Hard News by Russell Brown


Music: The Homecoming Queen

Astonishingly, it's only just over a year since a 16 year-old Lorde took the stage for a promotional gig at Vector Arena. It was easily the biggest room she'd played, and a mere four months since her public debut. It wasn't a flawless performance: she started confidently, literally ran out of puff for 20 minutes, then gutsily hauled it back.

"I had no idea what I was doing," she mused to the crowd from the same stage on Saturday night. "I was scared shitless."

She seemed as amazed as anyone else that she had returned as the queen of a powerful,  prodigious arena show full of her own art.

The feat is all the more remarkable because it was achieved with the same musical format she started with: just her up front, Jimmy Mac on keyboards and Ben Barter on drums. Back then, that seemed to be a PA lineup; a way to get her out singing her songs until a full band could be assembled. Turns out, that is the band.

The songs have evolved: most notably 'Team', now an eight-minute live barnstormer, and the changed-up 'Royals'. But what's really changed is Lorde herself. She's a year older, and stronger in every way.

The big gain in stagecraft evident at the Silo Park show in January has continued: when she hit her mark at the end of 'Buzzcut Season', turned to profile and shucked her jacket in the last-second silhouette of the spotlight, it was pretty much a perfect moment.

Her voice, which has suffered at times under the stress of touring, was notably strong. At times a year ago, she'd get rushed by her pre-recorded backing vocals. Now she seems to hit them when she wants to, or divert from the studio versions of the songs to riff or growl when she wants to do that. She doesn't bother to sing sweetly all the time either -- she virtually snarled her way through a cover of the Naked and Famous's 'Young Blood'. (In Wellington she played 'Buffalo', to the considerable excitement of the Phoenix Foundation members in the house.)

The tour show is basically a three-act play containing several set-pieces. And given that Saturday night in Auckland was the last night of the tour, it wasn't surprising that the major set-piece, the 'Ribs' speech, was devoted to the homecoming:

But for all that coming back and ending it Auckland was special and the atmosphere was amazing, the show still had to contend with the sound issues of Vector Arena. It was plenty loud, but at times the bass was overwhelming -- not a smartphone in the house had a mic that could cope with it and it seemed a bit much much for the little girls sat in front of us. So if Auckland had the homecoming factor, the last-night-of-the-tour emotion and the biggest, loudest crowd, I suspect Wellington got the better-sounding show. So here's a video of 'Yellow Flicker Beat' from Friday night.

Here's to Ella's extraordinary year. I hope and trust she'll be taking a good, long rest from the clatter and clamour. And, of course, plotting her next thing ...

(Photo from Vector Arena by Lucy @niallrosy)


It's been a busy week of live shows. Last Wednesday night was the Critics' Choice section of the Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards, the annual secret-judge annointing of the upcoming talent. In this post-Lorde year, all three finalists were solo artists with minimal or no accompaniment.

Lake South, up first, is an odd fish. After years in indie bands (most notably Urban Tramper) the Wellingtonian found himself making bedroom electronica out of songs he'd written on his acoustic guitar. To his own professed surprise, people thought the stuff he made was great, meaning he had to work up a few more songs in this unfamiliar style,  to play the Critics' Choice. It's a work in progress and he was awkward and apologetic between songs.

But when he was performing? He was confident and compelling, at times electric, and the songs came together as a kind of literate electronica. I very much reckon he should stick with it, tighten things up between songs and work up a bit more stage patter.

By contrast, Randa, the North Shore pop-culture rapper, was born into beats and samples, provided on this night by his producer-accompanist Totems, who turned knob-twiddling into a whole-body dance. Which was nothing compared to Randa himself: I haven't often seen a performer just plain bring it, to the point of breathlessness, like Randa did on Wednesday night.

I get why Randa doesnt want to be defined by his genderqueer status, but it's going to be hard to avoid talking about it, because it's part of how he projects as a performer. Sometimes, he's like a wild 13 year-old boy, and it's honest and appealing, even unto the culturally-acquired American accent.

