Shona Laing – The Monster Witchdoctor Q&A

To honour Shona Laing winning the IMNZ Classic Record award for her album South, GARY STEEL digs up his complete and unexpurgated 1987 interview with the NZ singer-songwriter.

 

Shona Laing’s career-reinvention in the late ’80s

Gary – South’s about to be released in Australia. What’s the next step here?

Shona – Today we’re actually compiling the album for NZ. It’s going to be a different album, actually. As well as ‘Kennedy’, there are three other songs off Genre. Although Genre didn’t sell that well, I’d rather put as many new songs on as possible. I just didn’t think that the mixes were that different enough to warrant putting them on another album. And we had the material, with just ‘Kennedy’ off the last album.

Gary – Are you happy with the way it’s coming out?

Shona – Yes. The mixing in Australia… initially, I was a bit reluctant about in the sense of being taken out of my control to a degree that they hadn’t been for a long time. I’d been completely in control of what was going on here. But that’s to be expected, and Peter Wilson and I established a relationship.

Gary – Peter’s mixing the whole thing?

Shona – He did that. Three and a half weeks at 301.

Gary – Is he based in Australia?

Shona – No, he’s based in London. He came out just to do that.

Gary – What did you think of the Martin Rushent mix?

Shona – Well… ‘Kennedy’ is kind of old to me, and in lots of ways it’s taken on its own personality, and I don’t relate to it that well. The Martin Rushent mix… to be perfectly honest I listened to it once. I just don’t think that ‘Kennedy’ lends itself to a 12-inch mix. ‘Drive Baby Drive’ is the second single in Australia and a 12-inch was done of that, and that’s pretty bizarre as well, but ‘Drive’ actually lends itself to that kind of treatment. You record a track and you get it as close to your own sense of perfection as you can. From there it’s anybody’s game, they can do what they want. For me, it’s producing the songs, and 12-inchers are more of a production exercise than anything relating to the song. The structure of a song is really crucial when you’re presenting it for the first time. And both those tracks are chopped around fairly viciously.

(Glad I’m Not) A Kennedy

Gary – Were you there when the album was mixed?

Shona – Oh yeah. Keeping an eagle eye on what was happening. In lots of ways that whole system is fairly irreverent to what’s already happened, so God knows what would happen if the artist wasn’t there to keep an eye on it. But it all worked out really well. It took two or three days to establish an approach. Something that’s become clear to me since I’ve been back is that New Zealanders are creatively a lot freer, and I think it’s to do with the lack of airplay and all that because commercialism is something Kiwi writers don’t usually think about.

Gary – Do you keep commercialism in mind when you’re writing a song?

In the years that I’ve been writing, I’ve tried to write songs that are melodically accessible. It’s part of me now, so I don’t think consciously when I’m writing ‘I want this to be a single’. A lot of the time I think most of the stuff I write I regard as musically commercial, although commercial is the wrong word, I think accessible. Working with a manager and record company in England over a period of time and trying to make it commercially viable I sort of taught myself to think in those terms.

Gary – Does subject material define what may or may not be acceptable in the format of a pop song?

Shona – Probably not. Although having written so much – it’s kind of viewed as politically oriented but it isn’t – I think nuclear war and power politics and that sort of stuff transcends politics, it’s about people. But I got to a point – there are two tracks on this new album that I wrote together, one called ‘The Bishop’ which is about South Africa and another one called ‘Soviet Snow’ which is sort of about Chernobyl and radiation, and felt after I’d written those songs, which are probably two of the best songs I’ve ever written… suddenly inside of me, I thought, ‘I’m sick of this, I actually want to entertain people, make people feel good.’ So I’ve made a conscious effort to write things from a positive point of view.

Gary – You obviously have an interest in the world situation though.

Shona – I guess that’s from spending so much time in the world, I guess. Seven years in England is a long time to just sever ties with the place. I’m still kind of interested to know what happens in Britain. And America’s presence in the world is so overpowering that it’s very difficult to ignore it. I suppose I am a political animal. I was the youngest of five kids and we used to have big discussions around the dinner table every night. So I suppose those things do interest me.

Gary – Was your family really divided in its views?

