It's the music that matters

Singer Gin Wigmore is making it big internationally, on her own terms, reports Alan Perrott, of The New Zealand Herald.

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 Taylor.

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 song.

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 sight.

"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 hands."

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 morning.

"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 career momentum.

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 ...ha."

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 ever needed.

"'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 single Brother.

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 right person.

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 future.

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).

"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.