The secret is out

Dunedin-based Dudley Benson received  a 2014 Westpac New Zealand New Generation Award. Photo by...
Dunedin-based Dudley Benson received a 2014 Westpac New Zealand New Generation Award. Photo by Gregor Richardson.

An Arts Foundation award will help songwriter Dudley Benson realise his ambition of recording with the Southern Sinfonia. It's nice to get some recognition, too, the former choirboy tells Shane Gilchrist.

Dudley Benson is a person who likes to share. Imagine then the challenge of his having to hold his tongue and not speak about an award he knew he'd won several months ago.

Last week, the Dunedin musician received a New Generation Award at the 2014 Westpac New Zealand Arts Awards, an accolade that brings with it a cash prize of $25,000.

Still, the fact he had been advised earlier in the year by the Arts Foundation of New Zealand and was only able to announce news of his award following the official announcement at Sky City Theatre, Auckland, hasn't taken too much of the gloss off the gong.

''The other artists who received awards are at the top of their game in what they do, so it is a real honour to be associated with those people,'' Benson (31) said.

In a previous interview with the Otago Daily Times, Benson conceded he had a ''love-hate relationship'' with making music, that he often had self-doubts and likened himself to someone who was constantly climbing a steep mountain and only occasionally looked down to enjoy the view.

Such an admission begs two obvious questions: what does the New Generation Award mean to him personally?

And how will $25,000 help his artistic voyage?

''I think it is an affirming thing,'' Benson says.

''I haven't had much recognition in regard the music industry. My music and the way I approach my career isn't easily digestible to the music community.

''It is quite a special thing for me when I get feedback or make a connection with someone who is also an artist who appreciates my work. The Arts Foundation is made up of people who are closely engaged with their own art.''

The $25,000 award will allow Benson to record with the Southern Sinfonia in February.

''The music I've written over the last two years will be recorded at Albany St Studios, with Andrew Upston, a Radio New Zealand engineer.

''I had applied to a funding agency who I thought would support the project but they didn't, a decision which devastated me.

''I wasn't sure what to do next, but two weeks later I got a phone call from the Arts Foundation, which reminded me that if you do put yourself out there and work hard things might happen, although perhaps not in the way you'd expect.''

Born and raised in Christchurch, Benson was a soloist for the Christchurch Cathedral Choir as a boy. He later studied composition at the University of Canterbury's School of Music before moving to Auckland in 2005 and completing his tertiary education at the University of Auckland, where he graduated with a bachelor of arts (Maori studies) degree. He has lived in Dunedin since 2011.

Benson's 2008 debut album, The Awakening, might have been delicate in its approach, but the reaction was anything but quiet as various music critics hailed the record, which focused on ancestry, friendship and childhood nostalgia.

Benson followed The Awakening with 2010 release Forest: songs by Hirini Melbourne.

Sung entirely in Te Reo, it was inspired by a love for the waiata of the New Zealand composer and a visit to the Ulva Island bird sanctuary, off Stewart Island.

This month Benson released Deforestation, an album of remixes of songs from the Taite Prize-nominated Forest by international and New Zealand contributors, including Matmos (US), Barbara Morgenstern (Germany), Vashti Bunyan (UK), Stef Animal (NZ) and Dame Anne Salmond (NZ).

''I always wanted Forest to be remixed. It was fairly beat-less and sparse but with strong melodies. Thus I felt passing it on to others would be a great evolution.

''However, it took longer than I'd planned. I had to find producers who would do it for no fee, because it is a charity project (all profits will be donated to the Ulva Island Charitable Trust.)''I had a success rate of about 50%. Sometimes artists just didn't reply or their agents would,'' Benson says.

''It is four years since Forest came out and it thinks it's the right time. I'm really proud of Deforestation. I think it is a vividly different record to Forest, but the themes remain really strong.''

Released on Golden Retriever Records, an independent label he co-founded, The Awakening and Forest had budgets of $5000 and $15,000, respectively.

In contrast, his forthcoming third album is ''looking more like $60,000'', Benson says.

''Right now, I'm working on finalising the arrangements and making minor tweaks.

''I've spent a lot of time getting them to sound as close as possible to what they will with an orchestra. I have gone over it with a fine-tooth comb.

''I wrote the material over about three years and for the past year have been co-arranging the songs with Andrew Baldwin, a contemporary classical composer originally from Dunedin but now living in London.

''I've learnt so much from it. It has been such a huge project.

''I can't wait to record it so I can get on and do a lo-fi, quick album.''



Award winners


• Other recipients of a New Generation Award were actor and director duo Vela Manusaute and Anapela Polataivao, and painter Star Gossage. Laureate Award winners were actor and producer Cliff Curtis, multidisciplinary artist Lisa Reihana, poet Geoff Cochrane, composer Ross Harris and choreographer and director Charles Koroneho. Each Laureate winner received $50,000.



The album


• Dudley Benson's Deforestation, an album of remixes of songs from 2010 record Forest, is out now. For more information, visit: CD Review P22.




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