Last up was Estere, who is in many ways the most accomplished of the three finalists. She's relaxed and assured in controling her onstage gear, comfortable talking to the crowd and can really sing. Before the show, I'd expected her to be named the winner. But it felt as if -- on contrast to her much-talked-about support for Erya Badu at The Civic --the King's Arms wasn't really her place.

So Randa it was, and that was a popular choice. Here's a nice little video from the evening by AUT's Te Waha Nui, set to Randa's 'Rangers'.


The next night was the 49th annual Apra Silver Scroll Awards, staged in Wellington this year with Luke Buda as musical director. It was as congenial as ever, but I was also reminded that it's an event that takes creative risks that others (most notably those from the public sector) would baulk at.

Michael Norris's ‘Inner Phases’, the winner of SOUNZ Contemporary Award, was re-interpreted on the night by longtime improvised music champ Jeff Henderson as a squall of electronic noise, panning left and right across the room. Some of the crowd loved it (me included) and others put their hands of their ears.

You could say much the same of Dean Hapeta's revolutionary speech before the presentation of the Maioha Award, which I gather didn't impress Minister Maggie Barry (to be fair, the minister's attempt to claim North Shore homie rights with someone called "Ella Yelich O'Connell" didn't impress me). We live in times when sometimes it's worth challenging people, if only to assert that we still can.

In the end, the Silver Scroll went to Tami Neilson, for her blues belter 'Walk Back to Your Arms', which also received my favourite cover interpretation on the night, in being performed by a gamelan orchestra with Gareth Farr and the All Seeing Hand's Johnny Marks, who did part of his vocal as a convincing throat-singer. It really was quite wow.

And finally, thanks to Hugh Sundae at the Herald for bundling up the Hall of Fame content Douglas Lilburn -- speeches, performances, the lot --- and sending me the embed code so you can see it here.


The Hard News Music Post is sponsored by:



The uncooling of the inner West

Over the past couple of weeks, the Herald's new data blog has been looking at population change data revealed by the 2013 Census. It's been a nice, open process culminating the Wellington firm Dumpark's creation of an interactive showing population increases and decreases around the country, from 2001 to 2013.

There's a general flow towards the cities and away from the regions, with a few striking features. None more so than the population shift out of the east of post-earthquake Christchurch -- which is, fittingly, the red zone on this map detail (a blue dot is one resident increase, a red dot a decrease):

But the part that caught my eye in the original iteration of the exercise, by economist Aaron Schiff, was closer to home. Where I live, in fact.

I moved to Auckland in 1983, and for most of that time, Auckland's inner Western suburbs have been a young place. Even as the Pasifika families of Ponsonby and Grey Lynn were gentrified out, the inner west remained a place where young families could buy in and set up. When I returned from London in 1991, I met a generation of kids who'd grown up in those suburbs, walking distance from the city.

Those days are really over.

The all-ages map shows a huge intenstification in the CBD and a general increase around it, but the population is static around the Ponsonby ridge, and has decreased in Herne Bay and St Mary's Bay (as flats and low-rise apartments have given way to luxury harbourside pads).

But the real money is the 25-34 "young adult" map. You see the same CBD intensification  -- and a very evident emptying-out in the inner suburbs.

Ponsonby, Grey Lynn, Point Chevalier: these are no longer places where people can easily buy in and start young families  -- but also, it appears, places where young adults are less likely to live full stop. A whole set of cultural assumptions about about these places -- diverse, bohemian, liberal -- seem likely to have gone with the young adult population. As we long feared, we're going to turn into fucking Parnell.

When I lived in the Auckland CBD in the mid-80s, it was quite an unusual thing to do. My friends and I literally broke the law when we converted a warehouse in Fort Street and lived there. Now, there are tens of thousands of apartments -- not all salubrious, but generally relatively affordable, close to work and study.

That makes the transition to home ownership and starting families particularly abrupt. Central Auckland, so cheap and accommodating for the baby-boomers, is prohibitive for their children. Houses don't fall much below $500,000 (which, let's be clear, means saving $100,000 for a 20% deposit) until the commute to the city nears an hour.

