Jan Hellriegel is about to release the best album of her career. As if that’s not enough, it’s a superb book as well. She graciously submits to the Witchdoctor Q&A.
Gary Steel – There are probably a lot of New Zealanders who, when they hear your name, instantly think: ‘Westy Gals’, when in fact you’re one of the highest- achieving figures in the NZ music scene.
Jan Hellriegel – Thanks, Gary. That’s good of you to say. However, from where I stand I still have a lot to achieve yet and in my view I am only just getting started.
Gary – How did you get involved in the machinations of the music industry and the publishing organisation Songbroker in particular?
Jan – The reason I got involved with the music industry and business side of things is that I felt as a musician and songwriter it was my responsibility to learn the music trade through and through. Having a good understanding of the machinations means I can be self-reliant and get things done without waiting around. For me, knowing how the business works is very empowering.
“When I signed my first publishing agreement I had no idea what I was signing and to be honest I didn’t care – I just wanted the cheque”
Gary – Did you always have an aptitude for that kind of stuff? Personally, I find that whole publishing area confusing and complicated and I guess that’s why so many musicians are rubbish at it. Could you give our readers a sentence or two to explain what music publishing is all about?
Jan – Yes I have a good idea of how business works. I enjoy it. And I enjoy running companies. But mostly I like working in the music world so that is where I focus.
Music Publishing is a little complicated I guess and I have learned a lot since I started out 30 years ago. When I signed my first publishing agreement I had no idea what I was signing and to be honest I didn’t care – I just wanted the cheque. Young artists can be coerced into signing dubious contracts because they are broke, that’s for sure.
The best way to describe what a music publisher does is, “We look for ways to maximise royalty returns and incomes for music copyrights which artists have invested their time and expertise into”. The P in publishing, to me, stands for protection, promotion, prosperity and preservation of music on behalf of the writer or composer.
Gary – And you were a founding partner in Aeroplane. Can you explain what that does and are you still involved?
Jan – Yes I am still involved with Aeroplane, as I like to work on music productions and in the advertising industry. Aeroplane is a music-licensing specialist and we work with anyone who needs music in their film or their project. We also do a lot of publicity.
Gary – Did you ever consider giving music up altogether to concentrate on that side of things, or were you always too creatively driven for that to be an option?
Jan – To me, business is creative but the need to write music and sing is a big part of who I am too. So I live my life hanging out comfortably in both camps and quite enjoy the juxtaposition. Never a dull moment I must say.
“I am so totally happy with where life is right now I wouldn’t change a thing”
Gary – Are you now back to doing music fulltime, or is that an impossible dream with the diminished income from streaming radio and so forth?
Jan – I am so totally happy with where life is right now I wouldn’t change a thing. I love my work with Songbroker and Aeroplane and I love making albums and playing the shows. I will be touring this year but mostly on the weekends.
Gary – From your early work with Cassandra’s Ears through to your last album (was it really 10 years ago?) your work has always sounded determinedly like your own and no-one else’s. To my ears, it’s got all the ingredients needed for pop success without being at all homogenised, and yet you’ve never broken through to that top tier in terms of branding or sales. Having experienced the industry “from both sides now”, do you think it’s more luck than graft or talent that makes an artist a household name?
Jan – I think it is self-belief that is the clincher. If you believe you can do it then you usually do. When I was younger I don’t know if I had the confidence to pull it off, hence why I never really fired.
Gary – What do you think of Nick Bollinger’s description, “Poised between slick pop and an edgier indie-inspired rock,” to describe your music?
Jan – That would definitely apply to some songs but perhaps not others. I don’t know if I fit in anywhere sometimes except Jan land. I don’t write to genre or trend, I write what pops out at the time and I never know what’s coming next. Which keeps me on my toes I guess.
“When I was younger I don’t know if I had the confidence to pull it off”
Gary – Your new album, Sportsman Of The Year, is a fabulous example of a singer-songwriter at the peak of their game, but it’s more than just an album. I gather that it’s more than simply a collection of songs has a theme, and that it’s designed to come with a book? Tell all!
Jan – I do tell all in the book but it takes 220 pages to get my point across and I’m not sure how to condense it all… but yes, I thought it would be a good idea to release my album this way because I knew if I released an album the traditional way no one would care, so I thought, “Well, let’s just see about that!”
Gary – Who contributes to the album? That beaut piano on “Neptune & Me”, for instance.
Jan – That’s me playing piano. I wrote a lot of the songs on the piano this time so I thought I might as well play it too. I had my usual core crew because they are fabulous and I love working with them all. Wayne Bell, producer; Daniel Denholm, mix; Oliver Harmer, engineer and mastering; Mark Hughes, bass Guitar; Brett Adams, guitar and some special guests. The best thing about an album being a book is you can list all the credits so the last chapter is dedicated to everyone who worked on the album.
Gary – I can’t tell you how great it is to hear a mature perspective on life that isn’t simply reminiscence and nostalgia, but real lived experience, and the songs on Sportsman Of The Year have that. How did you get where you could simply expel all this so beautifully in a 3-minute song?
Jan – Thanks for that. I don’t know how but I guess years of working towards this level of proficiency has taught me some solid techniques and my stories are helped along by a life full of amazing twists and turns and colourful bumpy rides.
* Sportsman Of The Year (the book and CD) is released on April 29th, and the digital release is May 12. The book can be purchased from selected book stores or from Jan’s website: www.janhellriegel.com