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Jan Hellriegel is back to write herself into New Zealand music history

Jan Hellriegel on Mt Albert, overlooking the neighbourhood that frames her new book of “suburban philosophy”. Photo/Rebekah Robinson.

Singer, songwriter and “suburban philosopher” Jan Hellriegel has never liked being called a rock chick. She talks to Joanna Wane about rediscovering her voice – and writing herself back into New Zealand music history.

All the big names were there; some of the more obscure ones, too. Dave Dobbyn, Tiki Taane, the Chicks, Tami Neilson, Jan Hellriegel... Actually, Hellriegel was probably there by mistake.

Billed in 2016 as the “first-ever major exhibition of New Zealand music”, Volume: Making Music in Aotearoa ran at the Auckland Museum for six months. Among the hundreds of images on display was a photo taken in 1986 of “production studio staff” at Radio One, Dunedin’s student station, where Hellriegel had an inglorious stint as advertising manager after finishing her BA at Otago University.

Neither Hellriegel nor the two guys pictured with her are named. She suspects the exhibition’s curators didn’t even realise it was her in the shot, although she’s looking straight down the barrel of the camera, with her big 80s earrings and sassy hands-on-hips pose. There’s no suggestion the omission was intentional – to be honest, Hellriegel says, she never had that much commercial success, anyway. But it’s sobering to see how this gutsy, outrageously talented woman has been virtually erased from our music history.

Not that it comes as a surprise to Hellriegel, who won Songwriter of the Year in 1993 for her debut album It’s My Sin; the other two finalists were Jordan Luck and David Kilgour. Who remembers now that she was snapped up as a solo artist by Warner Music, and opened for Jeff Buckley in Australia – he asked her back for his New Zealand tour the following year; that she played the main stage at Auckland’s Big Day Out; that the Mutton Birds’ first breakthrough single, a cover of Fourmyula’s “Nature”, featured her on backing vocals? “Kiwi goddess” is how she’s described in a YouTube post linking to the music video.

The only daughter of a West Auckland panelbeater – she still loves cars and the smell of petrol – Hellriegel has always been an outlier in the music industry. No one “managed” her image. She never surrendered creative control or churned out poppy singles, despite pressure to co-write her songs with the industry’s elder statesmen. When a producer suggested having her tonsils removed, she told him it might ruin the tone of her voice.

Left: Hellriegel around the time of the release of her second album Tremble in 1995. Right: Playing her Green Goblin guitar with Cassandra’s Ears at the 1986 Women’s Festival in Dunedin.

“I could probably have been more famous than I am now if I’d played the game a bit better,” she shrugs. “But I never felt part of that history, anyway. I didn’t fit into the cool group or the pop group. I didn’t have a theme or a genre. I certainly didn’t want to be a pop star with a producer who made my sound. I wanted to write my own sound – and it wasn’t the style of the time. I didn’t sound like anyone else. I still don’t sound like anyone else. And because of that, I was on my own. I was really on my own.”

For a while, Hellriegel walked away from it all and disappeared into the relative obscurity of suburbia. Now the mother of two teenage boys, she can look back on the highs and lows of her career with a hard-won sanguinity. Her last two albums were released under her own label, Blind Date Records. A self-taught specialist in the complex business of copyright law, she set up her music-licensing company Aeroplane seven years ago, and her publishing company, Songbroker, has thousands of New Zealand songs in its catalogue available for use on TV and film productions or ad campaigns. International placements so far have included Disney and Netflix shows; she’s now in talks with a major sports agency in the UK.

“Royalty rates are based on radio play, but programmers won’t even let [most New Zealand music] through the door,” she says. “The thing is, there’s money to be made [in licensing fees] but the music being chosen is from international labels so it’s going offshore. My job is to try and funnel some of it back to local artists.”

Her latest project, the product of many late nights and lost weekends, comes with a typical Hellriegel twist. Sportsman of the Year is both her fourth studio album and the title of a beautifully produced book of “suburban philosophy”; a chapter loosely accompanies each song, illustrated with photos taken by Hellriegel on regular walks in her central-city Mt Albert neighbourhood, where she’s lived for the past 16 years. The songs – as always, deeply personal yet resonating with a wider human experience – embrace everything from horns and a sly trombone to velvet-voiced blues, a surging choir (featuring Dianne Swann, Brett Adams and Rima Te Wiata, among others), and even a sprinkling of rap.

