Following contracts composing soundtracks for documentaries, including sister Gaylene Preston‘s Helen Clark documentary My Year With Helen, Jan Preston, Aotearoa’s own queen of boogie-woogie, is taking her latest album, ‘Boogie Woogie Woman’, on a massive 24-date tour of Te Waipounamu – starting late September. NZM used the chance for a quick catch up with the internationally renowned powerhouse pianist, singer and entertainer.
I’ve always lived “trans-Tasmanly” if you like. Although my base is in Sydney, I’m usually there about 6 months of the year as my husband Mike Webb-Pullman and I have a house in Wellington, as well as spending a lot of time in Queensland and on tour.
I moved to Sydney in 1980 when rock band Coup D’Etat was happening. Nowadays nothing seems to be permanent in my life except music, whānau and friends. Places are more fluid.
Every professional pianist wants to play a decent instrument, that’s just how it is, no matter what style of music. We all want the depth, variety, transients and power of a long string.
I have a particularly nice 1987 Yamaha C5 grand in my home studio which is brilliant. It’s in a wooden environment with a high stud (an old stable), so it sounds fabulous. I also have a Danneman in Wellington and a Julius Feurich on the Gold Coast, both lovely upright pianos.
I think all artists are chasing some kind of elusive perfection in their work. Sometimes we hit it and sometimes not. The most important thing is to be moving forward creatively, that is my lifeblood, the thing that propels me to get up in the morning and go to the piano. I’m very pleased with ‘Piano Boogie Woman’, at this point it’s my best record!
I’ve pretty well always written solo, it’s just how it’s worked out. Other songwriters I greatly admire, such as Nick Charles from Melbourne and Mike Garner from Tauranga (both guitar players), have written songs for me which I love to sing and are almost always on the setlist.
It’s not so much taking more time with the composition, that’s more or less a split second thing, often springing from improvisation. It’s more to the point that the quietness of lockdown, the lack of distractions, means things can marinate in my musical brain.
I’ve been lucky in the past 2 years so my work has kept going. But it has been just that – luck. Many of my friends and colleagues have been having a terribly hard time with no opportunities at all. I’ve composed music for 2 films, as well as concerts in Queensland and NZ (both Covid free).
It’s been okay thus far for me, but overall it continues to be extremely challenging for everyone in the arts as we all know.
Play out it did, literally! I had my keyboard set up and Mike had some percussion gear with him, we were actually very busy rehearsing.
I’ve been playing with Mike for many years and he’s great in that he doesn’t boss me musically. Drummers can do that, push or pull the groove and you have no option but to go with them. I’ve studied boogie intensely for years (mostly in Germany where the best players and teachers are), and it’s a very subtle groove.
All blues is as well. So the most important person for me to lock in with is the drummer and that’s easy with Mike, plus I like his set-up. Snare and cymbal played with brushes, moving on to washboard for a few numbers.
The sound is completed by double bassist Paul Gilmour from Nelson and Dave Coleclough from Dunedin, both superb players.
Yes, it does affect me, particularly the West Coast. There’s some primeval connection that always overcomes me when I’m there. My family never travelled so I don’t feel that anywhere else on the South Island to be honest. Not the same way. And although the Prestons moved to Napier where I did most of my schooling, the whānau were generations of people from around the West Coast area, so our cultural identity always came from that perspective.
We’ve always had wonderful shows at The Playhouse in Mapua, and of course the Regent Theatre in Greymouth, where my mother worked as a young woman. It’s always very emotional to be performing there as it hasn’t changed much. It’s a beautiful theatre.
The most important aspect of the shows overall is the audience, that’s why we’re there and that can be in any venue at all.
My audience are mainly baby boomers but also younger people with an interest in blues and/or piano music. They’re the same demographic in Australia and also Germany.
I’ll be performing new material from the CD, telling stories both hilarious and poignant by way of introducing these tunes, and belting out my trademark boogie and blues. There’ll be a lot of joy. And love.