Michael Llewellyn McMillan hails from Warkworth, a fast-growing township town north of Auckland on the banks of the Mahurangi River. He lives in Auckland and is deeply inspired by the power of the landscape of the Taranaki region. In October this year, Llewellyn released his quite remarkable debut album titled ‘Oh My Darling’, and with it leapt into our musical consciousness with his reverential vocals and filigree guitarwork. Clare Martin helps in telling his extraordinary story.
Backed with deceptively laid-back grooves, there is bare-hearted grit in the crafted lyrics that share intimate and confessional storytelling from five years of Michael Llewellyn’s life. ‘Oh My Darling’ might bring to mind artists such as Cass McCombs and Mac deMarco, or Leonard Cohen, but each song takes us on Michael’s particular journey, from Mikaela who becomes everyone’s breakup girl, to the addictive Whangamatā.
The album cover image is a stylised Mount Taranaki with a yin-yang-like moon above. The region and its mountain was a place of profound physical and emotional transformation for the artist. A neck injury in his early 20s incapacitated him to the point that he could no longer walk, stand or sit for any period of time.
“I moved to Taranaki when I was pretty disconnected from a lot of things like my physical body, disconnected from the land, disconnected from relationships. I moved to Taranaki to take a rest. And heal. Walking down by the river with the mountain over my shoulder – it felt like a holy place. My body was so fallen apart that I was trying to find a way to stand straight and to find balance.”
You could describe Michael’s teen years as overactive – obsessively perfecting high-skill skateboarding moves and throwing himself into snowboarding. Entering high school, he says he made a pact with himself that he would never cry again. But reflecting now, every knock and bump off snowboard and skateboard took a toll.
While studying for an undergraduate degree in Dunedin he enjoyed a big partying and outdoor lifestyle.
“Living perhaps without much integrity for my body or mind,” he acknowledges.
Michael went from surfing most days to being incapacitated by neck pain and grounded by fear. One of the few things he could do in recovering from his neck injury was to play the guitar for short periods of time. Being friends with musicians in Dunedin including the band Marlin’s Dreaming gave him some scope for messing around on his guitar.
He started writing a book, stringing up his laptop above the bed so he could write while lying on his back. Taranaki provided the life-giving space away from the “debauchery of the concrete jungle” and was the start of Michael’s artistic journey to the recording and release of ‘Oh My Darling’.
‘Sometimes in life, you get a little down, don’t ya and all you wanna do is crawl underneath the covers and scream at the world’ – an extract from Ladybug.
Earlier guitar lessons with Laughton Kora had germinated a comfort with the instrument, but his vocals were still a work in progress. Some lessons and a newly recovered body released a voice he never knew he had.
“To sing is to completely release mind and time, it’s holy, it’s just beauty.”
The vibrant music scene in Wellington also enabled connections. Bass player Rian Kannemeyer (Imperfect Offering) got the music and offered a producer’s ear. Drummer Ben McHardy (Ten24) provided tight rhythms, with Michael playing the rest of the instruments.
“It was a few really tough months in my bedroom getting all the guitar sounds down,” he smiles. Taking the draft recordings up to the family bach at Orua Bay in the Manukau Harbour helped move his project forward, but by Christmas 2020, Michael felt stuck, despite having all the elements including vocals from Violet Hirst (Violet and the Kind-Hearted) and Imperfect Offering’s Amy Skeates. He says it was Lloyd who got him across the line.
“Toby is such a scientist and such a good guy, he was so aligned with my sound – he just got me.”
The album was finally launched after a five-year journey in October 2021. ‘Oh My Darling’ might easily deceive with its dazed summer surf vibes, but the album is really a dramatic novella with the words at the centre and the music swirling around the narrative.
The arc of the album takes in the driving energy of the opening track Doolie, with Michael’s droll Lou Reed-like vocals, the road-trip fun of Whangamatā (the first single released), and the beautifully layered and lacey guitar-work of title track, Oh My Darling. Featuring a delicious extended guitar solo from James Morgan of Mystery Waitress, this track has a Sunday afternoon groove that never lets go.
That said, the real beating heart of the album is the aching Mikaela, a song that speaks with the lyricism of Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne, Michael’s vocals having the soft persuasion of a holy man.
‘She will take you to the garden and she will speak to you upon the green… for you’ve always loved her through and through those waxing moons.’
It is a gentle landing to the end of the album. Lover has a lo-fi intimacy that wobbles at times. The sleepy Time It Ain’t Easy and final song Lady Bug sit easily on the ear. In these songs, Michael breathes in the space of Mount Taranaki and sings his personal manifesto – ‘I’m just gonna keep on loving’.
His expertly crafted songs move from vulnerability to jangly hooks, and when he goes on tour with his live band, The Darlings, Michael says the storytelling won’t be a dialled-down vibe of the album, but rather a much punchier, jumped up version.
Jumped up – now there’s an expression that tells you Michael Llewellyn has, with the aid of music, staged a quite remarkable recovery.