Graham Reid | | 14 min read
In late January I was approached to write a brief biography for Don McGlashan to accompany the release of his new album Lucky Stars album. At the time I wasn't available but was sent an advance download of the 10 songs . . . and because the album release was some way off and many of the songs sounded so self-revelatory I made the time in early February to interview Don – whom I think I first met in about 1981 When he was a guest on a free-format radio programme, The Heart of Saturday Night, which I had at the time.
What Don agreed to was to respond to my questions about the background to the songwriting and – because each song was so distinctive yet part of a whole – offer a track-by-track commentary.
He was forthcoming about some, more hesitant about the meaning or content of others.
Either way, Lucky Stars is a very different and emotionally direct Don McGlashan album.
I would like you to walk me through track by track as we agreed, but first of all can I say this. I'm always very wary about interpreting the “I” in any song as that being the songwriter, but across this album I get a very clear sense that there is a lot of personal stuff in these songs and two themes themes come through: love and mortality.
Right first time on both. It is more personal and I'm not adopting characters to explore an idea. I still will, but for this album I don't seem to have so much, not taking on a role to get an idea across like A Thing Well Made or Queen's English.
I don't seem to have been interested in that this time. I think I thought that would happen when I went to the bach to start working. What surprised me was things that came up with so much joy and sociability in them, songs like Hold on to Your Loneliness.
The title sounds a bit miserable but it's about looking at people around you and feeling enormous love for them.
So the “I” is generally me in this lot.
Was that a conscious decision or in the writing retreat this came about naturally.
No, my manager got in touch and said I should write more personally because it would be more marketable because they'd done market research and found ... (Laughs)
And if you can work in a hip-hop break that would be cool too.
(Laughs) There is one, but it's very hard to hear though.
No, that's just the way it came out. I'm always drawn to songs in which time elapses so the listener has to be paying attention because something happens in the first verse then there's a reveal in the third, and time has gone by. It's great if you can write a song like that and keep the listener's attention.
But my journals are filled with little statements to myself like, 'Would it be great to write a song like When You Walk In The Room or I Saw Her Standing There, songs which are just about a moment and the whole song takes place in the present tense.
I think that's where it all came from, the idea of trying to sum up a moment.
I'm always trying to write songs which are shorter and are a concentrate. I don't always succeed.
In the Mutton Birds third album there was While You Sleep which I really wanted to be about one moment that would take place in the three and half minutes to sing the song, and no longer. I think I just about got that one right in that regard but there were a lot of other songs on that record where it would be a struggle to be that brief and intense.
Songs like Envy of Angels took up the slack by being really long (laughs)
On this album I think that directive to myself and the need to explore more intimate and immediate ideas lead to something more . . . more personal I suppose.
One last question along those lines: given you want to write a song like a quick snapshot, is that the sort of challenge you put to yourself as songwriter with 30 or 40 years experience. You have to make that challenge to yourself?
There's actually no difference. I look at my writing books and they are always the same, always filled with things like, 'Yeah, such and such a song is okay but it's still heading too far down this direction, wouldn't it be great to write something like “this''.'
The sense of self-challenge is constant,. Not something that accrues with age. The cool things about songs is they are so small, and like any small useful thing they seem flimsy and lightweight but a lot of thought has gone into them. Like a lot of thought has gone into a really good kitchen knife or something made to be used.
That's what songs should be really. You want people to sing them in the shower and you want them to occur to people when they are walking along a beach. And if you're lucky some of them do, but in order for them to do that you've got to keep pushing yourself.
That makes it sound a bit workperson-like but it's true, and that's what my life is.
Yes, it is form follows function.
Let's run through these songs with some concise comments . . .
Concise? Crikey (Laughs)
I'll blow a whistle and stop you if need be. First one: Girl, Make Your own Mind Up? I'd seen you perform that before Elvis Costello so a song that has been around for a little while and quite deliberately directed to your own daughter?
Yes. I guess it was the idea as a parent that all these different people are going to try and sell their vision of the world to this young person and all kinds of orthodoxies and fake messiahs and worldviews will be foisted on her. It could have been like, 'I hope you pick your away amongst all the different dangers'. It could have been fearful song.
But the more I wrote it and the more I know my daughter it became, 'You'll be fine because you're smarter than all of them'. She was 17 when I wrote and she's 20 now.
I was also having fun with the idea that you could equate all these different orthodoxies so something as patently insane as the Miracle of the Fleece could be equated with the notion of trickle-down economics. I had fun with that, and then the third verse popped up fast, the idea that cynicism is an orthodoxy too, the idea that nothing matters. That is just as much an orthodoxy as all the others.
There were ideas floating around for the song and Neil Finn told us all to write some songs really fast for the Seven Worlds Collide project. I'd written one that I wasn't that thrilled about and I went home and thought, 'Bugger it. I'll see if I can writ something better'. The ideas which had been floating around for this one came out and I played it to Ed O'Brien [of Radiohead] and Bic Runga the next morning.
