He won Album of the Year at the Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards this week, for Avantdale Bowling Club. Tom Scott talks with Russell Brown about the past and coming home, to a tree in the backyard.
Tom Scott has written two songs called Home. They're both about New Zealand -Auckland and, ultimately, Avondale, the suburb that shaped him.
The first, with his 2011 project @Peace, is a sensuous, loping celebration of a sunny day in the hood, where a car full of boys and beers is careful to "stop for the grandma, Mrs Viliama / Walking like Quasimodo with a bag of green bananas".
The second, the standout from Scott's 2018 Avantdale Bowling Club album, is an anxious search for the first. In a vivid, polyrhythmic rap over a languid piano and vocal backdrop (in live shows Scott performs the main part as an extraordinary two-minute a capella, a firecracker in every phrase) he looks around and frets about whether he even belongs now. "And the truth is I don't know," croons Mara TK on the choruses, "where my home is any more."
The album, a hugely ambitious and largely autobiographical work of jazz and hip-hop, arrived after many people thought Scott had had his turn. After years as a firestarter in the Auckland music scene, as the figurehead of Home Brew and @Peace and the founder of the rough arts collective Young, Gifted and Broke, he'd walked away, relocated to Melbourne. And maybe he was too much trouble anyway.
A few months ago, Avantdale Bowling Club won the 2019 Taite Music Prize, which recognises creative excellence in popular music. Not long after, its remarkable lead single, Years Gone By, was a finalist for the Apra Silver Scroll award. Critics here and elsewhere have showered praise on the record.
"It's definitely a new life," the 35-year-old Scott acknowledges.
What he doesn't know as we speak is that Avantdale Bowling Club is about to be named Album of the Year at the Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards. The record that Scott worked on for three years and still didn't know if anyone would get has changed everything.
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We're sitting at the balcony of Browne St, a smart, popular cafe-bar that opened in Rosebank Rd last year. If the Avantdale album is New Tom surveying Old Tom, we're in New Avondale looking over Old Avondale.
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"That," says Scott, pointing across the road to Nafanua Community Hall, "is a sacred place. Nafanua is in some way the heart of Avondale's musical body. Everyone I grew up with that could sing came from there – the little 10-year-old Pavarottis."
He was childhood friends with the sons of the Amosa family, Toma, Marcis and Fasitua, whose father Asora presided at the hall and its adjoining church until a spectacular schism in 2013. The Scott family were palagi bohemians rather than churchgoers but 75 per cent of his schoolmates were Pasifika.
He didn't even realise that was unusual until he went to secondary school. And he still speaks with an accent that echoes the time and place of his childhood. You used to hear the same thing from the mouths of Ponsonby kids a generation or two earlier, before it all got gentrified out. Scott worries a lot about gentrification.
"It was a weird feeling at first, having Browne St open across the road from such a sacred place," he recalls. "It felt wrong. But I know the dude who runs the place and he's just regular working folk trying to pay his rent like me. They're good people. So I can't put my bitterness about change on them. They're not really the villains, I don't think. I think it's the real estate agent that's the real malignant tumour.
"I can't deny it, I need my coffee as much as the next snob."
As we walk back to their house from the cafe, Scott's partner Whitney Wairua confirms that the news that brought the house down after Scott's Taite speech wasn't just a stunt.
"I'm 14 weeks pregnant," she says. "We'd found out that day."
The couple's first son, 2-and-a-half-year-old Quincy, is asleep in a pushchair, having exhausted himself at Avondale Markets. It was Quincy's impending arrival that prompted them to come home from Melbourne and, in some ways, Avantdale Bowling Club is his album as much as his dad's. On one track, Quincy's March, Scott talks to the baby about how his arrival changed everything: "And really my biggest success as a man isn't my best track … Give a s*** about being the best rapper, I only wanna be the best dad."
It's a theme that been lurking in Scott's psyche – and hence inevitably his work – for a while. The first time I met him, in 2012, he was intrigued when I related a truism I'd heard from Don McGlashan, about how fatherhood is good for creative men; it obliges them to focus and prioritise. As we sit down in his shady, overgrown back garden, Scott agrees that parental responsibility has made it easier for him to conceive a career as an artist.
"Way easier. I think having kids changes everything for you. You're consciously on course. I've learned to have a destination, through having a kid – to plan where I'm going. Business-wise, you need a destination but even in terms of your growth as a human, you need a destination."
