Twelve Questions

Sarah Daniell poses 12 questions to well-known faces

Twelve Questions with Gemma Gracewood

Gemma Gracewood is a one-woman media machine. The writer, musician and producer is a New Zealander living in New York. Yesterday, she spoke of her experiences during superstorm Sandy.

Gemma Gracewood will soon tour with the ukulele orchestra. Photo / Andrew Morley-Hall
Gemma Gracewood will soon tour with the ukulele orchestra. Photo / Andrew Morley-Hall

1. What can you see out your window right now? What does the sky look like?

A hundred or more ambulances, lights flashing, are queued up along my Brooklyn block. I ran out to ask them where they were going. They all drove here from out of state to help with the recovery. The sky is grey. The gorgeous autumn leaves have all but gone from the trees - those that are still standing, that is. We had a long, hot summer but I'm sad autumn was cut so violently short.

2. How did you prepare for the prospect of a weather monster? What's in your cupboards and what would you like to have that you neglected to stock up on (whisky/mixers, etc)?

After living through three extreme weather events in the past two years (the "snowpocalypse" of Christmas 2010, tropical storm Irene and now Sandy) the running joke in our house is, "Do we have gin?" I'm my mother's daughter so, yes, we have gin and a well-stocked pantry.

3. Do you like running in water - will the New York Marathon even go ahead?

I'm not a runner, more a plodder at the best of times, but it looks like the marathon is going ahead. Knowing New York, it will use the marathon as a chance to say, "We're ba-aaack" (cue Broadway jazz hands).

4. How are the media handling the story there - what are you watching/reading/listening to?

I generally, and particularly at times like this, ingest a steady diet of WNYC [public radio], NY1 [the local television news channel], New York Times, Twitter, and local blogs including the brilliantly named F***ed in Park Slope (www.f***edin parkslope.com/). After two previous weather bombs [referred to earlier], the media take it pretty seriously here, although the New York Post tends to go laughably over the top, and Donald Trump's Twitter feed has been one long brain fart. I have to say, though, the one report that turned me from slightly nervous to seriously worried was Kathryn Ryan's [Radio NZ National] interview with a New Yorker friend of mine on Nine To Noon. Her dulcet-yet-grave tone gets me every time.

5. What was the most striking image for you, on first seeing New York City?

That it was both bigger and smaller than I'd ever imagined. Not unlike when I saw the pyramids of Giza for the first time.

6. What's a gal like you doing in a town like that anyway?

I had a personally catastrophic winter a few years back. Life-changing things happened to people close to me, and my beloved father Wallace died. My life is now split into "before Dad" and "after Dad". After Dad, I came to Brooklyn to write and film things and hang out with other Kiwis and meet New Yorkers and eat new things and document artists and fall in love and be closer to my sister - who ended up moving back to Auckland. Timing! Anyway, to pay the bills, I'm still doing heaps for New Zealand from here, working for the online treasure that is NZ On Screen. And I'll be home soon to tour with the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra, a nutty bunch of grown-ups with tiny instruments who've kept me sane through the sadness. It all keeps me feeling close to home.

7. What have you yet to do or achieve there that you will not leave without doing?

"After Dad", my ambitious streak has been tempered a little. It's less about what I want to achieve and more about what I want to learn. It occurred to me that I might one day leave without having taken advantage of the incredible creative teachers in this town, so I'm rectifying that. Recently I began taking lessons with a singing teacher who's worked with artists like Peter Gabriel, Laurie Anderson, Joe Jackson. She's from the north of England but has lived 30 years in Brooklyn. She's a hoot. And I've fallen in with a bunch of ukulele punks and performed on stage in a swimsuit, so, more of that, I guess.

8. What do you miss least about New Zealand?

I was going to say Wellington's weather, but in hindsight it has prepared me very well for my adventures in weather here. Plus, I won't hear a bad word about Wellington. As a daily user of New York's bike lanes, I don't miss New Zealand's snail-like approach to making room for two-wheelers. Bring on the bicycle motorways!

9. Describe the most staggering/eccentric vignette you've witnessed while there?

The woman on the packed subway platform who repeatedly hit her small child while absolutely nobody stepped in. I was too new to the city to know what to do. I've had plenty of raging New York-style arguments with people since then. Something bonkers happens in this city every day. My favourite memory so far is the man in the silver sparkly suit who decided to sing Purple Rain to me the length of 2nd Ave in the East Village because I was wearing a purple dress.

10. What do US politics look like up close - what's the view from there of the presidential circus?

I'd say it's similar to the view you have in New Zealand, if you're reading the same online newspapers that I am. The difference is being up close to the vitriolic insanity that is the debate around what women can and can't do with their own bodies. New Zealand politicians may differ in their opinions about termination, but as a country we have quietly created a rock-solid, mostly free healthcare system around the issue. The thing that always astounds me is that more men aren't speaking up in support of us, since men benefit from the spectrum of pregnancy-control options just as much as women do, without the added hassle of having to experience most of them. Come on, men. Don't be shy.

11. What music defines your New York experience?

In the past couple of years I've seen more musicians play live than when I was at bFM in the 90s. And what I love is the number of women who are over 50 - some pushing 80 - who are rocking it out on stage. There is no flagging of their energy or their creative verve. You know, every day in New York I see women who are in their 70s and older and they are dressed amazingly.

12. What has creating distance from all that's familiar taught you about yourself?

I've never lived overseas before. I never did the OE thing. I've never experienced homesickness. Mainly because of that terrifying thought of my mother being more than an hour's flight away. Maybe what I have discovered is that I'm better company to myself than I thought I was.

Gemma Gracewood lives in New York with her partner, Dub Pies' proprietor Gareth Hughes.

- NZ Herald

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