Recorded in Nashville, via Invercargill and Auckland, the debut album from Arun O’Connor, ’Songs From The Reading Room’ introduces a strong new alt-country/rock singer-songwriter talent to our country music scene. True he’s been a successful musician for at least half his life, but until now that’s meant playing other people’s songs. Arun talked with Richard Thorne.
Invercargill’s Arun O’Connor can draw an unusually direct line from winning big at the 2018 Gold Guitar Awards (with his cover of Tennessee Whiskey by Chris Stapleton), to releasing his debut album in late April this year.
The prize package for his clean sweep in Gore, in particular the Senior Male Vocal title, included the chance to record an original single with Jay Tooke, a prominent indie producer in Nashville. Arun was well up for taking a trip to the home of US country music, he just needed to write his first original song is all.
Four years later the 31 year old is promoting his first album release, a strikingly convincing collection of a dozen polished tracks, encompassing soulful lost-love odes all the way to stadium-sized rock ballads, a sound he likes to summarise as ’Kiwi country’. Reviewers seem to favour ’kickass country music’.
There’s no question music runs in the family, Arun grew up with a dad and three older brothers who all played drums.
“I was the late starter – I was more into art and only started playing music at 11. When I finally decided I wanted to play guitar my dad couldn’t get me one fast enough!”
A Southland Rock’n’Roll Hall of Famer, The Eagles and Steely Dan were more to his father’s taste, and Arun says he was never really a country music fan, or part of the country music club circuit scene.
Despite the fact that Gore is only 45 minutes away from Invercargill, Arun had no idea just how big the annual Gold Guitar Awards were until his teens were behind him. Jody Direen helped usher him into the fold, and in hindsight forged an early connection between him and Tooke.
He was playing bass for the break out Wanaka country star back in 2015 when Direen signed with Australian record label ABC Music, and released her first album. Her association with Bear Grylls’ management made it quite big news at the time.
“Yeah, a lot of her musicians had gone off to do other things and Jody all a sudden needed a new band. A Queenstown guitarist got my brother in to play drums and my brother said, ’I’ll join if you get my brother to play bass.’ I hadn’t played bass in a while and it was good to get back into it. I also arranged a lot of the harmonies and stuff like that.“
“I’m predominantly a country guitarist, and when Jody heard me playing the guitar one day she asked why I wasn’t playing guitar for her! So then she got another bass player in and I went to the second guitar – which I did until I left the band. We played some great gigs and some massive festivals and stuff, but I wanted to start doing my own thing. It was good experience though.”
Direen too had previously won a trip to Nashville, where she had met Canadian country music producer/drummer Tooke, and ended up recording her debut album with him. Likewise another Southland country singer Kayla Mahon, with whom Arun makes up a local acoustic duo called The Founders.
“I think that when Kayla joined the Gold Guitars as a young committee member she wanted to amp things up and offer more of a career starting prize. So a single recording in Nashville, a really lovely OM28 Martin guitar, good cash prize and opportunities to play lots of festivals. Jay was the producer that she chose.“
“The first year that was offered was 2017, which Jenny Mitchell won, but she didn’t go over there to record. I had never been to the Sates and wanted to go there for a holiday.“
“That was definitely what started me down the track of writing my own music. I knew I had a few months to write a song that I liked enough to record in Nashville.”
Together with his partner, Arun headed off on a two week trip to the States in September 2018. He only had the one song, Following The Line, to record. It meant several sessions in Tooke’s Nashville studio over a few days to record the parts, his vocals done on their last night before leaving.
“It was great experience,” remarks Arun. “I had been in studios before, recording for other people, but it’s not quite the same as when you are doing it for yourself. You want to get it right!”
In Tooke he had met a musical soul mate, the chemistry evidently mutual.
“We were very similar in the way we did everything musically, and even in sense of humour.”
Even their partners got on like a house on fire. Arun recalls the four being out to dinner when a song came on and both he and Tooke simultaneously played an air guitar riff. Their two partners looked at each other as if to say, ’OMG, they’re just the same person…’
“That’s why I went back to him again and again to record and produce my stuff. I get all the input I want. I can tell him what I want and he’ll make it sound like that – but he already knows what I might want!”
