If your memory of Kiwi pop goes back a decade or so then there’s every chance that you remember the name Seth Haapu, his smooth good looks and his contagious George Michael-reminiscent R&B/pop. Then again, and despite his sharing big stages with the likes of Crowded House and Adam Lambert back then, Haapu’s subsequent absence from the scene following the 2011 release of his debut album may render him ‘new’ to you. Richard Thorne welcomes back Seth Haapu on the back of his own Pacific-crossing New Wave.
For an artist with just the one under-promoted album and one recent (official) self-released single, Seth Haapu has already enjoyed a successful career in music. Early fans would likely still recognise him from his self-titled debut album released by Sony Music NZ back in 2011 (Owe You Nothing, Bones), and while he retains the fashion model look and classic sense of style that made him a likely pop star back then, the Seth Haapu of today is a very different musician and man.
After an apparent seven-year break away from the scene his 2018 return single is titled New Wave, with a te reo Māori version entitled Ngaru Hōu. New Wave earned him the trophy for Best Māori Songwriter in the 11th annual Waiata Māori Music Awards staged in September.
Given that the feted likes of Rob Ruha, Six60, Ria Hall, Troy Kingi and Alien Weaponry were fellow winners in various other categories, that stands as a considerable testament. As does the fact that New Wave also featured among the final 20 songs in consideration for this year’s APRA Silver Scroll Award.
Seth Haapu, it would seem, is back. So where is it that he’s been? Answering that leads back to his father’s death soon after his debut album was released. So soon that ‘Seth Haapu’ enjoyed very little of the planned promotional cycle. Referencing the death, Seth repeatedly uses the expressions ‘turning point’ and ‘journey’ throughout our conversation.
“A turning point like that really puts things into perspective, certainly it did for me. As much as I love music, a lot of my time has been spent trying to be a better person, a better family member, a better friend… so I really resumed that part of my life and poured myself into different areas of creativity and learning.
“So I guess my father’s passing led me into a different trajectory. After the process of grief had passed I wanted to know more about my heritage and where we had come from. That became a major goal for me. Learning about my whakapapa and Māori heritage [he’s Ngāti Porou], as well as the Tahitian side.”
Putting music firmly aside for a time he traversed the Pacific and the North Island of Aotearoa.
“For me, it was a first time to visit the sites where my ancestors had settled and really delving into the origins of the generations before me. If anything that was the greatest thing to come out of that event. There seemed to be questions around legacies and life in general, so it was quite a powerful journey for me to have.”
When he did return to music Seth started working more behind the scenes, as a producer, arranger, mentor – all of which he finds rewarding.
“I guess my life goals changed. Being a recording artist is one aspect of all these different parts that make me who I am. I felt that I had achieved the goal of recording an album. It was a realisation of a dream that, working with some incredible people, recording at Roundhead.
“Coming from Whanganui, where a lot of my work and songwriting was done in my room, then being propelled into these spaces that are of such a high quality, and working with incredible musicians – for me that felt like I had really achieved something great.
“The stages that usually follow an album release, like a tour, I didn’t do any of those things. There wasn’t much in terms of marketing or promotion, for me I needed the time and space to move through that event.”
He describes himself as a bit of a lone wolf, preferring to find his own path, trust his inner voice, rather than lean on others. Over time his journey of self-discovery became one of self-empowerment.
“The more I learnt about where I had come from the more that inspired me to want to take a greater role in my music, business and creative. And so a couple of years passed and about 2013 there was a discussion around what to do with the new material, and I decided that I wanted to part ways with the label.”
Having been with Sony NZ for six years it wasn’t just a case of walking away, though he says the contractual side of the relationship break up was quite smooth. One key to his subsequent feet-finding was the establishment of this own music company, Kēhua Music.
The kehuamusic.com site describes it as a boutique ghostwriting, music production and artist development service. ‘We value things not easily seen or measured by bringing potential to light through message, style and technique.’
“Kēhua means ghost, and the way that I saw that was being a presence behind the music, but not one that’s always having to be put out there in the spotlight. Fame and those sorts of elements have not ever been of interest to me. Music, creation, relationships, connections with people have always been the foundation to what I try to do. Just connecting with people.”
There are a number of artists who could attest to that, some directly owing a measure of their own success to Seth Haapu’s input. Mentoring and assisting in other people’s careers is, he reflects, predominantly what he’s been doing that has been music-related over the last several years. He’s been active as a mentor through Pao Pao Pao and the NZ Music Commission.
“With Kēhua I’m creating soundtracks, piano arrangements or writing material for other artists, being a presence behind the scenes in that way.”
