Five Questions for Charlotte Yates

Guy Somerset • 27 November 2016

The singer-songwriter remembers gossip and wordplay with poet Hone Tuwhare as she prepares for a 10th anniversary performance of the New Zealand Festival concert she created in tribute to him.

Toi Māori Art Market 2016 presents Tuwhare – The Concert, 7.30pm, Friday 9 December, Opera House, Wellington.

James K Baxter, Hone Tuwhare, Witi Ihimaera ... Time for another? What are the qualities that draw you to a writer for one of these projects?

These projects intersperse my own writing and recording plans. I've done a fair amount of research into the possibility of working with Katherine Mansfield's poetry, especially since a number of 'undiscovered' writings have been recently unearthed. Vincent O'Sullivan wrote, "And always there is the fascination of a great prose writer's mind when for various reasons she chooses to move from her metier." So I will see how that might work out. What initially drew me to Baxter's work was its freshness, how startlingly contemporary so much of it felt. That has tremendous appeal for composers of both contemporary art and commercial music. A writer needs to have a decent back catalogue to offer the curated musicians choices in tone, topic, phrasing and rhythm and the ability to strongly identify with a particular poem's theme or narrative to turn it into song lyrics. That all three writers have had such resonance with generations of New Zealanders through school curricula, visits to schools, libraries and film has also meant direct influence on many of the recording artists involved in these projects, including me.

Baxter was dead when you prepared that CD and then show, but Tuwhare was alive and you met him in preparation. How was that?

I met Hone Tuwhare in 2004, but I first saw him read poetry, along with Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, Jan Kemp and Sam Hunt, in 1979 in a classroom when I was a sixth former at Waimea College. That was a good day. In 2004, I travelled to Kaka Point and stayed there for three days, spending time in Hone's crib, chatting by the pot-belly stove. He drove me into Balmoral in his black Suzuki jeep, which was an exercise in adrenalin management. He talked about his friendship with Jim Baxter, listened to the CD at deafening volume, thought Dave Dobbyn had a very strong voice singing his setting of Baxter's Song of the Years. When I talked to him about working with his poetry, he was taken aback and asked what I wanted with 'those old things'. One of his stipulations was no media calls, and he subsequently told a Southland Times reporter who nonetheless knocked on his door uninvited to "f--- off". She rang and complained to me. He gossiped, he was merry and was flummoxed by the cabling of his DVD player. He showed me his 'Unfortunately' letter from Creative New Zealand, which had turned down a recent project application. He had scrawled 'bastards' across it. He constantly indulged in wordplay. I had a fine time. Three good days.

Did he hear the CD and/or see the show? If so, what was his verdict?

Both. He was flown to Auckland during the 2007 Auckland Arts Festival presentation of Tuwhare at the Civic Theatre. The cast and I were unaware he was there until 6pm that evening. The atmosphere backstage was utterly electric and the wings were crowded. It made for a very heightened performance to an extremely responsive audience. He engaged with the crowd during Rawiri Paratene's ebullient delivery of the narration. His family were also there and were very supportive. Another very good day.

How did you choose the artists for the project and how did they choose the poems they performed?

I choose songwriters and composers who have strong track records, both live and in the studio. I try to curate a good variety of artists, but ultimately it has to be a coalition of the willing that can reflect the writer's breadth without being too eclectic. They tend to be artists who work predominantly with their own lyrics, forging them into great songs, either with critical or commercial acclaim. I will have seen them live or heard them broadcast (radio/streaming/TV/film/etc), generally both, and followed their careers for sometime. I will like their music. Their music will have meant something to me or have moved me. In terms of choice, when invited, some of the artists knew exactly what Baxter or Tuwhare poem they wanted to do. The Ihimaera project was slightly different, as Witi wrote a number of lyrics, covering the themes and styles of his novels and short stories, which were then distributed to the curated line-up. Artists can use the entire work or an extract. Repetition of individual lines (a major feature of most contemporary songwriting) is kosher. Where there have been double-ups in terms of a number of artists wanting to do the same poem, I have adjudicated. That happened on both the Baxter and Tuwhare CDs. It worked out, though.

Ten years later, has the show evolved from its original version? Have the song treatments?

Sadly, two of the original singer-songwriters from the Tuwhare CD have died since the show was last performed. Mahinarangi Tocker's setting of Hone's poem 'a northland heart-scape' will be sung by Kirsten Te Rito and performed with the NZTrio. Kirsten was trained initially by Linden Loader ( 1981 Mobil Song Quest Winner), but has spent most her career as a soul singer picking up accolades for her recent recordings in te reo. The late Graham Brazier's wonderful rendition of the poem 'Friend' is being performed by Warren Maxwell, who will wear the mantle well. Warren is a Silver Scroll finalist, an Arts Foundation recipient and well known for his work with Trinity Roots and Little Bushmen. There are several other artists filling in for those unable to return to New Zealand for this concert, including Amiria Grenell, who will perform Hinemoana Baker's setting of 'Where shall I wander' while Hinemoana finishes her year-long Creative New Zealand writer's residency in Berlin. This 10th anniversary is both reunion and refreshment.

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Guy Somerset was the founding editor of ARTicle Magazine. He is a former Books & Culture Editor of NZ Listener and Books Editor of The Dominion Post.