.” The couple return regularly to New Zealand. They both performed in Debbie Harwood’s Give it a Girl shows and Sharon is a regular in When the Cat’s Away performances. She was a key part of the Let them Roar concert at Auckland Zoo this year.
When I look back at my old music videos I feel pretty queasy.”
I make sure I am pretty fit – but things are on the way down, let’s face it!”
Across the Tasman, Sharon has continued to be part of productions and tribute shows such as Let it Be, and she and Alan both tour with Paul Young and Spandau Ballet’s Tony Hadley. The key to her longevity? “Having that lifelong passion as a songwriter where you just can’t stop a song coming,” she says. “I think when you get to the point where that stops, then do something else – but that hasn’t happened yet. You get ideas and you run across to the keyboard and then when that culminates in a tour of sorts, it is just the bee’s knees. “I’m really looking forward to singing with Debbie, Shona and Ham, just having that spirit on stage, because it is a different combination from what we normally have. It will be really stripped back; I haven’t done anything like that before.” She says while touring in her 60s is different from how it was during her 20s and 30s, it keeps her young. “Before my first Cat’s Away tour I had a lung infection, which turned into heart trouble, and I thought, ‘God, am I going to be able to do this?’ but I eased myself into it and when I got back and had my check-up, the doctor said, ‘You are absolutely perfect, probably the best thing you ever did was go out and sing to strengthen the lungs.’ “That’s really cool. I make sure I am pretty fit for a tour – but things are on the way down, let’s face it!” she says, laughing. She has found there is an upside to ageing though. “We used to cart all our gear in a trailer, drive to the gigs and set it up ourselves. Now when you are on a tour you are taken care of, so all you have to think about is your sound check and the show.” She says while in the old days she liked to socialise with the band after the shows, now she likes to head to bed. “I just like to come off the stage and zip it, which is hard because you are all hyped up, but if I have a show the next day, the worst thing I can do is hang around and talk.” But, in a later chat, Shona Laing has other ideas. “Oh no, she’ll be partying on this tour!” she says with a grin.
We are partying like it is 1988 at the moment, it is all on.”
Debbie Harwood’s life has been dedicated to putting female musicians on stage. After a short solo career in the 1980s, she was integral in forming the phenomenon When the Cat’s Away. The cabaret-style show was driven by five musicians (Debbie, Annie Crummer, Margaret Urlich, Kim Willoughby and Dianne Swann), who were all working hard to launch their own solo careers during an era when getting airplay for New Zealand music was a hefty task. The friends joined forces as a way to make some cash and have some fun over one weekend of four shows. “It was supposed to be one weekend and then we’d call it a day, but the energy was so incredible we kept doing it. Melting Pot went to number one and overnight we went from crowds of 1300-2000 to crowds of 19,000.” When the Cat’s Away also celebrated a gold album and was named Best Group at the NZ Music Awards in 1989. In 2001 and 2002, Debbie reformed the group and they achieved platinum sales for their live album with Sharon O’Neill and had a hit single with Asian Paradise. In 2009 Debbie did it again, bringing together top female New Zealand musicians – Annie, Margaret, Sharon, Shona, Julia Deans and Lisa Crawley – for her Give it a Girl shows. Individually, she has won Most Promising Female Vocalist in 1985, sung the official song for the Commonwealth Games in 1990 and been a backing vocalist on tour for Jimmy Barnes and Diesel. The mother-of-two, who has also worked as a producer, sings regularly with The Band of Gold and in 2005 released her jazz album Soothe Me. Now 56, Debbie lives in Hastings with her husband Paul Jeffery, where they run a bed and breakfast and have a menagerie of animals. “I love animals and I love nature. I live on 14 acres and I have two pet fantails, 10 doves, a cockatiel, two dogs and 10 chickens.” Debbie has had her fair share of health issues over her lifetime – asthma and then heart problems, which culminated in a ruptured aortic valve. Doctors discovered a hole in her heart, which she believes has been contributing to her poor health for years. Then she suffered post-traumatic stress and crippling bouts of anxiety after waking early from the heart operation. The anxiety made performing difficult, but having conquered that, she can’t wait to take to the stage again. With her health on track and her children (with ex-husband Ricky Morris) in tertiary education, Debbie says now is her time to concentrate on writing her own songs. She cites a recording stint in the Roundhead Studios with Shona Laing, just days before our talk, as one of the best moments of her life. She will perform the song they recorded, which she likens to a “James Bond theme”, on the Church Tour. Debbie says now nothing can get in her way. “When you hit about 35 you realise a lot of the attention was because you were pretty or young, and that is very sobering, but then you hit an age where you go, ‘Oh right, it’s down to me. If I am going to make music, I am going to have to do it myself.’ I’ve written songs all my life; we all still write, so I said to Shona, ‘Bugger, I am going to book Roundhead.’ It was the most beautiful experience, it was like the world stops spinning. I came out of there thinking that was my favourite three days of my musical life.” Debbie is now selling her bed and breakfast in Hastings to concentrate on her music. “I thought my music was over – that’s why I bought a B and B – but we are partying like it is 1988 at the moment, it is all on. We will just keep going until we drop dead!”