Hellriegel describes the concept as seven years’ pondering and two years’ production, all done part-time between working and raising her kids. The music won’t be streamed – at least, not initially – but the book comes with a high-quality digital download, and the option to buy a CD. On the cover is a photograph of Hellriegel as a 12-year-old at Rangeview Intermediate in Te Atatu South with the cup she’d won as “Sportsman of the Year”, and her prize for being top of class (a book on Alfred Hitchcock).

It’s a metaphor for her life, she says, and also for her career. “When I won [the cup], that was great. But after a while, I started thinking maybe I didn’t deserve it; maybe it should have gone to someone else. It’s taken me this long to be proud of it. I got it fair and square, and this book is about me going back to get that award.

In a generous foreword to Sportsman of the Year, music writer Simon Sweetman talks of “a hell of a voice delivering songs that come from the angels”. Hellriegel’s hit single “The Way I Feel”, which charted at number four here in 1992, is one of 30 defining “pop classics” Sweetman featured in his 2012 book On Song. “That first album of hers meant a lot to me,” he tells North & South. “I was quite young, and in my circles we didn’t listen to a lot of New Zealand music, but it was the coolest thing out.”

Hellriegel has a writing voice that’s unique, he says, describing her poetically as a torch singer within a pop song. “She was a real pioneer, but probably just missed her window. Right as she dipped out, you had Bic Runga, Stellar*, and Anika Moa after that. But her rebuilding story is really important, too. So often, people get excited about things that turn out to be a flash in the pan. One of the great things about Jan, as an artist, is that her broader narrative now speaks to a longevity that’s about being a songwriter rather than being a star.”

From her Dunedin days as lead singer with feminist band Cassandra’s Ears to opening for The Cure and David Byrne, Hellriegel reckons she suffered from “imposter syndrome” for much of her life. “But I don’t have it anymore,” she says. A national book-signing and performance tour is planned for June, and she plays her first show in a long time at new Auckland venue, Substation, in July. At the end of April, when the album and book were officially released, she also released a 12-part podcast series, also called Sportsman of the Year, on RNZ.

“One of the biggest things I’ve learned is to appreciate my fails and my losses. There’s a line I quote from one of my songs, ‘Winner’: ‘I failed now so many times I’ve remembered how to win.’ What you learn is you’re in your own race. Once you figure that out, you’re on your way.”

Hellriegel, the cover girl. The MORE magazine shot is beautiful, she says, “but I never wanted to be a princess – I’ve always slayed my own dragons”. Photo (right) by Michelle Cutelli.

What gave you the idea of making a “musical in a book”?

I thought, this is going to be a great album, but no one’s going to care. No one really cares about album releases fullstop, but they certainly don’t care about women of my generation. No one talks about the female voice in art once you get past the cute phase. And I can say that with a laugh, because my best work is now, for sure.

So I thought okay, I’m going to do it my way. I’m going to make something that pushes boundaries and shows you can keep doing amazing work, and what you look like has nothing to do with it. Women, especially, need to be shown that – because there are [older] male artists people revere. The documentaries are about them, our [music] history is about their history. So I thought, I’m just going to have to bump myself into it.

In one chapter, you write about “the worst gig ever”, in Melbourne, where you blew a chance to really break into the big time. Was there an element of self-sabotage in that?

Absolutely. But you know what? I think I did it the right way. Part of me sensed people wanted a train wreck – and I could have been one. If I’d had astronomical success when I was young, I don’t think I would have been able to handle it. And my career waited for me. The whole thing that if you step off the career ladder, you can’t get back on – that’s rubbish, it’s just all made up in people’s heads. You can do whatever you like. I’m going to write symphonies when I retire.

Do you think it’s different for young female musicians now?

I don’t have an opinion on that; it’s still forming in my head. Personally, I’ve never seen myself as a victim because I’m a woman. I don’t have any of those #MeToo stories in the music industry, and I’ve always been in control of everything I’ve done. It really upsets me when I do see women finding it so hard and that there are these creepoids out there.

A band rehearsal in her dad’s panel shop.