The obvious solution is not, as Act's David Seymour believes, to "create more Epsom" in Auckland distant hinterlands -- where they would palpably not be Epsom, or Ponsonby, Herne Bay or Mt Eden -- but to enable more people to live near their jobs, near to the city's life and cultural infrastructure. To not, as Seymour and his wealthy voters would do, raise the drawbridge and protect the people already in the castle.

There are limits here too. I felt obliged to object to a Housing New Zealand Unitary Plan submission seeking to spot-rezone its properties in our narrow little (17 properties) Point Chev cul de sac from "mixed housing suburban" to "mixed housing urban", a zoning intended for the fringes of town centres and main roads. It seemed an abuse of the process.

It wasn't the greater height limit: I'd have been fine with the 10 metres in the draft Unitary Plan, which was scaremongered out by Bernard Orsman and others, and I'm realistic about Housing NZ redeveloping to add dwellings in our street. But the prospect of Housing NZ aggregating its sections to escape any density limits in such a small street was just too daunting.

Anyway, we've been over this territory before and I'm sure there are other interesting insights in these interactives. Feel free to share your thoughts.


TVNZ: Emptied out

To those who visit TVNZ, as I do every week to record our TV show for another channel, the place has the feel of an abandoned building. The journalists toil on the ground floor at the west end, but nearly everyone else -- sales, programming, senior management -- has been gone for months.

The atrium is inaccessible and the Victoria Street foyer is walled off, leaving a narrow corridor to the studios, the media centre and the lifts. On the upside, it's never been easier to get a car park in the basement.

It's not quite how it feels, of course. The upper floors will eventually be repopulated on completion of the "transformation opportunity" triggered by the $10.6m sale of the adjoining building to SkyCity for its conference centre extension (which was brokered, in the first instance, without notice to the broadcaster's own board). Already, part of the plastic covering has been removed to expose refurbished glass cladding, as shiny as the day the it opened.

But for now, the state of the place is as a good a metaphor as any for what's happening to the state broadcaster. It is emptying out. Some of the many people who once constituted its institutional knowledge do come back to work, but not as employees.

It's all part of a strategy to move away from production (with the exception of news and current affars) and become a "publisher" of content -- and, as CEO Kevin Kenrick put it recently, to "exit non-core assets." One of the less visible symptoms is the running down of TVNZ's facilities business, which will see the decommissioning of its Wellington outside broadcast truck, the one that brings you Back Benches.

This is the context for last week's announcement that TVNZ will no longer produce most of its Maori and Pasifika programmng. Waka HuiaMaraeFresh and Tagata Pasifika will all be outsourced to independent producers. Only the news programme Te Karere will remain.

Not everything about this is necessarily bad. John Bishara, the CEO of Te Mangai Paho, which funds the Maori shows, has gone on record as saying it will improve transparency in the way funding is used. Once things settle out, it may empower independent producers, particularly those outside Auckland.

The problem is more about what it does to TVNZ, the broadcaster we own. It's a clear statement that Maori and Pasifika no longer have a place at the core of the enterprise. There will be 30 fewer brown faces in the building, in the Polynesian capital of the world. Much will rest on the commssioner of Maori programmes, Kath Graham (Ngati Koroki Kahukura). As the Maori screen production group notes,  you certainly would not want to bet on the present level of service being retained.

On a purely financial level, it's working. TVNZ's annual profit is up 25% to $18 million (which is still vastly short of Sky TV's profit, up 21% to $165 million). The path to profit seems smoother under a chief executive who has never really let slip any affection for television itself.

Speculation that this is all part of TVNZ being prepared for sale isn't actually the point. The thing is that we will reach the stage -- if we're not there already -- of asking why we do actually bother owning the thing.


UPDATE: Last night's Media Take is now available for viewing on-demand.

On Media Take tonight at 10.05pm on Maori Television, my co-host Toi Iti conducts a lively discussion on the outsourcing news with Maori Party MP Marama Fox and Richard Pamatatau, the programme leader at AUT's Graduate Diploma in Pacific Journalism.

Later in the show, I talk to three young journalism graduates about the realities of training for an industry where both employment and pay a shrinking.

