A founding member of Split Enz and Citizen Band, long time Director of APRA's New Zealand operations and, more recently, Mike Chunn has been a champion of young songwriters through Play It Strange which has seen artists like Kimbra, Georgia Nott (The Broods) and Louis Baker carve out huge careers.
It all starts with that moment when you think 'I want to be like them' and the dream is formed. I was 12 when I saw Hard Day's Night. I was in Wellington, it was 1964 and everything about The Beatles seduced me. They had guitars, a drum kit, cool clothes, Beatle boots, and long hair and it didn't look that difficult. The sound in the cinema, the screaming, it made me want to carve out a life on stage.
Not enough thought is given to who teaches music to children. It is important to ask a child, are you playing the songs you love to hear? If a kid says 'I love to listen to Fur Elise' that's great, but what if they say they like a song they heard on the radio the other day? I'm not sure that happens enough; but to be a piano student and to learn something you've never heard before, or don't enjoy, it makes no sense.
Mrs Beasley was my piano teacher. I was a nice boy, not precocious, but she knew I didn't want to play Fur Elise. She also said no Trinity exams for me. Then she asked me what I wanted to play. I said I wanted to learn What Shall We Do With A Drunken Sailor. The next lesson she had the sheet music, with piano notes and guitar chords. When I could play it, I was so proud, I felt like King Kong. Every five years or so I go up to Hillside Road in Otahuhu and I wave at Mrs Beasley's house. She's gone now but I haven't forgotten her.
You know the word bliss? True unadulterated bliss is quite a rare rush, but rehearsing those first few months with Split Enz on the balcony of Malmsbury Villa, that was deeply blissful. After five years of boarding school, to suddenly have that experience with Phil Judd and Tim Finn and the others in that falling down villa in Kohimarama, we were high on that blissful rush and nothing was going to stop us.
My father and I were similar except I was lucky. My father wanted to be a poet, but in Greymouth if they'd known that, they'd have put him in stocks and pelted him with tomatoes. He didn't want to be a doctor, but his father was a brutal man who insisted he go to medical school. He was told, 'you will become a doctor.' Dad became a doctor and continued quietly with his poetry and just put it in his bottom drawer. One day I found his work and I made a book of his writing. When I gave it to him, he was so delighted. When I told my parents I wanted to be a pop star, they said, 'that sounds interesting. Go for it, son'. My dear father never had that support.
My world is all about songwriting now. Through the Play It Strange national secondary schools songwriting competition, I hear songs every year that are profoundly moving; songs that tell stories of the highest emotions, joy, love, hate, fear, celebration, regret, despair. They pour out of the hearts and minds of 13-18 year olds; kids who are generally sitting in school uniform with grazed knees having just done physics, cooking, or English — and then they go and finish the song they're working on.
A song of despair written by a young girl who's bereft because her older brother has left home to go to university, that song has been recorded. Her proclamation of love for her older brother will exist forever. How else could she have done that? Write a poem? That fades away. She could have said something to him during a conversation at the dinner table, but that dissipates. But when you write and record a song, you not only say things that have the deepest, most inspiring emotional content, the song lives forever
I tried writing songs. Two were recorded by Citizen Band, but they didn't make it on to the album, and they're not on Spotify. Which is just as well, as I think they were terrible.
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A good song needs space, room for the listener to think about what has been sung before the words start again. A lot of young songwriters tend to squash all the words in and it becomes a torrent of words coming at you. People don't want that. The greatest songs have beautiful words and beautiful pauses.
Yesterday — pause — all my troubles seemed so far away.
Music is an integral part of daily life, people might hear two or three hundred songs a week so the craft of writing your own songs is woven into that listening life. It's exactly the same as rugby. Sport is all about inclusion, kicking a ball, swimming, everyone can have a go. To me listening to all these recorded songs makes it easier to write a song, especially a really bad song. But to write a really good one is very, very difficult. To score four tries for the First XV is also very difficult but it doesn't stop tens of thousand of people trying do it every weekend. Why don't more people try and write songs?
In my lifetime I've listened to a lot of new songs and I've got a different handle on what makes a song good. I can ignore all the bad bits of an entry recording, out of time, out of tune, and I imagine how it might sound in the studio. I've seen young teens empowered by this process and turn into monsters of confidence. It's the creative reward for what they've put down.
They've got their final recording forever, on Apple or Spotify and whatever they go on to do, their whole families, everybody in the world, people in Iceland, can listen to their song. That's magical.