NZ Herald Legacy Award: Shona Laing

By Lydia Jenkin

At age 17, Shona Laing blazed a trail for Kiwi women in music. She talks to Lydia Jenkin about her journey.

Shona Laing representing New Zealand at the World Popular Song Festival in Tokyo, Japan in 1974, where she won a top prize for her song Masquerade.
Shona Laing representing New Zealand at the World Popular Song Festival in Tokyo, Japan in 1974, where she won a top prize for her song Masquerade.

A passionate, eloquent storyteller for whom songwriting was a genuine form of communicating the thoughts and concerns of her generation, Shona Laing could almost be called the Lorde of the 1970s.

She wrote her own songs, played her own guitar, chose her own clothes and - over the years - had myriad hairstyles.

She won over fans with her bold, independent spirit and chameleonic approach to music - though it always revolved around a great melody, strong words and a willingness to be vulnerable.

She was 17 when she came to the attention of New Zealand, all cool charm and unruffled focus as she appeared on the TV talent show New Faces.

Forty years on, she's released nine albums, worked with Manfred Mann, toured the world, inspired a generation of songwriters, won three Rata Awards, two New Zealand Music Awards, two Silver Scroll Awards, and is now being inducted into the NZ Music Hall of Fame, receiving the NZ Herald Legacy Award tonight - which in a spooky coincidence, coincides with the anniversary of her appearance on New Faces in November 1972.

She hasn't always had an easy relationship with the music industry, though. In a world dominated by men, she's had a complex ride through tricky deals with record labels and battles with radio.

But though she's open and honest about it all, to best celebrate her stellar musical career we've decided to go back to the most important bit - the songs.

Here, Laing takes us through five key songs from across her career and puts them into context.

1972: 1905

1980: Don't Tell Me

1985: Glad I'm Not a Kennedy

1992: Mercy of Love

2007: My Love Be Still


Laing time admirers

Ruby Frost, Solo artist
I knew about Shona's legacy, and had definitely heard Glad I'm Not A Kennedy a lot, but it has been so special to trawl through her back-catalogue for this and dig a bit deeper. She had such a strong creative voice throughout all her work. She was one of our first pop stars, she's the first Kiwi female to be inducted into our hall of fame, she's a trailblazer and an icon. I love that she continued carving out new sounds throughout her career.

Ruby Frost is performing a tribute to Shona Laing at tonight's NZ Music Awards ceremony.

Jordan Luck, The Exponents
I'm an advocate, a fan, an acolyte of Shona's from when I was about 11 or 12, and I saw her performing 1905. But I first met her in 1992 down in Blenheim at a festival, and, gosh, we just got on so wonderfully, and have been in love ever since basically. I think this accolade [The Legacy Award] is wonderful because it's the recognition that she so deserves, in the sense that, in the public eye, she's undervalued - or maybe not undervalued - but almost under-represented, or unknown to a degree.

Jordan Luck is introducing the tribute and NZ Herald Legacy Award at tonight's NZ Music Awards ceremony.

Anika Moa, Solo artist
Her strength of word and voice were what drew me. Her mana was there, and purpose of being alive. She paved the way for musos like me. A great role model and an inspiration for songwriters too.

Dianne Swann, The Bads, When the Cat's Away
I saw Shona perform 1905 on TV when I was pretty young, and I clocked the fact that she had written that song. I thought it was amazing, and thought 'yep, I want to write my own songs - songs that talk about things, not just relationship songs'.

I went on to sing backing vocals for her when she released South, and was amazed at the power and strength of her voice ... incredible.

Debbie Harwood, When the Cat's Away
I was 12 when I first heard Shona singing on New Faces and Studio One. I had grown up listening to the Beatles and other masters of pop songwriting. I also observed that here in New Zealand the only women we saw on TV through the 60s were in minute miniskirts, singing covers of English hits, mostly. Shona didn't dance or wear tiny skirts - she wrote magnificently crafted songs.

Paul Ellis, Former manager
I thought that she was kind of like our answer to Joni Mitchell, in that she had the ability to share peoples stories, and share concerns, and their lifestyle. Shona talked to her generation.

Julia Deans, Fur Patrol, solo artist
I can still remember the first time I saw Shona's Soviet Snow video. I was captivated by this firebrand of a woman staring unabashedly from the TV, singing directly to me, issuing burgeoning teen-me a challenge to think about the world at large. And when I finally met her some 20 years later, I felt the same way. Shona is passion personified, her enthusiasm is infectious ... and boy, can she play guitar!

Trevor Reekie, Founder of Pagan Records, who released Genre and South
South is one of the most articulate records I've ever worked on and it didn't come easy. But, in some respects, working with an artist of Shona's intellect and calibre, and producing such an ambitious and creative album shouldn't come easy. She worked hard for those songs.

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Where to find Shona's early songs

A 25 track CD of Laing's early work has also been released this year. It brings together the 10 original tracks from her debut album Whispering Afraid from 1972, like 1905 and Masquerade, along with the 12 original tracks from her follow-up, Shooting Stars Are Only Seen At Night, together on CD for the first time.

It also adds three non-album B-sides - Some One To Be With, Don't You Think It's Time, and a favourite title I Love My Feet, which have been previously unavailable.

Whispering Afraid was recorded at EMI studios in Wellington, and the experience, as Laing explains in the liner notes, got her hooked. Recording Shooting Stars in Sydney was even more of a learning curve - staying alone in a hotel for six weeks, and working intensively on the album every day.

"It didn't appeal across the generations as had Whispering Afraid, but I was on my musical journey and there was no turning back."

Note: Some of the tracks were featured on the album Essential Collection, but were re-recordings done in the 1990s, whereas this collection uses the original versions.


- TimeOut

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