Lake South is a musician, producer and a director. He makes most of his own music videos and was the director and writer of NZ Idle, a web-series about an artist on the dole. In 2019 he released an album that is a paean of sorts to the country’s capital Wellington. He talked with Frank Eggleton.
Urbantramper was Lake South’s first group, and for most of a decade, they roamed New Zealand, much as the name suggests, expanding and contracting.
“Urbantramper was me and anyone I could strong-arm into joining me,’ Lake (McKenna) explains when we meet at Wellington Access Radio. “The biggest was about five people, then those people changed, depending on who was around and had the time.”
Indeed an impressive array of musicians were ‘strong-armed,’ including the likes of Ben Lemi, Timothy Blackman and Hula Hope. The band started out early in the noughties as a folk-rock act, but by the end had a much more electronic sound (self-described as an ‘electricutoipia band’ for one release). In that time they released several albums/EPs, toured Australasia, the UK and Europe – until Lake became bored and dissolved the act.
“In 2012 we toured Australia, and afterwards I just thought, ‘That’s it,’ and we disbanded the band.”
Lake took some time out, but also not. He pretty soon founded the Wellington Sea Shanty Society, performing and recording traditional sea songs, along with Vorn Colgan (Vorn, Gold Medal Famous). In 2013 they released their debut album ‘Now That’s What I Call Sea Shanties 01’.
Lots of good seafaring fun was had, but it’s a demandingly tight genre and when Lake wrote a couple of new, electronic tracks, he recorded and released them on Bandcamp in 2014, under his Lake South moniker. One of the songs included was A Good Keen Man, which got onto the long list of the Silver Scroll Award and also earned him a spot among the NZ Music Awards’ Critics Choice finalists.
“It was interesting, they assigned me a PR person who gets you on things like Breakfast TV. One line in that song has a swear word and it seemed to freak everybody out. At the Critics Choice Awards, I had to play a full set, so I had to write it, then work out how to play it live. I had a quick practice gig at Golden Dawn. With my mate Oliver Christeller (Creaky Drawers) who played on an electronic drumkit, but just for those couple of gigs.”
Taking some time out to learn how to play his songs solo, Lake lived in Canada for a couple of years.
“I just wanted to get a working holiday visa, before I ran out of time. My partner wanted to go, so we went together. I wrote the first album in Canada and played as many shows as I could, in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal. While there I learnt to play with loops and triggering loops, so I could still play live. I also played some guitar, and I had a drumkit so I could play along and jam a little.”
Evidently not content with just one project, he sparked things up with Vorn again.
“I went over to Europe with my sea shanty band and we recorded an album with a French band and toured around Europe, then toured around Canada. We finished that Wellington Sea Shanty Society album (‘Now That’s What I Call Sea Shanties 02’ – 2015) then released it.’
Back in NZ by 2017 he released his first Lake South album entitled ‘If You’re Born On An Island The Ocean Heals You’. NZ Musician’s Joel Thomas reviewed it saying: ‘Lake South’s debut album is a well-written dream, carefully produced by Joshua Lynn at Thinkt in Auckland. Lingering synths, dreamy vocal effects and lush backing vocals give it air, while the occasional acoustic guitar or field recordings are among a range of instrumentation and sounds that ground the tracks back in the earthly world.’
He toured that album through NZ, parts of Europe and Canada, playing solo and occasionally with Vorn. Soon enough he was starting to think about a Lake South ‘sophomore’ album, and the process towards the August released ‘Wellington / Te Upoko O Te Ika’.
“In terms of recording I’ve definitely got better over the years, but the process is pretty much the same. I write songs on the acoustic guitar and record a demo to a click track, and then I just throw stuff at it and see what works. Sometimes I might just keep the track acoustic, keep it folk, or sometimes I might get rid of the guitar altogether and it becomes some sort of electronic tune.
“The songs from the second album would have been hard to do without a drummer. So we recorded some live drums in Auckland with Alistair Deverick in his studio, and then I cut up all the recordings beat by beat, and replaced some of the drums with different sounds to try and create something new.”
‘Wellington / Te Upoko O Te Ika’, which means ‘the head of the fish’, was mostly recorded on the East Coast’s Whanarua Bay with multi-instrumentalist and instrument maker Phill Jones – though all songs were written, arranged, recorded and produced by Lake South.
There is piano from Ben Tolich (Mali Mali), backing vocals from Penelope Esplin (Grawlixes), and the drums of Boycrush’s Alistair Deverick. The album also has a visual accompaniment with postcards (images by Nick Salmon) for each track. These ‘wish you were here’ letters to the listener offer hints at the sentiment imbued within the songs.
Lake has an evident eye for sentimental sounds and melodies. The album seems like it might be best listened to while flicking through old photos with a glass of red, or while driving around the areas of Wellington about which the songs were written.
The mood is mostly kept light, while the Wellington references are heavy – witness song titles that include Mount Victoria/Tangi-te-keo, Island Bay, Parliament (We’ll All Go There Again), Holloway Road, and Karori Park (You’re On Your Own). Slightly slower-paced and more questioning, the album’s title track Wellington/Te Whanganui A Tara, sounds like a signature Lake South tune, more moody in the held synth chords with storyboard lyrics that are thoughtful and honest. ‘There’s a certain kind of weight that brings you down on a Sunday; There’s a beauty in it though, it’s a cosy kind of sorrow.’
Lake is a prolific songwriter but when this topic comes up he reveals a little frustration.
“I would say anything less than an album a year is a bit slow, so I think I have been a bit slow. For now though, I think I’m just going to do a few singles, an album is such a big project if you don’t have the time and the resources. My ideal would be to release some singles and then think up the next concept for the album, I like to have a concept.”