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We should have been listening to Don McGlashan’s fine new collection of songs all summer.
They were ready to go and a tour was planned for spring last year. Those plans went the way of things.
However, the new album, Bright November Morning, is now out — as of yesterday — and does indeed include several songs perfect for what’s left of the season, beside many more that demand repeated listening and add to the songwriter’s distinctive canon.
"At certain times, it has felt like the record would never come out," McGlashan says himself, down the phone from Auckland where he’s watching the latest reason for cancelling tours and live gigs wash through the community.
"I am thrilled that it’s finally coming out."
The new album is billed as a solo effort, though played in close collaboration with impressive backing band The Others, and featuring various star turns by familiar faces — listen hard for Hollie Smith and The Beths doing backing vocals on John Bryce.
McGlashan was to have been touring now, a Queenstown date already under his belt, and his album starts with that thought in opener Lights Come On.
Q Lights Come On sounds like a song of the Covid age, fondly recalling a time when live gigs where possible. Was that how it was written?
A It started off years ago when we were touring with the Mutton Birds through Europe opening for Simple Minds. So we’d do our set and then we’d go out and stand in these huge audiences of Austrians and Germans and Italians. I had a sketch of a song about the anticipation that you feel before a band hits the stage and what a wonderful feeling it is, but also what an ancient feeling it is. Because it seemed to me like the same feeling that people must have felt when they were standing in a village square waiting for someone to perform some magic or make an important speech or crown somebody king, or something like that. So I had that sketch, but it took Covid to really finish it ... because I found myself writing these songs for the album and really looking forward to a live gig, really looking forward to all those feelings and sounds and smells of the live gig.
Q Your band for the album, The Others, are a classy bunch, what did they bring to the recording?
A I knew when I started these songs that I wanted a loud album, I wanted it to be loud and strong ... I had been working with Shayne Carter, we did a tour where we alternated songs and curated each other’s set list, and teased each other mercilessly, and we had a blast, it was really fun. So I asked him if he wanted to work on an album with me and he muttered a few surly answers, which I took as an affirmative. I am learning to recalibrate myself and understand what he says.
Q The album name, Bright November Morning, comes from a line in a song calling for a celebration of Parihaka Day, that you’ve chosen to call John Bryce. Why did you choose to name the song for the villain of the piece?
A I don’t think Maori in New Zealand need Pakeha telling their stories for them. But I feel what happened at Parihaka is both a Pakeha story and a Maori story, and the essence of the song is to put those images of troops with children dancing in front of them out and remind people of them. Which is a really important image in our history. It is as important as the student standing in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square, and images carry enormous weight so I just wanted to put that in a song. I wanted to ask the question, "why didn’t we learn about this in school?", and I wanted to say "why don’t we commemorate that on the fifth of November instead of some obscure event in English history that no-one remembers?". I felt that as part of being a Pakeha story, I was more comfortable about it being called John Bryce.
Q And John Bryce was associated with another ignominious event in New Zealand history, involving the killing of children — the Handley’s Woolshed incident of 1868. It was very recently in the news again, when a nearby town was renamed Pakaraka in order to remove the name George Maxwell, one of Bryce’s fellow militiamen, from the map.
A Yeah, Bryce was often blamed for that incident but he then sued people, sued journalists over the depiction of that incident. He was a very belligerent character. I think it is long overdue that kind of renaming should happen and it is part of the conversation that we should all be having.
Q The next couple of songs on the album head for the beach, including Sunscreen that repeats the line "endlessly rocking". Are you thinking about yourself there, endlessly rocking?
A Actually I just wanted to grab somewhere in Aotearoa and grab all the sights and smells and sounds of Aotearoa and shoehorn them into a song. Then what happened, it started to turn into something which was more about letting go and more about being a parent. So it has turned into a song about my dad and me and also about me and my son. Those moments when a kid takes their first steps and the world gradually expands with their capacity to take steps. Initially it is just a few metres then a little bit more and then, eventually, it is the whole world. Then I borrowed a line from Walt Whitman which is "out of the cradle endlessly rocking", it seemed to talk about the journey that you are on. As soon as you take your first steps, you are heading towards the rest of your life.
Q That song also involves some lovely brass playing.
A Thank you. I didn’t even take my euphonium down to Lyttelton to record because I figured we had so many melodic instruments. We had Shayne Carter, and James [Duncan] is a really melodic bass player ... So I didn’t feel like we needed another melody instrument and also I have moved of late, the last maybe 10 years, and started to play more tenor horn, which is like a euphonium that’s been in the wash and shrunk. It’s easy to play, you can bend notes on the tenor horn a little bit. You can actually make it sound a bit more raucous. A euphonium just sounds dignified and melancholy, it doesn’t matter what you do.
Q So many of your songs tell stories, and here we have one about Shackleton. What made you want to write about his great adventure?
A I was sent to the Antarctic in 2012 for a week as part of a plan to get more artists down there to soak up the place and then explain it a bit to people in New Zealand. ... I did a bunch of sketches and then came back and lost them because they were in a backpack that was stolen. So I grieved over that for a while but then realised some of the sketches for that song, Shackleton, were still in my head. They just took a while to work through. I knew this band would be able to conjure up empty spaces by the 50th parallel and huge seas and freezing cold, there’s something epic about these places and the scale we can make musically, so that pushed me along. And there were some cool things in Shackleton’s journals where he talks about blizzards where he has a recurring optical illusion. One of his crew mates is walking through a blizzard ahead of him but he sees someone else as well, and that comes back and back again. I don’t know if that is Shackleton going mad, or the presence of the divine, I don’t know what it is, but it really stayed with me, and that’s why it became the chorus. I think Shayne does some beautiful stuff on that song.
Q On the Mutton Bird-esque track All The Goodbyes in the World, you recount the contents of a kitchen cupboard, an exercise in the quotidian that’s not atypical of your lyrical style. What interests you in that level of detail?
A I think it would be weirder to leave that stuff out. When I am listening to songs, I really love to feel like I am in a place. When Ray Davies sings about autumn in the UK in a little village I get the sights and sounds and smells of that. I think my favourite writers tend to do that. I write a song and if it bores me I’ll put it aside but if it has some crunchy images and sights and smells and sounds that make me feel like I am really there, then I figure that with luck somebody in the audience will feel that too.
I’ve been reading a book by a wonderful American writer called George Saunders, he’s written about Russian short stories ... the gist of it is, that if you set out to write about something and you write about that thing, that’s what you have written about. And if you set out to write about something, but you allow yourself to be derailed, then hopefully you will end up with something much more than what you bargained for. That’s generally what I hope for. The best songs work on one level, but they contain a lot of questions and strangeness and hidden elements that are even hidden from the writer.