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by Trevor Reekie

Moments Like These: Sam Ford And Trudi Green

by Trevor Reekie

Moments Like These: Sam Ford And Trudi Green

Both lifelong musicians, singers and songwriters, Sam Ford and Trudi Green have never wavered from their musical calling. Over the years they’ve formed and performed in bands including the Sam Ford Verandah Band who frequently packed the Gluepot in the late ‘70s with their own brand of English infused soul, ska and outlaw country music. Trudi, originally from Greenwich, London was the singer and Sam, who grew up in Auckland’s Glen Innes suburb was the guitarist/keyboard player. They later hooked up with the late Rick Bryant to form The Neighbours and relentlessly toured every town and city in Aotearoa, before relocating to London for a decade, performing there as a trio called Soulahula along with Kiwi guitarist Jeremy Dart. Sam and Trudi returned to Auckland in 2015 and have recently released a new album. ‘Sweet Sweet Love’ serves as an affirmation of both their devotion to each other and a work ethic that is fuelled by a shared musical calling.

sam ford trudi green

The Neighbours in Blackball with film crew and extras, directed by Gaylene Preston.

Who when and where was this photo taken and tell us what you were all doing in this spectacular photo?

This photo was taken in 1982, in front of the Blackball Hilton, an old hotel in the small town of Blackball on the West Coast of the South Island. We had just finished shooting the final scene of a short film called The Neighbours Break The Bank which doubled as a music video for three songs from the Neighbours 12” EP ‘The Only One You Need’.

It shows the band, road crew, the film crew, assorted friends and a group of local children. The band are dressed as old-time gangsters and Trudi is dressed as a waitress/maid.

Left to right are: Sam Ford, Tim Robinson, Ken James, Rick Bryant, Trudi Green, Chris Green and Poss Cameron. Sitting on the ground in front of the band are the film crew with director Gaylene Preston at centre and DOP Alun Bollinger far right, sitting by the camera. There are too many people to name individually, but of interest to musicians, standing between Trudi and Rick are the Topp Twins, in front of the right hand post is Jonathan Crayford and standing to the far right is Michelle Scullion.

Back in the early ‘80s there wasn’t much independent video making – if you released a single you got to go to TVNZ’s Avalon Studios in Wellington for a day, or maybe half a day, and shoot a video performing your song which was then shown on Radio With Pictures.

We had done one for Love Is Never Cruel and Watching Westerns which, I’m sorry to say, have both disappeared into the past. (If anyone knows of a copy of either I would love to hear from them.) I don’t know if this scheme had ended but we had no actual plan or means to make a clip to promote our new record, so we were on the road promoting it the only way we knew how. We met Gaylene after a gig at The Cricketers pub in Wellington – we were packing up, she had returned to look for a cardigan she had left and we started chatting. She asked us if we were going to make a video, we replied no, but we’d like to and she said she was a film-maker and that she would do it.

You meet a lot of people after gigs who make all sorts of promises that don’t eventuate so I was sceptical – but I didn’t understand “the power of Gaylene”. I have to admit that even after the negotiations and the location and date had been decided I still thought, ‘Believe it when we see it.’

We drove into Blackball in the midst of a South Island tour – there in the main street of this tiny town were vans, trucks, cranes, you name it! The Blackball Hilton, which was to be our base for the week was buzzing. All these people were there to make our video – professional film people who weren’t being paid. The street was full of vehicles and gear – all loaned, not rented. The whole week was a triumph of enthusiasm and cooperation – that’s “the power of Gaylene”. It was one of the highlights of our long careers.

Growing up in London in a time when it was ‘swinging’ must have informed much of your musical taste and aspirations Trudi. What brought you to NZ in 1973?

I was born by the river Thames in Greenwich, southeast London, on a council estate next to the Cutty Sark. Growing up, I was very much into swimming, music and clothes. I went to a large, multi-racial secondary school divided between two local football teams Millwall and Charlton – the rivalry was intense and fights (bundles) at the bottom gate were the norm.

