Michele Hewitson Interview: Shona Laing

By Michele Hewitson

Shona Laing has left the anger behind and added some comedy to her gigs. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Shona Laing has left the anger behind and added some comedy to her gigs. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Would I like to interview Shona Laing? asked the publicist. "She's the Keith Richards of NZ music!" There's nothing like a bit of barmy hyperbole in a sales pitch, so, yes, I would like to interview Shona Laing. Again.

I interviewed her about 100 years ago, or at least 20 years ago, which amounts to the same thing, for a music magazine. I have almost no recollection of this interview and why would she? She's been interviewed hundreds of times, for one thing, and may have been drunk during some of those interviews, for all I know.

She was drunk a lot, for many years, and says she did sometimes perform drunk, a thought which now makes her visibly cringe. "Oh, there were some Judy Garland moments." She did a rather good impersonation of herself singing, or slurring, drunk.

I do retain a hazy idea of her, perhaps from that interview: That she was kind, but could be sharpish; slightly wary, and patently brittle. The kindness remains (as does the rest).

She drove two hours from Waihi - where she lives with three very old cats, two middle-aged cats, and a young dog - to see me, and she apologised for being 10 minutes late. I asked, because of the animals, if she was a soft touch and she said, sharpishly: "For animals. It's not their fault."

She lives "hand to mouth" and mostly always has. She very sweetly, almost apologetically, gave me a copy of one of her CDs: Pass the Whisper. So the least I can do is give her gig, the reason for seeing her, a plug here. So the gig is: Give It a Girl, with Shona Laing, Sharon O'Neill, Debbie Harwood and Annie Crummer, at the Ascension Wine Estate in Matakana on February 26. I did wonder who her fans are now and she laughed and rolled her eyes and said: "The strangest people! They come out of the woodwork."

There are no doubt fans from all those years ago who will remember, among other important things, what her hair was like. I don't remember what her hair was like when I last saw her. Is it important? Her hair might be a barometer of her current state of mind.

When she was a very young folk singer in the 70s she had the hippy hair of the time: very long, very straight. It was very free sort of hair, made for swishing and flirting with, in a way that was supposed to suggest a sexy innocence. Later it was very short, with spikes. It was angry hair, I suggested. "Well, that came off in a moment of sheer self-directed anger." She meant that the spiky hair was what grew back after this "moment" during which she shaved off all of her hair. Like Sinead O'Connor? "Before Sinead!"

There has been an idea about her that she was an angry person. "I was angry." But about what? "Just that the world was a crazy, insane place and it didn't need to be. I struggled really hard to point these things out. Perhaps with the wrong attitude."

So, perhaps my idea of her hair as mood barometer is not so loony after all. She is not particularly loony, although she can say some spacey things. She knows she does and she tries hard not to sound like an old hippy, but as she is one, who could mind? She said: 'I think humour is perhaps synonymous with love."

She has taken up painting. Lately she has been "experimenting with shapes ... Korus and question marks that turn into people." Is she any good? "I've had some good feedback and just recently I've gone through a quantum leap. The last couple people wanted and it was a breakthrough."

The painting comes from the same unidentifiable place the song writing comes from. "It's quite mystical." Which means what? "That things happen beyond my consciousness. I think I was newly encouraged by the discovery that there is something more than just the rat race." A spiritual thing, perhaps? "I hesitate to say that." Because she will sound hippy dippy? "Yeah! That sounds like: Here we go again. The same old Shona!"

Is she the same old Shona? She hasn't spent much time recently contemplating her younger self, but I had.

That recollection of her earlier self, from that earlier interview, may of course be made even hazier by the fact that I'd gone through her clippings file, excavated from the Herald basement and in which she is catalogued, in the early 1970s, as: Miss Shona Laing. She was 17 when she appeared, curtained in hair, on the television talent quest Studio One.

