Maxine Funke is an enigmatic Dunedin musician, a creator of quiet, acoustic guitar-based folk songs that are closely delivered with a warmth of recording and sentiment that draws the listener in. She has been performing and recording around the southern metropolis for over two decades, yet remains a (mostly) hidden treasure. With her new album ‘Seance’ largely recorded during last year’s isolation, 2021’s Covid lockdown provided an ideal opportunity for NZM’s Amanda Mills to converse with Maxine about that album’s process and the ghosts of albums past.
Maxine Funke is an enigma. A creator of quiet, acoustic guitar-based folk songs that are closely delivered with a warmth that draws you in, she has been performing and recording around Dunedin for over two decades – yet remains a (mostly) hidden treasure.
Funke’s appreciation for folk music began as a child, she recalls her sister learning the guitar.
“She was studying all the classic ones, like Four Strong Winds and The Carnival is Over… You hear all these songs before you hear the recorded versions, so you don’t know that it’s Neil Young, or The Seekers – you just know them from your sister!” she laughs.
Actually, Maxine Funke’s music history goes further back. Her parents were involved in the independent Dunedin music scene of the 1980s and ’90s, not unexpected considering her stepfather is drummer Mike Dooley, ex-Enemy, Toy Love, Snapper, and currently in Jay Clarkson and the Containers. While not directly influenced by Dooley’s bands, artists like Exploding Budgies provided some inspiration to her – as did Dooley’s record collection, something precious she wasn’t allowed to touch (though naturally she did when the parents were out). And with guitars at home waiting to be picked up and played it was inevitable she would be drawn to music. Dooley taught her a couple of chords, and she went from there.
“It was something you could do by yourself… I was just happy to pluck away,” she smiles.
Her musical education became more formal at high school, learning tablature, and joining a jazz band, before learning fingerpicking from a teacher at John McGlashan College. Her style today, she didn’t carry it on formally then as she “could sort of work it out… I’m not even that good, but I can hold it together.” Rather Funke started playing experimental, improvised music, and briefly fronted a heavy metal band called Angel Thinks Demon, which she describes as “more like a fun thing, just hanging out with my friend.”
She formed a couple of different bands – duo The Beaters with Dooley, and The Snares, with Dooley and Brett Moodie, a rock band that made two recordings – ‘Something Happened on the Way to Heaven,’ in 2002, and 2003’s ‘Dance the Dervish.’ In 2000 she briefly joined Snapper for the Dunedin Festival of the Arts show, a gig she doesn’t recall as successful.
“I had a really bad cold, and to be honest… I was really lost, totally overwhelmed, and didn’t know what I was doing!”
She preferred jamming with Peter Gutteridge, of whom she has fond memories.
“He was a nice, really eccentric dude. He was always playing some kind of musical instrument, and so you’d be so encouraged to join in.”
Funke also played cello with sound artist Alastair Galbraith’s improvisational string group, and before long she, Galbraith, and Dooley started improvising together, a fun experience she reflects on as quite a breakthrough. The trio performed as the $100 Band – the name reflecting how much they were paid to open for Chris Knox in 2001. Funke liked the experimental, improvisational aspects, but wasn’t happy with the suggestion they play more rock and the band was short-lived. By now her own songs were emerging – acoustic, quiet, and more impactful.
Funke’s music has a quiet, often experimental, intimacy. Simply performed with vocals and guitar accompaniment (occasionally adding other instruments), her music whispers secrets in your ear so you lean in to hear her message. Her technique recalls folk vocalists and musicians like Judee Sill, Bridget St. John, and Sybelle Baier, and her work is often mentioned in tandem with that of Galbraith, as they have a personal, and professional, connection – he contributed to her albums ‘Lace’, ‘Felt’, and ‘Silk’. She credits Galbraith with introducing her to self-reliant ways to record music, and encouraging her purchase of a four-track recorder, which was a step forward. She loves the sound the four-track creates.
“It gave me complete freedom to record my own music, and it just was so encouraging. When you put your headphones on, it sounds like you’re in a totally different world… it’s got that depth to it.”
In the early 2000s, Funke started working on her first album, ‘Lace’. Released in 2008 ‘Lace’ included material left over from projects, and Galbraith recorded some of the songs with his home set-up. She finished writing ‘Lace’ on a guitar bought at an auction for $13, an instrument she describes as perfect for what she needed then, and has since become a treasured instrument she still plays. ‘Lace’ was followed by the EP ‘Oranges in the Oaks’ in 2011, and then ‘Felt’ in 2012. Funke has referred to ‘Lace’ and ‘Felt’ as her town and country albums.
