May/June 2018

by Trevor Reekie

Moments Like These: Charlotte Yates

by Trevor Reekie

Moments Like These: Charlotte Yates

Charlotte Yates is a very well respected musician, songwriter and composer who has forged an individual path in NZ music that’s seen her endeavours include a still growing catalogue of seven solo releases. She has composed music for TV, theatre and short film, and with an art-minded focus on the poetry aspect of songwriting has curated a number of brave tribute albums commemorating the work of James K Baxter, Hone Tuwhare and Whale Rider author Witi Ihimaera. Charlotte is equally an experienced performer who has worked with some of Aotearoa’s most respected artists from small venues to arts festival shows. Most recently she was part of the Mahinarangi Tocker tributes staged for the 2018 Auckland Arts Festival. For several years she provided a songwriting column for NZ Musician and continues to actively encourage and mentor musicians and songwriters.

What can you remember of the when, where and who of this photo? What was the occasion?

The photo was taken by Irihapeti Paratene on March 19, 2007, after I’d been bollocked by the manager of the Auckland Arts Festival Club (like an errant child) for taking an A0-sized ‘Tuwhare’ poster off a hoarding – post-show. Graham Brazier, Michael Keating (Goldenhorse’s manager), me, Blanche Rawiri (Wai) and Rawiri Paratene (the narrator) all complicit. I’d like to point out I still have the poster and Rawiri shouted back at the grumpy fellow, in his best Shakespearean, “We ARE Tuwhare!” It was a grand night and I didn’t give a fig!

Was there music in your childhood years that led to your evident passion for music?

There was music in my home life largely through my father’s involvement with the Anglican church and my mother who played the piano – initially at home, but she helped out at school productions and accompanied her children through our classical music exams.

Radio was tuned firmly to National, later Concert and the vinyl that arrived at the house (World Music Club) was principally classical orchestral or chamber music. Both my parents could sing and dance well, and they did, so I just absorbed it really. There was a lot of music at all the schools I went to – classroom singing, assembly singing. I liked it. But the lid came off with intersecting with contemporary music. I met people and let them influence me, happily.

Did you consider back then that music was going to be a career?

No. I suffered from performance anxiety in concert settings as a kid, which eased somewhat at high school in musical productions, or I guess just doing it more. I still have to talk myself into it, but a live show is so different from anything else. More direct, more connection. The rest is just managing my physiological responses!

You’re well educated as a musician and got your letters in clarinet. Was there a particular teacher who encouraged your musical curiosity and talent?

I have to do a shout out for Doug Hill, initially my French, later my German teacher at college. He was a talented jazz pianist and set up a swing band at school, amongst many other groups that involved kids in music at every possible level. Pretty tireless really. He encouraged me a great deal in things I was dabbling around in, and at times instead of schoolwork… including generating songs.

I went on to Massey in Palmerston North, in 1981 – unlike John Key, I can remember exactly where I was during the Springbok Tour. The changing economics of the ’80s and the post-punk music that charged through the university circuit was stimulating – from Billy Bragg to the Birthday Party and tons of local content too. That beat the crap out of toga parties.

Student radio provided an important influence and I met my first bandmate, Christine Jeffs, in the hostel that year. We listened to a lot of so-called women’s music, from Marine Girls to Siouxsie Sioux & the Banshees, the Au Pairs and the Slits. I lapped it up.

Your comic musical group, When The Cat’s Been Spayed, released two albums and appeared on TV commercials for Lotto – what did you take away from that experience?

I graduated in 1987 just after the stock market crash. Only one guy in my vet class had a job! I’d been playing in Putty In Her Hands with an EP released in my last year at vet school. So music saved my bacon until I got a job six months later. Music still hadn’t been a career consideration.

Putty In Her Hands gained more members, one of whom was my flatmate, Jackie Clarke. Together with Robin Nathan, we performed some shambolic covers at a one night only fundraiser in 1989 and the next morning I got a call for us to perform a decently paid gig. That trio lasted for 11 years, stuck with the name – yes a spoof on the When The Cats Away name. No harm intended – mostly no offence taken.