Shona – It was parents versus kids most of the time. My parents were both intelligent people, so I think they probably had quite liberated points of view for the mid-‘60s. My father was involved in electronics, and travelled a lot, to Japan and the States, had quite close connections with America, so he was well travelled. I think that probably enlightened him, to a degree.

Shona in the 1980s

Gary – But you’re not interested in explicit politics in your songs.

Shona – No, I’m not. It’s all to do with how people deal with the world. In lots of ways, people accept their morality, lack of ethics and horrendous things that go on… A perfect example is that Oliver North business. The Iran-gate guy. A guy that was so totally dishonest and became a hero in America. It’s sort of bizarre to me. So in lots of ways, I’m just befuddled at the way people accept the garbage that’s thrown at them. I have various and contradictory opinions about lots of things. I’m more of a global animal. I find it confusing, and in lots of ways, writing for me, the ideas that come up are often new to me. So in lots of ways, it’s seeing for myself what I think about things. As I say, I have contradictory opinions about things.

Gary – Tell me about your writing process.

Shona – Sometimes it just happens. I do make an effort to discipline myself. Which is something I wouldn’t have done like five or six years ago. Machinery’s good for that. I’ve probably learned more music from using sequencers than I’ve learned from any people. You can do things. I can play melodies on a keyboard, totally out of time. I mean, I wouldn’t call myself a keyboard player in a million years. To have a sequencer that will give it back to me, all in time, all those ideas, is really quite inspiring. And you can try things out that you couldn’t try out on a guitar. And drum machines. My drum machine’s probably my favourite machine. It sets up a feel so that… the way that I write usually, now, is that I’ll have a lyrical idea with some sort of reference to a melody, so the first thing that comes is a tempo, so I’ll write like a four-bar pattern into the drum machine and play around over the top of that. I’m not really a sound sort of person. I’ve got a standard bass sound and a standard top-range sound. I just write melodies and work out a melodic attitude and then write over the top of that. But from a sound point of view, I just haven’t got the gear to get into that. There’s so much happening in music, there are so many ways that you can go. I think that you can attempt to be a jack-of-all-trades, but it’s far better to specialise in one area, and involve other people to bring it to fruition.

Gary – Are the best things collaborative?

Shona – Certainly. So, basically I see my role as writing, as a singer-songwriter I suppose.

Gary – Are the lyrics the most important thing?

Shona – Well, once it’s written… a good song is where the two things sit together as if they were supposed to be like that. So I think they’re just as important as each other.

Gary – Tell me about the newer material.

Shona – I think it’s more rhythmically oriented. It’s probably more uptempo. I suppose that’s part of what I was saying before, about wanting people to like it, to positively like it, as opposed to thinking that’s good but isn’t it depressing. For me personally, I get far more enjoyment out of something that I can get off on, even in a physical sense, and music is primarily a physical thing. And I also suppose I’ve become more cynical, and so the heart-rending ballads are not quite as attractive to me as they were once. You have to have the lyrical material to write a good ballad.

Gary – Would you say that ‘Kennedy’ is a ballad?

Shona – There’s no way it’s a dancing song. It’s very hard to dance to! It’s a terrible tempo. In lots of ways even when we did it, which was three years ago now, we looked at it as techno-folk. So I think it’s more a folk song than anything. It’s about people, about modern living. I dunno, it’s about so many different things, that song. Somebody suggested it was a lament, and I agree with that. It is a sad song. There really isn’t an element of cynicism in it, although the Kennedy family leaves a lot of room for cynicism. It was written quite spontaneously from seeing Teddy Kennedy and thinking ‘he looks awful’, and just feeling immense sympathy for the guy, probably unwarranted, but it was never intended to be a slag. That’s what I mean about contradictions in my writing. It’s human, I suppose.

Shona’s first album, Whispering Afraid (1973)

Gary – America, do you really hate it?

Shona – It’s not American people. Some of the closest friends I have are Americans. There’s a quality about American individuals I find very attractive. They’re positive, forthright people. The ones I know. It’s just really the lie of democracy. That irritates me because it’s the biggest lie in the whole world, and America is the bastion of democracy and yet they’ll say to New Zealand, ‘you’ve got to do this and got to do that’. They undermine our sovereignty. That sort of thing really irritates me. That they’ve got the gall to pretend to be this great democratic nation and yet they manipulate other nations to their own ends.

