Five years ago I released a book. On Song looked at 30 of the best New Zealand songs, 30 of my favourites. We started with a long list of at least 100 songs and whittled and whittled. I say ‘we’ – I am referring to the publisher, Penguin. And me. I was commissioned to write the book – a cold-call; would I be interested? Yeah, sure! I wanted to have a go at writing a book and it was a subject I was passionate about – songs. Music. New Zealand songs. Kiwi music. Time to shine the light on a few favourites. There have been plenty of books about favourite albums and behind-the-scenes looks at songs and songwriting. I would write one more.
And I did.
I signed on to write the book – took a small advance, used it to book some flights to Auckland to do some interviews. And carried on with life and my other jobs.
Over the course of a year I did ‘research’. The list of songs got moved around and rewritten. I wanted to include plenty of women – as well as men. Maori and Pacific artists. Hip-hop had to be in there, not just pop songs. Not just rock songs. It was to be a modern list – so it’s mostly 80s and 90s songs, a few from the seventies, a couple from the sixties, some from the early 00s too. I wanted to give a good nod to Flying Nun and “The Dunedin Sound” – I wanted to revisit some of the glaringly obvious choices (Don’t Dream It’s Over) but I wanted to include some personal favourites, some slightly ‘oddball’ choices perhaps (The Beautiful Young Crew).
A list has to intrigue, at least on some level.
The aim was to talk about songwriting and songwriters. To talk about songs – to talk about New Zealand.
I hadn’t written a word of the book when Oscar arrived into the world. On that day in the hospital Jordan Luck called to congratulate me on becoming a father. I had met him only a month or so earlier and we had talked for the book and bonded over music – not just his. Almost all music…
Katy and Oscar stayed in the hospital for a week. I visited every day, all day, then returned home to work at night – carrying on with reviews and the daily blog and trying to work out how I was going to write a book. And why the hell had I not started it months ago? I had ‘started’ it – I’d done many of the interviews, I’d played the music over and again, I was making notes, I was keeping a lot of things in my head. I was working full-time around all of this too.
But on a Saturday morning in early November, in 2011, I sat down to write the first words of On Song.
I had Don’t Dream It’s Over on repeat, I listened to it 20 times or so. The brand new baby being rocked to sleep by my big toe as I balanced a laptop on my knees, sitting on the floor, tapping away at the very first chapter.
It took an hour or so – maybe closer to two – but I had the book’s first chapter.
I celebrated by taking the rest of the weekend off.
And then I spent my second week of parental leave bonding with Katy and Oscar.
The deadline for the first draft was January 20.
Just before Christmas I knocked out another couple of chapters. And then over Christmas and New Years and the first two weeks of January I wrote most of the book. It was a busy time. I was at work during the day, I was reviewing gigs at night sometimes, I had a blog to jot down and post every week day. And somewhere in all of that I had a book to write. I was still doing some of the final interviews too.
I’d spend two hours on the phone with someone like Alistair Riddell – a scholar and a gent – and then I’d sit down and turn that conversation into a chapter about his glam-rock hit, Out on The Street. In fact, I remember this vividly, the exact order that day was: wake up, have breakfast, talk to Riddell, write a blog post about how god-awful Six60 is, write Space Waltz chapter, have lunch with friends…later that day I wrote another two chapters for the book. And my Twitter-feed exploded with angry Six60 fans taking out their poor education on me!
The deadline was extended – due to production reasons. But it suited me just fine. I had a few things to finish off. When I submitted the final draft, a couple of months on, I did two interviews on the last night and wrote four complete chapters. It was an all-nighter, a photo-finish. But I had done it.
Proof-reading and edits, suggested changes, and all the usual things…
And then in late October of 2012 the book was launched.
We had some speeches and a wee party and signing at Slow Boat Records. I had to pay for the books myself – the publisher refused to put on a launch, or even contribute to it. So I organised a venue, bought some booze, and begged my dad to put a credit card number down for $2000 worth of books on a sale-or-return basis (but the card had to be charged first before they’d release the books from Australia).
You’re an author now. And part of being an author is having a launch. It’s expected. Not all launches go that way – some publishers do pay for them. But mine did not. So, we soldiered on. We found a way.
The books all sold. So that was a relief.
The next day – after just a few drinks in celebration – I was interviewed by Kim Hill.
