Spill Your Beans And Suffer The Consequences: Dave Dobbyn on Songwriting

I am my own hypocrite, I’m happy to say. Fresh from a ranty blog about cellphones at gigs, I present to you a photograph I took – on my cellphone – of Dave Dobbyn performing in Wellington last night.

Dave Dobbyn at Mighty Mighty

I was the MC for the evening, which essentially involved introducing the real stars, and I took this photo at the moment that it dawned on me that this wasn’t just another chat between two musos. This was turning out to be an extraordinary evening exploring albums, audiences and acceptance, and I wanted to share it.

Thrown together as one of the opening events of the 10th New Zealand Music Month, this was a curious idea that paid off. A kind of live radio show, the evening began with fresh local tunes from Wellington DJ Haddon Morrison. Then acclaimed music writer (and musician himself) Nick Bollinger stepped up to the turntables and span a selection of older Kiwi songs (circa 60s/70s) interspersed with great little stories about them. (One of the albums he chose from was nearly 40 years old – The Fourmyula’s Turn Your Back on the Wind – which, until this year, had never been released. )

Nick then invited Dave Dobbyn to the stage, and for the next hour they sat and chatted, Dave occasionally jumping up to the microphone with his Taylor six-string to perform songs at Nick’s request.

The thing about Dave Dobbyn is, it’s easy to forget he’s there. It sounds a strange thing to say, but what I mean is, he’s always there. And when someone is ubiquitous like that, they become, I suppose, part of the national wallpaper. From the beery 70s pub rock of Th’Dudes to the 80s pop hits of DD Smash, from the feel-good collaboration of the Footrot Flats soundtrack to his own folksy solo gems, it’s evident that The Dobbster is in every part of my upbringing, and yours, whether we like it or not.

And I guess I forgot that I liked it. Until tonight. Because, gosh, when he popped up out of his seat to give Language a bash, I don’t think any of us were quite expecting the long, beautiful, utterly open notes he offered us.

As for the conversation, Nick Bollinger gave good question, and Dave gave good answer.


“What makes a great album?” asked Nick (who’s got a new book out: 100 Essential New Zealand Albums, in which Dave features multiple times). Dave said there’s a perception that an album is often “one great song with a whole lot of other songs hanging off it,” but that, for him, an album becomes great when it has an audience.

“The sooner that a song can get to a band, the sooner it can get to an audience… The listener completes the contract,” just as, said Dave, “a painting has to be seen, to complete that thing that it is.”

This was a theme for the evening; the relationship between listener and song, and the pressure Dave feels to get his songs to his audience. He particularly felt it during the making of 1993’s Lament for the Numb, which he flew to Los Angeles to record, right when buildings were still burning from the Los Angeles Civil Unrest (sparked by the acquittal of police officers in the Rodney King brutality case). Dave told us how he instructed his taxi driver, “Take me through Inglewood!” because he wanted to see what was happening for himself. “Of course, I was very drunk and this numbed me into a false sense of journalism…”

There were earthquakes, and more, during this recording. “The pressure for me was to get those songs to the people. The process got in the way.”

The next album, Twist, was made in New Zealand, produced by Neil Finn. It was, said Dave, about “coming home, plugging into the essence.” He said Finn was a great and challenging producer. “He’d say ‘You think you’re on this song’… He was good at shredding it and putting it back together again. He did that with Language.” According to Dave, Language was “supposed to be a Ry Cooder-style folk song… Neil turned it into a rock song!”


“There’s no doubt about it,” said Dave, when Nick Bollinger asked if he knew in the moment that he had a hit song on his hands. “You know when you’ve hit the jackpot. I knew it with Slice of Heaven. I knew it with Oughta Be In Love. Language. Loyal.”

(At this point, people in the crowd start calling out: “Whaling!”. “Welcome Home!” “Magic What She Do!”)

Fascinatingly, Dave said it’s not confidence that makes him realise he has a hit. It’s acceptance, “and now I’m going to build this into the best thing I can build it into.”

And how does one do that?

“It’s a solitary thing. You have to get yourself into a mode where you know you’re in the zone. You’re totally in command of your skills, and you’ve let yourself go. You’ve jumped off the cliff. You’re soaring. That’s what I call the zone, and every writer has that, and you have to allow yourself to get into it.”

Dave admitted it’s taken him “too long” to realise that’s how it works for him. Getting away helps, especially to the beach. Equally, he stressed that once there’s a song in hand, collaboration is the thing.

“A band will make your songs grow up in front of you. If you’re agonising, just relax. Stop worrying about the middle eight. Allow the band to breathe life into it. You’re still being in control, but you’re letting go, trying to be invisible. You don’t wanna get in the way of the music. If you don’t get in the way, then the music’ll go straight to the audience and connect.”


Dave said songwriting is often a case of “spill my beans and suffer the consequences!” Resilience – one of my favourite qualities in creative people – is a necessity especially when, in the early days, radio airplay was nonexistent. After all these years, he’s still a working writer. “I clock in at 9 and come home for dinner. And then maybe I’ll go back to work for a bit.”

Nick Bollinger wondered if ideas come to Dave at inconvenient moments. “Yeah. On the road. Or usually when you’ve just organised an incredible roast dinner…”

Dave performed several songs, including Hallelujah Song (an ode for lapsed Catholics everywhere) from his 1998 album, The Islander, named because “I’m a white Pacific Islander. We live on a Pacific Island. We live like islanders, we do, and I’m proud of that”.

And he told one more story: During the recording of the Twist album, he stepped up to the piano one night and began playing the song I Can’t Change My Name. At some point, drummer Ross Burge made his way to the drum kit. With no time to find his drumsticks, he played his kit with his hands.

I love both of the songs for their simplicity: keyboard, drums, voice. And for the stories behind them, which you can read in Dave’s words here (Hallelujah Song) and here (I Can’t Change My Name).

Magic What He Do

As the evening wrapped up, people gathered around Dave Dobbyn and Nick Bollinger for book signings. They were happy chaps. Dave’s just completed a massive summer tour with Tim Finn and Bic Runga, and the rest of the year, he told me, “I’ll be in the studio!”. Nice one.

READ MORE about this gorgeous night over at Marianne Elliott’s blog, ZenPeacekeeper. She was similarly inspired by the evening,


3 Responses to “Spill Your Beans And Suffer The Consequences: Dave Dobbyn on Songwriting”

  1. mark amery

    This is beautiful Gem. have only just discovered your blog! So good to have in my life.
    Me and Sophie jerram have been heads down with our Letting Space project (www.lettingspace.org.nz -which is my first site, enjoyed creating and adding to, and setting up something independently has been a busy joy.
    hage you seen the first project popular archeology yet at 141 willis street? Its on till May 9 Sunday
    there arr eabout 27 loops from NZ top 10 singles from 1967 through till 94. They’re quite hard to spot, but all there!
    Love M

  2. Gareth

    love this post. infact I love your whole blog. great idea, well executed!

  3. toomuchpersonality

    Gareth – thank you ;-). Mark – you found me! Welcome. I’m enjoying Letting Space. Congratulations! Going to check out 141 Willis tomorrow while we have this wonderfully fine weather.


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