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May/June 2021

by Richard Thorne

Dianne Swann: Giving Us A Piece Of Her Mind

by Richard Thorne

Dianne Swann: Giving Us A Piece Of Her Mind

Explaining the title of her newly-released debut solo album, Dianne Swann says it relates to the human condition; in a nutshell that sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, that we cannot always feel happy, and we all find techniques to maintain our own equilibrium. ‘The War On Peace Of Mind’ is an album that’s been two interrupted years in the making – but for the highly regarded Auckland singer/guitarist, fully 30 years in the waiting. Swann shared some tales of the album’s genesis with Richard Thorne.

As I set down the recording device on the table between us Dianne Swann half-mockingly suggests that some adjustment of levels might be needed, since she has a rather quiet voice. She’s right. She’s also very thoughtful, rather self-effacing, and charmingly honest.

There’s an adage that runs, ‘…speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.’ Her stick comes with six steel strings. And with a prior discography of six albums plus almost as many EP releases, career stints with at least three significant acts and feature appearances with numerous others, Swann has indeed gone far with music. She’s also learned plenty about disappointment along the way.

After topping local charts in the late 1980s with When The Cat’s Away, Swann went all the way to the UK in 1991, intent on establishing her own career. There she and guitarist Brett Adams established The Julie Dolphin, sniffing real major league success before frustration saw them return home to Auckland in the early 2000s, the couple subsequently giving us enduring alt-country band The Bads.

In April this year Swann released her first solo album. ‘Long awaited’ is a wildly overused music PR phrase, but in this case it has real merit. Her own debut plans actually date all the way back to before she quit NZ to seek recognition and better fortune in London.

“I started out intending to do a solo album way back when I put out Something Good [1989], which stayed on the charts for quite a long time, and I had a whole lot of solo demos ready. I started recording with Australian producer Nick Mainsbridge. He took it around the major labels over there and got a really favourable response from one major who wanted to put it out, but with a joint Australia/NZ release. So they contacted their NZ office and the NZ people said, ‘No’… So I went to England! I mean, what the…? People here knew me and I had done the groundwork…”

Worth the wait? ‘The War On Peace Of Mind’ is a master work of vinyl LP proportions (just eight songs), that’s both current and timeless, while also connecting back to her own journey. An album of crafted melodies and of lyrical substance. She’d had the chord structure, melody and opening lines of the titular track, Losing The War On Peace Of Mind, for years, and says the song kept popping into her head, asking her to finish it.

“I did want this album to be personal. As a co-writer you might not want to speak for others in the band. For this I am speaking for myself, so I really wanted every line to matter. I didn’t want to say anything I don’t mean. I had a strong feeling of intent for this record. I wanted to really work on the lyric and the melody and make sure each song was expressing something. Once I got the eight songs done I felt like we were done. I felt they worked together, thematically almost.”

Having composed the album over the winter of 2019, recording at the Kumeu studio of engineer/drummer Tom Broome started at the beginning 2020. The band of Chris O’Connor on drums, Ben King on bass and Swann on guitar, managed two sessions before Covid meant things had to be put on hold, but the album fundamentals were already in place.

“The idea was to do it very quickly and we basically just tracked the rhythm tracks in those two sessions. We tracked eight songs, with the plan to go back and do the overdubs, and then send the files off to be finished.

“We got to do that for one song, then Steve Power, who was mixing, got Covid. He didn’t know it was, but then I didn’t hear from him until he told me he had just been exhausted – then we went into lockdown here.”

English producer/mix engineer Power’s substantial credits include Robbie Williams, Delta Goodrem and British Sea Power – ‘more than 40 million albums sold’ according to his website. It’s telling that his offer to mix Swann’s album was based on events way back in the last millennium and Power’s enduring admiration for the music of The Julie Dolphin.

“He produced us in the UK, the Boom Boom Mancini [which The Julie Dolphin had re-named to] album, but it didn’t come out – it was a bit of a sad story. [Her already quiet voice drops to a theatric whisper in revealing that ‘lost’ album is likely to finally see release here later this year.]

“He’d worked on stuff that I loved, the Julian Cope album, with World Shut Your Mouth, Blur, Babybird… and we asked him to produce us.”

They’ve kept in online touch over the decades since and Swann says he’s offered a few times to help with mixing The Bads, but on each occasion, the offer came too late.

“This time Steve responded to something I posted early on. He popped up to ask what I was doing and then asked me if he could do the mixing.”

While yet another frustration, in some ways, she reflects, the imposed delay was good for the album.

“Covid meant I was able to give it time, to put it aside then go back and listen with fresh ears rather than just bashing it out. I reckon the record would have been different otherwise – there would have been a push to get the files to Steve. (The offer of Steve Power mixing your album, if you can get it to him before his summer, was too good to miss!)”

