Elastic Wasteland, was a solo pursuit. The melancholic, electronic, synth-fuelled songs were worked up in his home studio' />
Sean 'SJD' Donnelly talks to Lydia Jenkin about his divine new album and the friends - real and imagined - who helped him record it

Sean Donnelly's last album, Elastic Wasteland, was a solo pursuit. The melancholic, electronic, synth-fuelled songs were worked up in his home studio out near Titirangi, mostly in isolation.

His latest, Saint John Divine was born from a different process altogether, recorded with a live band at Roundhead Studios, and also born from a different headspace.

"I felt like the last album was an album I needed to do, in order to do this album," the thoughtfully spoken 47-year-old explains, as we setlle in to a couch in Roundhead's main control room to listen to his new creation.

He cuts a smart figure on this sunny Wednesday afternoon, polite, punctual, and at ease in the studio surrounds. SJD has never come across as particularly rock 'n' roll, but his music, and his stories, speak of a man much more emotional and passionate than his bookish demeanour might immediately suggest.

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"I didn't realise it when I was making it, but Elastic Wasteland was quite strange. It was an exorcism of sorts. I had been in a very dark space, and I was coming out of that, and that album helped me. I still stand by it as an album, but I can't really listen to it, because it puts me right back in that space, so I can see now that it's more than just a melancholic album, I think that was a truly sad album. It really takes you down into that space, and you really have to be in the mood to listen to it. But I don't think that with this album. I think there's a variety of moods you could listen to this album in."

Saint John Divine is a collection of songs that have been written over the last five or six years, but Donnelly didn't know how to tackle recording them.

Having won the $10,000 Taite Music Prize for 2012's Elastic Wasteland, he felt boosted both financially and psychologically.

"It was a massive help, it gave the space to be able to embark on something like this. And it was a massive vote of confidence too". But he didn't have a specific plan when Neil Finn said to him 'Why don't you come into Roundhead?'

"They had a window of free time, and the band I wanted to record with were available, and I thought 'What the hell, let's go for it'."

The resulting album is a completely different beast, one that balances the essential SJD elements of melancholia and cynicism with something hopeful and warm. It's an uplifting album, despite some of the more weighty observations.

Little Pieces, for example, the recently released duet with Julia Deans, might purport that everything is pretty messed up most of the time, but it also concludes that it's still worth joining in.

Watch the video for Little Pieces here


"I'm painfully aware of the song's weaknesses, in that it's a bit of a summing-up song, and that's not everyone's cup of tea, but I guess it says what I think about the world," he laughs.

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"It says that things are generally a bit f***ed up for most people most of the time, and people do have a lot of expectations of other people to fix the mistakes that other people have made and to fix all the problems that happened to them when they were growing up or whatever. But I still want to be part of it all, and I'm messed up too, but we can't expect it to be any different.

"Some people have said to me, 'Gosh that's depressing', and I've thought, well that's cool, but for me it has a sense of optimism."

Further down the tracklisting, there's Unplugged, a beautiful, soaring, piano ballad that spirals upwards, counteracting the sad acceptance of the lyrics.

"I guess it's a bit of a commentary on the slight flatness and shallowness of the world that we live in, and how we're expected to live in it, and I think it's also slightly mourning for the loss of something, the loss of richness and depth in our lives maybe, and probably how we've diminished our expectations of what we can achieve in life."

So yes, it's a bit of a downer, but it's tinged with hopefulness too. And there are several other songs where Donnelly might be tackling darker subjects, but he's taking on a character, not necessarily imparting his own views or sharing stories from his own life.

"I don't want to offend anyone from Helensville, but in my mind, the narrator of the song Helensville is definitely a woman, who has been taken out of the city and settled up there by some douchebag, who's got her pregnant and then f***ed off -- that's the story in it for me.

"I didn't know it was about Helensville specifically when I first wrote it, it could've been any three syllable New Zealand town. I had the lyrics, 'Another rainy hour in dah dah dah', and I didn't really know what 'dah dah dah' was going to be. But then it struck me that it was meant to be Helensville, and there were some nice resonances there."

There's something quite gothic about it, rather than sad.

"Yeah it's somebody's story but there's this big beautiful landscape rolling behind it, even if it's a bit of a lonely one. A landscape with too few lovers as McCahon would've said, maybe."

The gothic quality continues on Invisible Man, which includes the sounds of someone striking a match, and the spin of a gun barrel, in amongst the deep groove of the rhythm-driven track, which makes you feel a little nervous about this invisible man.

"You don't know whether he's friend or foe, he's a little bit dark, and the world is populated with invisible people, they're an unknown quantity, whether they're a terrorist, or someone doing great things quietly.