Ed said 'What are those chords doing, that's like early Bowie. Cool man' and Bic said 'It's masterpiece, I want to sing it'.
Lucky Stars, the title track, interests me because of what you said before about capturing the moment. When I heard it I immediately thought of William Carlos Williams' poem, 'So much depends on the red wheelbarrow . . .'
Right, so much depends on . . ..
I had that imagistic idea and someone said, 'No truth but in things'. It is like that, the moment. It is an optimistic song . .
But there is a tone of melancholy.
Hmm, maybe that's just me. I'm hard-wired into that. I used to take my daughter to work early in the morning out in West Auckland and I really had a moment like that in a gas station where suddenly the weight lifted off me and instead of looking around and seeing the grimness of the surroundings everything was bathed in light. Albeit the fluorescent light from the gas station.
Hold on to Your Loneliness?
I struggled with that title for a while because I thought it would put people off, but the contrariness of it started to appeal to me. Again a similar sort of moment. In the Front Lawn we used to have a category of ideas and we used to call them 'Surprised By Life'. Because we were growing up in that post-Talking Heads kind of world we'd think, 'This could be a cool idea . . . but David Byrne's done it better'.
But I've grown up now and don't have to worry about that, and have my own way of doing things. Being Surprised By Life is something which writers have tried to do forever. That's the main thing we should be doing.
As you get older it is sometimes harder to be Surprised By Life.
You'd think so, but I'm finding it easier. Again, it was a day when I was heading to a gig and I had to get the bus out to collect the rental car and all the normal opportunities for me to be down on myself were crowding around me. But for some reason they evaporated and I wanted to write a song about that.
Home to the Other Side?
I don't know about that one. That's dark, like a dream song and I don't fully understand it. It was a dream where I had a motorcycle and I had to give some people a lift back over the Harbour Bridge. I guess it talks to another motorcycle dream on one of the solo albums [Marvellous Year, 2009] called Not Ready. This maybe talks a bit to that, songs do talk to each other. But there also an image in it about seagulls flying through the streets at dawn, and that comes somewhere else in the record too.
I lived briefly in a warehouse in the Eighties in the middle of [Auckland] city in Federal Street. I used to wake up early and seagulls would come up from the port and fly low through the streets looking for scraps. It was great image of freedom because the streets belonged to them at that moment.
Somehow that image is quite strong through the record.
I think it comes back in The Waves Would Roll On.
Yes, there are seagulls there . . . but also in Hold On To Your Loneliness, there are seagulls there flying through the streets in the first line.
When the Trumpets Sound? A man facing mortality?
Yeah, and also about shame. It's a brutal song about all the things you've done wrong catching up with you. I allowed myself to use a heightened language for it. It was actually commissioned by Toa Fraser. He needed a song for the middle section of his  film of the Royal New Zealand Ballet's Giselle and he'd been listening to [Bob Dylan's] Blood on the Tracks: songs about going down the road feeling bad.
That was the template he was using and he said, 'Why don't you try writing a song like that?' and Giselle is an overheated story about a prince who commits a terrible crime and is abducted by evil spirits of women who have been jilted at the altar. He's saved at the end, but it's all about his sense of shame and facing the abyss.
I like songs about songs about shame and regret. I never much respect people when they are asked 'Do you regret anything?' and they say they regret nothing. I have enormous regrets about people I have hurt. I think if you went through life without regret you'd have a huge carapace around you.
Yeah. I think so. I thought the whole record was going to be like that song because that's where I was. But sometimes albums carry the weight of one song, and sometimes songs can suck up all that energy and that freight sits in the one song, and the other songs are free to be themselves. On a good record songs are different and not carrying lots of freight.
On the Mutton Birds album [Envy of Angels, 1996] there was that song Trouble With You which was really dark and in some ways a lot of the album had that energy. I thought in some ways that could happen with this record, but it doesn't seem to have.
The sequencing is interesting, that song is right at the centre. Was that deliberate?
It is there, but I think that was just the way it worked. I was going to make the sequence more chronological and move from darkness to light, and so maybe start of with that song. But it didn't work.
For Your Touch? A very gentle song with lots of layers.
It's about longing and a version of it was written in 2008 for Anthony McCarten's  film Show of Hands. There was a moment where two people are jockeying for position around each other and not knowing they are falling in love. And I wanted to write a longing song and this came out. I'd forgotten about it but when I realised I wanted to write one of them and I already kind of had one. So I kept doing a bit of work on it to see if I could make it fit.
Charles Kingsford Smith? Was that the challenge to see how you could work that name in?
(Laughs) Apart from the fact it is very hard to pronounce! It's one of those songs where the scaffolding you build around it falls away and leaves something a bit different from what you expected.