Both my older brothers were into lots of music and one of them was a soul DJ. Black music was the big thing in my circle- Jackie Wilson, Otis Redding, Smokey Robinson, The Temptations, all Motown really, and lots of ska–Alton Ellis, Desmond Dekker, etc. When Otis Redding died kids wore black armbands. The first concert I ever went to was ‘Little’ Stevie Wonder with Martha & the Vandellas at the Lewisham Odeon. By the time I was 15 or thereabouts we used to go dancing at a club called The Witchdoctor in Catford, upstairs from the Savoy Club which was run by the Richardsons, South London’s answer to the Krays in East London.

My sister and I were successful competitive swimmers, and we were poached by England’s premier womens’ swimming club, Beckenham Ladies, which was very posh and provided us an insight into another world. Unlike most of my friends, we travelled all over Britain and into Europe where we were introduced to exotic things like muesli.

I was quite precocious and would skip school, nick my older sister’s fab clothes and head up to the West End or down to Brighton for the day. When I left school, I took a job at the local Lido (outdoor swimming pool) as a lifeguard where I met and started going out with another lifeguard who was planning a trip to NZ. I decided to tag along, arriving in Auckland at the ripe old age of 17. The relationship petered out, by which time I had moved into a house in Wynn Road, Ponsonby, full of feminists and politicos and me, the London dollybird. We used to drink on a Friday night at the Kiwi Hotel on the corner of Symonds and Wellesley streets. It was here, or rather at an after pub party at a friend’s house that I met her flatmate, Sam. He was drunk and I found him obnoxious, but there you are…

Sam, you grew up in a home with parents who were as musical as they were sporting. When did you realise music was where you wanted to make a career?

I’m not a person with a plan. Most of the directions I have taken in my life and career have presented themselves, rather than me pursuing them. I was always interested in music but if I did have aspirations they were more towards visual art. I’ve always been good at drawing, even at an early age, and enjoyed the praise that came with that so I thought I would probably head in that direction after I left school.

I had learnt to play ukulele from my mother as a child, and in my early teens I took up the guitar – like many other budding guitarists at the time one of the first songs I mastered was House Of The Rising Sun, made popular by The Animals. This led me to Bob Dylan and folk music in general, which turned me into the anti-war, anti-racist leftie that I am to this day.

Through folk I discovered early acoustic blues from the ‘20s and ‘30s and that became an obsession. I spent every spare hour learning Robert Johnson, Skip James, etc. songs note for note, but I was still very much a bedroom performer and didn’t really see myself on stage. It wasn’t until Trudi and I were living in London in the mid ‘70s that I discovered that people seemed to enjoy me playing and singing, and would actually ask me to get my guitar out. By then I was very much into John Prine and the Texas alternative country scene and had started writing a few of my own songs and started to think maybe I could be a singer. By 1978 we were back in NZ and found ourselves in a band touring around the country.

The next unplanned development was recording. We had made some records with the Neighbours but I knew little about the technical aspects until James Moss of Jayrem Records bought me a Portastudio – a four-track cassette recorder that were all the rage at the time, and I set about learning how to use it.

Later in the ‘80s Trudi and I went into Montage Studio in Grey Lynn to record a song we’d written and the result impressed the owner, Michael Donnelly, who asked if I would be interested helping produce other artists in return for studio time. This in turn led me to start engineering sessions as well – I didn’t have any real technical knowledge but people liked the results I was getting and I ended up as a freelance recording engineer for 15 years, which was a real pleasure. I met loads of good people and we made some records that I’m still proud of. But I certainly didn’t plan it.
When you’re a freelancer, there’s often times when you’re not working and the rent still needs to be paid so I started doing some work for a production company, making props and setting stages etc. This led to a call from Auckland Art Gallery asking if I could build some props for an exhibition, which led to another exhibition and then another – before I knew it I was a full-time employee as a gallery technician. Hadn’t seen that coming! After five years of that we moved to London again, and I spent 15 years in the conservation department of The National Gallery, helping to restore paintings by some of the world’s greatest artists, and I certainly didn’t plan that.

Who were some of the music and musicians who perhaps resulted in you both forming the Sam Ford Verandah Band back in 1978?

We had both been total fans of alternative country music for some years – John Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker, Gram Parsons etc. When we moved to London around 1975 it really exploded – there were so many records available that we had never seen in NZ at the time and so many artists from that field doing in gigs – we were in hillbilly heaven.

