Ella Yelich-O’Connor reflects on the massive effect her dad has on her music.
When I shut my eyes, my dad is smiling. He is filthy and breathing hard from the heat, and I am running unsteadily towards him with a glass of water, the ice prised from the tray with my fingers. He leans on his spade and drinks.
I am a quiet kid. I read. I slink upstairs when birthday parties are humming downstairs. I sit by myself for a long time in the big cavity that the slides used to feed into at Western Springs before they made the whole thing safe. Kids push and run around me. I look up, and Dad is waving, holding an ice cream from the zoo canteen. It’s boysenberry. I still remember the taste of it, that exact cone.
His favourite sayings are all the bad ones. I suspect darkly when I was young he brought them from Taihape or Turangi and now we are stuck with them. You lie like a flat fish. Up the boohai shooting pukekos with a sawn-off shotgun. “Dad, I’m hungry,” we say. “Hi, hungry, I’m Vic.”
Without my dad, I don’t make music. I don’t know what a good song sounds like. I don’t know how it feels to be taken someplace in the words. I shut my eyes and hear his voice in the dark, singing the old songs over and over, ending each one with ohhh-yeah, because he’s a first-verse-and-chorus kind of guy.
I dream about the people in the songs. When I’m older, I see adverts and film trailers in which I think I spot Daniel-is-travelling-tonight-on-a-plane, or She-said-she-had-to-work-so-I-went-to-the-show-alone. I know I’ve seen the lady who’s sure a few times, in the street, all across the world. Mum remembers a little me, dorky hair and scuffed knees, opening my mouth to noisily sing, A hula, a haka, a siva to my ten guitars. And then there is Burt Bacharach, whose songs I despise for their ancient, hokey arrangements – Dad cleans the kitchen, shouting Who Shot Liberty Valance?, the worst of them all – until one year I am in a school-night cab coming home in the rain from the music awards, and one comes on and I understand.
In the holidays, I work a filing job at my dad’s engineering firm. I am a terrible filer – on the last day I give up and make a file name MISC and put all the remaining documents in it – but I love coming to work. We cut through cherry trees near the Domain into bright, cold sunshine, listening as the radio talks back.
When I’m 15, there is morning tea for Dad for being with the firm for 30 years. I feel the punch of pride in my chest, the ache of being that proud. I aim for a day I can look back and see a job done as well as his.
In summer, we pile into cars and head to the bach. We are all together for the first time properly all year. We breathe out. There’s plenty of time for us kids to get up each other’s noses, brandishing knives in arguments by the sink, spraying each other with the hose until someone flips. We fish, swim and scallop all day. I learn how to shuck. I rub fresh fillets with brown sugar for the smoker. We play bat-down in the park, the dogs circling, manic with joy. Dad wears his old rash top and the faded hat with the string under the chin, and his nose and cheeks are tight and lined with sunburn. He is the centre of everything.
Every night there’s a brazier on our lawn, and the neighbours come from all around to drink Heinekens and sway by the speakers. Through the eyes of love you see a thousand staaaaars.
When I shut my eyes, my dad is smiling.
I am thankful every day for his steady, simple love. It helps propel me to diarise and document, to stop time. I want to freeze the world as he seems to do when he’s around – and if it goes right, the sun will always shine, and the dogs will never die, and the food will always cook, and the songs will never, ever end.
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