Husband and wife duo Hayden and Rachel Donnell are no strangers in the NZ folk scene. Indeed having previously won Tui Awards for Best Folk Album of the Year with ‘Halves’ in 2013 and ‘Up In Smoke’ in 2015, they clearly hold an elevated position. The latest Great North album, ‘The Golden Age’, sees the ‘band’ moving in a noticeably new direction. Having relocated to European shores, Hayden and Rachel chat with Amy Maynard about touring life, language issues, what inspired their new album’s sound, and the definition of nostalgia.
Connecting via Skype with Rachel and Hayden Donnell, somewhere near Hintertupfingen, Germany, by way of an innocuous warm up I ask how their tour has been going.
“It’s been a pretty bad night,” Hayden exclaims.
“If you’d spoken to us yesterday, it would’ve been so positive,” Rachel elaborates. “But we just had like a literal disaster with the rental car. We are currently in rural Germany… and our car is not. Our car just got towed away on the back of a tow truck.” “I just asked a random German guy in a house for help,” Hayden continues. “He came out and helped us, but the spare tyre wouldn’t fit because the bolts were the wrong length… So we sat in his house with him and ate cheese while we waited for the German AA to come.”
Adding to the farce, Rachel says they had to get home to their Air BnB and communicate with the very elderly non-English speaking host to ask her to drive them somewhere in the morning to catch a train, in order to catch up with their car.
“The whole conversation was taking place over my Google Translate app as she doesn’t speak any English at all,” Hayden points out.
It gets even more slapstick, as Rachel explains amid laughter.
“Hayden was typing into the translate app in English, and then showing her the German. Then she took it, and was trying to write in German to switch back to English, but it was auto-correcting to English… So she ended up writing it out on a piece of paper, but she wrote in really nice cursive writing that we couldn’t read, so then we had to talk through each letter as Hayden typed it into Google Translate!
“It’s been going really well, sickeningly well until this point.”
With the head-shaking laughter subsided we move on.
Great North (i.e the Donnells) recently made the bold move from NZ to live in the UK. Playing shows to a full audience at each stop on their tour, Hayden says it would be a rude shock to the system going back to NZ now.
“I love NZ, but it’s definitely better [for us] here. You’re close to Europe so you can play a whole bunch of good shows in a row. I mean, you can still have a bad show… we haven’t really had one on this tour.”
“It’s a cultural thing,” Rachel expands. “I feel like in NZ there are venues that people reliably know are gonna play good music, but still people are really only gonna come out to the show if they know at least one of the bands playing. Whereas in Europe, people just come. They turn up, even though you’re a tiny band from NZ that no one’s ever heard of… People don’t just randomly come to shows in NZ in the same way.”
Asked why there was some delay in the release of ‘The Golden Age’ Hayden and Rachel acknowledge that the album artwork, time constraints and moving continents were all key factors.
“It took a really long time for us to get everything together,” explains Hayden. “The art, in particular, took a really long time.”
“We were really worried about it… The artist was having literal nightmares, and secretly both of us were freaking out.” Rachel admits. “The recording took its fair time… that stretched over a month. We spent such a long time doing the recording properly, getting things right, and so we had the option of rushing the release out before we left the country or just sitting on it.”
Hayden is happy that waiting until they were settled in Europe turned out to be the right idea.
‘The Golden Age’ introduces us to a brand new sound from the pair, an Americana-inspired folk-rock hybrid that is steeped in nostalgia.
“It is sort of new,” Hayden agrees. “It is definitely more folk rock… in a direction of Tom Petty and (Bruce) Springsteen, whereas the others were more down the alley of sort of sadder folk artists and country artists.”
“It’s happy until you start listening to the lyrics,” Rachel adds nodding.
Hayden admits that heading into the album process he was very uninspired musically.
