'Life is a gift': Queenstown piano busker reflects after terminal cancer diagnosis

Queenstown busker AJ Hickling has been diagnosed with advanced cancer. Photos: Supplied
Queenstown busker AJ Hickling has been diagnosed with advanced cancer. Photos: Supplied
Known to many as the dreadlocked classical piano player from Queenstown, AJ Hickling has found a new audience for his playing since being diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer.

His five-year-old son is now his primary audience member, which is a slight change in vibe to what he’s used to.

“It’s a slightly more participating audience,” he laughed.

Hickling, 47, received the diagnosis in late September and now resides in Westport with his partner Freja, their five-year-old son, and Hickling’s 14-year-old daughter.

Since 2012, he has been a fixture of Queenstown’s bustling CBD, belting out complex compositions from a shabby dump-rescued piano he’d restored himself, and more recently from a modern instrument he’d purchased from a friend.

He mostly played his own compositions, though he dabbled in on-the-spot improvisation.

Some of the town’s residents considered Hickling to be one of the country’s most talented musicians.

Although joining the main fixture of Queenstown’s street performing scene a decade ago, Hickling has been busking in the mountain resort town since the mid-90′s.

A jack-of-all-trades in the musical arena, Hickling first tinkled the ivories at two years old, later taking up classical piano training in his teens, though his first busking ventures were banging the tubs.

Hickling and his brother performed duets around Queenstown together, his brother on the guitar and Hickling on the drums.

Though his brother eventually shifted away from the busking scene, Hickling continued on his own and soon found joy in slapping the drums for drunken revellers during the town’s party hours.

Towards the end of high school, he was offered a scholarship to study classical music at the University of Otago, which he gave up to beat his own path in the musical arena - “to keep it real.

“I just really love getting out of venues, keeping it real on the streets and meeting people,” he said.

“It’s the informality of busking, and the bypassing of all of the sort of music industry hype and keeping it real.

“I’m out there, I’m playing whether or not people are paying, I’m playing, and then it’s just up to the people whether or not they want to sort of support that or not... It’s not like there’s a ticket price or anything. There’s no hype, just the people.”

AJ Hickling has been busking in Queenstown since the mid-90s.
AJ Hickling has been busking in Queenstown since the mid-90s.
Hickling said it had always been his creative ventures that kept him fuelled.

“I’ve lived a life where I’ve definitely lived by the edge of my creativity... I have worked jobs, you know, but by far, the most rewarding and fulfilling occupations or things that I’ve done for money have been little creative exploits.”

Over the years, Hickling has had a storied career in the arts, from performing in a travelling circus, playing drums in touring bands, and producing dance music.

He’s spent a fair amount of time on Australia’s east coast, where he continued to busk and play in bands - but he said it was doing a national tour of New Zealand with a circus theatre company that gave him the inspiration to take a piano to the streets.

“That was really inspiring on the level that nothing was too difficult. If somebody had a really whacky, kooky idea that was going to involve a lot of set-up, there was never this idea of ‘oh no, that’s too hard’... Coming out of working with those guys, the idea of playing a piano on the street suddenly didn’t seem hard at all.”

The first piano he took to Queenstown he found in a dump.

“It was out in the rain, most of the keys were not working, it was stuck, but hadn’t done too many miles. So I popped it in the van and took it back home and started tuning it up. It had a very unique tone.”

Over the course of eight or nine years, his playing began to wear on the liberated piano and he decided it was time to to reinvest. A piano-tuner friend set him up with a nice new instrument for a reasonable price.

“It was a bit heavier and harder to move around, but suddenly, I was playing a quality instrument and it felt like I was playing a lot more effortlessly and having a lot nicer sound come back.”

AJ Hickling performing in Queenstown.
AJ Hickling performing in Queenstown.
While busking in Queenstown, Hickling would live in his van, though the other half of his year was spent living in a sailboat that he had bought in the Abel Tasman National Park.

“I went from playing music all day every day, living in the mountains by a lake and making pretty good money, to going into a one- or two- or three-month holiday, then up to Abel Tasman, which is as close as you can get to the tropics in New Zealand, living on a sailboat going sailing and living on the beach.”

Around five years ago, Hickling and Freja came to expect their first child together, so Hickling decided he would do something with the savings he’d been accumulating and purchased a freehold property in Lumsden, Southland, about an hour’s commute from Queenstown, to raise his family.

However, when the Covid lockdowns hit, the pair decided took to Trade Me to look for properties closer to the ocean.

Hailing from Australia’s Byron Bay, Freja “is a bit of a tropical fish,” said Hickling, and the pair soon found a new property close to the water at Carters Bay, Westport, where they now reside.

The original plan was for Hickling to travel down to Queenstown for a few weeks each month, but throughout the course of 2023 he found his energy levels starting to drop.

“I’d probably becoming a bit more grumpy around the house, and I was probably getting a bit more money stressed as well just because I can feel a sort of lagging energy.”

He hadn’t noticed he was slowly losing weight, and it wasn’t until a visit from his parents that he was encouraged to visit the emergency room in late September.

“[My parents] hadn’t seen the slow deterioration, so I think that hit them really hard. They took me into the hospital, and I got a CT scan and straight away they said there was a huge tumour in my pancreas.”

AJ Hickling has had a varied career in the arts, from performing in a travelling circus, playing...
AJ Hickling has had a varied career in the arts, from performing in a travelling circus, playing drums in touring bands, and producing dance music.
He said he had had a number of biopsies and follow-ups, but it was largely agreed there was little to be done.

Doctors told him chemo would have minimal effect, if any.

“Chemo might give me a few extra months, but at quite a large cost in terms of health and lifestyle.”

In lieu of chemo, he was trying his best to maintain his health through natural methods, healthy eating, supplements, and alternative treatments.

He said his family were now hoping for the best while preparing for the worst.

“I guess I’m just trying to be philosophical, to be accepting, and to be graceful about it.

“I think at the end of the day, life is it’s a gift, and it’s a mystery. We don’t know where it comes from. We don’t know what we’re here for. We don’t know how long we’ve got.

“I’m not here to fight for what I think is fair or right, or what I think I should get. My time is coming to an end, and I want to be graceful about that and just reflect on all of the really amazing opportunities I’ve had, the people I’ve met, and things I’ve been able to share, and just stay in gratitude.”

“I’m overwhelmed with gratitude. Life doesn’t owe me anything, and I’m thankful for the amazing people I’ve met and the opportunities I’ve had.”

Though he’s now residing at home with his family, Hickling is still finding time to record his compositions in his in-house studio.

His recent composition, Evolving Dreams, is available for free on Bandcamp, though donations are able to be made to the artist in any amount.

“I just feel totally honoured to have been able to share something that’s kind of intangible as music, in such an unlikely setting and location... It’s just gratitude. People are amazing.”