And later I was interviewed by other radio stations, for a few magazines and sites and newspapers. And then on TV a couple of times. The reviews started to trickle out. I did a couple of ‘talks’ – a Q&A-type thing at Unity Books to a lunchtime crowd. Some journalists relished the chance to get their digs in – a couple of stink reviews but mostly positive. (An annoying photo-shoot for The Listener where 90 minutes was wasted and the end result was one of the first photos taken. Worse than that the accompanying article was some weird not-quite-beat-up that talked about me and some of the harsh reviews I’d written but barely mentioned the book, or its positive angle, masking it somewhere in a line about it being a commissioned piece; suggesting it wasn’t written with any heart, that it hadn’t come from my heart, from 30+ years of being obsessed with many of the songs and artists in the book. The interview for that article took a couple of hours, I was reduced down to just a few pointless lines. Ah well, that’s how it is sometimes…)
On Song won a design award. (Well deserved too, Alan Deare is a genius – I met him a couple of years down the track at a Princess Chelsea gig and got to thank him and congratulate him).
I made no money from the book. I still get royalty statements telling me I’m in the negative. I technically owe the publisher. (You could say). This is pretty standard.
The book sold quite a few copies, particularly since it was an expensive book ($65 I think?)
A couple of years on you could buy it from The Warehouse for $20. Or $10 even. I bought a couple…
There were a few questions around a second volume, or any sort of second book from me. I didn’t think a second volume would go very well – so wasn’t too interested in that. Though there are plenty of great songs to feature, but you know, diminishing returns and all that (I mean in terms of general interest/sales…)
I took a meeting with the publisher to briefly discuss a second book – not in any way related to On Song. We both came away from that realising that I really didn’t have a good idea for a second book. It was too vague. And would have sold worse than a second volume of On Song.
It was an interesting experience writing a book. Squeezing it out. Squeezing it into my life for a year there. Writing at 5am or 1am or 6pm or 12pm. Taking phone calls during the lunch hour of my ‘real job’. Stopping mid-chapter to finish writing the next day’s blog. Stopping mid-chapter to change the baby’s nappy or to sit up with him while his mother caught up on some sleep. It really did feel like the birth of two children. My son. And then the book. Forever linked, if only to me.
I met Dave Dobbyn and Graham Brazier, spoke on the phone with Annie Crummer and Shona Laing. I exchanged emails with plenty of people, there was a Skype or two and some lengthy Facebook chat sessions.
One time, I ran across the road from my work’s office to Civic Square to talk to Mitchell Froom, Suzanne Vega’s ex-husband, producer and arranger of many albums and movie soundtracks, member of The Latin Playboys. And, in the context of that conversation, the man that produced the first Crowded House album and played the gorgeous organ solo on Don’t Dream It’s Over.
Jan Hellriegel made me dinner. Jordan Luck bought me beers. Phil Judd spoke to me on the phone. Tim Finn refused to speak to me on the phone.
It was an interesting time. A fascinating experiment.
And then it just disappeared. Into the bargain bins. Sometimes I see it in the background of photos – its bright orange cover a beacon. I’ve been tagged in photos on Facebook, reviewed on Goodreads, private-messaged from time to time.
I don’t regret writing it. Of course. It was a good thing to do and I reckon, as far as first books go, I did an okay job.
For the most part I enjoyed being interviewed and reviewed, just in a boot-on-the-other-foot way.
Radio NZ serialised it – I sat in a tiny studio with Noelle McCarthy on a Saturday morning and we talked about every single chapter of the book across some three hours. They chopped them up into 5-10 minute episodes and shared them out daily over the summer programming.
The publisher needed convincing that this would be worth it, they didn’t want to pay for a flight. When we organised an appearance on Good Morning as well they agreed and shouted me returns Jestar tickets.
Phantom Billstickers generously created a street-poster campaign.
I shilled for that book for as long as I could. I stood behind it. Proud of it.
And then it ran its course. Did its time. Disappeared. And it all started to feel like hard work for really not much at all. For pretty much nothing. I’m used to that in a lot of the work I do.
In the Wellington City Library, which was Oscar’s second home during his toddler years, we’d sometimes see that bright orange spine jutting out from the shelf.
“Look Daddy”, three-year-old Osc would say. “You wrote that book! You did that one. That’s your book!”