The idea of fatherhood is complex for Scott. In the seven-minute musical autobiography, Years Gone By, his own father, jazz bassist Peter Scott, emerges as the man he wants to admire and yet despairs of. The dad he loves and wants to be better than. The dad who walked out.
"One breakthrough I've had with my dad, is just the other day, me and Whit were going through some s*** and I had been like my dad – not holding s***down, as a lover. We were rocky. And I had to ask myself, 'Why am I still making these same mistakes?' And that's when I realised, I'm repeating these cycles. So I went to my dad to try to unravel things."
What emerged was a story of family trauma the younger Scott had never heard before.
"It turned out his mum, in London, a Jewish lady, comes one day and the house is bombed – her parents are dead. And I was like, why haven't you told me this? And this is the lady that raised him.
"She's this shook-up lady who was always shook-up and my dad said when war memorial days came around, she'd be in bed crying. That put things in perspective a lot more. 'Cos my old man is supremely intelligent, beautiful soul, great heart – but also shook. He's very shook. He's an alcoholic for a reason, he was a drug fiend for a reason. He likes to tell you 'Aw, I just like it.' But I don't really buy into that. It's not that simple.
"That let me forgive him a bit. Not that he needed forgiveness – I should just love him regardless, for who he is. But it just made things make sense. I think intergenerational trauma does exist."
Scott's parents met in London, while his mother Jane, a long-time screen production manager, most notably at TVNZ's Māori and Pacific programmes department, was working there and they relocated to Avondale when he was 3.
If it was his father who sparked his musical career by giving him a sound card that let him make his own recordings, it was his mother who raised him and she who told him when he dropped out of high school ("only stayed for the talent quest, soon as that was done, I left") that he'd be getting a job.
"I must've had about 20 different jobs, no lie. Packing rice in a factory, digging holes, mowing lawns, sorting mail, working for the garden team at the council, housekeeping and so on," he says. "I was working 10-hour days, then coming home to work another four on my craft. After a while I thought, 'F*** this, I'm gonna go back to school.' So I enrolled as an adult student."
He completed a foundation course and moved to Dunedin to study neuroscience.
"I thought I was gonna give up the music dream, be a neuroscientist, then I took one philosophy paper and I was back hooked on words. I ended up doing a double major in psychology and philosophy."
And still, "the music thing just wouldn't leave me alone". An online contact with a young producer called Haz Huavi (better known as Haz Beats) developed into Scott's first real group, Home Brew. They cut a swathe, not only with their music but the way they did things.
When they were turned down for NZ On Air video funding in 2010, they launched a crowdfunding drive, promoting it with an achingly funny video, in which Scott dresses up as David Farrier to interview the group. They raised $15,000 to make a wild clip for the climate change song Under the Shade, that NZ On Air was probably very relieved it hadn't funded.
In 2012, they staged a launch party for Home Brew's eponymous album that went on for 48 hours. Everyone who came got a copy, sending it to the top of the local album chart in its first week.
Scott's rebellious energy sometimes manifested in less productive ways. He got too high on magic mushrooms at his own birthday party, approached a police officer for help and somehow ended up being beaten and charged with resisting arrest. The consequent rehab experience is referenced in the song Alcoholic, from the Home Brew album that won the VNZMA for Best Hip-Hop Album in 2012. That got out-of-hand, too.
The band turned up to the awards dressed as biblical shepherds, with Keisha Castle-Hughes and a goat. When they performed later in the evening, they tossed cannabis cookies into the crowd and one was eaten by a teenager who turned out to be the daughter of the then-CEO of awards sponsor, Vodafone. That took a lot of smoothing over.
Then there were the political tracks. The first, Home Brew's Listen to Us in 2011, was a lacerating letter to the government on behalf of the marginalised and to Prime Minister John Key, in particular. The second, a swaggering blues called Kill the PM, was an @Peace out-take, posted online in a fit of ill-judgment during the 2014 election campaign. It crossed several lines and brought all hell down on Scott. He apologised on Twitter to Steffi Key for predicting he'd have sex with her ("Sorry John Key's daughter. I just wanted to make your dad mad"), emphasised the lyrics weren't literal – and, eventually, left the country.
Through all this, no one could doubt Scott's drive and creativity. But who could keep him on the rails? Ears pricked up with the news last year that Lorraine Barry, best-known as Dave Dobbyn's manager, had taken on Scott as a client.
"Without her I would have been f***ed," Scott says. "My family is run by women. And when I listen to Lorraine, [she's] the only person I can listen to, to be honest, bro. I can't really listen to men. You get the feeling? She's f***in' amazing and she's honest. She takes pride in integrity."