“I guess with ‘Lace’, half of the stuff was songs… from when I lived in town, they had a town vibe, just before I had my son,” she smiles. “I finished the other half… I had a four-track just set up in my bedroom, just something I did when I did have spare time.”
‘Felt’ was completely written in the Otago coastal town Taieri Mouth – ‘the country’ – where she lived. She considers the album reflective of her life as a parent.
“‘Felt’ was really hard to make. It was… a milestone because I wanted to write and record a whole album by myself, so that was a goal. It’s made up of a quiet small world which I lived in… it’s not made in different places, it’s just… facets of one life,” she laughs.
A break followed, and six years later arrived her 2018 album album ‘Silk’, an album she now admits she didn’t have much material for.
“I had some bits leftover from ‘Felt’, and I thought maybe there was a record there,” she explains. “You forget how much work you put into things before… it was a big wake up call!”
‘Silk’ led to another EP, ‘Eternity,’ on Swedish label I Dischi Del Barone records, and a small Australian tour that coincided with the cassette compilation ‘Home-Fi’.
“I was wondering what to do with my life at that point… I’d been doing odd jobs, and I was nearly 40. I thought, ‘I’ll try playing live again… maybe it will be different now.’ But no. It was still rough as anything.”
The Forest Photographer lathe single, with P.Wits (Benedict Quilter), was the first recording made in her new space. Forest Photographer is reminiscent of another outlier experimental artist, Birds of Passage, with the use of white noise, and natural soundscapes. For b-side track Every Kind Word she drew inspiration from her surroundings, and the graves of Chinese settlers in Dunedin. “I was… seeing this central Otago world, and Chinese miners… how a bit of kindness is like a free exchange” she says. For other material, she is her inspiration, with earlier songs like Second-Hand Store marking a time and place in her life. “There’s aspects of yourself now in some songs, mixed in with aspects of yourself from a long time ago… anything can be useful.”
In 2021 she has a new album, ‘Seance’, a spectral collection of intimate, hushed songs released on Australian label A Colourful Storm. ‘Seance’ was born out of the flux of personal changes, and periods of isolation. “It was pretty intense because I lived in a place for ages,” she muses.
Having moved back to Dunedin and starting a course, the 2020 lockdown happened, and Funke hibernated.
“I just got really into what I always do, just really reading books, and I knew I wanted to write less… young, personal songs.”
She wanted to take things into a more unreal space, and looked to writers like Kate Bush for impersonal, fantastical, lyricism. Funke’s love of ghost stories was influential, and fed into the album title meaning of summoning the ghosts. ‘Seance’ pulls on themes of mysticism and memory, and ghost stories are the key thread running through the album. Funke considers them peaceful, with an interesting psychology, and often a justice or moral present, saying they look at life, and human behaviour, and also the past. She cites the work of writer Joan Aitken, who she says took mundane, domestic situations, but made them really fantastic, and likes the feminine aspect to Quiet Shore “…especially the bit about the tea tray in there, it’s such a domestic item.”
“I aspire to write songs or make albums that have the feeling of some of the good ghost stories I have read,” she says. “I spend a lot of my spare time in their world and I hope, somehow, to pick some of it up.”
Other inspirations are a mix of present and past situations, conversations, or artifacts.
“It’s a luxury to allow it all in and make connections and ignore reality, like a waking dream,” she smiles. “Fairy Baby was like a subconscious flight through moments and places in my past, but through the filter of the present.”
Fairy Baby began as a poem quickly written in the wee hours, while Quiet Storm was built from a loop – the repetitive rhythm came from a gadget called a pocket operator, and lyrics inspired from a book – something Funke likens to “captured improv.” Moody Relish started as a beat, and Anzac Day as a poem.
“Homage was a song I wrote a long time ago – it haunted me always so I put new chords to it and put it to bed.” Lucky Penny was written in one go, but she notes “it feels like a song is written quickly, but certain parts have been percolating for a while.”.
‘Seance’ was recorded in Funke’s home, inevitably on analogue equipment. Fairy Baby, Quiet Shore, and Goodbye were recorded on cassette through a 1970’s mixing desk, while Lucky Penny was on reel-to-reel tape. Sharing a house, she tried not to wake her flatmate while recording, contributing to the album’s quiet, intimate sound. She describes the recording as an intense affair, one she got really deep into.
“I really relish those uninterrupted hours, that time out of mind feeling. I’ve been able to go… deeper, and spread out a bit more.”
A single on Brooklyn’s Looking Glass Records is next on her agenda – and Funke hints at changes to her recording processes as she has recently bought some digital recording equipment and a MIDI keyboard. She’s not yet sure where her sound is heading, but does say things could get a bit more electronic sounding.
“Possibly, but who knows!”