When Julia Deans and her band Fur Patrol jetted out for Melbourne in 2001, they were the toast of our music industry with a number one single, a top-selling album and three Tui awards. A decade on, with the band in hibernation, Deans has again been nominated for the Tuis. She tells Greg Dixon about the highs and lows in between.
Am I surprised to see you here with Lydia
She's oh so nice and easier to love than I
But no, I won't hold it against her
My baby, my baby
A decade on, the song remains the same. Lydia, a passive aggressive lament by a woman scorned, with its doo-wop chords and its high, lilting hook, sounds almost as fresh (and as blithely bitter) as it did that summer in 2000 when it drifted out of radios everywhere and floated up the charts to number one.
It was not nearly the beginning, and it was nowhere near the end for Julia Deans and her band, Fur Patrol. But, with a decade's perspective, Lydia might seem something like an apogee.
It was largely because of Lydia - and the album, Pet, which it featured on - that Fur Patrol broke out of Wellington into the national consciousness and on to the charts. It was for Lydia, too, that the band cleaned up at the New Zealand Music Awards in 2001 - Lydia was single of the year and Deans was crowned best songwriter and female singer. It was Lydia that gave the band confidence to move to Melbourne the same year. It was Lydia that, in all likelihood, helped land a record deal with Universal, helped them played the Viper Room in Los Angeles and to have their next album mixed and mastered in London.
And it is Lydia, a little ironically, that Deans is still, occasionally mistaken for. "People [in the street] will sort, you know, excitedly go 'Oh! Lydia'," she says over strong tea on the deck of her North Shore home, "and it's like 'no, it's Julia'."
But if the song - the best-selling one, the award-winning one, the one everyone remembers - remains the same, what of the singer?
Well, a decade after Lydia, Deans has, for only the second time, been nominated for gongs at next month's New Zealand Music Awards. However, it is she, not Fur Patrol, who is in to win (for best female solo artist and best pop album) for a solo record, Modern Fables, she released last year.
Fur Patrol is now in hiatus - this may or may not be a euphemism for dead and gone - and she, after nine years in Melbourne, has finally come home. Missing - though it probably has been for years - is that stud thing I remember she used to have below her bottom lip, though you can just make out the hole where it used to be. Absent, too, is the rock chick swagger that always seemed so much a part of her. She appears almost embarrassed when I offer congratulations on her latest Tui nominations.
"I am quietly stoked," she offers.
How big a deal is it? I ask.
"You sort of appreciate the recognition ... it's kind of like if you do or don't win the lottery. You know, if you never had it in the first place you can't really be upset by it. I'm really proud of the results that I've achieved with my album this year. I think with or without recognition I'd still be proud of it. So to get the official thumbs-up from the New Zealand music industry, that's like a nice little golden ticket."
Or at least it's another one. She can, however, now barely recall winning the first golden ticket, when Fur Patrol went from Wellington to, if not the world, then to the rest of New Zealand and on to Australia.
"The fuss [around the time of Lydia] was quite unexpected for us and I think we were a little bit surprised by it all. I can't really remember how I felt and everything because it all just happened so quickly ... I felt like I didn't really know what was going on half the time.
"It was sort of not really real, but not even surreal. It's not like all of a sudden you're swept off in this big kind of bubble with limousines, cocaine ... and supermodels, like maybe it is in the States. People who don't know what it's like seem to think that that is how it happens. But it was just kind of odd. I think it was the recognition in the street. All of a sudden everybody knew my name or else they called me 'Lydia'."
The success, however, wasn't nearly as sudden as it seemed to the casual observer. Deans had formed Fur Patrol with Andrew Bain (bass), Simon Braxton (drums) and Steve Wells (guitar) four years before that summer of 2000, though Deans herself had been at the School of Rock for nearly a decade before Lydia stormed the charts.