Gary – They’ve got a constitution.

Shona – I think in lots of ways that’s their problem. The American Constitution is so idealistic that real human beings could never live up to it. When they fail to live up to it, rather than admit it, they sweep all the garbage under the carpet. It’s that whole thing of telling one little white lie and having to maintain it. The lie gets bigger and bigger and bigger. In Kennedy’s time, it was probably all very true. America had this beautiful face that the world could accept. But it’s once again natural for things to change. Things do change. And America seems to be going further and further to the right, and the Soviet Union seems to also be going further and further to the right, coming into the middle. The whole superpower battle – I always remember sixth form physics. The basic law of physics, that to each force there is an equal and opposite. The whole superpower battle is an essential part of the world today. We just have to cross our fingers they don’t blow us all up. An interesting thing about Chernobyl, which is all part of that as well… when Chernobyl happened, the Soviet Union was in the middle of that 18-month moratorium on testing, and yet people still look at them and say, ‘they’re up to something’. And yet that’s about as concrete and positive a stand as they could have made, to not test a bomb for 18 months. It would be interesting to see the comparison in the radiation from American tests in those 18 months. I think that they are making real efforts to take the heat off, whereas the Yanks don’t seem to be. Kennedy put them into Vietnam, and from there-on-in, they haven’t had a charismatic, seemingly-competent president. Johnson, Nixon, Carter.. they were all either as belligerent as hell or inept.

Gary – Like the US Constitution, your early material was very idealistic.

Shona – Way back, sure it was. I think people succumb to practicalities in lots of ways. Whoever would have thought that New Zealand would be nuclear-free, so strongly nuclear-free. So, in lots of ways I still believe in those sort of ideals but then there’s no accounting for human beings. When we became nuclear-free, the country was probably split right down the middle on the issue but now it’s probably 70/30. My mother is a perfect example of that, a woman who’s getting on, who’s reasonably well off, but is fervently pro the anti-nuclear stance. It’s quite invigorating.

Gary – Is Shona Laing the same person?

Shona – From Whispering Afraid I’m 15 years older. New Zealand is a very gentle country in lots of ways. We were talking about this with some friends last night. They were hitching in Australia and the fact that these fair dinkum Aussies on the road between Sydney and Brisbane were very friendly, open, caring people. And yet in a business sense, Australians would like to be seen as tough and unrelenting. It’s what people want to be compared to what they are, where the difficulties arise. It’s that whole thing of being taken for an idiot. 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. So having lived in this world and worked in this business in England and Australia, I suppose I’ve closed up a little bit, but I hope I’m not too cynical. I’m cynical about the business. But I’m not cynical about the world. On a real basic level, I don’t think I’ve changed. But I think perhaps the songs I’m writing now are not as broad spectrum. The songs are more about a singular thing as opposed to a whole broad wash of back to the land kind of stuff. I was about 17!

Shona’s second album, Shooting Stars Are Only Seen At Night (1974)

Gary – You’d expect a little bit of naivety at that age.

Shona – Probably more than the average 16-year-old. It was the end of the hippy thing, right around the world. The early ‘70s I think it was winding down. I think that 1955 was the cusp of a generation. I was born in 1955, and I can really relate to that. A lot of my friends are older than me. My husband is eight years older than me, and most of the friends that we have are his age group. And yet I also feel quite a strong identification with teenagers. Pop music is still something that I really, really enjoy, and it’s aimed at an age group that’s younger than me. So I didn’t quite make the hippy movement, which was quite disappointing at the time. In some ways, it’s probably an advantage that I wasn’t locked into that mould, that way of life. You know, I didn’t do too much acid (laughs). Didn’t do any in those days.

Gary – I bet Corben Simpson wishes the same thing.

Shona – Yeah, he probably does. Good old Corb! He’s still around, he’s still playing too. I’ve seen him a couple of times in the last year.

Gary – I’ve always thought he was a talented chap.

Shona – Yeah, me too. I’ll never forget him once saying to me that he could play a harmonica on his guitar and put it in his case and shut it and come back 20 years later and he could still hear it. I was really impressed. I think there were a lot of excellent Kiwi musicians who couldn’t or chose not to deal with the business. I was so young and I just went with the flow. If I had been 23 or something I may have said ‘I’m not going to do this’, and gone out and played folk clubs and busked.

