Talking and singing – Songwriters at the festival

I have to admit that it was a conscious decision to make the final session that I attended at the recent Auckland Writers and Readers Festival what I hoped would be light relief. After the density of discussion in other parts of the programme I did hope that I might be able to turn my tired brain off for a bit in Songwriting with Don McGlashan and Jason Kerrison but that just didn’t turn out to be the case.

Maybe I thought rock stars would be a little less articulate, intelligent or engaging than other speakers had been. What a stupid thing to think that was. Don McGlashan is no dummy. He’s one of the sharpest songwriters that this country has produced and though Kerrison’s back-catalogue isn’t as extensive it turned out he is a pretty sharp tack too.

My colleague Robyn also attended this session but was so overwhelmed by the proximity of the legendary Mr McGlashan that she claims not be able to say anything intelligent about it (to hear what she did think you could listen to our final festival wrap-up).

The chair for the session was another legend of Kiwi music Mike Chunn who, I was informed, chaired the same session at 2008’s festival. Obligatory introductions were made which McGlashan didn’t really need, pretty much everyone being familiar with his Blam, Blam, Blam/The Front Lawn/Muttonbirds whakapapa. Although I knew that Opshop frontman Kerrison was from Christchurch it was news to me that he was formerly a “Bede-ian” and that he was in Christchurch bands GST (Goldfish Supermarket Trolley) and Gorilla Biscuit.

Quite a lot was discussed over the course of the next hour with each songwriter describing the different processes involved in getting these songs, this “cerebral vomit from the self-conscious” out into the world. Both musicians sang one song using a guitar Don purchased in a Christchurch music shop which had originally come from a 1930s Montgomery Ward catalogue. This spare, minimal accompaniment really showcased their great voices and strong songwriting ability. I for one was rapt, leaning forward with chin on hands during both performances.

McGlashan’s choice of song was “While you sleep” and explained that when he wrote it he had been listening to the song “Maggie May” a lot and liked the idea of someone looking back on a wonderful time in their lives, of “shining a light on a part of your life to understand it better” and that he wanted to write a song that had the word “flat” in it.

Kerrison discussed the genesis of his song “One day” which has featured in NZ Post ads, explaining that he wrote it immediately after having a fight with his wife and that writing the song was a way of “getting over myself”. He also said that sometimes performing personal songs “takes you back into that room” making you relive that moment which is something that you don’t always want to do.

Kerrison also repeated an idea that had come up amongst the authors at the opening night talk, that of the tyranny of a blank page. It reminded me of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s comment from opening night that all the prizes in the world don’t make a bit of different when you’re sitting there at a keyboard trying to write (or words to that effect). It doesn’t matter what kind of writer or creator you are, it seems that that blank slate, page, or computer screen is a thing universally feared.

Of course even if you manage to write a song, not every one is a success. Kerrison admitted that he had “boxes and boxes of duds”, McGlashan reflected that rather than hoarding his dud songs that he “foists them on the paying public” which is rather more self-deprecating than was strictly necessary. The guy’s a genius songwriter, after all.

And to sum up I think I will leave you with an interesting quote from the very talented Mr McGlashan on the role of songwriters. Take it away, Don…

Your job is to be a witness to the world. We are among the people who will stand up and say “this is what the world looks like from where I am”, and that is a good enough reason to do it.

A canoe in midstream

Not having attended a literary event for four days I’m really looking forward to the launch of Apirana Taylor’s a canoe in midstream: poems new and old at Madras Cafe Books tonight.

Taylor is not only a great poet, he’s also an electrifiying performer, his skills honed by constant travelling around New Zealand with his work. I well remember having the goosebumps raised by a reading he gave in the Central Library’s Nga Pounamu Maori collection a few years ago.

Fiona Farrell, no mean wordsmith herself ( I absolutely loved Limestone, her latest novel, launched at this very venue a couple of weeks ago) has said of this collection “Apirana Taylor is seer and shapeshifter, poet and warrior: strength and love find equal balance in verse that is alternately ranging and lyrical, dramtic and meditative, haka and haiku…”

It’s pleasing that a canoe in mid-stream includes old, much-requested favourites as well as new work so there should be a good mix of readings tonight.

Beautiful Babelfish

Babelfish performing at the LibraryWhile all those clever literary types were hob-nobbing in Auckland last weekend, some of us stayed in Christchurch and worked.  However, the could-have-been-onerous nature of this work was hugely mitigated by the fantastic May Music Month performance right next to my desk.

Babelfish are a Christchurch-based folk and gypsy duo who play guitar and violin.  They have been performing together for some time, and seem to work really well as a team.  I wasn’t sure what to expect (there’s something about the word ‘gypsy’ that I find slightly unsettling, and my personal music tastes lean slightly more towards screamer punk than symphonic melodies), but the performance was simply lovely.