Born 37 years ago, she is one of the prominent Christchurch Deans. The extended family includes former Canterbury now Australian rugby coach Robbie Deans. Her grandfather, Austen Deans, is a well-known Canterbury landscape painter and her father, Paul, is a noted sculptor.
When I ask what kind of an upbringing she and her younger brother and sister had, she at first looks slightly perplexed before, saying "normal". She eventually reveals that her parents had been involved in an evangelical church they joined shortly after moving from Wellington to Christchurch.
"I just never really felt that comfortable with the hellfire and brimstone approach. They were a sort of a Pentecostal movement, listening to things like 'the apocalypse is coming, Armageddon is coming'. I can remember quite clearly sitting there listening and, probably about the age of 9, just going, 'I don't believe this enough to be tortured for it. I believe in love and in community and in family and all those things, and the wonder of the world.' I just didn't think I could adhere to a faith that, for me, was based on fear and I don't think that's what the Bible preaches."
Singing was the best bit about church. However, she wasn't having any of the Christian music the church approved of.
"We had this old tape deck because we weren't supposed to listen to the devil's music. The church was quite adamant about not letting children listen to secular music because the devil would infiltrate their spirits, blah, blah, blah.
"My brother and sister and I used to sneak a listen to the radio and I would tape things off [it] and then play them with the pillow over the tape deck. I'd lie in bed at night and listen to it because I didn't have a Walkman."
She did learn piano from the age of 6, though it wasn't until her mother bought her a cheap guitar and chord book at a garage sale that music really took hold. But there was never any plan for it to be her life.
Deans drifted into playing in a band with Burnside High School mates - playing covers of Da Do Ron Ron, Be My Baby and the like - before drifting again into a course at Massey University's Conservatorium of Music in Wellington. She lasted three months before running away to join not the circus, but a real, live working band: Banshee Reel. As the youngest member - the others were five or six years older - she would spend almost five years playing Irish-influenced music to punters at pubs. Lots and lots of pubs.
"We were just a bunch of hippies really. We were a funny little unit and it was an eye-opener for an 18-year-old fresh from home - and a very naive 18-year-old at that.
"Not too far in, we were playing all originals, you know of that [Irish] vein. The thing was, it was just fun and we were all about having a good time. It was that kind of music as well. The Irish music scene was going through a bit of explosive period. It was like there were a million Irish bars popping up all over the country. I don't really understand why, but it was good for us.
"[Banshee Reel] was more my tertiary education than anything because I learnt about touring. I loved touring, and I still do. I think that really kind of ignited my enjoyment of travelling, going to different places - you know, meeting different people. I love meeting people ... I think it's all fodder for stories and for writing songs. I really enjoy that whole side of things. So yeah, I learnt about touring - and I learnt about drinking."
Fur Patrol. Deans now calls the name of the first and, so far, only band she's started "the most retarded name in history". But then the band, with its first gig booked, desperately needed one, and time was running out.
"I was flicking through a magazine with a friend ... I was just going, 'what the f*** am I gonna call this band?' There was an article in some fashion magazine on lipsticks, chapsticks and lip salves and blah, blah, blah, and it was called 'Pout Patrol'. And on the facing page there was an article on waxing and shaving and it was called 'Fur Patrol' and he said, 'why don't you call it Fur Patrol?'
"We asked our friends and everyone would either crack up or just go, 'well, people are not gonna forget that'."
Deans had put the band together because she, by 1996, after five years playing "Oirish" music in pubs, was "bored and wanted to do my own thing".
It was almost immediately confirmed as a sound move. At the band's first gig "everyone just went mental" - which was all the encouragement they needed. At the same time, they found staunch supporters at radio station Channel Z, recorded an EP, Starlifter, in 1998 and then, in 2000, their first album, Pet.
"We sort of found ourselves playing full gigs and hearing our songs on the radio. And then the Lydia thing went gangbusters - which took us by surprise."
Then came the number one, a top 10 album, three Tuis (plus another for Pet's producer, David Long) and - in what used to be the great cliche for Kiwi bands - the move to Australia.