Gary – Where did you come from?

Shona – Wellington. I was just playing at home, writing. It was the height of Studio One and New Faces and I just entered it. Did a demo at school with the music teacher of two songs and they were accepted and it just sort of happened from there. In those days one channel, peak viewing time. It was a fair dinkum overnight success. So all those decisions and career moves were made for me. And I don’t regret that at all. There have been times when I’ve thought ‘what on earth am I doing?’, but a Number 9 single in Australia makes it all worthwhile. It was an immense relief in lots of ways. That was probably the primary emotion I felt over there. Relief that it hadn’t all been a waste of time. That what I was doing was capable of that sort of success. Because when it’s not going well you do actually go through feelings of thinking, ‘Is it all a load of garbage?’

Shona as a naive teen in her first flush of success

Gary – What happened after the first two NZ albums?

Shona – I went to England in April ’75. After meeting with a guy in Japan from the Yamaha Song Festival. An Italian producer working out of London. And he was quite keen on doing something. And we actually went over there before we had anything concrete organised, which could have been viewed as a mistake but it wasn’t. So I did an album there with him. Over a year, because there wasn’t a deal. It was actually paid for by Phonogram New Zealand. Which made life very difficult because of the budgets… there was just no comparison. So that all kind of ground to a halt in lots of ways. Phonogram in England wasn’t interested in releasing it, although I thought it was a really good album. It was never released. That was a timing thing, I think. Musically, it didn’t fit. The Brits are very fashion-oriented in terms of music and peripheral stuff just doesn’t get a look-in. And it all sort of fell apart then, and I took off on the old hippy trail across the Middle East, and that was five months. And then came back and it was sort of punk. So my music was on hold. And then I got management, and we just worked towards getting the next album together, which was an album called Tied To The Tracks, which was done with EMI. I’ve actually heard through the grapevine they’re planning to re-release that in Australia now.

Gary – Would you be happy or sad about that?

Shona – A bit of both. It would be great to have all those songs out again. If I listen to that album now I’m quite pleased with it. Some of it’s a bit pedantic but… but they were the best of three years of songs. Personally, I’m happy about it. It’s very much a band album. The guy who produced it, an American guy called Bill House, he was quite inventive. No machines… per-machine days. There was a single off that that was played extensively by Radio 1. But the pressing factory was on strike at the time, so there were no records out in the shops. It was after that that Manfred (Mann) heard the record on the radio, and got in touch with me, with a view to covering it. And I went down and sang some songs with him and he said ‘join the band.’ So I spent the next two years in the studio with him and that was about it. I came home for a holiday and thought, ‘I don’t really want to go back.’

Gary – Was Manfred tough to work for?

Shona – It was security for sure. I was actually earning a weekly wage, and that was the first time money wasn’t a problem. I mean, money’s always a problem, but I could pay my rent and have a reasonable lifestyle. And I learnt a lot, although I didn’t actually have any hands-on experience of machinery at that time. Just being involved in it, that’s where I got my taste for machinery. And from a production point of view as well, I think it was a great experience, working eight hour days, five days a week, which is the way he worked in the studio. There is that desire to do it all. I’d quite like to be Peter Gabriel. Completely in control of it. You know how you want it to sound.

Gary – Did you get involved in a hedonistic environment in the UK?

Shona – Working for Manfred, yeah. I didn’t associate on a personal level with Manfred a lot, he’s a bit reclusive. But the Workhouse was like the centre of the South London music scene, and I probably spent more time with musicians then than I ever have. Which was really good, although the lifestyle was pretty trying. It kind of was that rock and roll myth thing, which I think is really dangerous, especially for young musicians. It’s quite easy to think that there are ways you have to live your life in order to actually qualify to be a musician, which is just a load of rubbish, especially in this day and age. The music industry’s been cleaned up, which is good in some ways, bad in others, because it’s no longer that kind of rebel area. Rock and roll was always an area for young people to rebel in. Yeah, a lot of drinking, late nights. Par for the course. It was a very community oriented time. For some reason my flat became the sort of centre for talking music. But I’m more absorbed in music now than I’ve ever been.