We got to see people like Emmylou Harris backed by the Hot Band (Elvis’s band that worked with her when Elvis didn’t need them, with Rodney Crowell on rhythm guitar and backing vocals), John Prine with Steve Goodman, Bonnie Raitt, the list goes on and on. On record we finally got to hear people like Ray Wylie Hubbard and Guy Clark, whose songs we knew but had never heard the albums. Not to mention Willy Nelson and Waylon Jennings and the whole outlaw thing.

So when we came back to NZ at the end of ’77 we were completely immersed in all this stuff, and we knew all these great songs that people here hadn’t been exposed to at that stage. Two of the first Verandah banders we met were Gavin Buxton, a neighbour who played fiddle and mandolin, and Neil Finlay who we met at the Auckland Folk Festival playing guitar and harmonica.

Trudi and I rented a house in Hackett Street in St. Mary’s Bay, and before long Neil had thrown in his job and moved in with us. Across the road lived Ken James whom I knew from primary school, and it just so happened that he played dobro, so there was quite a bit of jamming going on. It was around then that we started to talk about forming a band. We started having regular weekend jam sessions on the upstairs verandah at our house and they began to be quite popular with the locals, to the point where our yard was completely full of people enjoying the music. Someone made the comment, “I really like verandah bands,” and the name was born.

We recruited Paul Dacre whom we’d met at Al Hunter’s Monday night gigs at the Station Hotel, to play bass and Paul Hewitt became our drummer. Some of our jam session fans were encouraging us to see if we could get a gig at the Gluepot. At that time the upstairs bar at The Gluepot was only open Thursday to Saturday and was strictly rock bands. We arranged a meeting with Les Wilson the manager, and Eddie Cook who booked the music, and suggested they give us Wednesday nights and see how it goes. Much to our surprise they agreed, and a few weeks later we played there for the first time and pulled in just over 200 punters. We were up and running.

We played about six Wednesday nights before the pub realised that people would come out mid week and we had to start competing with other bands for the gig. So we decided the time was right to hit the road. We bought an ex-Post Office Bedford J3 truck and fitted it out with a cabin in the middle for band members and a section at the rear for all our equipment and off we went. At the last moment our bassist John Dacre decided he didn’t want to come so overnight we recruited Phil Oxenham, who we didn’t actually know as he had only recently arrived in Auckland, and the very next day we were off.

This set a pattern for the band – for one reason or another we couldn’t hold on to bass players. We went through so many over the two years the band was going that I can’t even remember a couple of their names. But by the end of those two years Trudi and I were keen to try other types of music and when the latest bassist announced they were leaving it seemed a good time to call it quits. We’d covered a lot of miles, made bugger all money, but we sure had a lot of fun!

After the Sam Ford Verandah Band you and Trudi formed The Neighbours with the late Rick Bryant and recorded a 6-track 12” for the Jayrem label. How was that experience?

We love making records – it’s something we’ve never tired of, even though it often takes us years to finish them. When we made ‘The Only One You Need’ we were still quite new to the process so it was obviously going to be a learning situation. We had recorded two singles before this- Love Is Never Cruel at Stebbing’s on Jervois Rd and Watching Westerns at Innovation in Vulcan Lane, which were two very different experiences.

We were taking “advantage” of a deal offered by Harlequin Studio, recording from midnight to dawn and paying half the usual studio rate, but we found that we never achieved much in the second half of each session so we weren’t saving as much as we had hoped. I guess the lesson there is you get what you pay for…

The other negative I recall was the 1980’s obsession with the drum sound. I think we spent pretty much the entire first session getting the drums right. As a result, by the time we came to record the vocals at the end of the week we were running out of time, and it became a bit rushed. Years on, experience tells me that most listeners lock in on the vocals rather than the snare drum, but that was the fashion at the time. Those gripes aside it was a really enjoyable time. We liked working with our producer Ian Morris and everybody was getting along well, which is not always the way with bands.

Playing ‘live’ has always been the financial backbone to any musician’s existence but it’s not always a glamorous experience. What were some of the highs and lows of your touring existence?

