Rock sis­ters

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.

Sharon O’Neill

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

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.”

Sh0na Laing

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 awwed­i­tor@bauer­me­ with your cho­sen show in the sub­ject line. (See for dates/venues.) For North Is­land shows en­ter by Sept 15, and for South Is­land shows by Sept 24.

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