The songs and melodies were pitched just right for the audience, and there were rows of very appreciative library patrons, several of whom appeared to have timed their visit to coincide, but many others who were drawn in by the performance.  My only (and tiny) quibble was that it would have been nice to have just a wee bit of introduction, or perhaps one or two words about some of the songs, particularly for those of us who are less than familiar with the genre, but the hour flew by, and it was with great reluctance that we packed up and turned The Blue Lounge back into just Plain Old Magazine Reading Area.

now showing at a library near you…

For NZ Music Month many libraries like to create a display round the music collections they hold.  This year we are having an internal competition and the creative people at various libraries have been busy.

Stars in our Eyes at Shirley Library
Stars in our Eyes at Shirley Library

Here at Shirley we have re-created the set from the popular TV series “Stars in their Eyes” and re-named it “Stars in our Eyes” – featuring famous New Zealand musicians and singers.  Some are old favourites and others are more recent music heroes.  They include John Rowles, Suzanne Prentice, Patsy Riggir, Scribe, Carly Binding, Hayley Westenra and Brooke Fraser.

Bishopdale have recreated the CD cover of Opshop’s album Second Hand Planet.  The image has been blown up and is the focal point of a display containing books and CDs featuring NZ music.

The Central teams have created numerous displays around the library – can you find the musical kiwis or some old school vinyl?  There is also a slide show outside ANZC of our collection of 1980s Christchurch rock posters.

At South library, team member ‘Madonna’ is sporting a guitar made of CDs.

What is your local library doing for NZ Music Month?

Young adult books – Wasted on the Young?


The adjective “Young” could not truly be said to apply to me – no matter how much Oil of Olay I slather on – but… the Young Adult titles have truly got me hooked. It started whilst browsing in my local book shop – there was the display of all the nominations for the NZ Post awards- The 10pm Question – hmmm that looks interesting,  Juno of Taris – oooh – I’d like to read that too.  So I dived in and began to read -perhaps I would read them all – (no of course I didn’t buy them – I work in a Library!).

Juno is a rebellious teen on an island whose inhabitants are ruled by strict codes and protocols. Her feistyness and determination have the reader rooting for her from the start as she becomes more embroiled in the secrets of the island’s past and those elders who are determined to keep them secret at all costs.  This was a real page turner – what on earth was going on? – this was turning out to be one of my favourite reads in a long time – but then by chance I picked up another title in the YA section  that wasn’t a NZ post nominee – nor was it even a New Zealand book. I got distracted. 

Exodus  by Julie Bertagna- another girl on an island in a not too distant dystopian future -but this tale is far more wide ranging, with futuristic metropolises towering above a drowned world and feral children living amongst relics of a crumbling city.  Despite  its slightly preachy tones about global warming – I found this book to invoke powerful images and was completely hooked (and there is a sequel -yippee!). Unfortunately, for me despite finding Juno to be an enjoyable read it was then totally eclipsed by this book.

10pm question

The Tomorrow Code by Brian Falkner – Mysterious messages from the future, a devastating apocalyptic plague – the end of the human race. I was really looking forward to this book . And then I hated it!  However, this is a NEW ZEALAND book – you know this because almost every other sentence emphasises this fact whether the plot needs it or not.  It too is preachy about environmental issues – but not just slightly – and then the horror that threatens to obliterate mankind is just so much laughingly ridiculous, scientifically implausible nonsense that I simply felt embarrassment for the author.   Brian Falkner is well respected and has written other (children’s) books – I haven’t read these – they may be brilliant – but please, please don’t let him win an award for this.  Please! (Of course other people might disagree).

The 10pm Question is totally different – the only title in the nominee list that is about everyday New Zealand life.  The writing and characters are  funny and sparkly and it handles the topics of mental illness, worrying and growing up, in a gentle yet meaningful way.  I was laughing out loud at this in parts (and on the bus too!) – although about serious issues it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

The other two nominees Chronicles of Stone #1: Scorched Bone by Vincent Ford and Gool by Maurice Gee – I haven’t read! I was going to – and before the award winners were announced too – but that’s tonight – so no.   They both seemed a bit similar to me  (young hunters searching out dangerous foe)  I started reading  Gool,  but not my cup of tea and  I know my rights (The rights of the reader  – #3 The right not to finish a book) – so I stopped.

So sorry – all will be revealed tonight – either The 10pm Question or Juno of Taris would be worthy winners, my slight preference is The 10pm Question.  But either way – even if youth is but a distant memory – the YA section of your local library is a great place for a great book – after all why should the young have all the best tales?