We took to touring like the proverbial ducks to water. Distance does not daunt us – in 1993, when I released my solo album ‘Unhinged’ on Jayrem I booked a gig in Wellington. Along with Neil Finlay, bassist George Moeka’a and drummer Mike Abbott, we drove down from Auckland, set up, played our show, packed up, had a burger and drove back to Auckland.

In the early days, with the Verandah Band and then The Neighbours, we were often on the road for six weeks at a time, alternating between big booze barns in cities or towns and country halls where we’d arrive in the afternoon to nothing but the birds singing, set up, then go to a motel in the nearest town, returning to cars as far as the eye could see.

But that was just the good times. There were also times, before we were known, when the band outnumbered the audience. I recall a night there were seven of us on stage and five people in the audience, and at the end of the first set three of them left – at least before leaving, they came to us and said “We’re sorry, but we’ve got a birthday party we have to go to.” But the two remaining punters had paid their money at the door so they got the full show- we tried to give it as much as we would have if the place was rocking, and at the end of the night they called for more so we did an encore!

That kind of unsupported touring, booking your own gigs and relying on people turning up can be precarious, a few poorly attended gigs can mean you risk not having enough to pay the gas to the next one. We came close to that a couple of times on our first tour but that didn’t mean we couldn’t wait to get out on the next one. When you’re young and looking for the action nothing matches being the action in whatever small town you’re in that night.

However, there’s action and there’s action, and being NZ you’re never far from the wrong sort so we learned strategies to deal with it. One hall we played regularly in the far north always got a bit violent as the evening went on and it was always the same family at the centre of it so we hired them as security and it was all peace and love after that.

Another time, also in the north, about a dozen patched gang members turned up at the door. After our doorman cheerfully informed them, “It’s 10 bucks each guys,” the first one punched him in the face and they all walked in for free. So we started using a woman on the door and it worked – we never had the same problem again.

But it was in the deep south where perhaps the most memorable event of this type occurred – at the famous Cook Tavern in Dunedin. The Neighbours were playing three nights there, staying in the band house next door, and on the Saturday afternoon some of us were playing pool in the public bar when an old school bikie gang turned up, bikie chicks in tow. As was the custom at the time they challenged us to a game and it was all very good natured although, as with all gangsters there’s always an underlying tension.

That evening at the gig we were being filmed by the local current affairs progamme 45 South so Trudi went full bouffant with fishnets and a 1950s pink pompom bathing suit, as you do. However, this seemed to have annoyed the head bikie’s girlfriend who showed her displeasure by throwing a glass at Trudi during the first set. Luckily it bounced off the bouffant (the wonders of hairspray) but didn’t make for a fun time. During the break Trudi, being a true diplomat, approached the gang leader and complained about his girlfriend’s behaviour to which he replied, “You sort it out.” Morphing from a diplomat into the South London girl she is, Trudi spoke briefly to the girlfriend before knocking her unconscious with one right cross. The security guards arrived to carry her out, the bikies acted as though nothing had happened, and we carried on with the gig.

But it wasn’t always like that. In the very same band house on our next trip to Dunedin we met the Topp Twins who became life-long friends. And we played many, many gigs to full, enthusiastic houses and had a whole load of fun.

In 1999 you both relocated to London and worked as a trio called Soulahula with Kiwi guitarist Jeremy ‘Jero’ Dart … How was it living in London playing in pubs, art galleries and for private parties?

We moved to London mainly so Trudi could spend some time with her aging parents, and I was happy to do it because I felt like a change. I love London – we’d lived there in the ‘70s and went for a holiday in 1994 and that really gave us an urge to go back. It didn’t really have much to do with music although that is always in the back of our minds.

We had just finished an album called ‘Soulahula’ at Montage Studio that we’d been making over a period of around four years, that essentially had grown out of the Trudi & the Exceptions project with George Moeka’a and Wayne Baird. It gives an insight into how well planned our career has been that we finished the album and then went to live on the other side of the world – so it became our lost album. We had vague ideas of doing something with it over there but the reality was completely different, London was so expensive that we just had to find jobs in order to live or turn around and come home again. Trudi got a job at Birkbeck College, London University, working receptions and driving a van while I got a job as an art handler at the Tate.