Shona sang on this 1977 Manfred Mann album

Gary – What made you want to be back in NZ?

Shona – I think I’d actually got quite depressed in England. It’s very grey, a very black kind of place. And it was post-Falklands, and there was that kind of fervent nationalistic… I found it quite disturbing in lots of ways. And heaps of talk about the nuclear issue. The idea that it could happen at any second. It just became really depressing. It was also a time when the gig with Manfred finished, which was sort of mutual in lots of ways. I’d gone in there when female singers were kind of fashionable, and I’d had enough of it, it was a boy’s band. I was being restricted quite a lot vocally, and it just seemed there wasn’t anything for me there at that time. When I came home I just felt comfortable here. It was being home that made me realise how much I had missed the place. Peter, my man, came back at the same time. He was working in theatre. So it seemed like a good time for a change. There also seemed to be a lot of good music happening here. I had come back for a holiday in ‘78/’79 and seen a few bands which were appalling. I had it in my head that it was possible to be living in New Zealand and break into the Australian market somehow. Although these things always happen in very random ways. I’ve had a lot of good support from people like Larry Parr, who financed Genre, and then Pagan was set up and Trevor’s been great. People are quite arrogant about New Zealand music. There are some great things happening here, although the big companies seem to be doing their damndest to kill it. The EP is the cornerstone of the NZ industry, if you look at it unrelated to radio. There was a thing on TV the other night on how CDs have equalised albums dollar for dollar, so maybe vinyl is on the way out, but I know there was a waiting list at the factory. I know in Australia they are looking at different packaging for CDs to cut costs, just putting them in a little album cover.

Gary – You were based in Wellington when you came back to NZ?

Shona – I was there for a year, but I found it a little small and a little cold. I actually think the weather in Wellington is worse than London. It was also the year of all those winds… that equinox of gales. It took me 18 months to not feel I was living down here, and the world was going on up there. But now I’m absolutely centred here. I’ve no desire to live anywhere else.

An older, wiser Shona

Gary – No plans to move to Australia?

Shona – There’s been a little pressure put on, but I’m going to resist it as long as it’s viable. I quite like Sydney, but the things that matter to me, the healing qualities about New Zealand, that’s what I’d miss. To take the dog for a walk by the sea. To experience that daily is quite important to me after 7 and a half years in London. I hardly went out of London in that time. I’ve been there and done that. We are beginning to establish a national identity, being more confident and more outgoing. There’s no reason why we can’t be an equal partner in the world in all things. A lot of Australians were saying that Australia was the flavour of the month because the music industry’s really hungry for anything new. The Chills cracking it, Dave Dobbyn cracking it, Crowded House obviously, and ‘Kennedy’ will hopefully be the beginning of something for me in Australia. That’s four acts already, and there’s heaps of stuff around that warrants exposure.

Gary – What sort of crowd are you appealing to?

Shona – When I did the tour with The Narcs it seemed to be people my age. A lot of women my age.

Gary – You toured with The Narcs?

Shona – I did a support gig for The Narcs. It was great actually, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Getting around the country and trying out some of those songs live. It gave me a lot of confidence because ‘America’ especially… I opened the set with that and people love it. I was quite surprised. In Australia it was kids. I was really surprised about that. Doing Countdown. I was really dreading this audience of 10 to 12-year-olds. Kids these days were only being born when I did Whispering Afraid.

Gary – You don’t seem to be concerned about image.

Shona – It’s always been a problem really. I suppose that’s to do with starting at such a young age as well. Being led. For a woman in the business… it’s a heavily male-oriented industry. So finding a niche in image terms is kind of weird. I’m not a dance-oriented muso, so that sexuality thing is not of a high priority. For me, it’s a random area. It very much depends on how I feel. I like Mel and Kim!

Gary – I wonder just how much input they have.

Shona – I wonder about that too. With a lot of records, how much input the artist actually has, because producers are kind of stars these days. Here, people would say ‘it sticks out of the playlist, we can’t put it on’. In Australia they liked it (‘Kennedy’) because it was different. I think in Australia they’re actually getting quite frustrated with the blandness of it all, so it seems quite obvious that people like me, and the obvious other one is Suzanne Vega… the songs are actually about something.

 

 

 

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