Don McGlashan has made the album of his life. He talks to Russell Baillie about it

Don McGlashan is having trouble making himself heard. It's Wednesday night at the presentation of the Taite Prize at Galatos.

The speeches have been made, the winners have got their trophies, the free bar has been doing a brisk business and now McGlashan is the post-ceremony entertainment.

Problem is, this might be a music industry bash but the invited guests prefer the sound of their own voices to listening to McGlashan's.

The second problem is, it's just the singer-songwriter and guitarist Tom Rodwell on stage. And the songs they're playing aren't rousing old Mutton Birds anthems but new songs off Lucky Stars, his latest solo album.


Ironically perhaps, that night's Taite Prize winner, Jakob, is an instrumental art-rock band with no use for words. And afterwards, a man regarded by many as our greatest lyricist is having trouble getting his past the lip of the of stage.

Don McGlashan at the Taite Music Prize performance (Picture Jason Hailes)
Don McGlashan at the Taite Music Prize performance (Picture Jason Hailes)

Occasionally, between numbers, McGlashan shows his frustration.

"This next song is about having an epiphany," he says introducing the album's title track, "and the thing about epiphanies is that if you don't stop f***ing talking, you might not hear them."

The first words of that song are, "Henderson Park is still in the dark ...".

So, yes yet another part of Auckland has made the McGlashan songbook, joining Takapuna Beach and Dominion Road.

The song, he explains earlier, comes from a moment he had while at a petrol station while dropping his actress daughter Pearl off early in the morning at for her job on Shortland Street at the West Auckland studios.

Tonight, Pearl is among the more attentive in the crowd, especially when her father sings Girl, Make Your Own Mind Up.

The song's refrain, "And you will listen ..." gets an improvised "sometimes" as he grins towards her.


Five songs down -- half the new album -- and it's over. The crowded house is still talking among themselves.

True, past Taite entertainers haven't fared any better in the same slot. But the night's set is illustrative. The Lucky Stars songs are a quiet bunch with lyrics pondering mortality, family, and getting far enough away from the madding crowd so you can contemplate your own thoughts.

Its writing reflected that, says McGlashan a week or two earlier on the line from Vancouver where he's been playing gigs and staying with friends.

Some songs were worked up while living on Devonport's Mt Victoria as the Michael King's Writer's Centre writer in residence. Some were knocked into shape at a bach on the Thames Estuary or in a room at Neil Finn's Roundhead Studios, where the bulk of the album was recorded.

Some songs had roots in earlier McGlashan's collaborations -- The Waves Would Roll On started life as part of the music he did for nautical play Ship Songs; The Trumpet Sounds began as a curious addition to the music Toa Fraser wanted in his ballet movie, Giselle.

The director, who has used McGlashan's soundtracks to his No. 2, Dean Spanley, and last year's Dead Lands, wanted a song akin to something from Dylan's Blood on the Tracks for the movie's interlude.

"That happen with those sorts of things. Somebody will ask you to do something and it will be the spur I need to finish an idea that has long been unfinished. That was the case with those songs."

The overall sound of the album is occasionally bluesy, folky and earthy with bluesman Rodwell's guitar prominent.

McGlashan cites the Rick Rubin-produced Johnny Cash American Recordings as a sonic blueprint.

"Quite often it is just acoustic guitar and one finger playing a note on a piano ... that is what I had in mind but it's much more fruity than that.

"But I still think it doesn't sound like band on stage, more like a bunch of desperate people in a living room playing whichever instruments they have to hand. That is what I was going for. In the end, that is what I wanted and that is what I got."

If it's sounding more intimate, yes it's more personal than his previous solo sets 2006's Warm Hand and 2009's Marvelous Year.

There aren't many of those McGlashan story-telling songs, the earlier likes of which -- Andy, White Valiant, Dominion Road, A Thing Well Made -- would be mandatory on any best-of-McGlashan album.

"I guess there are more songs that are in the moment and less story songs. More instantaneous songs -- songs that weren't written instantaneously but songs that deal with an instant. And that hasn't been my habit in the past.

"I have always wished I could write that sort of thing -- like I Saw Her Standing There -- the whole thing takes place in one moment.

"I have always had a habit of writing songs where you have to buy into a story and stay with it to the end."

And while Girl, Make Your Own Mind Up is addressed to his daughter, he aims Come Back to Me -- a song about there always being a place to return to after going out into the world -- to his son Louis.

That makes this an album that invites a peculiar label on its cover: Warning: Contains Parental Advisory.

"I think they are pretty used to it by now," he says about his offspring's reaction to Dad's songs telling them stuff for the whole world to hear, "they they've been really good with their feedback."

His children leaving the nest has also made McGlashan make a career change. The classically trained multi-instrumentalist has been a film and television soundtrack composer before and after his decade with the Mutton Birds. But now he intends to give the screen work away and concentrate on songwriting.

"I've always done that to support myself and feed the kids. I've got to the point now that the kids have grown up I really want to write all the songs that are inside me. I've always shoe-horned writing in between other things which have helped me make a living in a country where it's pretty hard unless you are super popular to make a living writing songs."

His last score will be for a television doco about a Pacific voyage of ocean-going canoes.

"I had to lean to play ukulele,' he laughs about adding yet another instrument to his quiver. "A lot of that is me is me trying to sounding like a large village of ukuleles and singing."

But if he had concentrated solely on songwriting and his own recording career over the years, what might have happened?

"If I had a manager who beat me up and said, 'Let's just write heaps of songs, young Don,' maybe I would have pushed myself to be less individual in my songwriting voice. But I know the times of my life where I did work full-time on songwriting, like the whole 10 years of the Mutton Birds, I certainly didn't turn into a straight pop writer. I tried to but I didn't get there. I ended up with songs like The Heater and Envy of Angels ..."

Creating soundtracks meant acquiring multiple studio skills to complement his musical ones. Plus it was more sociable.

"There would be some times I would be working in my studio on songs and someone would call up and offer me a film or a TV job ... and I would say 'yes' even before I found out what it was. I was a bit lonely," he laughs. "It sounded like an opportunity for a party than my own songwriting did. It's hard to have a party by yourself when you think you've just written a good song."

And even if you've written 10 great songs, it seems, sometimes the party goes on without you.

Listen to Lucky Stars: