The lead voice of The Seekers was almost stilled last year when she suffered a brain haemorrhage. But Judith Durham is back with the band as it heads to New Zealand for its 50th Anniversary Tour. She talks to Russell Baillie.

Judith Durham is momentarily perplexed. No, it's not because her memory is failing when it comes to how The Seekers changed and defined her life in her early 20s. That was back when the Australian folk-pop quartet were, for a while, as big as The Beatles.

She can remember all that.

It's just that I've asked about a certain photo. The one of her in full flight, mouth agape, on a shiny stage on my battered cover of The Best of The Seekers.

She's wearing a luminous full-length pink and white dress on the 1968 album. She looks part angel, part flamingo. Her fellow bloke Seekers are rendered almost invisible by their black suits against the dark background.

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I've known that record cover image almost all my life, and the songs within. That record seems to exist in every stack of old vinyl in just about every second-hand shop in this country.

But no, down the line from hometown Melbourne the sunny, chirpy Durham can't picture that frock - though we soon realise why. That particular Best of The Seekers was the New Zealand version of the compilation. She vaguely remembers the frock - but it's not one of hers.

"I made all my own clothes in those days and they are the clothes I am seen in on all the covers of all the early albums. They were clothes I made myself trying to disguise my weight. Very unique pop star in that way," she chuckles.

There's footage of The Seekers playing A World of Our Own at London's Wembley Arena in 1965, at a NME Poll-Winners' show. Also on the bill were The Beatles and - another band celebrating their 50-year anniversary by coming to New Zealand this month - The Rolling Stones. She remembers that frock okay.

"The dress I'm wearing in that footage is one of the ones I made myself just before I got the nervous exhaustion. Sitting up all hours of the night trying to finish a dress so I could wear it on stage. If I ever have to return to dressmaking I still have that possibility."

The Seekers arrived in Britain in 1964. By the following year - on the strength of songs like I'll Never Find Another You, The Carnival Is Over, Georgy Girl, they were serious chart competition for the locals. Not that these Ocker non-rockers ever felt like they fitted in, in swingin' London.

"It was another world. It's only in hindsight that we can appreciate what we actually did, that we were giving them a run for their money - The Rolling Stones and The Beatles and The Who.

"We were keeping them off the top of the charts where they were all wanting to be. Even Tom Jones - he was following us up the charts with his first record It's Not Unusual - we kept him off the top place for those three weeks.

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"So it's very historic when you think about it. I never felt like a pop star. I never ever. I just worried about my weight. Worried about my appearance and thought I wan't pretty enough to be a pop star. It was very very strange."

The young Judith Durham, a Melbourne secretary who sang with jazz bands, had met double-bassist Athol Guy when she started work at an ad agency. He told her about the group he had with some old schoolmates, Keith Potger and Bruce Woodley and invited her to join.

The quartet's debut single was Waltzing Matilda. Their eventual debut album Introducing The Seekers was released in Australia in 1963. They got a gig on a cruise ship, stopped off in England in early 1964 and by the end of the year had their first of a string of UK hits with Another You.

But by 1968, Durham had had enough and told the others she was quitting.

"I gave the band six months notice and we had all said if anyone wanted to leave that is what they would do. So I thought I would experiment and try singing other sorts of music. At that time I

The Seekers (from left: Bruce Woodley, Keith Potger, Judith Durham and Athol Guy) are celebrating a golden jubilee thought The Seekers music might have outlived itself and people would move on and we would be out of fashion.

"I also thought I was probably going to get married and settle down. I was only 21 when I became a pop star so you wonder what else is there to have?

"Back then I didn't understand the spiritual value of the songs we were already singing - the hugely meaningful and uplifting qualities of The Seekers' songs. How on earth can you know that as a 20 or 21-year-old?"

Durham is now 71. She returned to the original Seekers line-up in the early 90s after the rest had soldiered on in the 70s and 80s.

That she is back on the road for the group's golden jubilee tour isn't just another final lap - for Durham it's a feat of fortitude.

She suffered a life-threatening brain haemorrhage last year just as the tour started in Melbourne.

"I am in pretty good nick now. I had to learn to write again. That was a pretty big challenge.

"I didn't realise I couldn't write until about a week after it happened and then I tried to write a couple of letters and I just couldn't get anywhere with it. So there is a lot of therapy I had to go through and I was very lucky."

She's cautious not to overdo it these days - not that The Seekers were ever exactly the Stones for burning the candle at both ends.

"I do need a lot of help. I am not shy of saying to people I can't manage this because there is only so much brain energy that you've got. So I have to ration out what I decide to do.

"But the thrill is we don't stint on our shows. We do the same two-hour concert, the whole breadth of all the material we've always done."

And it just goes to prove, once you've got those Seekers melodies stuck in your head, not even a brain haemorrhage is going to get them out.

"That's a lovely compliment. Really it is.

"Let's hope that the music never dies because eventually one of us is going to pop off but the thrill for any performer would be that the music outlasts our own lifetime. What more could you ask than for the songs to still be alive today to the level they are?"

Well those songs keep trickling on down. Durham likes Nick Cave's doomy version of The Carnival is Over - "he's a fantastic performer. He's just a treasure" - and she laughs at having to explain to young relatives that no, Morningtown Ride wasn't always a Wiggles song.

So any thoughts about which Seekers tune, if any, she'd like played at her funeral?

"Ha ha. That's a funny one actually. I suppose you expect me to say The Carnival is Over. I think I'd like something like This Little Light of Mine. One of those cheerful ones because that is what our music is all about. You want people to be uplifted. I'd be quite happy to have that one going down the aisle as far as I am concerned."

Who: The Seekers
When and where: Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, Saturday Nov 22; Horncastle Arena, Christchurch, Sun Nov 23, Christchurch; Civic Theatre, Auckland, Tuesday, November 25; Claudelands Arena, Hamilton, Fri Nov 28; Bowl Of Brooklands, New Plymouth, Sat Nov 29.

- TimeOut