That group allowed me to leave my day job. We toured relentlessly nationally and overseas and were pretty tight. Other income streams from fronting Lotto were spectacularly helpful.

Can’t remember how many shows we did but there was a great deal of laughing for a really long time. And it gave us access to some curious sidebar musical projects I enjoyed. I wanted to push forward concurrently with my songwriting as Charlotte Sometimes, so continued writing and recording releasing a single Red Letter from my first album ‘Queen Charlotte Sounds’ (1991) and was an APRA Silver Scroll finalist. That was hugely encouraging.

In the early ’90s, you relocated to Melbourne. Did that time particularly shape the composer and musician you have become?

Melbourne was fantastic to live in in the mid-’90s – the scene was strong in jazz and indie pop and you could regularly see live music free at the many local pubs. The larger population sustained more international acts at a club level, not just stadium crowds, and as an audience member, I preferred it. I got a six-month contract as the director of the Melbourne Fringe Arts Festival and re-signed for another nine months.

The next contract was to be for 12 months and I just couldn’t take on a full-time commitment. It coincided with a surprise operation on my L4/S1 intervertebral disc so in the three months rehab a colleague suggested I sign up for the post-grad Contemporary Music Technology and Composition at La Trobe University.

I met more kindred spirits in those three months than in the previous three years. Loved it, but When The Cats Been Spayed was getting so much work and I was shuttling back and forward between NZ and Australia so often Customs searched my luggage every single trip. So, I recorded my second album ‘The Desire And The Contempt’ with a bunch of New Zealanders in Sydney, produced by Peter Dasent, and went home.

The 2000 album ‘Baxter’ was a compilation CD of James K Baxter’s poetry set to music by Kiwi artists that you curated and produced, a creative epiphany for many. What were the origins of the concept?

I was asked by John Dow to write a song for a Vietnam tribute in 1998. In researching background for the lyrics I found a Baxter poem that leapt off the page. I got the Collected Works out of the library and thought many of the poems would lend themselves to contemporary settings.

I put a wish-list of NZ artists together and obtained permission via Oxford University Press but ultimately Baxter’s executor and wife, Jacqui. I sent a fax to three major labels with the album idea and UMG got on board. It took three goes to get funding from CNZ, but RNZ through then music programmer Kaye Glamuzina was extremely supportive. The NZ Festival picked the live show up for the 2000 festival and it rolled on from there. We sold out in Wellington and ‘Baxter’, the nerd poetry album, charted.

Presumably ‘Baxter’ established a template that led you to similarly releasing the ‘Ihimaera’ and ‘Tuwhare’ CDs. At that time Hone was still with us – was the process more collaborative with him?

Toi Māori commissioned a similar approach through the Te Ha writers collective as a tribute to Hone Tuwhare’s work. I travelled to meet him and talk through the ideas over three days at Kaka Point. This was brokered and supported by his friend and art gallery director Jim Geddes who I met on a WTCBS tour.
Hone was very elderly at the time and just wasn’t interested in media but was great craic (that’s Gaelic for good company) once his hearing aids were on. We listened to the Baxter album together so loud I thought my ears would bleed. He loved Dave Dobbyn’s Baxter setting of Song Of The Years. Dave, Hone thought you have a very strong voice!

The initial commission was to use solely Māori artists but I didn’t feel as a Pakeha I could do that. There was nothing didactic about Toi Māori’s interaction with me – just talked it through. They were extremely supportive. There were strong connections and representation with Māori musicians on the project. Because Hone wanted no part of media, we asked to set up one session of still photographs, and some live footage that we could offer to promote the project. Director Lala Rolls made a short companion film, Tuwhare, that we used for the album launch and it was the first thing I ever uploaded to YouTube!

Deconstructing and learning to comprehend the poetry albums you curated and produced must have been an education in all manner of ways?