"We decided that we wanted to play music to more people. You can only tour so many times a year in New Zealand. You can tour pretty much all year in Australia. Melbourne had [more than] four million people in that city itself."
At first things went swimmingly, as they toured and recorded the next album, Collider, for the music major, Universal, made a video clip in LA, played the Viper Room, and mastered Collider at Abbey Road studios in London.
"We did some amazing things, things that if you'd told us before we left we were going to do ..."
However, by 2004 Wells had left the band and the remaining members were working themselves into the ground. Collider, released in 2003, didn't get inside the New Zealand album chart's top 30.
"All the positive things that we'd been fed kind of seemed to turn out to be a little hollow. When you work so hard towards a goal and then you realise that you're never actually going to achieve it with the tools that you have, that's quite frustrating. It's like trying to build a house and you've got a screwdriver and not a hammer, when you need a hammer."
For a while, after Wells' departure, Deans and the surviving members felt like giving it away. She took work in a Fitzroy pub. "Definitely I was tired and depressed ... and I wasn't sure that I felt like playing music anymore."
The band eventually rallied and recorded another EP in 2007 and a third long player, Local Kid, the following year but it seemed the band's days were numbered.
"[Local Kid] wasn't commercially successful or anything but we were really happy with it. We were really pleased with the songs and I think it brought closure. I think that was a really good exercise for us as friends and as a band, I think we needed to make that album. I had a wee listen to it the other day and I think it's really beautiful.
"We might not have had ... maybe we could have been sort of a million-selling band or whatever, but it didn't happen. But we gave it a f***ing good shot and we had some amazing experiences, and I think we've all come out better people for it."
If her rock 'n' roll dreams didn't quite come true, she seems to have got over it. She returned home from Melbourne a year ago with her bloke, David Wernham, the live sound engineer for Shihad, and has been kicking around in studios and on stage since with mates new and old, including Shihad's Jon Toogood, Anika Moa, Shayne Carter and Anna Coddington.
But, most importantly, she has struck out on her own with last year's solo release, Modern Fables. A year or so in the recording, including in a studio in Berlin with a large cast of friends in support, the album finds her in impressive form with a clutch of songs she's been collecting for years. If it hasn't sold massively, its sales have pleased her record company, and it's got her those Tui nominations. Funnily enough, she's found herself busier musically than she's ever been.
"I love performing. But also I like the way I feel when I'm playing music, even if it's at home and I know that no one can hear me. That's actually when I feel best, when I know no one can hear me, because I stop worrying. Music is actually quite a physical thing, especially singing. You can tell when you're singing properly because your whole body kind of resonates. It's a really rewarding feeling. You know, that's why people love to sing in the shower even if they can't sing in tune.It's the act of singing. It's a fundamental pleasure, you know."
But Deans needs an audience, she needs the conversation she has with the audience when playing live - something she's now done for more than half her life.
"I think the feeling that you get [performing], when it's good, is not dissimilar to the feeling that you get when you're an audience member [at] an amazing show and you sit there and you just go, 'oh, that's fantastic'. It's pretty much the same feeling when you're the performer and it's good."
Even when they want to her play Lydia one more time?
"You know when a song does reach people like that ... [I've had] people telling me that they named their daughter Lydia. On a couple of occasions people have come up and said that, 'my friend was killed in an accident not so long ago and Lydia was her favourite song, and we played it at her funeral'. When that happened to me I just burst into tears. I mean, you know what other people's songs mean to you, but you never think that your songs are going to have that kind of effect on someone else.
"It's very humbling. Realising that something we created is part of the Kiwi consciousness ... it's very strange but it's quite nice, too."
The New Zealand Music Awards will be held at Auckland's Vector Arena on November 3 and will be screened on Channel Four. Julia Deans plays at the Masonic Tavern at Devonport on November 5 and the Garden Club, Wellington, on November 12.