Maybe you don’t know Al Park, but if Christchurch is in your musical purview than you’ll surely have heard of Al’s Bar, the city’s premier music venue until earthquakes broke the inner city. A stalwart of the Christchurch music scene, his bands Louie and the Hotsticks and The Latter Day Sinners have been hugely successful over recent decades. Going further back, Al Park’s early musician days included punk act Vapour and the Trails and founding seminal punk venue Mollet St. Back up to date he’s considered a father figure to the disparate friends who cornerstone the ‘Lyttelton Sound’, artists like Marlon Williams, The Eastern, Aldous Harding, Delaney Davidson and Lindon Puffin. ‘Better Already – The Songs Of Al Park’ is part tribute, part expose, as contributors Adam McGrath and Delaney Davidson explain.
With a list of vocalists that glowingly includes Marlon Williams, Jordan Luck, Delaney Davidson and Barry Saunders, it’s inevitable that another Lyttelton music legend, Adam McGrath, is one of the key contributors to ‘Better Already – The Songs Of Al Park’. He takes charge of Better Already (which was co-written by Ben Brown) and shares the limelight with Adam Hattaway on Snowbound. Highly regarded for his own incredible support for the Christchurch music scene post-earthquakes, McGrath was happy to help answer a few key questions, like ‘Who is Al Park?’ and, ‘Why are all these people on this record singing his songs?’
“In Christchurch, if you’ve been around music, as a fan, as a player, or as a business then you know Al Park. If you spend 10 minutes in public with him, you’ll have 10 different hellos coming his way, from head nods to hour-long debates with everyone knows him to say hi to.
“Those close to Al know his influence as well. He’s our friend, our loadstone, our voice of reason, our bullshit detector, our what to do and our what not do to, our supporter. That’s why all the people who sung these songs on ‘Better Already’ did it, because they count on Al. He’s a deep real influence and we are grateful – and this is our tribute.
“It wasn’t a thing to do to make Al famous, or sell a million records, or any of that nonsense, it was just a fun idea and it turned out to be more, and to mean more. It was the right thing to do, by people who have always been done right by Al. Because he’s an influencer – not in a weak Instagram way, but in a deep wheel of faith giving kind’a way. That’s why he counts and hopefully why this record will also. Thanks Al!”
According to Delaney Davidson who produced ‘Better Already – The Songs Of Al Park’ and also took on two tracks, it isn’t actually a ‘covers’ album as the whole project was put together by Park – he chose to get the songs performed by people he has connections with and funded it.
“’Better Already’ is Al Park’s album. He instigated it with the help of his good friend Will Davie,” Davidson explains. “He asked me if I would be interested to produce it and after a few discussions, we hit on the idea of different guest singers being featured almost as character interpretations of the songs on the album.
“The idea resonated with me as I had thought about this same concept. An album I wanted to write for different people to sing; the songs obviously being mine but I wouldn’t be singing on the album. So I saw where Al was coming from immediately and the whole idea really came from there. I think as Al is so community based with his work this concept really makes sense. Kind of like the presence of a spirit through a bunch of people.
“I think Adam sums up the importance of Al and the album’s liner notes also explain a lot (pretty much artist by artist and blow by blow) about how Al has been in people’s lives at various formative times. One thing about being important is the simple fact of being there, and this is something Al has been over the years. He has been firmly rooted in Christchurch. He is a strong character and over the years has made an impression on the music scene here.”
Davidson remembers the approach about being producer as being made in a very roundabout way, Park seeming shy to ask.
“I suddenly saw how it’s easy to push for other people yet when it comes to your own stuff it’s hard to ask for things. So I asked if this was him asking me to help him with his album and he said yes, it was!”
Given about 20 rough demos of songs Park had written Davidson zeroed in on a dozen or so, with 10 ending up on the album. Some, he says, were a couple of verses and a snatch of chorus, some he had been playing for years.
“We ended up with the songs that I put through my own demoing process and explored some development possibilities, changing feels and tempos, resetting styles and generally feeling out the material. There were some pretty primitive versions of things but they might contain the spark of something beautiful.
“Al could probably do about eight of these albums with the material he has. I felt a nervousness on his part that some hidden gems would get left behind and forgotten, he was very conscientious about getting me everything he wanted me to hear. In the end, it’s often a matter of looking at what sits well on an album giving it variety and some treasures will have to wait for another day.”
Davidson demoed the songs himself to get a feel for them. Once both were happy with the feels and treatments he put a band together and the songs were tracked with Josh Petrie at The Sitting Room. Davidson also performed two songs, Blue Afternoon and Melt Me With Your Kiss, alongside Anita Clark.
“What makes Al’s songs special is the personal feeling in what he is singing about,” Davidson says. “Classic small world echoing the big world thing. He writes about his everyday life and that makes it relatable to most people.
“Who hasn’t suffered at the hands of love, who hasn’t been through a breakup? Pretty much all of these songs are about breakups and in the end how many songs aren’t? It’s a basic fact of songwriting. Dealing with goodbye. We hope it’s a purging experience to write and listen to music, so I ended up suggesting Better Already as the title track to help balance this and give a positive swing on it.
“There are some incredibly tender moments in the songs and also in the way the artists have performed them. It’s been amazing to hear them inhabit and make the material their own. Jordan Luck’s version of Wave To Remember really takes it to another level and I could hear a crowd singing along when he was performing it. Hearing Adam Hattaway slide his way into the driver seat of Snowbound [performed with Adam McGrath], witnessing Janice Gray deliver Strong Arm Man with her incredible gravitas and power. The songs really came alive.”
Finally, it does have to be asked, what’s been Al Park’s take on all of this?
“Well over this album process I have seen him be: full of excitement, trepidatious, tired, restless, joyous, crying, laughing, nervous, struck dumb, relieved, distracted, focused and proud,” Davidson answers. “He has run the gamut of emotions related to album-making and I think now stands at the other end having poured and crystalised all these emotions into a physical product he can hold in his hands and present as a part of his work in this world.”