Singer Gin Wigmore is making it big internationally, on
her own terms, reports Alan Perrott, of The New Zealand
It's not just good girls who know how to say no.
And you have to give Gin Wigmore plenty of credit: many in
the same situation would struggle to turn down such an offer.
Imagine yourself as a teenager, enjoying the spoils of an
award-winning song and on the loose in New York, returning to
your hostel to find a woman had been waiting all day to
deliver an invitation from an important man. You can't say no
yet. It wouldn't be polite.
So of course Wigmore sets off for the mega-rich, marble-clad
domain of Sony Music to be glad-handed, praised and entreated
by one of the corporation's most senior A and R men, Michael
He even invites her sister Lucy to join them out on the town
to hint at the glamour that may be on offer.
Surely, it's a pitch that can't fail ...
"No thanks," was her response. "I'm not sure I'm ready yet."
"Yeah, she's a shrewd girl," says Taylor, "and that was a
really smart move on her part. The major [label] system will
eat you up and spit you out if you're not ready." But then
he'd suspected he was in for the unexpected from the moment
Wigmore entered the building.
"I don't know if you've been into the Sony building, but it's
kind of grandiose, it's over the top, and Gin appeared in
this T-shirt that looked like she'd been wearing it for 10
days straight. That didn't matter though, I just wanted to
hear her songs, except she didn't even bring her guitar. She
just said, 'I don't want to perform, I just figured I wanted
to meet you.' So yeah, I think she knew what she was about."
And with that Taylor joined an impressive list of failed
suitors who'd been seduced by Hallelujah, a song
Wigmore had written for her recently deceased father while on
the run from Argentinian nuns.
Rikki Morris, who made Wigmore's proper recording of
Hallelujah in his tiny Devonport studio with only a
flimsy computer screen to protect him from the emotional
fallout, remembers the first moment he heard her sing the
He'd found that self-conscious wannabes struggle for the
right notes when they're being stared down by a former pop
star, so he would duck down behind the screen and stay out of
"When she finished singing ... there was silence for a while,
and then she was like, `Hello? ... Hello?' But I couldn't say
a word, I had my head in my hands, just weeping
uncontrollably. I knew right then that we had a star on our
It'd been her sister, Shortland Street actor Lucy
Wigmore, who pressed her to record the song for the
International Songwriting Competition, a contest New Zealand
writers have now won three times since 2003.
The 18-year-old didn't just scoop first prize - another of
her songs, Angelfire, also won the teen category and
she came away with about $50,000 worth of tuition at the
Berklee College of Music and invaluable credibility.
And it was entirely appropriate that her winning composition
should be about her dad. After all, he was responsible for
her first rude introduction to music.
Their family home shared a fence with an evangelical church
that liked to get its happy-clappy on from 8am every Sunday
"Dad used to get the shits," says Wigmore. "He hated it."
As the owner of the local chemist shop he only had one shot
at a sleep-in, so he'd stomp upstairs, put the stereo
speakers on the deck, crank Les Miserables or
Evita soundtracks up to 11, then wait to see if the
Lord got the message.
"It was so loud, ridiculously loud, and I remember hearing
that every Sunday morning. I don't know if that's why, but I
haven't been to a musical since."
Fair enough, even if not completely true, because she's kind
of appearing in one now. That would be the worldwide
television campaign tying Heineken beer with the new James
Bond movie, Skyfall, and Wigmore's smoky eyes and
gravelly tones are right in the middle of the action,
performing her song Man Like That.
As exposure goes, it's a fair dinkum coup and another step
toward a lofty ambition: "Do I want to be a Bond girl? Oh
God, yeah," she says. "But what I'd really love to do is
write a Bond theme song. I'd totally love to tick that box."
Throw in two albums and a stack of awards and her career
trajectory to this point looks like a seamless progression
from eager novice to pro.
It's impossible to imagine the girl posing on the cover of
her Hallelujah CD appearing, as she did at last year's
New Zealand Music Awards, in her undies.
Several years of head-down work has paid off, with some real
Most recently, that has meant heading back to the US.
"I can't say no any more. I've got to do it or everything's
over. This is a very hard industry, it's 24 hours and you
never stop, you never clock off ... a lot of people would go
insane doing this, but it's a match made in heaven for me.
This is what keeps me sane."
Reaching this level has required a mix of talent, luck and,
crucially, surrounding herself with great people from the
very beginning. In some cases from before the beginning.
For instance, there's Morris, whose old Bus Recording Studio
hosted a stream of hopeful North Shore kids who'd heard he
gave free recording time. The likes of The Veils' Finn
Andrews, The Checks and The Electric Confectionaires got
their start there.
In Wigmore's case, she thought she arrived with a head start,
having interviewed him for a project on famous locals while
at Belmont Intermediate.
Morris had no idea what she was talking about, but sure, she
could have a crack. As ever, he hunched behind his computer
as she prepared.
"Then she opened her mouth and I had to stand up for a look,
because I couldn't believe the sound coming out of her mouth.
I was, 'Oh my God, something's happening here'."
There were no doubts about her potential, but there were
plenty about her application. Education and submitting to
authority finished well behind heading to the beach for a sly
ciggie. Well, her parents had always encouraged her
independent streak, even taking the kids out of school for
European tenting holidays.
But it was David Gray's White Ladder album that
finally poked her in the right direction.
"I was 14," she says. "What a horrible age. I hated
everything. I was just listening to whatever was on the radio
or whatever was playing to drink cheap vodka to at a party.
Music didn't touch me until that album came along.
"Nothing had ever spoken to me like that before. It was
amazing to realise that I could write words down in a
notebook and put some chords to them."
She did an internship at Universal Music, where she met
influential managing director Adam Holt and discovered office
life wasn't her bag.