We get better as we get older… but you are not supposed to get old.”
Shona Laing burst onto the music scene at just 17 when she appeared on television talent quest New Faces in 1972 with her original song, 1905. Since then she has created a musical legacy that saw her take the Lifetime Achievement Award at the New Zealand Music Awards in 2013. That first performance introduced a bold, eloquent, intensely raw songwriter, unafraid to express the thoughts of a generation. In the ensuing four decades she has released nine albums, won three Rata Awards, two New Zealand Music Awards and two Silver Scrolls, and toured the world with her music. After releasing her first two albums, Whispering Afraid and Shooting Stars are Only Seen at Night, she garnered international interest and moved to England, where she was picked up by Manfred Mann Band. On return to New Zealand in the early 1980s, she released her acclaimed albums Genre and South. In 2002 The Essential Shona Laing was released and in 2007 her most recent album, Pass the Whisper. At 60, Shona has the same dead-cool, unaffected presence she brought to the stage in New Faces, and says she’s more comfortable in her skin than ever before. While still outspoken and opinionated, the once intensely political artist says she has stopped fighting so hard. “Now I do my best to ignore politics. I think it is out of control. I don’t think you do anything for anyone by getting embroiled in it. In the hubris of being 30, I thought maybe I could,” says the woman whose songs like White Colonial MiddleClass Anarchist and Glad I’m Not a Kennedy challenged the status quo. When her TV “crapped out” recently, she didn’t replace it, preferring to watch TV shows online. “I used to watch the news 24/7 but I don’t subject myself to it much now – I had about two hours of Al Jazeera last night and it left me concussed. It is sickening what is going on in the world,” she says, referring to politicians Donald Trump and Pauline Hansen as examples. Her passion for music, however, has remained strong. “When Deb put together the Give it a Girl gigs at Sky City – that was a gift for me. Working with a full-on rock band like that is bliss.” She says working with women creates a special kind of magic. “It is heart over head,” she says. Shona has lived in the small mining town of Waihi for 20 years, where she writes music from home and is friends with some “fair dinkum locals”. She does consider moving to Auckland, but says it would have to be inner city, like K Road, because the idea of a car in Auckland is “purgatory” for this hippie at heart. Her move to Waihi came off the back of feeling “vaguely exiled” by the music industry. “The industry had changed so much and I felt I’d had my dash at the mainstream, high-finance side. At that point I may have given it up if I could have, but I just couldn’t – I’d wake up with songs in my head and guitars would call ‘come play me’.” So she is still going strong in 2016. Just days before our interview, she and Debbie had been recording at Roundhead Studios, where they sang with Debbie’s Band of Gold and Stephen Small. “It sounded fantastic. It was a joyous couple of days – you get a taste for it!” Shona says she definitely has more records to come. “It’s a matter of sorting things out – I probably have about 30 songs, but they’re not all one album.” There’s an album of “straight up Shona rock” and another of Celtic influenced guitar songs, inspired by her work with the late singer/songwriter Mahinarangi Tocker. Asked about talent shows now compared to the 1970s, Shona is frank. “I don’t watch them now. Back then it wasn’t about slick corporate interests, as it is now. I probably wouldn’t even have got through to the TV part if I had auditioned today. “I was on my own – I buggered off to England at 18, I didn’t have a record company nurturing me for four years first. I just hopped on a plane and arrived with an ass of a urinary infection – it was a nightmare but it was what had to be done.” While she is grateful for the time she spent in England (from ages 19 to 26), where she says she got her social and political education, there are some things she would do differently in her career. “Debbie and I were just saying if we had our lives again it would be no holds barred, no being embarrassed, no being shy – wear black nail polish, bugger it. If we were going to do it again we would do it right, rather than trying to be all things to all people. “We do get better as we get older but because of the nature of the industry you are not supposed to get old. If you think of the NZ music industry, the same four men have been doing it for years, and the turnover of women has been about one a year – there was me, then there was Sharon, we had Bic Runga, Anika Moa, there is a constant turnover of women.” But she says things are slowly changing. “Today we are all women,” she says, referring to the crew running the photo shoot taking place. “Until I was 30 I had never worked with a woman – the management were men, the record company were men, the bands were men, the people who ran the studios were men, the PR people were men, the sales reps were men.” There is no doubt Shona is excited to be touring again. “I love being on the road. The difference is 10 dates now compared to 40 – I used to go out for six weeks at a time.” Asked what she needs to do now to look after herself when on tour, she says sleeping and eating are key and not overdoing “other things”. “Not as much partying, although when you are with party animals it is not that easy!” she says. Who are the party animals? “We all are, I think,” she says with a twinkle. AWW
We have a double front row pass to give away for each Church Tour show (from Sept 20 to Oct 1). To enter the draw, email firstname.lastname@example.org with your chosen show in the subject line. (See civicevents.co.nz for dates/venues.) For North Island shows enter by Sept 15, and for South Island shows by Sept 24.