Singer songwriter Charlotte Yates first came to prominence as one third of popular band When The Cat's Been Spayed. Since then she's released seven solo albums, as well as collaborative works featuring the poetry of James K Baxter and Hone Tuwhare. Her latest concept album, Mansfield, features contributions from NZ music luminaries including Lawrence Arabia, Delaney Davidson and Julia Deans.
When I was 4 my family moved from Wellington to Westport when dad became the vicar of St John's. After I left school, I headed to Palmerston North to study veterinary medicine and I wound up being a companion animal veterinarian. One of the saddest days of my life was when I euthanised a horse for a 16-year-old girl. We both cried. I found the euthanasia debate very interesting and, not being glib, I wish they'd asked a few more vets what it's like, because I see it as the last thing you do for your friend. With some people, as a vet, you're begging them to do it and other times you think they just shouldn't. It's really fricken complex but I would very much want the option for myself. Yes there's palliative care and I've seen terrific work done by hospice, but there are some people in a state, you just think if this was an animal, we'd actually do something. It's about compassion.
I don't have faith, but I'm a respectful atheist. Having a parent with a God gig, I saw lots of good done by the church, but it just wasn't for me. I have a constructive relationship with my parents now, but it was a relentless coming out and it would've been a challenge for them as I was a very headstrong young person. I can rock up and sing the hymns, no problems, but if you ask me to sign on the dotted line — I can't.
When I graduated in '87, it was the same time as the stock market crash and only one guy in my class found a job, and that was in Wairoa. During my last two years at varsity, because I'd been playing in an indie band called Putty In Her Hands I just thought, 'oh well, I'll do music for a bit'. Then I got a job at Taita Veterinary Hospital and thought, 'oh I guess that's what I'm doing now'. At about the same time, I also moved into a house where Jackie Clarke was my flatmate, and her boyfriend at the time was flatting with another woman Robin Nathan, and we did a one-night thing called When The Cat's Been Spayed, because ha-ha I'm a vet. But that really took off and when we were offered a tour with Gary McCormick and Jim Hopkins, I knew it was now or never, and I told my lovely vet bosses I had to go. And if it didn't work, I knew I always had my trade.
Twenty years ago I started working on compilations, working with recording artists on poems set to music so Katherine Mansfield is part of a series. The first used the poems of James K Baxter and it actually charted. I snuck into a record shop in Manners St and took a photo of the nerdy poetry album in the Top 40. When we did a live show in the International Festival and it sold out, I was like, holy crap, who thought that would happen? That was life changing. Next I was commissioned to do a similar thing with the poetry of Hone Tuwhare — and from there I plunged into a project with Witi Ihimaera for the Auckland Festival.
So much of Katherine Mansfield's writing is astonishing, so I made a selection of poetry that I felt reflected key pivotal points in her life. There's a poem for the death of her brother. Another was written while in despair over Middleton Murray. He never came to see her for months when she was gravely ill in Italy so she wrote a poem called The New Husband and he was very affronted by it.
While I'd had the idea for some time, none of my initial applications for funding came through so I set one of her poems and put that song on my last album and, after I was interviewed about it on National Radio, Auckland Theatre Company contacted me suggesting we do something. That didn't eventuate, but I had the bit between my teeth again and assembled artists and poems for the album plus a live show with interstitial divides between resets. Because it's not one band and away we go, there's quite a break between songs so I curated a script that puts things in context using Katherine's letters. They are such a fantastic part of her legacy and they leap off the page. There's a letter to her sister about a depilatory cream her sister had recommended that turned her upper lip blue. And you just crack up, aside from what she thought about various notable people. Her writing is so vital, I'd wake in the night to read it.
I enjoy pretty basic stuff. I live at Waitārere Beach between Levin and Foxton on the west coast. The east coast is beautiful, but I'm happy on the west side. I have a really nice home and I live with a really good woman, my partner, Emma. I swim in the sea, I walk on the beach and I like that I can grow courgettes and make compost. And I like creating stuff with people.
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The creative life is complex, I know how hard it is, and I also know the joy that it brings. You got me right at one of those moments of flippety flip. I've just fired the Mansfield album off to the other artists who worked on it to ask: "What do you think? You who are on album." And I've only heard back from two so far, and you wonder. Will they like it? Will it be okay?
When I was listening to people's mixes come through, Anna Coddington's made me cry. There's a lot of dross out there and creative people do get dispirited, (but there's a kind of river you want to jump in to, a circus you want to run away and join, and that's me, that's where my flag is nailed.) No one makes you do it, you have to want to do it.
This morning I drove in to town with Emma — and because I hadn't heard the album right through, we listened to it in the car. When the great love of your life says it's great, that's wonderful but they have to say that, but when I listened to it this morning, I thought it sounded beautiful.
Charlotte Yates' concept album Mansfield was released on February 20 in store and streaming on all platforms. Mansfield: In Her Own Words was to be performed in Wellington and Auckland this June — both shows have been postponed, with new dates to be announced.
For more information go to charlotteyates.com