The added time to evaluate what they’d recorded did result in substantial change to a couple of the album’s eight songs.

That’s Everything’s New and Please Leave A Message. All we did was completely take the drum tracks off, then Tom Broome (who is also a drummer) and I worked together to develop a different feel. It was a really nice kind of jigsaw puzzle-way of keeping the bass tracks and totally changing the drum feel, which was actually really cool.”

‘The War On Peace Of Mind’ is self-produced by Swann. It’s a role she has in the past shared with Brett Adams for The Bads’ several albums, and one she clearly relishes.

“The role of producer, as I see it, is the person that brings together the musicians that you want to make the sounds, to make decisions about the songs, to make decisions about where things go and how they are played… It felt second nature to me, to just get excited and try stupid things,” she giggles.

The experience and excellence of her chosen musicians meant most decisions could be made within the recording sessions.

“I had a feeling when I went to the studio of how I wanted it to sound. I wanted it to be an immediate feel album, and I wanted the rhythm section to feel kind of like a live band. And for it to be eight songs, because I wanted to have the same feeling that I used to have with albums before people recorded for CDs. Albums like ‘Horses’, or some Iggy Pop albums, sort of the late ’70s when there were some great short, sharp, focused albums. Not meandering.”

Partner to one of this country’s very best guitarists, Swann clearly enjoyed the rare chance to play almost all the guitars on her record, including some double-tracking.

“Ben King played a few bits, Brett played 12-string on Everything’s New, but otherwise it’s me. I love playing guitar so it was great to get a go at it,” she laughs. “Of course I wanted Brett to play on it, but I wanted first go!”

Her recording amp of choice is a 1960s Fender Princeton – turned up loud.

“It’s from one of the first years they started making them and I love that amp, so I just used that all the way through. I used my Tele most of the time and also an old hollow bodied Guyatone that’s got a ridiculous whammy bar on it. I used that on Rare Good Feeling.”

Engineer Tom Broome also played some organ while the ubiquitous Dave Khan provided the remaining keyboards, mellotron and arpeggiator, the mellotron also used for the string sounds on Show Your Heart and Losing The War.

Swann recalls that at the time of recording she was listening to a lot to Bowie’s last album, and also The Flaming Lips. The Oklahoma psych-rockers get another mention when discussing the closing song, Rare Good Feeling, a more up-tempo rock track that reflects the album’s gritty and conscience-stirring opener These Are The Days.

“I think the album’s got grit through it, but tenderness as well, and I wanted it to have both. I suppose it goes back to influences. I love the way that, say, The Flaming Lips can do a song that’s got fuzzy guitars in it, then the next minute has got a weird synth sound or a funny little drum part, or BVs, you know? And I love the way that Neil Young can have grit but tenderness at the same time. I didn’t approach it as ‘this will be a rock album’, or ‘this will be a anything’… again it comes back to wanting each song to realise its strength I guess.

“I wanted it to be an album you would listen to from start to finish – given it’s only 30 mins and 18 seconds or something,” she laughs. “And I felt that Rare Good Feeling bookended the start – so you start with fire and brimstone and end up with, “…people, we can do this.” I feel that was a good optimistic place to end, and it’s fun when some of this album is very serious. So a good full stop!”

She struggles more to define the influence of Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’.

“I guess in the aspect of sonically with some of the big low arpeggiated synthy sounds. And also I suppose that, with it being Bowie writing his last album, it was from the heart, and there was nothing in there that he didn’t want to say. The intent I guess, the clarity. I’m not very wordy, like say people like Dylan. I feel like I whittle it down until I’ve hopefully expressed what I wanted to.”

It was the antithesis of clarity that sparked her into writing the album’s focal point opening track, and really kicked off the whole album. These Are The Days is a biting social statement (‘People, get used to the new world…’) regarding the need to stop ignoring/causing climate change – neatly overlaid with the battle for female empowerment.

“Weirdly, I did feel like the world was ramping up towards something in 2019,” she explains of the song’s anthemic lyrics. “The day that Auckland turned orange, that really frightened me. [The eerie effect of bush fire smoke drifting westward from Australia was big news in the first week of 2020.] That’s when I wrote These Are The Days. And when I was writing it I realised I wasn’t just writing about Mother Earth, but I was writing about women as well.

“It started off as, ‘Woohh, Mother Earth is coming to get us, she’s fighting back and we are in trouble…’ As I was writing it I realised it was deeper. The feminist side of it, I was thinking of women in the role of motherhood, and how people take mothers for granted and don’t respect them that well much of the time. I felt strongly about both things, so that was why it came out with that dual meaning.

“The bit I like about the song is, ‘Mother’s tears gonna rain, she will reign.’ So there’s the idea that… both will end up ruling the planet!” she finishes with meaningful laughter.