And we finish up with a look at several projects aimed at envisaging a new future for a rebuilding Christchurch, including Roger Dennis's Sensing City and Gerard Smyth's six-part second series of Christchurch from the Streets.


Friday Music: An accompanied korero

I'm chairing the LATE at the Museum event next month, under the title The Age of Slacktivism. We've picked a strong lineup -- Nicky Hager, Matthew Hooton, Marianne Elliot, Laura O'Connell Rapira -- and it should be a rousing hour's talk. But allow me to announce what comes after ...

I had been talking with AUT's Richard Pamatatau and he told me about seeing Moana Maniapoto give a striking speech at a seminar in South Auckland; a vivid korero, punctuated with waiata. Having heard Moana's new album, Rima, produced with Paddy Free, I could see how that could be taken a step further.

So I pitched Moana and Paddy on the idea of an accompanied korero, with Moana singing and speaking and Paddy providing electronic accompaniment. (I actually liked the sound of "accompanied whaikorero", but that's a bolder cultural statement than it's my place to make.) And, musical adventurers that they are, they went for it immediately.

What goes down on the night will be based to some extent in Rima, but I don't think it'll be quite like anything either of them have done before. It'll be what they make it.

It's on Monday November 10. You can book here.


This time next week, I'll be in Wellington with (hopefully) not too much of a hangover after attending the Apra Silver Scroll Awards. One of the highlights of the awards promises to be the tribute to this year's Hall of Fame inductee, composer and electronic music pioneer Douglas Lilburn.

This 1970 clip of Lilburn "demonstrating the sounds produced for a modern dance performance that include the electronic reconstitution of the sounds of the extinct huia bird" is wonderful. In this part of his career he was our BBC Radiophonic Workshop, in a way:

Want more? There's Radio New Zealand's prodigious 10-part Lilburn documentary, The Landscape of a New Zealand Composer.

Staying with heritage, the final tranche of Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand online  was launched this week. It's 'Creative and Intellectual Life' and the entry on popular music has been written by -- who else would you even ask? -- Chris Bourke.

And on Audioculture, Andrew Schmidt has Part 1 of a series telling the story of New Zealand music's ultimate post-punk cult hero, Bill Direen. There is plenty in it that has never been told before.


I had some quality listening time last Friday afternoon with Bunnies on Ponies' new album Heat Death of the Universe, so I'm pleased to see that bandleader Samuel Flynn Scott has posted another track from the album, 'Destination Newtown Park Flats' on Soundcloud:

It's about that core human activity, scoring weed, Sam says:

This one makes all sorts of references to the places people could buy pot in Wellington in the 1990s. Like the Black Power head quarters on what was Kensington St. Wellington High Students used to go there at lunchtime and sometimes there would be teachers lurking outside trying to catch you. Of course, half the teachers at WHS actually smoked weed and would let the older kids get away with it with a knowing shrug.

I also reference this ladyShe delivered to recording studios, film sets, large media outlets… if anyone ever wanted to know how far reaching weed use in the capital is you couldn’t ask a better source. She was the ‘safe option’. Bands didn’t mind her popping in. She was unthreatening and reliable. I find her story quite sad really. She was probably the front for some nasty people, but the people who used her services loved her. 

It's always nice to have a backstory, isn't it?

Also moonlighting-from-the-band right now: Street Chant's Emily Littler in her solo guise as Emily Edrosa. 'Corner of the Party' is my favourite song from her eponymous EP, which is at name-your-price on Bandcamp. As this review on Weirdo Wasteland notes, the EP is quite varied and this tale of social alienation kind of has an Evan Dando-ish pop song kicking around inside it.

See also: Charlotte Ryan interviews Emily on Kiwi FM.

And finally, Emily is playing Golden Dawn tonight, with Ed Cake in support and Youmi Zuma DJing out in the yard. That's a pretty sweet evening right there.


The Vinyl Record Collectors Fair is back tomorrow at the Freemans Bay Community Centre, and fans of reggae and rhythm might want to pay especially close attention this time. DJ Stinky Jim sent me this photo of his lot for sale, which he says includes more than 300 reggae 7"s and hundreds of twelves and albums, all at very friendly prices. As if that weren't enough, set up next to him will be his partner in groove, Irene, with an trailerload of just-try-and-get-this-anywhere else Ninjatune wax.