It was a year or more before we even had a basic recording set up at home but once we did we started writing songs again. Jero Dart had moved over there around the same time – the three of us had been working at Auckland Art Gallery and he also got a job at the Tate. We’d played a bit together in Auckland and he’d played a couple of tracks on the ‘Soulahula’ album, but to begin with we were just concentrating on our day jobs.

After nine months at the Tate I was offered a job at the National Gallery and a bit later had the once in a lifetime opportunity to move into conservation – normally you don’t get these sorts of jobs without a degree in the subject but somehow I must have been in the right place at the right time. For a while music was really taking a back seat, although I had bought a 16-track recorder and Trudi and I were still spending some time writing and recording but we didn’t see much of Jero who was pursuing his own career in the art gallery world and we certainly weren’t even thinking about gigs.

A few years later Jero got a new job at the Royal Academy of Art, just up the road from the National Gallery so we met up for lunch and decided he’d come around for a jam – the beginning of weekly sessions every Saturday that went on for years. We didn’t know any other musicians but had become friends with people in the theatre world, and it was through them that we started to play here and there, quite often at private parties.

I think they found the three of us an entertaining oddity. Then a couple of them bought a pub in Kilburn and suddenly we had a Sunday residency that lasted for some time until it became a theatre pub. By then I had set up a home studio and we recorded an album ‘You & Me’ as Soulahula – pretty much just the three of us plus Kiwi keyboardist John Gibson, who would lay down some tracks on his visits to London, and Trudi’s niece Natalie Wood on backing vocals. It garnered a couple of good reviews in England but didn’t really set the world on fire. We launched it at the Ritzy in Brixton at a night run by our good friend Garth Cartwright, a Kiwi music writer who has been based in London for years, where we were playing every now and then. We did a second launch at the Kings Arms in Auckland with a full band, which planted the seed of the idea of moving back.

Every writer has a different approach and discipline to their songwriting. How does the creative process works for you both?

No two songs are the same. Some just arrive fully formed and some you have to build on and build on for ages. Sometimes it’s as though you’ve tuned in to some kind of radio wave and you don’t really know where they’re coming from. Bukka White called them sky songs. I’ve written songs like that where I’m thinking, “What is this song about?” Like it’s actually meant for someone else and it’s been delivered to me by mistake. But we also have songs where we only had, say, a verse and a chorus that we really liked but couldn’t quite do anything more with it, and then, literally years later the rest of it arrives. A lot of our songs have stories but we don’t know how the story will end till we get there – the words themselves decide.

I know a lot of people can only write from their own experience – if we were like that our songs would be pretty boring. We live quite a nice life, without too much drama or pain, so we write about other fictional people, although some aspects might be based on ourselves, or people we know.

The way we write has changed a lot over the years. Originally, it was only me [Sam] writing the songs but slowly we developed a way of doing it together. These days Trudi starts a lot of our songs. She often sings a line out of nowhere, maybe to do with our conversation at the time. Some of them don’t resonate but sometimes I’ll say “Keep singing that,” while I get a pen to write it down, or record it on my phone. Sometimes they become a song, sometimes not. But I have pages of them and there’s times I’ve found a musical idea I like so I look through them and find one that fits and off we go.

An example of how we work is the song Who’s Yudu? on our latest album. I was on the couch watching rugby league (a favourite pastime) while Trudi was cooking. She said, “I’d like to sit around all day and chill like you do.” I replied, “Who’s Yudu?” We both laughed and agreed there’s a song in that- and there was. The hard part is developing a one-liner into a whole song.

Every band’s chemistry is different. What makes for a band that can last the distance?

Money probably, although you read stories of how ‘success tore the band apart’ there’s probably more bands that have stayed together because of it. I find it hard to believe that a drummer like Charlie Watts, who’s real love is jazz, would still be banging it out with the Stones if they’d never made a cent. Sam & Dave reportedly hated each other but continued to work together for years without ever speaking to each other, but you can bet they were earning good money at the time.

