Leading the chorus

Dunedin singer-songwriter Abby Wolfe. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Dunedin singer-songwriter Abby Wolfe. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
All it took was a little help from her friends, and a cathedral. Abby Wolfe tells Tom McKinlay about her big new video.

There’s a 20-strong choir, a string section, backing vocals and piano, all performing Abby Wolfe’s soaring single Held By You with an intense singular focus — in a cathedral.

It’s not bad for a song Wolfe says was written in her bedroom in about 20 minutes.

Then again, she’s also said this of the track, posted on her Facebook page: "I’ve written 100s of songs & I’d never found complete peace in a song until now. I wouldn’t change a thing. I can’t wait for you to have it."

The big production number in the cathedral — Dunedin’s St Paul’s — is for the live version of Held By You, to be released next week. The studio version’s been out for a couple of weeks already, lapping up its warm reception. That version was mastered by the Grammy Award-winning Brian Lucey in LA.

Talking about the song in person, Wolfe is still very obviously the proud parent.

"We wrote it in Auckland, in my bedroom in Campbells Bay," she says.

The "we" includes Auckland musician M Basa.

"It was one of those funny 20-minute writing sessions that just poured out."

That was in April last year. The singer-songwriter has since moved back to Dunedin, happy to have put distance between her and traffic snarls, but also content that time in the big smoke means she now has the connections to move her music forward.

Doing something like the cathedral video has been a plan for a while, waiting for the right song, Wolfe says.

"It was a mammoth undertaking if I’m honest," she says, confessing a propensity to control freakery.

But amazing.

"It was just this big embrace from people that I have known — full circle," she says. "It was really beautiful."

The embrace included funding from NZ on Air and the Dunedin City Council — welcome support in a tough year for the arts.

There was also plenty of hard work involved, because when you are recording live, as they did in the cathedral, one mistake by one person and it’s ... go again.

"So it’s, like, this level of pressure but everybody is so focused and loving what they do, and they have practised so hard — it’s all just come together."

Not first take though.

"We did nine takes and we ended up using take six," Wolfe says.

"The song is quite a labour intensive vocal. So, it was freezing in there. No heating, middle of winter, it’s July, July the fourth. We had to take breaks, go down into the crypt where the heaters were on. Not good for the vocal going between hot and cold.

"I was getting quite vocally fatigued towards the end. And also trying to give it my all, adding that extra bit of omph."

The engineer put a tick beside take six, Wolfe says, but they thought they’d go another couple just to be sure. Take nine was definitely the last, she says. She had no more to give.

Held By You is one of five songs destined for an EP to be released next year — and the first single.

Wolfe has recently been back up in Auckland recording studios adding final touches.

"I am self-producing one of the songs so that is definitely the one that has dragged me behind, but it is getting there," she says. "That will be my weekend task."

Held By You itself sees Wolfe return to the big acoustic ballad.

"If I had to choose one genre of music to listen to for the rest of my life, or one style of song, it would be the ballad," she says.

And, typically for Wolfe, it’s personal and relatable.

"My schtick, I guess, is I like to write conversationally and don’t like to write songs about things that haven’t happened, I need that emotional connection to the song through and through.

"The tell of a good song is when people then want to share their experience of something, that’s similar, with you," Wolfe says.

There’s been plenty of that, she says, which is humbling.

After inhabiting more of a pop persona during her time in Auckland, Wolfe says the material on the EP involves something of a reset.

"The songs are really authentically me, I have gone full circle in a way; started off very acoustic and then went into the pop world in Auckland and have now dialled it back to where it feels very comfortably me."

That’s not to say the new Abby Wolfe sound abandons lessons learned.

"I love pop-song writing structure, it is actually very hard, contrary to popular belief," she says. "It is one of the most difficult genres to write, I would say. So I love the learning I have done on that. This new music, it’s still got the pop sensibilities but it is more organic."

That flows through to the production, involving a more acoustic treatment, fewer electronic sounds.

"It is that aim of being honest and authentic and organic and truthful."

The big release

The video for Held By You will be unveiled on Thursday, October 22 at the New Athenaeum Theatre, the Octagon, where Abby Wolfe will perform an unplugged show. Tickets from undertheradar.co.nz. The video goes live the following day.

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