The relationship began when Scott asked to meet Barry just to talk about his career.
"And I think that was probably quite a tough meeting for him," Barry recalls. "Because I had nothing to lose, I was just offering some opinion."
The bond strengthened after he sent her the unreleased Years Gone By ("I loved it") and months later, still thinking about their first meeting, he asked her to manage him. They settled initially on a short-term contract.
"I knew what I thought I could bring to it, I'm not sure if he knew," says Barry "I thought, the one thing this genius mind needs is to have some focus and to take stock. And for a musician to make music their career, they have to start to factor in the business.
"I'm not trying to tame anything. Wild Tom and Creative Tom is exactly what everyone wants. But when the outpourings come, it's just trying to think, 'Okay, what would you like to do with it now?' A musician needs to do their apprenticeship and then do the job. He's now doing the job."
Scott, working out of a tiny office-studio friends helped him build in the carport of their rental house, is not only doing the job, he's actually starting to enjoy the business side. He recently set up a label, YGB Records, which released Bird of Paradise, an album by his friends Hone Be Good and Sri Lankan-born producer Karnan Saba. It went to number six in the local music chart.
But YGB's first release was actually a documentary called Don't Give Up Your Day Job, produced and directed by Scott, which examines the different ways his peers have sought to square their creative missions and party lives with maturity, responsibility and family. Clearly, that's the challenge he's all about now but it's also an example of the way he habitually reaches out from his first-person writing to the community around him.
Two of the three videos made for tracks from Avantdale Bowling Club, Home and Old Dogs, aren't music videos per se but short documentaries, about a young Sudanese refugee living Melbourne and Kingsland identity Langi Brown respectively. Scott mixed out his own vocals in favour of their voices.
He says he's aware that an album he wanted to make "for the people of Avondale", one for which "I'd walk through the Avondale shops and try to be a sponge for what was going on and come back to my studio and squeeze out whatever I'd just seen", has largely found its audience elsewhere.
"Take the neighbours for instance. They'd just moved in and I said, 'Sorry about last night bro, it was a bit loud.' And he goes, 'Oh no, all good, all good.' And then next minute I'm inside and I check my messages and the bro had sent me an Instagram: 'I didn't know you were our neighbour! We always play [Home Brew party classic] Bad Bad Whisky at our garage parties!'
"That's music I made 10 years ago that's resonating with people next door – and truly my goal is still to make music that resonates with people next door. Not really to make music that resonates with people at Radio New Zealand – as much as I love that recognition, I really still want to be the poet for the neighbourhood."
To that end, he's working on a new project, with Smokey from SWIDT, Grey Lynn rapper Diggy Dupe and others, to make music for garage parties, "Something I'll hear playing on the sirens driving through Avondale."
Yet part of Scott's genius has always been his ability to bring more than partying to the party. Home Brew's album might have been laugh-out-loud funny in places but it was complex and threaded with ideas about childhood, drugs, society, space and the responsibilities of God. And the crowd at Avantdale's sold-out show at The Powerstation this year was full of young men turning up for songs steeped in emotional vulnerability.
He thinks there's a global problem with how men are. "But because of all that s***, I find a place. I have something to sell, which maybe is the opportunity to be vulnerable. So kids come along and they're like, 'finally, we're allowed to say we're scared.'"
Then he cracks up.
"I need our country to stay f***ed up so I can keep selling the medicine!"
All the Toms will be on offer this summer. Home Brew play Rhythm & Vines, Soundsplash and Bay Dreams. Avantdale play a string of dates with Fat Freddy's Drop. Next year's Auckland Festival will feature a live performance of @Peace's experimental 2014 album @Peace and the Plutonian Noise Symphony. The show he really wants to talk about is a celebration of the Bird of Paradise album at Pah Homestead on Boxing Day, where Whitney is on the bill as a DJ and, "My Lebanese bro's going to make a big Lebanese feed – just like a congregation, you know?"
There will also be a second Avantdale Bowling Club album - but not until it's ready. Patience, he says, is everything: the ability to "sit back and spend hours asking yourself whether you like it, whether you've nailed it"
There has never been any doubt about Scott's work ethic or his talent. To anyone who cared to listen closely, they have marked him out for years as a significant, if complex, cultural figure. What's changed is that it's now possible to look ahead and see the lifelong career all that talent implies.
Be patient. One day, before he dies, they will teach Tom Scott in schools.