With respect to her induction into the New Zealand Music Hall Of Fame, Gary Steel digs out his 1987 interview with the singer-songwriter, who was newly flush with her unexpected second round of success.
“THERE HAVE BEEN times when I’ve thought ‘what on earth am I doing?’ says Shona Laing, glowing in the wake of her new-found chart success with the single ‘(Glad I’m Not A) Kennedy’.
“It makes it all worthwhile. It was an immense relief in lots of ways. That was the primary emotion I felt. Relief that it hadn’t all been a waste of time. That what I was doing was capable of that sort of success.”
It’s been a long time coming for Shona, who at the age of 17 had been catapulted to singing stardom in 1972. This young girl went from reclusive bedroom songwriting to “fair dinkum overnight success” by winning the New Faces talent quest, and subsequently she had hit singles with squirmingly idealistic ditties like ‘1905’, ‘Show Your Love’ and ‘Masquerade’.
But that success was short-lived, for she soon made the risky trip to England, where she struggled in the strife-torn industrial climate, and rapidly found her folk style out of favour with punk the incumbent flavour of the month.
Just when things were looking grim, pop daddy Manfred Mann invited her to join his band as backing vocalist, “so I spent the next two years in the studio with him”. (Hopefully she had toilet breaks – Ed).
Getting tired of the studio grind, she returned home to New Zealand in 1983. Her return was met with a blind eye, but three years later a remixed single from the Genre album, ‘(Glad I’m Not A) Kennedy’, pushed its way to number 9 on the Aussie charts, and an admirable number 2 on the NZ charts, despite radio playlisting opposition.
The impossible had happened: Shona Laing had managed to rejuvenate her career after a 15-year gap.
“‘Kennedy’ is kind of old to me”, she says, admitting that she’s only listened to Human League producer Martin Rushent’s remix once. “You record a track and get it as close to your own sense of perfection as you can”, she says, “whereas 12-inch mixes are more of a production exercise than anything relating to the song.”
That song, which she labels ‘techno-folk’ and is helping to usher in a new age of folk-influenced music that includes the likes of Suzanne Vega, is less uptempo than most of the tracks on her new album, South.
“I’ve made a conscious effort to write things from a positive point of view,” she says of the new record. But although she likes pop music, her material will always tend to reflect her own interests as a songwriter. “The important thing,” she says, is that “the songs are actually ABOUT something”. And for sure, she doesn’t mean songs about making tea and toast, or frolicking nude on disco tabletops.
Shona wants to entertain, but admits “I am a political animal”, and maintains that subjects like nuclear war “transcend politics, they’re about people”, and are therefore worthy song subject-matter. However, being politically aware simply means to her that “I have various and contradictory opinions about a lot of things.”
The hippy dresses and long hair may be long gone, but Shona says that the basic idealism of her early songs is still there. “If you’re idealistic and open and honest, there’s that feeling that you’re going to get trodden on, so the reaction to that is to toughen up. But I hope I’m not too cynical.”
The new haircut is short and spiky, and Shona admits “image has always been a problem. I’m not a dance musician, so that sexuality thing is not of a high priority. For me it’s a random area.”
In these packaged times, it’s heartening to find a real person with few illusions sitting in a storm of success. GARY STEEL
Note: This piece was originally published in RTR Countdown magazine in October 1987.