We’ve always been lucky enough to have an all encompassing music scene. Genres and niches, subcultures and movements; there’s always been something for everyone, no matter how varied your taste. We’ve had big names and big hits: OMC’s laid-back dance rock, The Flight of the Conchords interminable Kiwi wit, Kimbra’s ability to belt, and Savage’s anthemic hip swinging. We may not have always had a foothold in the wider global consciousness, but we’ve certainly made our mark. On a smaller scale, we have artists that are redefining music locally, slowly but surely spilling over to wider recognition. In part 2 of our New Zealand Music Month roundup, we celebrate the artists that have worked the gamut for recognition. Let’s take a second to appreciate the legends that lead New Zealand music from where it was, to where it is today.
Neil Finn, Tim Finn, Crowded House and Split Enz
Neil and Tim Finn, otherwise known as the Finn brothers, have been making music together through various on and off projects since the late 80s. Neil the younger and Tim the older, both brothers recall a relationship dynamic of student and teacher. Growing up in a Catholic household, both brothers often cite their religious upbringing as a source of influence and inspiration. “It’s a great fertile ground for pulling lyrics out. There’s a lot of good stuff going on in there, good rituals, imagery, and a lot of guilt.” Coupled with a family-wide appreciation of music, the two brothers seemed destined to follow down their desired predetermined path.
In mid-1972, after leaving university and deciding that music was his true calling for a full time occupation, Tim formed Split Enz with Philip Judd. Incorporating art rock, swing, punk, pop, and new wave, Split Enz went on to become one of the most successful New Zealand music acts of the late 70s and early 80s. Beginning as an all acoustic project and eventually moving into progressive rock territory, their offbeat style and vibrant aesthetic proved to be a formula for success. In 1977, Judd departed the band to be replaced by Neil. The early 80s proved to be their most commercially lucrative period with a string of hit albums that seemed to come one after the other. In 1983, after a 3 year break from recording and touring, Tim decided to veer off into solo ventures. His eventual departure signified the ‘enz of an era’, leaving Neil the de facto leader of the band. Finally in December 1984, without any members of the original group present, Split Enz came to a conclusion.
After the breakup, Finn formed The Mullanes which would eventually be renamed Crowded House. From 1985 to 1996, the band maintained consistent commercial and critical success; cementing Neil as a pop wunderkind. Records such as their self titled debut, Temple of Low Men, Woodface and Together Alone, are considered to be some of the most influential and acclaimed contemporary Australasian rock. Hit singles like Don’t Dream It’s Over, Something So Strong, Fall at Your Feet, and Weather with You, showcased Neil’s ability to write dreamy pop that was all at once melancholic and dark, but with a hint of lightness that was universally accessible. Steve Earle once called Neil a songwriter who possessed the greatness of the Beatles without ripping them off. After announcing that the band was to release a final greatest hits compilation in 1996, Neil revealed in a press conference that Crowded House was disbanding. Since then, the group reformed in 2006 to play a string of reunion tours and release two new millennium albums.
Never being entirely separate from one another, Neil and Tim have been involved collaboratively on and off since Split Enz and Crowded House. Whether it be as the Finn Brothers, or merely playing as members on various side projects; they’ve always maintained a sense of brotherly love that has brought not just New Zealand, but the entire world, joy, sadness, and catharsis through music.
Che Ness, of Maori and Niuean descent, is considered to be a pioneer of New Zealand’s contemporary hiphop scene. Meeting the crossroads of Pasifika and the traditions of hiphop culture, Che essentially paved the way for many of the artists we appreciate today. Beginning his music career as a founding member of the enormously successful funk rock band Supergroove, Che has cemented himself in the industry since 1989. Having grown up with activist parents that were notable members of the Polynesian-rights group, the Polynesian Panthers, Che has always kept his heritage integral to his craft. Despite triple platinum success with Supergroove, in 1996 Che left to pursue a solo career.
The beginning of Fu’s solo career came with the single Chains, a protest against French nuclear testing in the Pacific. Collaborating with well-known New Zealand DJ DLT, Chains marked Fu’s arrival as a solo artist. Winning three Tuis, including best male vocalist, Fu was slated for success. The release of his debut record, 2b S.Pacific, saw Che take a strong stance on diaspora and immigrant identity. Despite his political vocality, his debut managed to go double platinum, spawning four top-ten hits and winning a Tui for single of the year. His follow up, Navigator, in 2001, was equally well received and managed to top his previous release by going triple platinum. Since the release of his greatest hits compilation in 2005, Che Fu has remained a major player in NZ hiphop. Occasionally touring and collaborating, Fu’s hard work and dedication earned him a lifetime achievement award at the 2014 Pacific Music Awards. Essentially birthing the scene that saw the come up of a variety of New Zealand hiphop artists, Fu’s influence and impact are unmistakable. He’s left his mark with a strong legacy that only continues to inspire budding local hiphop enthusiasts.