I started of with the idea that airports are pretty boring places, particularly Sydney airport because you really can't see the runway from the observation deck, which is ridiculous. That's why the observation deck is just a sad place. Originally the idea was about just how absurd it is to not see the runaway from the observation deck.
But then there was the idea they'd named this airport after a guy who was a larrikin and a renegade and an altogether dangerous fellow, yet the airport is so mundane. And what he would feel if he came back to life and wandered round. Like Jean Batten would be appalled looking at the commercialisation and mundanity of Auckland Airport.
So it was going to be that kind of thing, but I had a verse about what kind of person Charles Kingsford Smith was . . . and how he didn't like flying over the sea and would get liquored up because he had issues flying over water. So there was a whole verse about how he got lost flying over the Andaman Sea.
But then I realised it was a Dock of the Bay-type song. Like, 'here I am'.
All those great songs where someone is sitting by a river or railway track or a place of movement and they are still. Everyone else is moving and I'm not. The song is about how they feel about that: Dock of the Bay, Moon River, all those Dylan songs about railway yards, Gordon Lightfoot's Early Morning Rain.
Come Back To Me?
That's written for my son, just the idea that you want to be a platform for kids to grow up and go away and say, 'Go wherever you want, but I'll always try and make a place for you'. I really liked the way that came out. The brass came in at a late point. I felt it could have a little brass band on it.
You are allowed to be proud of songs
of course. Do you find it hard to say, 'I'm proud of Come Back to
Really hard. I think the main things about this album is that it's probably the first one I've done for a long, long time that when it was finished I was really keen to get started on the next one because I'd enjoyed the process so much.
I think it's partly because I'm not doing so many other things now.
Yes, you'd told me previously you really want to cut back on all the other projects. So aside from those you've told me had earlier origins, did most of these songs come in a block?
Yes, I got a writer's residence at the Michael King Writers Centre so I sat up on Mt Victoria in the old signalman's place.
So I started some up there and had been traveling a lot. I tended to go to this bach on the Thames Estuary [south of Auckland] to try and understand where the different sketches were coming from.
When you do that, do you sit there with a guitar or at a piano and just write?
A lot of the vocals were actually done at the bach and sometimes I was able to fix vocals in the front room of the house I was living at in Kingsland. The process of making the album was begun in Neil Finn's writing studio when he was away for a holiday and he let me have a couple of week working in his writing studio above Roundhead. That way I was able to have good mikes, good gear and me and with Tom Rodwell who was my main collaborator on the record.
Because this album arrangement-wise was pretty skeletal I didn't need to do much else, as long as I had good takes of Tom's guitar and good takes of my vocals and acoustic I could build on that.
Initially the whole album was going to be Tom and me, and any rhythm was going to be me playing the [Peruvian] cajon.
After a few weeks it started to feel a bit claustrophobic so we had a half a day at the Lab studio in Mt Eden with my dear friend Chris O'Connor and he just played around the rhythm tracks I'd already done and sometimes we replaced the cajon with drums. And sometimes we used both with the drums playing half time and the cajon playing a minimal beat.
I didn't use any bass except on Hold On To Your Loneliness which seemed to need a bass. I overdubbed one at the last minute.
It does seem a very stripped down album musically which parallels the fact it is emotionally direct.
Yeah, I really like it like that. I like albums where there are a lot of people playing and my two solo albums have quite a lot of big arrangements, but that's not what I needed for this lot.
On My Way To You?
I don't have any ideas about this one. It just came out and is one of the most recent.
Finally and it is very much finally in its theme, the very lovely and engrossing The Waves Would Roll On?
An angel come into my life about six years ago. I got a call from a luthier who lives north of Dunedin called Ian Davie and he said, 'You don't know me but I want to build you a guitar'. It took maybe a year of e-mailing backwards and forwards and finally he sent me this really gorgeous guitar made from New Zealand woods.
I hadn't talked to him for a while and he e-mailed me and said, 'Is that my guitar I made, that's a good song'. That was his guitar.
It could be a melancholy song but it is a reflective and true song.
I had a few sketches of an idea like that and then was doing the music for Ian Hughes'  solo show Ship Songs and he wanted a song for the middle of the show which was a still, central point were they are on a sea voyage and everything goes wrong. The main character is at a cusp and feeling terribly mortal. I'd written another song for that show but Ian and the director Anna Marbrook said, 'See what else you can do'.
I went home and came back with this in quite a short space of time because again I had the basic idea, but the catalyst was someone pushing me a bit.
It could be a song of resignation or being reigned to your own mortality.
I hear it as acceptance.
Yeah, and my daughter said it had joy in it. I feel joy when I listen to it because you can stare at the sea and write forever about it because so many humans have done that. It's a song where you are staring at the sea and thinking about oblivion, about your own extinction . . . but the picture of waves rolling on that I have in my mind is not frightening. It has more beauty in it.
But if I knew how to talk about it I wouldn't have written the song!