May/June 2018

by Michael Hollywood

Ex-Pat Files: Estella Dawn

by Michael Hollywood

Ex-Pat Files: Estella Dawn

New Zealand has indeed got talent, much of it currently based off-shore doing what talented artists need to do – challenging themselves, making a name for themselves and making a living. Colorado could hardly be described as a hotbed for Kiwi musical adventurers, but it is where Michael Hollywood caught up with Estella Dawn, a singer/songwriter of pedigree and potential.

When Estella Winnie-McGee first appeared on NZ’s Got Talent as a fresh-faced 16-year old, back in 2013, judge Jason Kerrison quipped that she already had a “…country singer superstar name.”

Five years on, the New Plymouth-raised singer/songwriter is based in Louisville, Colorado, a 30-minute drive from Denver, making music under the guise of Estella Dawn.

While Kerrison’s words were perhaps intended as little more than throwaway TV fare, there was a morsel of truth to them. Her maternal grandfather, Max Winnie, was in his time a leading figure within Wellington folk circles. In 1971, as part of a band called Country Deal, he appeared on Studio One – his own generation’s version of a nationally-televised talent quest. Back in the ‘90s, her father Andy McGee was the vocalist for hard-rocking Wellington blues band Desert Road. With musical genes on both sides, the fickle hand of fate was already playing with a stacked deck.

“Music is just something I’ve always done. My parents have said that even as a small child I’d be sitting in the car [on trips] and I’d make up songs, and for hours I’d just sing and sing. Dad’s definitely been an influence. He just has this very articulate, brilliant way with words. From a very young age I was reading and listening to a lot of things he was doing, and a lot of it is very poetic, so that got me into writing poetry, and I think that really influences my music a lot.”

Having benefitted from some Play It Strange exposure Estella came within a whisker of making the NZGT grand final – which led to a Brooklands Bowl (New Plymouth) support slot for Titanium, and another for Adam McGrath of The Eastern – plus a ‘Christmas at the Bowl’ performance in front of 17,000 people. The subsequent move to Colorado seemed an unusual but logical next step and has seen her produce and release a debut EP titled ‘Dancing Girls’ in late 2017.

“Essentially, I’d finished school and knew that I wanted to do music, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go back to school for music, or if I wanted to travel. My step-dad is audio engineer David Carnahan, who ran New Plymouth’s King Street Creative [studio]. He’s American, and the way the visa process worked, I was able to piggyback off Mum’s visa. It’s such a massive country, there’s so much diversity, and the sheer number of people meant that was a pretty great opportunity to have.

“I’ve been doing some open mic nights. I released the EP and I’m working on my second one. I just want to get a little more material online. Because of the way music is consumed these days it feels like a weigh up between going out and playing gigs and building up my online following – and I think both are important. I’ve never been very good with social media. I don’t feel particularly comfortable doing it, but I think it’s a necessary part of being a musician.

“Just before I left NZ I got six teeth removed and they damaged my jaw joint, so for a long time, I couldn’t really sing for any length of time. I was trying not to strain it. It’s great now but it needed an adjustment period before it was okay. For the first year, I couldn’t work, so I just worked a lot on my personal music stuff. I’ve decided that 2018 is going to be the year that I’ll start touring and finding people to play with. It’s the first year that I’m able to do these things. I’ll have the freedom, and the stability, and I feel like I’ve created a good base now.”

Released digitally only at this stage, ‘Dancing Girls’ includes five immaculately produced tracks, pop hooks meeting heartfelt lyrics at every turn.

“I wrote the songs and musical components at a very basic level. I work mainly in Logic, which I find to be an incredibly creative and user-friendly program. I write the music and the musical arrangement and then David [Carnahan] will help flesh out my concepts as well as mixing them. A lot of it is just between the two of us. I have a dream set-up at home. We have mics, a computer and an interface, and all the kind of stuff that is necessary for recording. And David has a studio upstairs that he mixes in. All my songs so far have been mastered by Steve Smart at 301 Studios in Sydney.

“In terms of sales it’s doing okay. I think I need to get my social media profile up, to actually get it ‘out’ … I mean, I have a product, but I don’t think I’m necessarily distributing it in the best way. I think when I start doing more regular gigs, I’ll produce hard copies for something like a merchandising stand.”

The likes of Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats and The Lumineers are she says, the best known current flavours in and around Denver. While it’s fair to say Americana is perhaps the most prominent genre across Colorado, Estella Dawn’s brand of pop appeals as being wholly universal.

“There’s definitely a lot of folk music here, and the bluegrass scene is very strong. I’m not sure if that’s a thing across the entirety of the States, but it’s a thing here. We have a lot of bluegrass festivals and the scene here is geared that way. But it’s not necessarily the only genre, of course.”

Estella Dawn is taking measured steps in order to achieve her goals, and part of that involves embracing life in Colorado. But that doesn’t mean she’s lost any of her identity, or any love for her homeland.

“People get genuinely excited when you say you’re from NZ, and they’ll stop and talk about how they have a friend there, or about how great the people are, and it’s just so heart-warming to feel part of that. I feel like NZ needs more recognition. We have a very modest outlook on a lot of the things we do, it’s like, ‘We’ll do it ourselves and we’ll do it without complaining.’ And I love that, but it also feels like we don’t give ourselves enough credit sometimes as a country. Like, we’re pretty cool, and I’m super proud to be a New Zealander!
“All I really want is to be able to make a career out of music. It doesn’t need to be a super successful career. But being able to keep it as a fulltime job would be amazing. Music is an outlet that’s been very much supported and I’m thankful for that. I feel like if a lot of kids told their parents, ‘I want to pursue music for a living’, they’d be like, ‘Are you sure, do you really want to be a starving musician?’ … I’m very lucky in that sense.”