Then, at 16, came her beloved father's brief and unsuccessful
battle with liver cancer and shortly afterwards an exchange
trip to Argentina. When she discovered her host school was
strictly Roman Catholic, Wigmore promptly legged it and had a
ball on her own.
"She must have done some reflecting as well," says Morris.
"Losing her dad was massive, and that's when she wrote
Hallelujah. I remember when she called from Taranaki
to say she'd won that songwriting award. She was drunk
Given the judging panel featured the likes of Bo Diddley,
Macy Gray and P. Diddy, there was an understandable fuss.
A repatriated music executive who had worked with the likes
of the Eurythmics in England happened to be watching
television when a story on the rising songwriter appeared.
"I was immediately struck by her," says Vicky Blood, the
former head of marketing and creative for BMG Records.
"I've been in this industry for nearly 30 years - I came back
home to retire - with some of the biggest artists in the
world and I'm kind of good at recognising talent when I see
it. Of course there's the voice, but there's also something
very different, it's an undefinable presence."
Blood was straight on the phone to Morris.
"I couldn't help myself," she says. "I had no intention of
having anything to do with music again, but he was, 'Oh, I'm
so glad you phoned me,' because he'd been getting all these
calls from US record labels."
So the two women met up for a chat and even though Wigmore
had no grand career plans, Blood offered her help if it was
"'But I'm definitely not going to be managing you', I told
her. Famous last words. I ended up going right back to the
beginning of my career again."
I've reached out to big-name artists for a lot of people, but
I've never had anywhere near the feedback I got with Gin.
Her voice opens doors Head of Island Records Australia at
Universal Music Australia Michael TaylorShe started off
gauging the level of local interest in her new project and
got Wigmore on board as backing vocalist for Smashproof's hit
At the same time, the singer was going through a relationship
break-up that drove her from New Plymouth to the Gold Coast.
These were what she now labels her "trashbag days", and it
looked like she was throwing everything away.
She credits Universal's Holt with snapping her out of it.
"He absolutely did. He's a wonderful, selfless man who always
sees the big picture." Holt steadfastly refuses to take any
credit. All he did, he says, was put her in touch with the
This came about after he and Blood decided it would be best
for Wigmore to sign with an Australian label (having already
signed with Motown in the US).
It so happened that Universal was about to launch an offshoot
of Island Records there.
And who was going to run it? Wigmore's old friend from New
York, Michael Taylor.
"I hadn't even hit the ground when I got this call from
Adam," says Taylor.
"He says, 'We've got this girl, Gin Wigmore, who we're
looking at,' and I stopped him right there and said, 'Gin? I
absolutely love her,' and the deal was basically ticked off
right away. She was our first signing before I had even got
into the country."
So, with a five-track EP, several extensive tours and a bevy
of new songs under way, it was soon time for Wigmore to crank
out an album. This was Taylor's time to shine.
She needed a backing band and he knew Ryan Adams and the
Cardinals were about to hit Sydney. Would these critically
lauded musicians be interested in hooking up with a virtual
unknown? They agreed to check her out and get back to him.
Next thing you know, they're laying down Holy Smoke
inside Capitol Records' historic Los Angeles studio. She
might sing of being a black sheep, but it's hard to remain a
rebel's rebel when an organisation has put cash into your
The album paid off in both sales and awards, but that didn't
lessen the pressure when it came to Wigmore's next project.
She was in America meeting her current agents at Direct
Management - a high-powered agency with a small group of
clients including Wigmore, Katy Perry, kd lang and Adam
Lambert - when someone asked about her plans.
She blurted she was going to make a blues record.
"Purely 50% of my brain only said that because someone needed
an answer right then ... but when I started to think about
it, I quite liked the idea."
Until people like Taylor not-so-gently informed her that a
white chick from Devonport didn't know anything about the
blues. It was time for a road trip.
And what a road trip ...
First, Taylor's endless address book led toco-writing
sessions with the likes of Mark Lanagan, Keb Mo, (Bob Dylan's
sideman) Charlie Sexton, Matthew Sweet, and former
Stereosonic Dan Wilson (who wrote Adele's Someone Like
"You know," says Taylor, "I've reached out to big-name
artists for a lot of people, but I've never had anywhere near
the feedback I got with Gin. Her voice opens doors."
Then, Wigmore flew to Nashville and spent two months driving
around, meeting each artist, taking in a Reverend Al Green
sermon, hanging in bars, and swapping late-night tales with
the chain-smoking manager of the historic Riverside Hotel
before she, sort of, had a gun pulled on her by a member of
Mars Volta. It was Blues 101.
It meant a few additions to her tattoo collection as well.
"Every time I go somewhere new with her, she's off looking
for a tattoo shop," says Taylor.
"I keep telling her she needs to keep some regular skin or we
won't be able to see her soon."
As for the new sound, that can be credited to Taylor's wife.
The True Love fan had forced her husband to watch an
episode of the television show that featured a song by Cary
Ann Hearst, Hell's Bells, which is classic bayou
boogie with a side of sordid and a terrific vocal. It was
just the sound they'd discussed, so he tracked down producer
Butch Walker and they talked him round. As a bonus they got
his backing band, The Black Widows, as well.
The resulting Gravel and Wine came out last November.
"And you know? I'm genuinely happy ... For the longest time
I've been dissatisfied with myself. I haven't felt I've ever
been good enough at what I try to do. But it was last year
when I started to feel like I had figured out what I'm doing
and I'm content in who I am ... I don't care if the awards
and stuff like that go away, it's the music that matters."
So, what's next?
"Next? Man, I won't get round to thinking about that for a
while yet ... but who knows, maybe a dance album?"
Just say no, Gin. Just say no.