While I was home for the New Zealand summer, I put couple of radio documentaries together in the studios at Radio New Zealand. These were recorded over several cold months in early winter, New York City, with two New Zealand bands that are having a crack at the music game over here.
Streets of Laredo
This rambunctious, adorable collection of humans have been creating a very special live experience over the past two years. I’ve been at some of their earliest gigs – supporting them as a good New Zealander does – but the four months I spent trailing them with my microphone ended up being a lucrative few months to be around. They barely slept, they travelled the USA, they picked up a booking agent, and finally, a prestigious manager (Ryan Gentles, who set The Strokes on their journey). He was at a show they played at the Mercury Lounge in November 2013. A magnificent show. A joyous, career-making show. You can hear bits of that show in the documentary. As Ryan says: “It’s like the people on the stage and the people in the crowd were all, kind of, ‘one’.”
At the time, while I was in the thick of recording, it was purely a fun thing to do – capture these friends at a time when things were changing quickly for them. I’d load my gear into my bicycle basket, spin over the Manhattan Bridge to the Ace Hotel, or wherever they were playing, poking my mic into their business then drinking ’til the wee hours before riding home again, often the only person cruising back over that bridge. My means of transport was all part of the magic of the moment.
Listening back, I hear different things now. I’m reminded of feelings I had when I first arrived in New York; feelings of inadequacy, of extreme cultural difference, of loneliness and aimlessness and a not-uncommon feeling that New York would beat me before I could even get in the race. As Dave Gibson says in the doco: “The first six months, to be honest, really, really sucked. Just not having a job, not having an apartment, not having any friends, not being understood by anybody. It was tough… but I think lots of Kiwis find that here. It’s a culture shock, it’s quite a lot to get your head around.”
Moving to the other side of the world is freaking scary. And thrilling. The possibility of “new”, particularly when you come from a much smaller place, where we are all practically related, where you can tour the entire country in the same amount of time that it takes to tour just one of the states of America, where you don’t need a booking agent because it’s more like “which of the three venues in town will we play at this month?”. But it means exerting and extending yourself in ways you didn’t know were possible, which could break you if you let it.
“I’d been working as a freelance keyboard player for a few years in Auckland, which was awesome, but I really wanted to try living somewhere else. I love the music here… I thought I’d come here and do the same sort of work but I ended up writing from the minute I got here, just constantly writing writing writing. So that’s what I’ve ended up doing, becoming a songwriter. It’s my passion now. I just love it.”
The songwriting has paid off in many ways, not least in that Steph won New Zealand’s most prestigious songwriting prize a couple of years ago, under her solo moniker Lips, for Everything To Me. A sample lyric gives off a distinctly New York vibe: “You can fight but you won’t always win. Somehow life finds a way to beat ya.”
Likewise, her bandmate Deva Mahal – raised in Hawai’i as an extreme minority (her bloodline includes West Indian, Native American, African American and European) – has found her life enriched by the hum of New York City. A decent stint in Wellington, New Zealand – where I also discovered my musical family – gave Deva an excellent grounding in live music, collaboration, the possibilities that come from constant gigging. But the comfort of New Zealand also scared her; she could foresee a very domestic future, one that wasn’t for her. “One day, I walked into an STA Travel and bought a one-way ticket.”
I just love these ladies. I love Steph’s story about tears falling as she played, for the first time, the grand piano that had been gifted to her, that takes pride of place in the Williamsburg apartment they and their friends rotate through. I love hearing Deva talk about the difficulties in accessing authentic emotions in these modern times, and allowing herself to go there on stage (which she does, often).
In the past six months, Fredericks Brown have also picked up a booking agent and a manager. Great things are to come for both bands. It’s a privilege to have been able to spend time with them all.