She sang her own song, 1905, and came second. 1905 was a sort of ode (I think) to Henry Fonda who was born in 1905. Why Henry Fonda? She was 16 when she wrote it and was born, as the song goes: "Fifty years later" than Fonda. What a funny song for a girl to write. She had a sort of crush on him. "I just thought he was elegant." Does she still have a crush on him? "Well, he's dead now!" The song was a big hit in 1973; the singer was destined for fame and fortune, you might have thought, and so did she.

This is the music business and anyone might have predicted that it would all go sour. She is philosophical about this: "I think it just all had to be the way it was, you know. You get to a point in life and realise there was no other way it could have been."

She is philosophical about most things now. She was married, for six years, to the actor Peter McCauley (Tim Shadbolt officiated at their wedding.) She lived, for 17 years, with a woman whose name I don't know because she doesn't say her name, or McCauley's.

Neither of these relationships had amicable endings and the most she'd say about them was that "they're probably the only two friends in my life that I entirely dismiss and I won't talk to them". She says she is no longer gay or straight but celibate, contentedly so. She thinks she will remain on her own. "Yeah. I think that the whole emphasis on partnerships is crazy."

There have been musical disappointments and financial ones. She still owes a large amount of money to a record company for the album New On Earth which when delivered was met, she says, with the following response: "How the f*** do you expect us to sell this?" She tries hard not to think about this and so wouldn't tell me how much money she owes.

Somebody said: Is she ageing well? Is Keith Richards? She is 56, and happily so. Well, happily for her. She still rages, if more mildly, about the state of the world. I made the mistake of asking if she was happy and she snorted and said: "If we were ... talking about the world and you asked me if I was happy, I'd be pretty foolish to say 'yes'. Britain and Argentina are going at it again and ... Syria!" Anyway, she seems to have relaxed, somewhat, about being her, I thought.

"Well, don't we all? I mean, the hormonal changes which are God-given, I think, around this time of life. I'm happy with that; I think a lot of our culture isn't that happy with women over 35."

She said, about the Keith Richards comparison - which she thinks is funny both funny ha ha and funny peculiar - "you know, [after having read] his book, he wasn't really quite as Keith Richards as everybody thinks he is." But is she quite as Shona Laing as everybody thinks she is?

She is supposed to be a recluse, and an alkie who gave up the booze almost two decades ago. She had said that if she'd kept at it, it would have killed her. So, rather oddly, she has taken up drinking again, in moderation, although she does occasionally get drunk. She saw a shrink at the time, to help with the giving up, but now questions whether she was actually an addict.

"I think we're all too ready to diagnose things. I was just crazy" - which might be another sort of diagnosis. She also took every kind of drug available, but never injected anything; she snorted heroin instead. She was a bit nervy about talking about the drugs because: 'I keep forgetting you work for the Herald!" I said I didn't think anyone would be terribly surprised to learn that she took drugs and she said: "I would have had to be encased in a Perspex casket to have avoided it!"

She didn't drink for 14 years and started again when she started hanging out with musicians again. The first few times she felt like hell for having done it: "I was really disappointed in myself and felt sick and horrible." But she stuck with it. "I keep practising! Ha, ha. I suppose everybody's going to be just so disappointed that Shona's drinking again."

Well, she was rather severe about drink, having given it up. She said mad things like: "Alcohol is an instrument of exploitation, a conspiratorial weapon of oppression." She says she still believes this, but has lightened up.

I'd better reassure anyone daft enough to be disappointed on her behalf that she's not back to being a raging dipso. She said: "I haven't had a drink this week! I'm older and wiser and I guess better able to handle it."

I asked her about her supposed reclusiveness (driving two hours to see a journalist didn't seem particularly reclusive) and she said she did lead a quiet lifestyle for many years, the non-drinking ones, but "not in the Howard Hughes way. I do cut my toenails! Often!"

She said: "I've actually become a bit of a comic!"

Now that is a revelation. Shona Laing, the formerly angry folk singer, is now a comedienne. In what way is she a comic?

"My gigs have got funnier and funnier!" She tells jokes, she says, but she won't tell me any, because she wants to save them for the show. I'm glad she's having a good time, at last. I'm glad, too, that she can have a drink. If anyone deserves one, she does.

- NZ Herald

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