Chris Thompson has returned to record an album combining Maori myth, Norwegian money and an old hit. HELENE RAVLICH reports
British-born, Hamilton-raised musician Chris Thompson has found himself working back in New Zealand, after a 30-year OE that included work with Manfred Mann's Earth Band - he was the vocalist on their hit Blinded by the Light - and writing songs for artists as diverse as Isaac Hayes and Sarah Brightman.
Like many a successful musician with the time and finances to indulge in pet projects, Thompson has returned to his roots to create his most passionate concept album since War of the Worlds (on which he sang), titled Rediscovery.
"The original idea came from my musical partner [Norwegian musician] Mads Ericksen saying, 'Let's go to New Zealand and make a record'," he says. "But I didn't want to just go and make a collection of songs and try to find a common thread, the same as I had always done."
He chose a concept format, and began planning the recording.
"I always seem to start with a concept and then work back to what that concept would be. So I ended up writing this little story," he says.
The story is a mystical fairy tale, set in New Zealand, with a young Maori woman as the focus.
She is gifted a series of magical notes by the gods and delivers these to the world with life-changing effect.
It is loosely based around the Maori legends Thompson became familiar with as a child in the Waikato.
The cost for the initial trip to New Zealand to write was provided by the Norwegian Government, and the album will be marketed and distributed by Voices, a label working out of Oslo.
"Finding the right label was a hard process and we were determined to retain ownership of the record and steer how it will be marketed," says Thompson.
"We were looking for a deal that would have us owning at least 51 per cent of the album, which is unheard of."
Wanting to match the generous contribution from the Norwegian Government towards the development of the first stage of the album, Thompson turned to New Zealand's equivalent funding authority, Creative New Zealand. He was turned down, receiving a short rejection note in the mail.
"I felt like I had let everyone down," he says slamming a fist on the table. "The Norwegian musicians had loved this place and our Government had let them down. I was so embarrassed."
When approached by the Herald Creative NZ Arts Adviser Philip Clarke declined to comment on the decision, saying the organisation did not discuss personal applications in the media.
"I was very hopeful and thought with the mix of international and local artists being used to sing the praises of New Zealand we would be successful," says Thompson.
Collaborators and guest artists from New Zealand and Europe include the Manu Taki Cultural Group from West Auckland, Queen's Brian May, King Kapisi, Sarah Brightman (singing a piece originally written with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa in mind), Te Vaka and vocalist Angelo Munro from punk outfit the Bleeders.
It also has several contributions from the Soweto Gospel Choir, with whom Thompson worked as choirmaster. Legendary saxophonist Bill Evans is also playing on the album as God of the Sea.
Thompson was the composer of John Farnham's greatest hit You're the Voice, which was written as an anti-war anthem at the time of Britain's most aggressive CND marches. The track is included on Rediscovery, sung by Thompson. So why revisit an old hit?
"I had never recorded a version of it myself, and I felt it was time for that song to be heard again. I decided I wanted to write a song for Rediscovery that covered the themes of accountability and helping others, and realised I already had."
The track will be a different version, with Pacific Island drumming and a tougher lyrical delivery. "The theme is hope and love, and that is what the project hopes to achieve."