"To the status quo, I think the invisible people are always a threat though, and that's why we celebrate celebrity so much, there's something reassuring about people who we can see clearly, and we feel like we know all the details of their lives. It feels like there's nothing hidden, but the irony is, the more we all think we know everything about everybody, it's more obvious how much remains hidden, how dark mysterious and unknown things are."

For an album named after a saint (though he mostly just liked the way it sounded), and a man who loves gospel music, there's actually relatively little in the way of religious references in the songs on Saint John Divine, but when Donnelly talks about Through the Valley, there's a little insight into where the religious details spring from.

"As a teenager I had some involvement with churches and stuff, and it wasn't really for me, and the song is about that disconnect of being a young person and the tremendous, almost joyful, unhappiness that comes from being that age. You relish it, you wallow in it.

"It's another invented character really, but I remember being that drunken teenager lying on the back seat, and I remember that feeling in church, and I whammed the two of them together really, imagining being in that situation and how alien it would all feel."

Donnelly is the master of expressing these characters through the sonic details. Whether it's the small sound of a match strike, or changing his accent slightly to play a con-artist type character on Change the Channel, or giving his voice a different quality to deliver a rollicking, Lou Reed-esque track like I Wanna Be Foolish, he'll make sure every aspect fits the overall vision of the song.

"There is a lot of craftsmanship I guess, but I enjoy it, I love it," he shrugs. "I know it's too much for some people, some people love the immediacy and unpretentiousness of playing things straight, but I just love populating the songs and filling the songs up with bits and pieces.

"I feel like in the past, maybe I used to put so many layers in that they'd start to contradict each other, but I think with this album things aren't fighting each other anymore. I think it's complicated and complex, but I feel like things flow more.

"I guess that's just part of improving your craft as you go on. I feel like I've always been slowly improving, and I've written a lot of really bad music to get to where I am, but I'm quite proud of where I am now."

The calibre of musicians who eagerly work with him is testament to the fact he's certainly a masterful musician.

James Duncan, Chris O'Connor, Mike Hall, Sandy Mill, Julia Deans, Anna Coddington, Victoria Kelly, and of course his studio landlord Finn, they're all fine songwriters in their own right, but they're all friends and have all contributed to Saint John Divine with enthusiasm.

Neil Finn.
Neil Finn.

Finn says of Donnelly: "He's a very keen student of what makes songs tick, and he's got a very good ear for arrangement, and the ability to skew the perspective on things, so he's a great collaborator."

Having been firm friends with Donnelly since they recorded and toured the Pajama Club album together, Finn was delighted to be involved (he plays piano, various organ parts, and some electric guitar all over the album). And he loves the record.

"He's always had good songs on every record, but this record, as a collection of songs, is amazing, really good tunes, lots of amazing atmospheres, and some quite intricate arrangements which I absolutely love. It's his finest work to date."

Don McGlashan is another long-time collaborator. Donnelly has officially co-produced two of his albums, and the pair have worked on many other projects together including soundtracks, and The Bellbirds, who feels very grateful to have Donnelly as a friend.

"We've got to the stage where we just bounce our albums off each other, whether we're actually working together or not. Like he played me songs from Saint John Divine in the early stages, and I've been playing him my next album, Lucky Stars. I feel blessed to have somebody who has such good ears, and who knows and cares so much about songs, and knows me so well too."

And like many other contemporaries, he sees Donnelly as one of our greatest songwriters, even if he's not as widely appreciated as he should be.

"He's got an enormous knowledge - and love - of songwriting. And he can write something as clever as Little Pieces, or something as simple and heartfelt as Beautiful Haze, or something as slippery and slinky and sly as Lucifer. I don't think there's many people around who've got that kind of range. I'm jealous of it, and I think he's a real treasure."

Don McGlashan.
Don McGlashan.

Whether or not Saint John Divine earns Donnelly the wider acclaim and bigger audience he deserves, he's clearly thrilled with how it's turned out.

"I'd say it's the album I'm absolutely proudest of and would stand behind. I hope I always put a lot of love into my albums, but to me this is the one that has got the most love in it, particularly for people in my life, that hold me up sometimes. So I hope that love comes through."


Who: Sean James Donnelly aka SJD, acclaimed Auckland singer-songwriter.

What: His new and seventh album Saint John Divine out March 27

Playing live: At the Titirangi Music Festival on Saturday, March 28, at the Leigh Sawmill on Friday, April 17, and at the Tuning Fork in Auckland on Saturday, April 18.

More info: roundtripmars.com