He’s also worked on soundtracks for film, produced music for a couple of Maori Television series, and notably been writing, arranging and producing for other artists – Stan Walker, Maisey Rika and Sons of Zion among them.
Starting with ‘Volume 1’ in 2016, he has very quietly released a digital EP each year since. ‘Volume III’ (including both New Wave and Ngaru Hōu) became available on Spotify in August this year.
“They are sort of connected, really just an expression of bits of my life over the last six or so years. I wanted to have an approach that was understated, it was really just an exercise of catharsis for me, just documenting different experiences.”
He reckons he’s got over three hours of material accumulated over the last decade. There is an album planned, but that now looks to be a 2019 goal.
“I guess that’s one of the things about my approach, there’s not always a strategy to the way I put my music out. It’s an organic approach and often it’s about what feels right at the time, and timelines don’t always adhere to that!” he laughs.
Having put his teenage vibrant pop aside in favour of a quite individual contemplative soul/R&B form, Seth says that his song ideas typically build up slowly.
“Especially I think because of that journey of reconnection to my heritage that I’ve been on. It’s not something that can be rushed, that journey, it’s something you discover in time, and that you learn through different people. I have approached the music in a similar way. There’s a process of learning that happens first, a process of then understanding what that all means, and then from that, the inspiration for a song might appear.
“With New Wave, I felt I had reached a point where I really understood who I was as a Māori artist, and that realisation began to form the song. As a recording artist, you’ve got to be able to put yourself out there, and I’ve never been good at that, I feel. That’s been part of my journey as well, feeling good in my skin and happy to be understated.”
Perhaps it’s not surprising that New Wave is recognisably an exceptional song, as it has been literally crafted from the natural surrounds. Samples of waves crashing have been used instead of cymbals.
“I feel like it started with the inspiration of a sound. I spent time with Maisey Rika and Horomona Horo, a traditional taonga pūoro artist, and he shared with me some really insightful history about some traditional Māori waiata (motiatia which is an ancient form of chant), and explained how a lot of the songs are created in a way that mirrors the landscape which they come from.
“So from those ideas I started to see music differently. It wasn’t instantly about a lyric or a melody, it’s about connecting more with the natural environment. That was something I really began to do a lot more of.”
The beach, he says, became an important space of creativity.
“It would be simply being there and enjoying the disconnection from technology, the feeling, the sense of freedom, the sound of the waves – those things provided the sonic inspiration for the song and that’s where it started.”
He struggles to simply explain the meaning of his award-winning song’s lyrics.
“The ‘new wave’ for me is the realisation that even when I’ve gone there will be future generations to carry on that legacy that has been discovered about where I come from – and an expression of thanks for realising that through my journey of reconnection.
“Even though at the time I didn’t have the te reo Māori lyric, it was more about the spirit or feeling of that, so I used what is a very Māori approach, which is metaphor. That metaphor of a new wave became the premise for the lyrics that eventually came. So, even before there were words there was content.”
Translation of New Wave’s lyric’s for the Ngaru Hōu version was done by Mataia Keepa.
“I didn’t simply want the words to be translated because te reo Māori can’t always be translated word for word. Mataia and I met on several occasion just to talk about the meaning of it even without my lyrics, and he was able to connect in his own way to that experience of coming to a point in your life when you are ready to take on something new and be fearless about that. He came from a place that was more about understanding that than simply translating the lyrics.”
So lyrically the two song versions differ, as do the two videos – similar but very different. Directed by Shae Sterling, the visually striking New Wave video was shot at Te Ara, on the east coast, north of Auckland. Playing the grand piano at the water’s edge was Seth’s idea.
“The piano has been a vessel of creativity for me since I first started playing at 9 or 10, the first instrument I learnt.”
By contrast, the Ngaru Hōu version video was done by him and a videographer friend.
“When I perform it in Maori it is different in that exemplifies that journey of reconnection, so the video is very simple. The theme remains the same, it’s me in my element really, by the water.”
There’s another very good reason why Seth Haapu has limited his recent ‘official’ releases and perhaps been postponing the rumoured album – he’s two years into a degree course, studying for a BA in music and psychology. Learning, as he says, is part of his creative process.
“I have been studying at Auckland Uni, and bringing music and psychology together in way that can eventually lead me to doing a post grad degree in music therapy. That’s something I would really love to do. Coming out of my experience as a recording artist, and maturing, I really want to contribute to the wellbeing of people at a deeper level – using science to help.”
“I’ve been lucky to have a career in music for over a decade, but as you mature your priorities change, and I just knew that I wanted to contribute to people in a different way.”