Twelve Questions
Jennifer Dann poses 12 questions to well-known faces

Twelve Questions with Sharon O'Neill

By Jennifer Dann

Kiwi singer-songwriter Sharon O’Neill had 80s hits on both sides of the Tasman with Words, Maybe and Maxine. She returns to perform at Auckland Zoo this Saturday night with Margaret Urlich, Debbie Harwood, Annie Crummer and Shona Laing.
Sharon O'Neill says Lady Gaga is great but some younger singers overdo the vocal gymnastics a bit. Photo / Dean Purcell
Sharon O'Neill says Lady Gaga is great but some younger singers overdo the vocal gymnastics a bit. Photo / Dean Purcell

1. You left for Australia in 1981 and have lived there ever since. What have you been doing?

Writing songs with my partner Alan Mansfield mostly. Alan had just joined Dragon when I opened for their "Body and the Beat" tour in 1984. I was the body, they were the beat. We were both married at the time but it was too strong.

When Paul Hewson passed away in 1985, Alan stayed on as keyboardist and we wrote songs for Dragon together. We were planning to tour in 1998 when Marc [Hunter] rang and said, "Tell Alan the tour's off. I've got throat cancer." I said, "Yeah right," because he was always kidding. Six months later he was gone.

2. Why did you move to Australia?

The record company, CBS, wanted to see if they could break me in Australia so they sent me over with my Kiwi band which had Dave Dobbyn in it - he'll josh me for saying that. We worked the pub scene five nights a week and really schlepped it.

I was living in a hotel in Kings Cross when I got the inspiration to write Maxine. She was always out there working at 3am when we'd get home bleary-eyed from a gig in Newcastle.

3. What song are you most proud of writing?

Danced in the Fire. That was such a momentous time in my life - meeting Alan, breaking up with my husband, all the shit we went through with the record company - it's all in that song. It spilled out of me so fast, I had to get it out - it was cathartic.

I'm not supposed to talk about what happened with the record company but it's been so long now. There was a legal battle. I won the first round but they appealed to the high court where I lost. I'm out the other side now.

4. Did you have much say in the way you were marketed on your album covers?

I always wore what I felt comfortable in. For Maybe they wanted to do this half-moon thing with me in a leather jacket. All I cared about was that I got to keep the leather jacket. The only time I had a stylist was for Danced in the Fire. I had boofy hair and a fan and to be perfectly honest it looked nothing like me but it was done already.

5. What do you think about the way women are portrayed in the music industry now?

I find some of the videos really explicit. It's got to the point where young girls think that's the way it's got to be. Back in the 1980s they wouldn't screen the Maxine video till after 8pm because she goes into the toilets with a razor blade. You've got people gyrating like they're having sex but you can't show that because it's drugs. I mean she's a junkie, she dies. It's a terribly sad story.

6. Which singers do you admire?

Lady Gaga is an amazing singer. Did you hear her national anthem at the Superbowl? It was unreal. Beyonce is very, very fit but I'd rather put Gaga's album on. I love Adele. Gosh, she's funny. I also love Emeli Sande.

I'm not really a radio person any more. If I put on anything I'll go back to the old days - Steely Dan, The Eagles. The Eagles' drummer and bass player actually sang on Foreign Affairs. They just happened to be in the building while we were recording. The producer left the room and came back with Don Henley! I almost died.

7. Do you watch TV talent shows?

I do actually because Alan's daughter Lauren has been working on The Voice for the past few years organising the band. I can't believe the voices of some of these young people. They can do any style and the moves - I'd just fall on the floor. The vocal gymnastics can be a pain in the ass to listen to sometimes and it's got very homogenous in certain areas.

8. Growing up in Nelson, did you come from a musical family?

Mum and my two sisters and I would always sing in harmony while we did the dishes. We called ourselves "The Moana Nightingales" because we lived in Moana Ave.

I taught myself to play the guitar by ear, just copying things off the radio, and started putting my poetry to music. Sometimes I wish I could read music. It's frustrating being in a recording situation and not being about to go, "That's a D11" or whatever the heck it might be.

9. Have you been singing much lately?

I had a long break in the early 90s. It was really hard to get back into it again but it all comes back. I'm much better at looking after my voice now. In the old days I never got the concept of warming up and they used to have smoking in venues.

Lately I've been singing with an Australian touring company that gets a bunch of acts from the 70s, 80s and 90s together so you only do a few songs each. I can't hit the same high notes. My balls have dropped. I wrote Maybe in B, then I took it down to B flat - now it's in A, which is better for guitar anyway.

10. Do you ever regret not having children?

No. People assume I didn't want children but that wasn't the case, it just didn't happen. If it had come along I think I would've been a good mum. Alan has a daughter and we have a granddaughter now. They live in walking distance from our house in Sydney, it's very cool. It's enough.

11. Do you socialise much?

No. We're totally happy up on stage but we can't handle being down there with the audience. I respect the fact they've come, I just find it uncomfortable being in the mosh pit with people pushing around. We mostly socialise with each other and we Skype our families all the time.

12. Why are you returning to New Zealand for the zoo concert?

I love the zoo, Alan and I performed there with Paul Young and Tony Hadley from Spandau Ballet in 2008, and I just love it when all us girls - Margaret Urlich, Debbie Harwood and Annie Crummer and Shona Laing - get together. We're family.

Hear Them Roar is at Auckland Zoo this Saturday, 6pm: ourauckland.
But tickets now!

- NZ Herald

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