Yes I know, I never seem to get it right. Even though every year I usually write an article for the X-Factory trying to predict the winner of the Silver Scrolls I haven’t quite managed it yet. Maybe this year will be different, maybe it won’t, oh well, it is still lots of fun! As usual there are five songs chosen as finalists for the 2021 APRA Silver Scroll Award, as voted by New Zealand APRA members. The award recognises excellence in songwriting and has been presented for 56 years.
X-Factory will yet again dissect these tunes in an attempt to uncover hidden gems. I admit to having a favourite, I want Troy Kingi’s All Your Ships Have Sailed to win, as it embodies both a musicality and a ‘reason for being’ story which to my mind is both compelling and heartfelt. Turangawaewae is also grounded in purpose, I dig the community vibe. Anyway, let’s look at them all, starting with my favourite.
All Your Ships Have Sailed comes from Troy Kingi’s personal and nostalgic album ‘Ghost of Freddie Cesar’. It is dripping in retro soul and groove. Troy’s music is usually built around the combination of tradition and innovation, his grooves are solid, specific, and focused. The ’70s aesthetic of this track is reminiscent of a golden age, and each part of the rhythm section has earned its place, such as the guitar hook, and antiphonal bass line. Even the slight slowing down of the track at 53 seconds has an appealing lo-fi quality about it.
Harmonically, the verse and chorus are built from the natural minor mode, using just two chords Cm9 and Gm9. But Kingi is known for adding harmonic twists from which to navigate his melodies, the bridge consists of a four-bar chord sequence Dm-Am-Cm-Ebmaj7, indicating an abrupt modulation to a new ambiguous key-centre with chords found in C Dorian minor. It is the bridge that takes this song to another level, performed just with guitar, vocals, and strings providing a sonic respite from the harmonic groove of the verse and chorus. Kingi’s swung vocals over the ‘…all your ships have sailed’ lyric is smart, subtle, and musical, as is the band dropouts over the lyrics ‘…all I wanna say is I’m inadequate/Mama told me to know when I should quit‘. Troy Kingi knows how frame important messages in his songs.
The fact that three waiata written by Māori artists have been named among the top five finalists is an indication that there has indeed been a significant shift in the music industry towards embracing reo Māori waiata.
Maisey Rika’s Hiwa-i-te-rangi celebrates the youngest star in the cluster of Matariki, and the track is part of an album turning ancient stories of Matariki into beautiful waiata.
Musically this song draws strength from its lyrical innovation but also reminds us of musical traditions often employed in contemporary music. For example, its bass sound and drum groove is familiar, the ubiquitous-sounding vocoder effect, and the traditional practice of modulating up a tone (perhaps a path well-trodden musically), provides a sense that Maisey Rika is exploring nostalgia. I hear strong influences of the ’80s, ’90s and 2000s in this track.
Jump Rope Gazers performed by The Beths is a love song. On first listen it seems musically unassuming, especially when compared to some other tracks like I’m Not Getting Excited – it is perhaps simpler than other songs by The Beths. That’s cool though, after all, it is a love song, why get in the way with its message?
But then I read the lyrics and it all made a little more sense. The lyric imagery is conceptual rather than visual but very aesthetically pleasing – the lyrics make the song, basically. Words like ‘hide my heart behind a brighter light so you struggle, straining eyes to find why we made it this way’, do much to convey the vulnerability of the human spirit. Not to say there aren’t musical elements that are worth highlighting, guitar solos in The Beths have their own flavour without overshadowing the song, the guitar in Jump Rope Gazers is no exception, understated yet strong.
Jonathan Pearce, guitarist, songwriter and producer of The Beths also co-wrote Leave Love Out Of This, the Silver Scroll finalist song performed by Anthonie Tonnon. This is an understated piano-driven song that builds slowly throughout the track, using strings and orchestral percussion to build to a terminally climactic ending with electronic drums and guitar improvisation.
Last but certainly not least is Turangawaewae, a track written by Tipene Harmer, Maisey Rika, Troy Kingi, and Tenei Kesha. Its nostalgic, proud, and deeply connected to identity. I’d argue that is the music video that best brings out the community, celebration, and Tīpuna vibe of Turangawaewae. I love music that has a strong purpose. Like Rob Ruha’s Ka Mānu that speaks of the need to protect land, this track is all about protecting yourself. The piano and bass doubling provides a bouncy groove and the chorus is catch as hell!
I wish all of the finalists the best of luck and look forward to hearing the result next year at the culmination of the Covid-delayed 2021 awards ceremony.
Dr Mark Baynes is Programme Manager for the Bachelor of Musical Arts degree at MAINZ, Auckland; a degree program that fosters students’ ability to find their own musical voice, culminating with the creation of a capstone project such as an album, film score or music for game audio.