It showed me just how many good songwriters we have in this country. How differently people approached the task, how many surprises happened along the way – creatively speaking, and the depth of connection that the poetry of Hone Tuwhare had with the population of NZ. It was a privilege to work on those projects.

What are some of the key principles for you that make for a great song?

Does it move me – literally’s fine, but the first time I heard Johnny Cash singing Trent Reznor’s Hurt, I was stopped in my tracks. Can I remember anything about it? Does it stick? Do I want to hear it again? A lyric I care about? Does it provide me with an emotional shift – up or down – either’s fine!

You seem to thrive on the ‘live’ performance – care to share any of the highs and lows of your touring experience?

One of the less savoury tour moments was being unable to lift the water glass off the bedside table in the White Hart, New Plymouth. Don’t know how long it had been there….but it was set and well forgotten. And the weird moment of seeing a heron sculpted in ice at the Waitangi Day celebration in Bangkok that WTCBS was playing at. We sounded terrible because they gave us an air conditioning engineer instead of an audio engineer.

You performed as part of the Auckland Arts Festival’s Mahinarangi Tocker tribute concerts, Love Me As I Am, in March. Being formerly such a close musical partner that must be something of a career highlight?

To be honest, it was emotionally challenging. You’re doing a gig, presenting her music, but it’s more than that. I lost a great friend when Mahinarangi died and hadn’t listened to her music since.

It was wonderful to hear her voice again. But I had a major dressing room howl off post-concert. Just lancing. It feels like a conversation ended way too soon, but I very much enjoyed reconnecting with the whanau – there in full force.

Which is your instrument of choice when composing?

I write on guitar and piano (real or MIDI) but also just acapella to mix it up and not resort to familiar muscle memory patterns. I’m not particularly good at one thing but jack-of-trades my way through it all, like a magpie! Except hopefully, I don’t sing like one…

Who are some of the most significant artists and composers that have contributed to your personal creative growth?

I admire the long haul artists – Joni Mitchell, Bjork, Kate Bush, Stevie Wonder. I admire the re-inventors – David Bowie, Prince, Aretha Franklin, Tracy Thorn. There have been a ton of others, but that’s where my head’s at currently.

What can you tell other aspiring and independent musicians about what skills they need to acquire and develop?

Surround yourself by folks who do, not folks that whine about all the reasons they don’t. Enjoy the basics – writing, playing, listening. If you hit a good vein financially, stash something. Get your driver’s licence. If you’re female, up-skill technically. At least co-write and play an instrument, it gives you the means of production and creative control. If music stops being fun or urgent or a fundamental part of your life, do something else until your creativity re-surfaces.

How does a creative person maintain the motivation and their own belief in the tough times?

Actually, I’ve been fairly used to up and down from the get go. When the waves come I’ve been able to surf onto the beach, but when it hasn’t gone so well, that’s just how it is. There are taste cycles and sometimes people like what you do and others, they don’t. Home base is solid and my brain still works! There are always ideas to have, people to meet, and deep fun to be had. I read a lot of books. Major nature connector too. It’s bigger.

Who was the most imposing musical presence you’ve had the privilege of meeting?

Aaron Neville. We even slipped the same disc.

What’s the best book about music that you’ve read?

Bedsit Disco Queen – Tracy Thorn. It’s a manual.

What five albums still never fail to brighten your day?

Bob Dylan – ‘Blood On The Tracks’
Dave Dobbyn – ‘The Islander’
The 1975 – ‘I Like It When You Sleep’
Joni Mitchell – ‘The Hissing Of Summer Lawns’
Grace Jones – ‘Slave To The Rhythm’
Massive Attack – ‘Blue Lines’
Too hard to stop…

The best advice you ever received was…?

Ginette McDonald in the Koru Lounge – “You don’t want to be wearing plastic flowers on your head when you’re 40, darrrrrhling! Execrable!” (A word Nettie uses often, usually dragging on a fag.)