“I didn’t know what to write, so my pedal steel player Matt (Hutching) showed me this record by John Hiatt. A song called Stolen Moments… it was the one that really stood out. It was cheesy as hell, but super fun and I kind of got this glimmer of a thought out of it. I was like, ‘I can do something with this. If you kind of took away some of the self protective irony. If I actually invested in that stuff, in only a slightly self-aware way, that could be really fun.’”
Hayden also cites that he got inspiration from the likes of Tom Petty, Jackson Browne, and other “really fun ’80s artists”, Bruce Springsteen, Gillian Welch, and Pat Benatar’s We Belong.
Their sound remains full and warm, still dominated by the couple’s natural feeling for vocal harmonies, tying in with previous releases. ‘The Golden Age’ was recorded and mixed in Auckland by Jonathan Pearce, with Hayden credited as co-producer.
“I came to him with that sort of Tom Petty, ‘I want it to be fun’ thing and he really embraced that, quite a lot and then developed it. It’s really in his wheelhouse to do that kind of thing. He and I played a very large percentage of everything on the album, so I spent a lot of time in the studio with him… he probably found it very taxing!”
As well as his vocals, Hayden provided electric and acoustic guitar, piano, trumpet and harmonica. Pearce added guitar and more keys.
“Jono Pearce did a really good job,” Rachel gushes. “I think he had a really good understanding of what it needed to sound like. He was really good at getting the right stuff out of us, particularly vocals.”
Dale Campbell also gets vocal credits, along with a choir that included Brendan and Alison Turner, Reb Fountain and Dylan Storey. On drums and percussion was Alex Freer, while Eamon Edmundson-Wells added bass and Elizabeth Stokes brass.
Listening to ‘The Golden Age’, one can’t help but reminisce about long lost friends and lovers, wasted youth, and the sense that you may be frivolously wasting the days left to you.
“It’s a very nostalgic album. Nostalgia is bittersweet and the music was meant to sound bittersweet…
“The tone of everything is very bittersweet, so the music has this sweetness to it, but it also lyrically has a bitterness. You’re reliving something that was beautiful and joyous, but you’re also sad because you can never relive it again… You’re celebrating it while also mourning it, and I guess that was a really good explanation of nostalgia.”
Hayden laughs at his own definition of nostalgia then adds;
“They all start with a memory really… ‘We drank straight from the bottle and we tried to drive, remember when we used to listen.’”
“‘Take me back to where we caught the late bus home,’” chimes in Rachel.
“‘Even I leave a light on, leave your stuff out on the bed…’ Hayden continues. “That’s sort of someone in the act of remembering.”
Remembrance can be identified as the underlying theme of ‘The Golden Age’ with many of the songs inadvertently written about the loss to suicide of the duo’s close friend and fellow musician Sam Prebble. As the sole songwriter of the group, Hayden believes that
“A lot of them are quite personal and probably super emotional… Sam is in many of the songs, probably the majority of the songs I think, and even if I didn’t think I was writing about him, I ended up writing about him…
“When something like that happens, you just think about it all the time. It kind of permeates you, and even if you’re not trying to talk about it, you end up talking about it. In some ways, it was a conscious decision to write songs about him, and in some ways, it almost wasn’t. I was almost writing about him anyway because I was writing about things that I missed. Writing about the past that I wish I could get back. It was like I pre-empted it… I’d already finished half the album by the time we got the news.”
“Even songs that you’d written that weren’t about him, kind of became and started feeling like they actually were about him…” adds Rachel quietly. “Good Company, for example, you’d written before Sam died… it wasn’t written about him but it’s become, for him.”
Hayden recalls a line from Hallelujah For The Losers.
“‘And this one goes out to the lonely, driving through the rain, past the golden arches along the motorway. Hope I see you by the morning, hope I see you when you wake…’ That’s every musician’s experience and it particularly is Sam’s, and it makes me think of him whenever I sing it… It’s the most comical line. It’s not a meaningful line, but it is to me – the most meaningful line on the album.