It’s hard enough launching a music career in New Zealand. But just how difficult is it for an independent artist to forge a career on both sides of the globe simultaneously? Rebecca Barry goes into the studio in New York with Kiwi musician Simon Spire to find out what it takes.
It's Friday night in Times Square, New York, and Kiwi musician Simon Spire looks a bit out of place as he sips a beer in a Caribbean-style bar. Around us the patrons are on a mission to get wasted. A woman is slumped over her drink, practically comatose in the corner, partially obscured behind a beaded curtain. It's just as hard not to stare when a buxom waitress named Stella practically serves her cleavage with the drinks - she's reflected in a wall of mirrors.
"Horrible choice, S," says Lee Nadel, a tall New York record producer who just walked in with his bass guitar on his back. "Let's finish these and go somewhere else," adds his producer partner Rich Mercurio, slapping Spire on the back.
"Sorry guys, I'm not exactly au fait with the bar scene," says Spire cheerfully, as we make our way through throngs of people and head to an upmarket establishment for lychee martinis and seared tuna. The 28-year-old is more of an introspective singer-songwriter with a penchant for health food, the self-inquiry of Alanis Morrissette and the reflective grooves of John Mayer than someone who drinks in rough bars. Nadel and Mercurio find it endearing that their Kiwi friend sometimes shows up at the studio with a huge platter of macrobiotic Japanese food. Still, Spire is amassing a rock'n' roll pedigree.
He's lived in New York since 2008, drawn by the prospect of being immersed in a music mecca, and has nearly finished recording his second album with Nadel and Mercurio, two elite and wry-humoured musicians who have worked with Regina Spektor, Jewel and Enrique Iglesias. It's a process that will take two months and turn out to be thorough, bordering on obsessive - Spire's the first to admit he's a perfectionist.
When they're done it'll be sent to Brian Malouf, the producer and mixing engineer who has worked with, among many others, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Bon Jovi, Queen, Prince and Pearl Jam.
The finished product, Four-Letter Words is due to be released in New Zealand on April 4. Spire will return home to New Zealand to promote it with a performance in Auckland a few days later. Then he'll head back to the US to focus on a massive launch: 60 to 80 tour dates, playing intimate club venues such as the 300-capacity Rockwood Music Hall in New York and college campuses across the country, with a live band Nadel has recruited. The goal is simple: to get his music heard.
As an independent artist with distribution through Universal Records in New Zealand, Spire is just as much a driving force of this launch as his backers. Ambitious, enthusiastic, and without a hint of cynicism, Spire's upbeat attitude is vital in an industry that has become reluctant to invest in new talent. He hopes one day to sign to a major label - and with both former Atlantic Records' Ron Shapiro and Jewel's former manager Levendra Carroll championing him, the dream isn't impossible - but having a kick-ass album will certainly help.
It's taken longer than Spire had hoped to make headway here but his perserverance has already paid off. After his first album, All or Nothing, came out two years ago, he got a bit of airplay on a US student TV's Channel One network, which also named him one of their Top 20 Artists of the Year, 2009. He played gigs in the major East Coast centres. He was a double-finalist in the USA Songwriting Competition, and a finalist in the Hudson Valley Songfest in New York.
Back home, Spire's Hiding So Long made the Top 20, Alive made the Top 40, and he found himself a fan in radio station Classic Hits. An EP, Softly Softly Catchee Monkey, was released after that.
But he's still a relative unknown, and it's hoped that Four-Letter Words, with its bigger, bolder production, will be enough to establish firmer footholds in both countries. NZ On Air has already jumped on board, providing a grant to make the music video for Liberate Your Love, which Spire filmed during a trip home at Christmas. He'll need significant commercial airplay, however, to qualify for album funding.
As important as Spire's positive attitude is, you simply can't make a record without talent, say his producers. Spire's lyrics are personal and confessional rather than edgy, with themes of self-discovery and reaching your potential. The music radiates a feelgood, easy-listening catchiness with the added punch of rock guitars.
"The songs are great," adds Nadel. "We're song guys. Lots of people can sing and play. Everyone has computers these days, so there are lots of songwriters doing it out there. But it's all about the songs. Simon has a vulnerability that translates."
It's earlier in the day at Flux Studios in the Lower East Side, an artistic, gritty part of Manhattan. The door to the studio has been graffittied by musicians who have recorded there, including The Strokes. Today Spire is working on laying down guitars and vocals on a song called Find, which he has in mind as the last track on the album. There's as much talking - and good-natured head-butting - as playing.
"C'mon, Simon baby," says a frustrated Mercurio, when Spire questions whether some of the drums are a bit "ghetto".
"He's super-honest," says Nadel, who has taken to calling Spire 'S', 'Double S' and, occasionally, 'Double'.
Mercurio: "He takes everything to heart. A guy delivered some food up here the other day and Simon had, like, a three-minute conversation with him. He comes into the studio, like, 'thank you so much for having me'. It's rare in this city."
Nadel: "He'd thank the pilot flying him."
Is he too nice to make it? Spire is very vocal in the studio, pointing out exactly what he likes and doesn't like, but always with a smile on his face. He says New York has toughened him up, that he's learned that the gently-does-it approach doesn't work here, particularly when he's critiquing someone else and wants something changed. "In the end, I just have to abandon my politeness and be as direct as people are used to being around here ... New York is a ruthless city in a lot of ways. It challenges you. It kicks you around a lot. It's demanding."
