Lydia Jenkin

Lydia Jenkin is an entertainment feature writer for the New Zealand Herald.

Kody Nielson is happy in his new skin (+audio)

Former Mint Chick Kody Nielson talks to Lydia Jenkin about the inspiration for his latest album.

Kody Nielson has collaborated with partner Bic Runga.  Photo / Supplied
Kody Nielson has collaborated with partner Bic Runga. Photo / Supplied

On stage with The Mint Chicks, Kody Nielson had the kind of frenetic energy that would see him leaping off speaker stacks and swinging from the ceiling. Off-stage he's always had a more reserved, even shy presence.

So, sitting down for an interview about his much-anticipated debut solo album Electric Hawaii (streaming here), he's a little tentative and softly spoken to begin with, but his enthusiasm and excitement for the project soon shines through.

"I'm really keen to get it out eh, itching to. The CDs are all just sitting there and I want everyone to hear it. People are like 'so when's this album gonna be finished?' and I'm like it's been finished for ages! But we'll get there. There's no hurry. I just get ants in my pants."

With The Mint Chicks having come to a combustible end in 2010, and his brother (and co-band leader) Ruban moving to Portland and eventually starting his own new band Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Nielson had time to delve into his own interests in producing.

Most prominently, he became Bic Runga's creative (and personal) partner, producing her acclaimed fourth album Belle, and touring with her.

That process left him feeling inspired, and productive, so he simply kept going. He sat in the living room by himself, writing and recording new songs of his own, layering all the instruments, and occasionally grabbing Runga to do some backing vocals, in an outpouring of creativity.

"I had a few more ideas that I wanted to work on, that I wouldn't have gotten away with on a major label record I don't think" he says with a laugh.

And rather than simply release a record under his own name, he decided to go for a new moniker that could be used in multiple artistic mediums, rather than simply as a band name.

"I sorted of wanted it to be more of an artistic alias, for collaborating, or creating something visual. And I thought that seemed like a good name, it was suitable. I'm pretty nocturnal anyway."

And the unusual spelling? He just chose to spell it wrong.

"I didn't really want it to be a real word, but still recognisable."

It's an album born of family influences, as you might expect from an artist with such a musical family. His father Chris is a multi-instrumentalist (he plays trumpet on groovy track Why Why), and has long been an influence on the Nielson brothers.

"He got me into heaps of my favourite music. He introduced me to Frank Zappa and Miles Davis, and just loads of great jazz like Herbie Hancock. He's really into the jazz, so I suppose that's where that comes from."

The album definitely has a jazz bent, something Nielson muses might be due to writing a lot on the keyboard and piano this time around. Watchful Eye in particular has a touch of the swinging big band about it "I guess with that one the chord progression is quite jazzy, and it's a little bit similar to All Blues, this Miles Davis song, but it's not exactly the same" he smiles.

The album also has a Pacific influence, which originated in Nielson's desire to reflect his own Hawaiian heritage (and inspired the album title).

"I'm half-Hawaiian, my Mum is Hawaiian, and I've never thought that was represented that well, and I thought that it was a funny idea to mix rock'n'roll, and Polynesian music."

So there's a touch of jazz, and a little bit of the Pacific, but the album is still unmistakably the product of a Nielson brother, a unique and adventurous collision of 60s psychedelia, deep grooves, fuzz rock, baroque organ, and trippy, playful lyrics that's still somehow firmly rooted in the notion of pop. And though it's a different proposition to brother Ruban's band Unknown Mortal Orchestra, you can't help but compare the two.

"I'm a big fan of his music and his artwork, probably one of his biggest fans. UMO are one of my favourite bands. And I guess we both get quite similar ideas because we have such similar tastes.

"It was weird being apart for ages after The Mint Chicks stopped, and then seeing or hearing each others music and going, 'woah, that's going down the same track a little bit'. That was quite cool."

With the tracks all finished late last year, Nielson's been building anticipation by performing occasionally with bandmates Runga, and Michael Logie (bassist for The Mint Chicks), and they've been finding momentum in Australia and Britain over the past couple of months with club shows there too.

Being behind the drums or the keyboard is quite a different live context for Nielson, sitting down (often in a snappy suit or shirt) instead of jumping around (perhaps in an animal costume or exotic mask), but he seems to be enjoying letting the music be the craziest part of the show.

"I think it's good, I'm having fun with it, because now I get to have more control and more responsibility for how the music sounds live. It's more satisfying in a way, you know. It's been fun, something different."

Who: Kody Nielson's new solo project Opossom
What: Debut album Electric Hawaii, out June 1.
Where and when: Performing three nights at the Lucha Lounge in Newmarket from Thursday May 31 to Saturday June 2

-TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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