Please try not to arrive before I do.


The Spark Lab Music Month event series in Auckland next month looks amazing for anyone interested in the current state of the music business. Martyn Pepperell has written up the highlights -- which include public discussions with a bunch of interesting people, from Scott McLachlan and Adam Holt to Simon Grigg and Serato founder AJ Bertenshaw. Entry is free to music events, but requires RSVP.



New Zealander Sammy Senior is on production for this wild and noisy slab of ghetto funk. What fun. (For some reason the embedded player's not showing the download button, but it's there if you click through.)

I somehow missed Rousseau when she had her run up the charts at TheAudience last month, but this is pretty cool and dramatic. A good song from yet another self-possessed solo artist, who self-describes as a "muso, writer, feminist, wannabe philosopher".

I freakin' love this edit from Leftside Wobble. There's a download link going on his Facebook page for a couple of days, from tomorrow:

Phil Collins' 'In the Air Tonight' is always a tricky one for discerning music fans. On one hand, it's fucking Phil Collins and ought thus to be destroyed with fire. On the other, it is an undeniably singular record. Nothing in pop before or after has sounded quite like it. It may help that DJ Karim has produced this prowling dub rework of the original. You can download it with no impairment to your credibility, probably.

Aaaand ... this week's Friday funk. Disco Tech doesn't usually make his edits available for download, but this pumping take on Bobby Patterson's 'I Got a Suspicion' is there for the getting this week.


The Hard News Music Post is sponsored by:



Media Take: The creeping politicisation of the OIA

Brent Edwards' story last week on official advice to ministers on child poverty was interesting not only for its substance, but its circumstance.

Edwards explained on Morning Report that he originally requested the first of the documents (some of them now nearly two years old) May last year.

It took a complaint to the Ombudsman's Office to force former Social Development Minister Paula Bennett to release the information - but even then she managed to delay the release:

" ... and even twice before the election I was contacted by the Ombudsman's office and told that the minister's office had … agreed to the release the information and asking if I had received it. Well I had not. And of course as you say child poverty was a campaign issue. But these reports were only finally sent to me well after the election."

This seems a clear and evident breach of the Official Information Act 1982, which requires such information to be released as soon as practically possible, and a decision to be made within a maximum of 20 days -- but carries no sanction for agencies that fail to comply.

On Morning Report the next day, the Prime Minister explained that the government deliberately flouts that law:

"Sometimes we wait the 20 days because, in the end, Government might take the view that's in our best interest to do that."

Things may actually be considerably worse than that in parts of the public sector. Shortly before the election, David Fisher reported this story for the Herald:

A former high-ranking Customs lawyer says he resigned from his job after allegedly being told to bury information that could embarrass the Government.

Curtis Gregorash said he was told by senior Customs executives to refuse Official Information Act and Privacy Act requests, which he believed was at the direction of former Customs Minister Maurice Williamson.

That has sparked a wide-ranging inquiry by an "appalled" Chief Ombudsman. But it seems it's just the tip of the iceberg of an increasingly politicised environment around the Official Information Act, one where it's the default to withold and delay. Check out the number of requests to Child, Youth and Family marked "long overdue" on FYI. Marvel at the correspondence around this still-unfulfilled request seeking details of the "coinciding requests" that supposedly prompted Cameron Slater's fast-track access to an SIS briefing.

Fisher gave a speech to around a hundred public officials in Wellington last week, in which he traced a change that he believes took hold in the last term of the Clark government and has created an environment dominated by media management, obstruction and political interference.

I'd post the whole thing if I could (and I reckon the Herald should, because it's great), but you can also see David Fisher discuss his conclusions, along with barrister and journalist Catriona MacLennan, on last night's MediaTake. Go have a look.

I realise that there is another side to this: the sheer weight of requests, often themselves highly political, or near-vexatious, that suck up resources. But I still think we have real problems with a transparency law that once proudly led the world.