Rod Oram on the next 100 years

Make no mistake that this was not a session for the faint-hearted, with at times dense discussion of economic and geopolitical futures. That didn’t mean a small crowd though – the theatre was packed – nor did it mean a humourless ninety minutes. Luckily for me, that Rod Oram was sitting outside beforehand, and was keen to join me afterwards for a chat. I spoke with the affable and astute Oram about his thoughts on the “wonderfully challenging” session, the merits of charging for water, the importance of books in the digital age, and more, in this ten-minute interview. Thanks Rod!

And the winners are…

not a winner in these awards but the Commonwealth Writers Prize is probably a good consolation prize
Christos Tsiolkas - not a winner in these awards but he's probably not too bothered since the Commonwealth Writers Prize is quite good too.

Well, it was an intense period of listening and watching and reading and writing “up north” but we’ve come out the tail end of the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival a little wiser, a lot tireder, and much the richer for the experience.

Joyce and I have been brainstorming a little on our respective festival experiences and feel that there are a few noteworthy folk who deserve some unofficial accolades from us, so here are our picks for festival faves…

Smartest, sexiest silver fox award – Marcus Chown.  Tintin hair, big brain and easy charm got him the gong.  A strong showing also from Todd Blackadder in this category but at the end of the day quantum physics was the winner.  David Geary also gets an honourable mention.

Best Chair – Voting was split in this category due to our attending different sessions.  I rate David Geary as chair in the Greg McGee and Sam Mahon session, with his ability to gently take the mickey without making it all about him.  Joyce awards this prestigious prize to the ubiquitous Paula Morris.  With the added bonus of not having a cold at this year’s festival Paula was as always knowledgeable, genuinely interested in her interviewees and terribly, terribly droll. Continue reading

Volunteers part of festival success

During the festival one of the many chats I had with people was this lovely interview with Patricia Kay from North Shore Libraries. In this three-minute interview, she describes the roles of volunteers, and some of the perks of the job.

Later this week we’ll have audio of interviews with corporate and economics commentator, Rod Oram, and since it’s New Zealand Music month a chat with Don McGlashan.

Festival finale

Deliriously happy to be back with my fingers tapping my own clean keyboard and not sticking to the keys in every seedy Internet cafe on Queen Street, I’m ready to share my last random thoughts on the festival.

Best chair

  • Kate De Goldi.

Best session

  • Songwriting with Don McGlashan and Jason Kerrison.

Best dressed audience

  • the ladies who lunched with Judith Thurman.

Best answer to a question

  • When asked “what do you like best about writing”, Martin Edmond replied “sentences”.

Most mentions of libraries in a session

  • Martin Edmond and Peter Wells in an hour with Martin Edmond.

Really random observations

  • Non-fiction sells – these were the sessions with the big audiences
  • Men come out to Writers and Readers in Auckland
  • Good writers don’t just sit down an produce deathless prose. They actually apply themselves consistently, they overcome procrastination, they ditch things that aren’t working and some of them spend a lot of time lying to their publishers.

Admirable trend

  • Wearing apron-like garments. Apparently it’s been around for at least three years according to an Auckland friend. Not in the South Island I don’t think but then I don’t get out much.

Deplorable trend

  • The tendency for the few who can’t hear to shout this fact at panellists the rest of can hear perfectly adequately. Lloyd Jones handled it deftly last year in Christchurch when he invited a belligerent woman who felt compelled to share that she had paid to hear him but couldn’t to share the sofa on stage. Max Cryer told me once that if there are grey heads in the audience the amplification can’t be too amplified but do the rest of us have to suffer interuptions and just plain rudeness? Get a hearing aid and concentrate I say.

Festival resolutions

  • Be more tolerant
  • Read a little poetry every morning, like Stu Bagby
  • Always take the opportunity to tell a writer you admire their work
  • Stick to fiction (mostly)
  • Read more

Final festival wrap-up

After an intense, enjoyable, fast-paced last day of the festival fever, we present our last audio wrap up. We have been proud to represent the library and hope you have enjoyed the coverage, which we have tried to make entertaining and informative.

The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize added so much to the festival. It brought variations of eloquence to our ears and eyes from around the world, and impressing all the audiences, I am certain, with the breadth and depth of the all to uncommon wealth of writers which we were lucky enough to see.

Our final report is a touch under 14 minutes long.

Keep an eye on the blog for more interviews with Commonwealth Writers’ prize best book winner Christos Tsiolkas, Rod Oram, Don McGlashan, and for a slightly different take, Patricia Kay, one of the volunteers who has been with the festival since day one. We also hope to have follow-up interviews with authors in the near future, and more photos will be added to the library flickr soon. If you have questions or comments about any aspect of the festival or the coverage, leave a comment – we would love to hear from you.

Now get thee to a library 🙂