Perhaps best known by younger generations for the drinking anthem ‘Slice of Heaven’, Dobbyn has been churning out pop rock since the last 70s. Growing up in Glen Innes, Robyn was the third of five children to a tour-bus driver named Terry Dobbyn. Influenced by the music he grew up around, he found his inspiration in Irish folk songs and church hymns. While he maintained an appreciation for music, Dobbyn was too nervous to actively take part in performing while at Sacred Heart College. During his time at Sacred Heart he met Ian Morris and Peter Ulrich, eventually forming the band that would become Th’ Dudes. After playing with the band for just over a year, Dobbyn decided to leave his education at teachers college to focus on fronting the band full-time. Despite suffering from extreme stage fright, Dobbyn eventually overcame his fears to become the centerpiece of ‘Be Mine Tonight’. He gained recognition as the breakout star of the group, which led to the 1980’s single ‘Bliss’, which in itself has become an iconic Kiwi drinking song.
After the dispansion of Th’Dudes in 1980, Dobbyn went on to form the pop group DD Smash. They went on to produce a series of albums, Cool Bananas, Deep in the Heart of Taxes, and The Optimist. With a string of hits and singles, DD Smash catapulted into popularity with Dobbyn at the helm. Eventually breaking up in 1986, Dobbyn was fully focused on his solo career. Writing the soundtrack for Footrot Flat: The Dog’s Tale led to ‘You Oughta Be In Love’ and ‘Slice of Heaven’ with the band Herbs. Dobbyn found massive success across the ditch, eventually deciding to settle himself there. Since 1986 he’s released his debut solo album, Loyal, moved back to Auckland, and collaborated with Neil Finn to produce 1994’s Twist. He’s worked on a variety of on and off projects, worked extensively with charities, and released his final album Available Light. Despite what you may think of his move into what may described as the dominant commercial new wave of British pop music, Dobbyn remains a well cherished and loved figure in New Zealand music history.
Born on the small island of Vava’u at the northern most point of Tonga, Soane was a larger than life figure that had an unmistakable effect on the New Zealand dj and house scene. Starting out unconventionally as a bouncer at club Roma and the Box, Soane was given an off-chance to take over the decks. “I’ve often said that the defining moment was when I was working the door of The Box and standing at the top or the bottom door between the two rooms. There would be this ‘oomph oomph’ coming out of the speakers, but every now and again, there would be tinges of jazz filtering over the top. I’d be like ‘this is amazing!”
Throughout his 25 year career he became a fixture on at Auckland night clubs. Going under the moniker Big Daddy, he eventually got his big break as a tour dj for none other than Pauly Fuemana’s Otara Millionaires Club. He’s even referenced in the lyrics to How Bizarre as ‘brother Pele’. Moving to Sydney in the mid 90s, he began work as a full-time DJ, eventually moving back to Auckland, and becoming a resident DJ at Calibre on K’Rd. 2004 saw him release TonganChic, an album that saw the culmination of his previous remix work and his skill for production, an easy upbeat collection of jazz, soul, deep house and hiphop. Soane passed away this year after heart complications, leaving behind a legacy that wasn’t forgotten by friends and family. Everyone from DJ Sir-Vere to P-Money left their remembrances for a man with a big heart and an ever bigger smile.
Is it too contentious to call Ella Yellich-O’Connor a legend? She’s only an album deep, barely wetting her feet in the scheme of things. But if you take a step back and consider what she’s already accomplished, she’s easily the most exciting thing to come out of New Zealand since we got slated to host hobbits. Straight from the North Shore, Lorde grew up reading M.T. Anderson and Salinger. Translating into lyrical influence, Lorde’s literary upbringing snowballed into songwriting and penning short fiction. Eventually pairing up with Goodnight Nurse lead singer Joel Little, she began work on what would eventually become The Love Club. Finally released in November 2012 through her SoundCloud, it was met with over 60,000 free downloads. Grabbing the attention of UMG, a commercial release of the EP went up in March of 2013. When ‘Royals’ was released as a single, it quickly became a crossover hit, peaking at number 1 in the US for nine consecutive weeks. Lorde now holds the title for the youngest solo artist to achieve a number-one single in the US since 1987.
Eventually winning two Grammys for Best Pop Solo Performance and Song of the Year, Lorde catapulted into the international spotlight. Her debut solo album, Pure Heroine, went on to be a number one record in Australia and New Zealand, also entering the the top five in charts for Canada, Ireland, Norway, the United Kingdom, and the US. Headlining festivals, rubbing shoulders with the A-list, and playing award show after award show, Lorde is New Zealand’s first true contemporary popstar, all at the ripe age of 18.
To many she comes off as a clever marketing scheme employed by the record industry higher ups as a devious way to capitalize on young talent. But Lorde’s music signifies so much more than that. Her dream pop infused electronica is so admirable simply because she’s managed to take the world by storm. Her left-field leaning alt pop is nothing new, but it’s amazing that she’s managed to permeate the traditionally less accessible music into the mainstream. It’s catchy, but it’s catchy and good. Her songwriting, the production, and her ability to sing all harmonize into a wonderfully approachable end product. There’s a reason hard headed music critics and tweens alike can appreciate her sound, she’s different, a welcome breath of fresh air to so much of the cookie cutter pop that stymies the airwaves. New Zealand should be proud of this young talent, who know’s where she’ll go next or what she’ll inspire at home, a 100% pure heroine.