In “Love and Conviction”, you write about some of the jobs you’ve done to earn a living: delivering fresh fish to restaurants, cleaning hotel rooms, doing accounts, working in a jewellery store…

I had to pay my own way, but I like the whole idea of self-reliance. It’s how I learnt to run businesses, too, so that’s all tied in together. I’ve always done everything differently to everyone else, and I’m going to be like that to the grave. I hate being told what to do.

When you’re young, one of the reasons you aspire to be famous is that you think you’ve got no boundaries and you’re free. My life’s mission is to continue to feel like that: that I’m free and I can look at life from whatever angle I want, for as long as I want. I’m grateful it’s been harder for me, because it’s made me very strong, struggling against the tide. Bring it on! And I can keep going as long as I like, because I’m not waiting for anyone to tell me how it should be done.

Were you that stroppy as a kid?

I always felt on the same playing field as my three brothers. My parents kind of just let me go, and I’m grateful for that. At Henderson High, they told me I had to take typing and home economics because my dad was a panel beater and my mum was a housekeeper. I wanted to do languages and fine arts. I didn’t want to be making people dinner! Mum went down to the school and tore up the administration department. I did languages and fine arts. On her own, she lacked quite a lot of confidence. But when it came to us, she changed into this ferocious tiger mum. I’ve only just figured that out.

“Home Not Home” talks about the bittersweet relationship with your mum, who’s in hospital care now after suffering a severe stroke.

Dad taught me a lot about grit and never giving up. He didn’t marginalise me because I was a girl and that was a really big thing for me. I didn’t know what Mum had given me until it was too late.

When I was cleaning out the house, I found all these articles Mum had collected where I talk about my family and they’re all about Dad; I didn’t talk about her at all. But the weird thing is, Mum is the one who gave me the love of the arts, who believed I could be a singer, who believed I could run my own business. She was the one who said ‘Yes, you can do it.’ I wouldn’t have done anything I’ve done without her seeing it first. I never told her that. That’s why the digital release is on Mother’s Day [12 May], in homage to my mother.

Not everyone has been as positive as your mum. When Dame Sister Mary Leo gave you singing lessons, she said you sounded like a frog!

When I was with Cassandra’s Ears, we sent a demo to Flying Nun and the guy there – it wasn’t Roger Shepherd – said we were “fucking awful” and should give up. And I had this thing about being called a rock chick. I hated it; it was so incredibly frustrating and narrow. I’m a songwriter. I never had leather pants.

Look Blue Go Purple must have been around in Dunedin at a similar time in the 80s?

That’s another [all-women] band that’s completely overlooked. They’re so brilliant. Cassandra’s Ears was just slightly after them. When we did our first Women’s Festival, we used their gear without asking and got told off. I’ve never forgotten that. But we publish Look Blue Go Purple now [on Songbroker]. That’s a real honour.

You describe the years leading up to your 40th birthday as a particularly difficult time: “I was depressed, overweight, unfit, broke, separating from the father of my children, and I felt ugly and very stuck.” How did you lift yourself out of that black hole?

For a while, I set music aside completely and I thought I’d never do it again. But I kept somehow getting pushed back into it and I don’t regret anything because it brought me to the place I’m in now, and it’s exactly where I want to be.

I’ve said to my kids, your mum didn’t know what she wanted to do ’til she was 40. Don’t worry about it. One job that won’t be changing in a hurry is the creative industries. A computer can’t be me. The randomness of ideas can’t be calculated in advance; it’s not part of the binary system. Those “happy accidents” – they come out of nowhere and I love that.

How do you think the music industry views you now?

I don’t know if it gives me much thought! But it doesn’t really matter, does it? Because I’m making my own history. I’m building empires! Maybe my time has come. I’m ready now and my voice is the best it’s ever been. When I started making music, it was because I loved it and it was fun and we were fearless. And I feel like that again now. 

Sportsman of the Year is on sale at selected bookshops and record stores, or available for digital download at janhellriegel.com. ($39 for the book plus a quality download; $49 for the book and CD). We have two copies of the book/CD set to give away: email your name and address to north&south@bauer media.co.nz with “Jan Hellriegel” in the subject line, by 13 May 2019.

Hellriegel plays the Substation, a new venue at the Powerstation, Auckland, on Friday 5 July.

This article was first published in the May 2019 issue of North & South.

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