By the time they got seriously started on ’Songs From The Reading Room’ Covid meant no more international travelling, Arun instead worked on it from his Invercargill home.
“America was a mess at the time, and Nashville had some of the worst Covid case numbers per capita in the whole world! There was also a lot of unrest over there with the Black Lives Matter movement and stuff. And so we did everything over Zoom. Zoom’s been my way of communicating with everyone pretty much since the pandemic started!
“I’d get up at 3am and sit on a call for eight hours. They’d have a few computers in the engineer’s room and out in the studio, so I could see what was happening, take notes and make changes, literally as if I was there. The live audio was streamed from the desk to my headphones, a tiny delay but it was fine.
“We did that for three days then I went to Auckland to do my parts at Roundhead, and Jay would join in via Zoom. They were 10-hour days as well – we did four of those. Because of the time difference Jay was doing 20-hour work days, so he’d grab some sleep during our lunch breaks!”
Tooke and other Nashville session musicians are responsible for much of the musical bedware, but Arun’s credits include acoustic, electric and 12-string guitars and of course, his vocals.
“I’d always just wanted to go there, so when I was given the option to go wherever I wanted I chose Roundhead! I was working with Stephen Marr and his assistant Alex Corbett. They were super efficient, and once everything was set up it was so easy to get things done. I was only up there for five days, we started at 10am and finished at 8pm.”
Arun laughs a bit at himself in admitting he always arrived an hour early, before the engineers, explaining he was excited and keen to plan the day ahead. Punctuality (to the point of being early) is his thing.
“It was such a great place to be, lots of cool stuff and a bit of history there as well…” Day one we tracked almost all of the acoustic parts for the album. I played some baritone parts, some 12-string and then all the electric parts. Jay got them to set up three old amps, two mics on each amp, then two room mics and I plugged through all three at the same time, and then played multiple electric guitar parts with different guitars to layer all the parts up. That was a lot of fun!
“I did want to play more solos, but the ones that had been put down in Nashville were too good to replace – I just did the one in Too Far Gone.”
Tooke played nearly all the drum tracks along with mixing and producing, as well as sharing BVs with Arun. All of which begs the question of how the production and future marketing of ’Songs From The Reading Room’ has been funded. That’s a lot of prime Nashville stock to be paying for after all. Arun reveals he has backing from a friend he went to school with, from primary through the end of high school.
“I hadn’t seen him in 15 years when he called me out of the blue, and said, ’You need to make an album’. We’ve since started a business together and he’s thankfully paying for the album. It’s meant it could be done as well as it could be. I’d love it to do well for him, because he’s believed in me enough to actually back it and make it happen.”
Backtracking just a few years Arun was a songwriting novice, yet somehow wrote a whopping 16 new songs from October 2020 to March 2021.
“Ahhh, I wanted to do an album and needed songs I spose,” he smiles wryly. “I really don’t know how to explain it, at that time I just had a lot to write. I did have a few songs like Walk Away already. And I co-wrote a few of them with some of Jay’s Nashville friends as well – via Zoom.”
Deciding on the 12 songs that made the album was one of the few times that opinions differed. Tooke and Arun each made their own picks before comparing notes and finally agreeing on 10. The lists were quite different, so it wasn’t altogether an easy final decision. Based on fans’ insistence they added the rollicking Let Go Of My Heart, a re-recording of his second self-composed single released late in 2019, then included a reprise of When The Darkness Comes Around to close the album. It’s an experienced artist sort of touch, but amusingly reveals Arun’s lack of album recording experience.
CD copies of ’Songs From The Reading Room’ are due with him the day we talk in mid-April, with vinyl also coming but still some months away. Arun admits being caught out by the six-month delay between order and delivery of vinyl, even here in NZ.
“We had to amend some things on there as well. The wee reprise at the end isn’t on the vinyl version because there’s literally not enough space on there. This is my first album so there’s been a lot of learning. It changes once you’ve done it, you think of so many things you’d like to do next time… And you don’t think about album length when recording, you just think about the songs.”