When Spire pops out of the studio for lunch, Nadel and Mercurio call him to say they've accidentally erased all the tracks.
It ain't cheap living in New York. Intent on immersing himself in one of the most thriving music scenes in the world, Spire moved here in early 2008, after a couple of years in LA where his dad lived, and based himself in Brooklyn. When he's not in the studio or on the road, he likes to check out gigs by his contemporaries, up-and-coming artists such as Will Knox, Libby Schroeder and Ian Axel.
Some of his income comes from licensing - he says he is in talks with clothing label Abercrombie & Fitch who are keen to use Liberate Your Love in advertisements. He also receives performance royalties for radio and TV play (an advantage of owning the publishing of the songs) and, occasionally, works as a session guitarist. Then there are freelancing jobs as a music tutor and web copywriter. Still, it's not enough to cover the expense of recording an album on top of rent and living costs. A typical independent recording with high sound quality costs anywhere between US$10,000 ($13,600) and US$25,000.
It helps, then, that Spire was born into one of New Zealand's wealthiest families. His father is Paul Huljich, a successful businessman and co-founder with brother Peter of organic food company Best Corporation (Spire's cousins are Peter and Rachel Huljich). In 2009 the National Business Review valued the Huljich family at $125 million.
An academic achiever at King's College, Spire started a post-grad honours degree in finance at the University of Auckland. But his longing to make music, inspired during his teen years spent listening to Nirvana, Metallica and Neil Diamond, wouldn't abate. He decided to become a professional musician.
"It scared the hell out of me to give up what I knew was sensible and would be a reliable and solid career in order to pursue one of the most precarious and unreliable vocations around."
People he knew called him foolish, but Spire had inherited his family's desire to succeed. He says he's had to work hard to get where he is, conceding that his dad helps him out with the things he can't afford: moving to the US was expensive, and then there are occasional flights and promotional expenses.
As for how much of an advantage over other up-and-coming artists that affords him, Spire says it's up to an individual artist's talent and commitment to make their career work. And he adds that his family's financial assistance is payment for jobs he's helped his father's company with. He changed his name to Spire in 2006 to carve out his own identity.
"I certainly feel very lucky to be able to make a great-sounding album, and just being able to move to the US in the first place and experience this bustling music scene was a huge deal. But I've also seen how [having financial support] doesn't make much difference in terms of the success of the music."
Even so, he has his dad to thank for making a key connection.
Through his business, Paul Huljich met Lenedra Carroll, mother and former manager of the chart-topping singer-songwriter Jewel, and convinced her to listen to his son's demos. Impressed, she asked to meet him. Spire flew to Home Island in the Pacific Northwest in Washington State and spent the summer making a professional demo. Then he went to Arizona and recorded All or Nothing with Grammy-nominated German guitarist, Ralf Illenberger. Carroll also put Spire in touch with her team in New York, including former Atlantic Records' Ron Shapiro, who put Spire in touch with Nadel and Mercurio.
"I think they recognised that I was green and not established as an artist but they understood my vision for the music and what I wanted to communicate," says Spire, who has his heart set on emulating the success of artists such as One Republic's Ryan Tedder, who has written songs for the likes of Beyonce and Leona Lewis.
Recording was a huge learning experience. Once that was done, Spire says he found himself caught up in the promotion side of the job, rather than focusing on the creative. "It's difficult in this environment, because I know a lot of artists signed to major labels and their album goes nowhere. They throw money at it but they're not committed. So it's a dilemma to know if I should go major or build up independently."
The second album is bolder, and Spire is looking forward to finally playing the songs live when he comes home next month. But how well will Kiwi audiences respond? It's fair to say Spire has yet to earn his fans, after years of living overseas. And unlike many young artists who learn the ropes on the road, Spire's touring experience is minimal. He hopes that once Liberate Your Love and its follow-up single, A Four Letter Word, start circulating on radio and music TV, the momentum will start to build.
"It's humbling to come home," he says. He is realistic about what he can expect from the US too. It's a large, constantly shifting market, so the plan is to get things going in New Zealand and then work on the US. There are plenty of talented producers in New Zealand so why New York?
"It made sense to me to record here. It seems silly to miss out on that opportunity, to make the most of the musicians here and benefit from the experiences of the city."
When he decided he wanted pianos on No Solid Ground, Nedal and Mercurio called in Whitney Houston's former music director and pianist Bette Sussman to play keys. "The studios here are great. I'm at the forefront of the music industry. Recording in this environment is the value of being in New York."
There's also an opportunity to record with some not-so-talented musicians. It's Monday night at a different studio, this time underground. Malouf is expecting to start working on mixing Find as soon as it's done. A noisy jackhammer thrumming from a nearby road construction site disrupts the recording. Eventually it subsides and I am somehow seconded into singing backing vocals. It's just a couple of notes but we spend the next four hours in the studio, tweaking the details until everyone is satisfied. It seems ironic that with the creme of the recording world at their disposal, they call on an amateur.
The following night, we meet in the studio at 10pm. Patience is wearing thin. The guys are still working on Find. The floor is littered with sushi and plastic cups of red wine. There is much discussion as to whether they've over-produced it. But at 2am it's time for Find to find an ending. "Don't stop the music, man!" calls an elderly man as Spire heads to the subway, guitar on his back, a smile on his face.
Simon Spire's album, Four-Letter Words, is out on April 4. He performs at the Juice Bar, Parnell, on April 7.