"You will sing for your supper but you will have to work hard." That was the forecast Jan Hellriegel's Nana Mary gave her when she read her palm one afternoon.

"It was just a funny thing she used to do with us kids," says Hellriegel on the phone from the banks of Lake Karapiro where she is watching her son compete in a college rowing competition. "The reason I remember things like that is because they're embedded in my songs. It's weird but when you're writing, you recollect images and memories."

And those memories form the heart of her long-awaited fourth album, Sportsman Of The Year, which comes with the bonus of a book with photos and 12 chapters based on the new songs.

Hellriegel was our first female rock stars of the 90s - an artist with great songs and a one-of-a-kind voice, paving the way for artists like Boh Runga and Julia Deans, who would break through a few years later. But despite her success, a sense of unfulfilled potential lingered. Hellriegel's two major-label 90s albums, It's My Sin and Tremble, were edgy, powerful and critically acclaimed; she toured with Jeff Buckley and David Byrne, won music awards and packed pubs.


But Nana was right; Hellriegel would have to work hard, especially after the first bloom of her music career faded. Thanks to her blue-collar roots - her father ran a panelbeating business in West Auckland - that wasn't going to be a problem. While recording her debut, It's My Sin, she worked a day job delivering fish to the very same restaurant where she'd enjoy lavish expense-account dinners with big shot American producer and sometimes Eagles songwriter, J.D. Souther later in the evening. The fruits of that hard work are evident today.

Sportsman Of The Year - A Suburban Philosophy by Jan Hellriegel (Janette G Hellriegel / Seahorse Swim Publishing)
Sportsman Of The Year - A Suburban Philosophy by Jan Hellriegel (Janette G Hellriegel / Seahorse Swim Publishing)

She leads a thriving music publishing business and is about to release her best album yet along with the accompanying book, Sportsman of the Year - A Suburban Philosophy, which includes exposition and lyrics to all the songs and is part-memoir, part-self-help guide.

Hellriegel writes candidly of surviving anxiety and pushing past naysayers and negativity. It's by turns funny – read her tale of meeting Michael Stipe and explaining to him why she was wearing Blundstone boots with "W***er" written on them - and heartbreaking. When Hellriegel tells her mother, who was in 24-hour care after a stroke, that she has written a song for her - the beautiful Home Not Home - her mother replies, "It can't be very nice then."

After a fractious early relationship, Hellriegel writes that she only came to appreciate her mother later in life: "She was always the best mother for me and without her I wouldn't have the amazing life I had."

She also looks back wryly at her old self drunkenly fronting up to Mushroom Records' Michael Gudinski at a Straitjacket Fits gig in the early 90s and saying, "You should publish me because I am awesome and I write great songs." Eventually he did but through this story, Hellriegel articulates the darker side of the artist's journey: self-doubt and depression, living with imposter syndrome and industry stereotyping.

At the height of her success, she didn't leave the house for days after an unflattering article in The Listener. Sometimes, when it all got too much, she isolated herself, "endlessly flicking through the channels, not really seeing anything ... These were long and torturous days and I am glad they don't happen anymore."

Not that you'd have known it if you met Hellriegel back then; she was aloof, moody and intense - not someone to mess with – and you'd see her driving around Ponsonby in her Karmann Ghia, Auckland's rock 'n' roll queen. Indeed when Sportsman of the Year producer and drummer Wayne Bell started drumming for her in the 90s, he recalls Hellriegel refused to look at or talk to him for days.

How things have changed.


Meet Hellriegel today and you encounter a welcoming, whip-smart business woman/artist who strives "to make positivity an art form". Sitting across from her in the offices of Songbroker/Aeroplane Music is Wayne Bell.

"I'm still trying to decipher and decode Jan's particular genius," he says. "And I'm still absolutely loving it."

CD cover of Jan Hellriegel's 2013 album Lost Songs.
CD cover of Jan Hellriegel's 2013 album Lost Songs.

For Hellriegel, making music again in middle age required a change of mindset but the early fruits were heard on All Grown Up in 2009, which suggested there was a lot more in the well. The road to Sportsman Of The Year began as Hellriegel approached 40, recently divorced and feeling down about her life.

"I just woke up and said to myself, 'I don't want to feel that way anymore.' So I started looking for answers," she says. "I wanted to be more in control of my future and live the life I wanted to live - I crave freedom, self-determination and resilience - and I was really depressed about how my life turned out. I just read things, found answers and realised it was up to me. Only I could do something about my situation to make a difference.

"The change wasn't easy. Life can be hard for all of us but now I can see how all the disappointments, the flops and failures and all the hard work got me to today and I'm really happy. Today's a great day; I don't want to be anybody else right now."

The book grew out of the album project when she realised that the songs were taking a more philosophical, personal direction and wanted to share some stories in parallel with the music, each informed by the other.

She believes publishing the book alongside the album is a first and anticipates it'll help the release gain traction in a crowded market, where the sheer content of new music can be overwhelming.

The title references Hellriegel, aged 12, winning the Sportsman of the Year cup at Rangeview Intermediate, where "there was no Sportswoman of the Year Cup". Back then, she felt she didn't deserve the award and says the album is "calling that 12-year-old back to claim her prizes with pride and without reservation".

Making the album and book has involved raising recording money through a Boosted campaign and ignoring the industry perception that no one wants to hear songs from a middle-aged woman from the suburbs. She writes in one chapter "pert breasts, a nice face or a tight arse don't maketh the song writer ... These are my power years and quite frankly I am going to take them".

"I think it's something that hits everybody that works any kind of job, not just in music," she says. "As you get older the perception is if you haven't made it by a certain age, you're not as valid but to me, my work is not only valid today but much stronger than when I was young.

"I have been angry and resentful in the past but I'm over that now because if I'd had it easy - would I still be doing what I'm doing today? That struggle has helped make me who I am."

And no one is going to tell her when she should stop making music or that she's not worthy anymore.

"No one has that right except for me. I don't know if I'd have these songs and this book if I hadn't had to swim against the tide for the majority of my career - it's been hard but it's made me bloody fit."

She also writes of an Auckland musician boyfriend — "no, I'm not going to tell you who it was" - who refused to see her play because he didn't like her songs ("I mean obviously that relationship didn't work out") and describes the time Slash sidled up to her at a function and asked "if she was keen". She wasn't.

CD cover for All Grown Up by Jan Hellriegel.
CD cover for All Grown Up by Jan Hellriegel.

Throughout Hellriegel was a fighter, a maverick who, then and now, goes her own way. Even though her early albums were promoted as rock, the genre holds little attraction for her today and Sportsman of the Year sees her working with a much richer palette.

"I'm not a rock singer; some of my songs are so far away from rock it isn't even funny. I'm not interested in being a bloke rock singer, I never was. I have influences from all over the place - Benjamin Britten, Joni Mitchell, disco music, Bob Dylan – and I've never really wanted to be anyone. I've never dressed up in any trend or disguise, I just play music - I am who I am."

Winner, a standout track on the new album, which she dedicates to "everyone who has jumped on an idea and seen it through to fruition", would be a smash hit in a perfect world - catchy, upbeat and triumphant; a celebration Hellriegel has for too long denied herself.

"That's the most fun song and it's designed to make you air punch on the way to work," she says. "And I'm not done yet, I'm just starting."

Sportsman Of The Year - A Suburban Philosophy is out on April 29; the digital album is available on Sunday, May 12. Book + CD, $50; Book, $40; CD, $20