NZ Music Month

Small Town Heroes: How Isolation Sets New Zealand Musicians Free

New York, London...Oamaru.

This article is part of a special series brought to you by SNIFFERS and VICE to celebrate NZ Music Month.

Stuck at what generations of Eurocentric received wisdom termed 'the ass end of the world', circling the sun from an archipelago in the coldest part of its largest ocean, geographic isolation has long been a source of identity and inspiration even for artists from Aotearoa’s larger cities.

The impact of being at least a three-hour flight from anywhere with a Uniqlo is notably less severe in an era where a little thing called ‘The Internet’ has allowed that Growing Up Antipodean no longer has to mean a quasi-monastic life of information scarcity. But if it’s enough to make Lorde sing about of living “in cities / you’ll never see on screen” while actually living in the suburb where they filmed the second season of The Block NZ, it’s probably safe to assume the distance still weighs to some degree on the collective psyche of those living slightly further afield.

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If that isolation can be a source of pressure or frustration, though, its influence can also be a freeing one.

Internationally acclaimed and locally awarded, Aldous Harding is one of the country’s better-known contemporary artists with regional roots.

Emerging into prominence from the archetypally sleepy Canterbury port town of Lyttleton, initially as a part of its renown folk collective The Eastern, her music’s always felt somewhat apart from its time and place—although she’s transmuted over the course of her early career from an artist whose mid-20th-century folk influences sat front and centre to one who plays with the conventions of that genre within a framework entirely her own. Her fearlessness in songwriting and the tendency of her voice to oscillate by turns between Joanna Newsom and Julee Cruise places her apart from most easily identifiable touchpoints, local or otherwise.

Speaking last year to Jason Grisell of Office Magazine, Harding said that while her location had never had much of a conscious influence on her work, “maybe a feeling of being isolated, coming from a town and growing up in the country for a lot of it, I was kind of at the mercy of that”.

A few hours down the road from Lyttelton in the altogether less culturally lionised coastal outpost of Oamaru, punk band The Trendees have a far more direct approach to reconstructing their surroundings. Guitarist Eden Bradfield claims inspiration from “small towns and indifference and a sense of otherness”, telling Undertheradar of their understandably frustrating experience as a willfully challenging band in a town where the only real venue hosts mainly “misogynistic old men who only like covers”.

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Their recently released second album Nightmare City is a confronting and often hilarious retelling of the dark mundanity of their hometown, with a sound that sits most often somewhere between dearly departed smalltown Memphis icon Jay Reatard and Port Chalmers royalty The Dead C.

Similarly aggressive but taking a significantly different approach in the articulation of their origin, Waipu band Alien Weaponry have garnered local and global attention for the incorporation of Te Reo Māori in their polished thrash metal. Although sonically the band leans most directly on their European and North American forebears for influence, lyrically their source material is heavily based in the history of their region and the tupuna of the band’s de Jong brothers, from stories of historic land confiscations—the subject of their song ‘Raupatu’—to the infamous 19th century Battle of Gate Pā in 'Rū Ana Te Whenua'.

With both brothers spending primary school in full immersion at kura kaupapa Māori, drummer Henry told NPR’s Ashley Westerman that the choice to tackle such subject matter in te reo is one directly aimed at further encouraging adoption and proliferation of the tongue, saying that his aim was to “give young people kind of this inspiration to actually learn the language and keep it going."

Hailing from the same region as Alien Weaponry—splitting his youth between Tauranga and the Far North—and also having spent his youth in kura kaupapa, Te Karehana 'Teeks' Gardiner-Toi is an artist with a similar pride in his Māori heritage. Although he works as a te reo teacher, he’s hesitant when it comes to the idea of performing primarily in the Māori language; speaking with SNIFFERS earlier in 2018 he said that although he has written in the language “I don’t think it’s where my strength is…just because I speak Māori I don’t think people should automatically assume I’m going to sing in Māori.”

Despite that reticence, he’s keen to acknowledge the considerable cultural influence colouring his work. While the most obvious reference points for his piano-led and golden-syrup-voiced soul are the usual American suspects—Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, et al—he also cites his experience in kapa haka groups as pivotal in the formation of his musical identity.

Though there’s no uniform way in which growing up or living in relative isolation impacts on artistic output, if the above are any indication it definitely seems to engender a sort of freedom and urgency in expression. Although like most of these acts and artists Teeks’ trajectory is one which will likely keep him from the relatively laid-back lifestyle he enjoyed in Opononi he’s to-the-point on the benefit of that experience: “I don’t know if I would have done a lot of these things if I’d grown up anywhere else.”