Twelve Questions: Sean James Donnelly

Songwriter Sean James Donnelly, better known as SJD, mixes electronica with beautiful melodies and thoughtful lyrics. Last year's Taite Music Prize winner, he worked as a psych nurse before releasing his first album at the age of 32.
SJD never learned to play an instrument as a child. Photo / Richard Robinson
SJD never learned to play an instrument as a child. Photo / Richard Robinson

1. You told the Taite Music Prize crowd last week: "I may not have a lot of hits or sales but I do have a lot of opinionated friends. And that's who I do it for." Is that true?

I guess I'm taking a little poetic licence there. I do all right - I mean, I make a living off music so I count myself very lucky. But it's definitely true that my friends hold a lot of sway - I'm always trying to impress them.

2. Both you personally and your music seem kind of low-key. Has that worked against you, do you think?

Yeah, I'm low key but "worked against you" presumes that success is all in monetary terms. I like music that seduces a little bit and the art of seduction is a long game. I put my music up against anyone's for ability to be able to relisten and rediscover new things. I take a long time to work on a piece of music and those instant pieces of music I get sick of. I don't necessarily think of it as being low key, but when I think of what is popular today, it's pretty gaudy and loud. Like a loud shirt or a T-shirt slogan.

3. What is achievement to you?

I find the idea of achievement to be quite quicksilver, really. No sooner do you think that you've really achieved something special, than the goalposts have suddenly moved. Who moved them, I don't know. Was it my opinionated friends? Was it my enemies? Or did I move them, myself, in my sleep?

4. Describe your childhood:

I was probably a bit of a paradoxical child. Not sporty, but always fit, running around and climbing things. I wasn't quite a true nerd but I'd get lost for hours in obsessional hobbies of my own design. And while I was never considered cool by anyone, I always had a lot of buddies. I watched way too much TV and feel like I've carried a little of that kind of brain damage into adulthood. There was nothing musical in my childhood. I didn't learn to play anything, just picked it up along the way. I discovered music when I was 8 or 9 and just loved it.

I loved listening and disappearing into it.

5. You didn't release your first album until you were 32. What took you so long?

Lack of confidence probably. I trained to be a nurse and worked as a psych nurse for a few years. I probably shouldn't have done that - all through my training I worked in a kids' ward and I probably should have stayed doing that. My youngest daughter was a child [when the first album was released]. Having young kids meant I've never been able to hit the road which you have to do to have a career really. If I was just surviving off selling CDs I'd be living in a gumboot but I've been really really lucky to have transferable skills, to make ads or short films, production. I'm so lucky because how many people can survive off music?

6. Your children are teenagers now: what's their childhood been like?

I'd say they've had occasionally inconsistent but very loving parenting. They've got a nice big yard to knock around in but they love their games and social media. They're TV-watchers, I'm afraid, but discerning ones - they did Pingu, Suzy Cato, Pokemon, Dragonball Z as kids and now they're all mad on Miyazaki and anime. They've all got fantastic taste in music, mainly thanks to my indoctrinating them. None of them have turned out to be sporty but they're great people - clever, compassionate and funny (haha, and peculiar).

7. What has been the greatest disappointment of your life so far?

To be honest, I feel like I've been a little passive and unambitious at times - fear of failure or looking foolish getting the better of me. So I'm frequently disappointed in myself. I'm nowhere near dead yet, though, so ... onward and upward.

8. And the greatest joy?

Family, kids, being in a loving relationship are the greatest joys for me. The kind of things that get me out of my own head. The part of writing a song when you're really firing - when something you didn't know was there springs out and surprises you with its beauty and meaningfulness.

9. What, in your opinion, is the best and worst of life in New Zealand?

The best of life here is obviously the people, the places and all that stuff we're always telling ourselves. We've got our own little spot down here and we've enjoyed it being a well-kept secret but we can't really, in good conscience, keep it to ourselves. As an artist, I find myself in a constant state of inspiration - there's some kind of amazing electricity down here. The worst, as an artist, is the flip side - geographical isolation. The weird lack of confidence we have and tendency to eagerly await a sort of compensation from everyone else on the planet. A disturbing tendency to act dumber than we are in order to get on with people - to feel like we deserve to be put in our place by "self-made" men and those we perceive to be bigger and better than us.

10. Is art underrated in this country?

I think it's misunderstood by a great many. There is so much beauty and darkness here - not everybody wants to stare that down. I think it's frequently put in the too-hard basket and subsequently ignored in favour of the flashy spectacle or the "thing well-made".

11. You also told the Taite Music Prize crowd last week that your next album will be a big hit - you can taste it. Describe the flavour.

I think it's less like fusion cuisine than it's been in the past. Definitely not Vietnamese, Moroccan or South Indian. Probably got a bit of a pork and beans thing going on ... but kinda how pork and beans tastes when you've been on the trail all day and you're really hungry for it ... ripe passionfruit, raspberries and feijoas for afters and all washed down with a nice peaty single malt. I'd say it's about songs and more songs - without wishing to wax grandiose, I feel like this is my Songs of Innocence and Experience (a William Blake work). I'm trying to some degree to arrest my natural cynicism. I'm a reluctant cynic. But there's all those other human emotions - hope, faith, love.

12. Would you have chosen any other life?

Considering how accidental so much of it seems, I find it easy to believe I could have ended up anywhere. I'm glad I've got this one, though. Maybe I could have been an architect or a town planner - though I don't possess any of those skills except embryonically. Maybe a film-maker or a writer, but I'm guessing the time's still ripe for reinvention.

- NZ Herald

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