When we were younger and formed the Verandah Band it was like a band of brothers or a gang. There was a sense of loyalty to the cause despite any hardships, us against the world. I think this feeling is shared by a lot of young bands. As you mature, you get used to the idea of people being in more than one band at a time and that there are ‘guns for hire’ who play for anyone who’ll pay the required amount. So when we revived the Verandah Band years later I would book a gig and then ring around an ever-increasing circle to see who was available for that night. The upside of this is that you get to play with some very good musicians, but the downside is that it’s always just jamming – you never rehearse and so you’re never playing the songs as well as they could be played.

However, the flipside is the other band we had at the same time. Trudi & The Exceptions hardly ever played but rehearsed endlessly trying to get the songs as good as possible, which was far more satisfying and because it wasn’t for the money we developed a closeness that was verging on that of a family. These days we’re trying to find a balance. We are prepared to pay to get the musicians who can do the job but they must be prepared to learn the songs and play them the way we want. When we finally get to do our Covid-postponed album launch we’ll see if we’ve got it right.

What’s the background to your new album ‘Sweet Sweet Love’ which was released in March on your own Choice label?

‘Sweet Sweet Love’ was recorded over five years or so, beginning in our home studio in London, which we called Soulahula Central. We had made one previous album there, ‘You & Me’, also released on Choice, which was made with drum machine and keyboard horns, etc., so this time we really wanted to go with real instruments, and we now had the technology to do it.

I started with basic tracking, drum machine, keyboard, rhythm guitar and guide vocal which I sent to our bass player of many years, George Moeka’a, who would record the bass parts in his studio, Logdrum, in Papatoetoe. He would send the parts back to me in London and our guitarist Jero would add his parts. Some of the keyboard overdubs were also recorded there by fellow Kiwi John Gibson on his visits to London, as were a couple of steel guitar parts by Glenn R Campbell when he came over to gig. Through Glenn we met Suzie O’list, who had been the backing vocalist for The Eurhythmics, and she added BVs, along with Trudi’s niece Natalie Wood.

In 2015 we moved ourselves and the studio back to NZ. We had 12 unfinished songs, all with guitar, eight with bass and other assorted tracks. We flew in at the beginning of November but the studio, along with all our other belongings, were coming by sea in a container and would take some time. We started jamming with George and making plans to put a band together and finish the record – we even did a gig together as a 3-piece, with George on second guitar. Then tragedy struck in early 2016 when George passed away suddenly. Along with his family and friends we were bereft. He had been our good friend and musical collaborator for 30 years and left a hole that felt like it could never be filled.

Although I set up the studio in the house we’d moved into it sat idle – for over a year we struggled to find the impetus to see it through. But we eventually decided we had a duty, to George if not ourselves, to complete it, so we started by getting Anthony Rima in to finish the bass. He‘s from the Kabin Bread Boyz, a band that George produced and he had worked with a lot – he was on the desk when George had recorded the parts he had sent to us.

Next up was the drums. Mike Abbott and George had been the rhythm section way back in 1993 when I cut my solo album and had worked with us a lot over the years. My studio isn’t set up for drums so we arranged to use Neil Hannan’s SDL Studio in Eden Terrace to do them there. To some people it seems strange to do the drums so late in the piece, but it gives the drummer a good idea of how the end product is going to sound, whereas if you start with drums and bass they’ll often overplay to compensate for the spaces that haven’t been filled yet.

By this stage I had added horn samples as well but I wasn’t totally satisfied with them, so I called on Chris Nielson. Chris had arranged the horns for our album ‘Soulahula’ back in the late ‘90s, we think he’s a genius. But he’s a very busy, very fussy genius so it was more than a year before he’d delivered all those superb horn and keyboard parts. Again, as is the modern way, he recorded them in his own studio and sent them to us. Then Chris, Trudi and I spent a few weeks mixing and polishing and we had a record!

Trudi and I then took it to London to be mastered by Nick Robbins at Soundmastering Ltd. Nick had mastered our last album and we knew that he would do the job right. They work from the same building as Ace Records, the re-issue company that is responsible for half the soul records in our collection, and do all their mastering, so he knows where we are coming from and how it should sound – like it does.

And finally, the best advice you ever got was…?

Trudi: Grow old disgracefully.
Sam: Don’t look back, you’ll only get a crook neck.