15 and snapping the stars: The new generation of music media

by Sharon Stephenson / 21 April, 2018

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McKenzie Jennings-Gruar

Aspiring journalist and photographer McKenzie Jennings-Gruar. Photo/Alexander Hallag.

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Wellington teenager McKenzie Jennings-Gruar is part of a new-generation media pack on the music festival circuit.

Sinéad O’Connor was “different”, Kiwi singer Kimbra was “cool and charming”, and the members of Welsh hard-rock band 9Bach were “engaging and gracious”.

McKenzie Jennings-Gruar might be just shy of her 16th birthday, but the aspiring journalist and photographer already has an impressive roll-call of the planet’s musical stars on her CV.

“I’ve been lucky to be able to talk to some amazing musicians, but they’re really just ordinary people with an interesting story to tell,” says Jennings-Gruar, who’s part of a new generation of young Kiwi writers, photographers and social-media influencers covering international music gigs, including this year’s Womad festival in New Plymouth.

 A Year 11 student at St Oran’s College in Lower Hutt, she cut her teeth at her first music festival, in Wellington, when she was just seven years old. Tagging along with her father, freelance music journalist Tim Gruar, she ended up backstage with the children of musicians from bands such as the Black Seeds. “McKenzie looked a bit bored, so I handed her a camera and suggested she take a few photos,” says Gruar.

Before long, she was photographing acts with her father at open-air festivals, including Christmas in the Park and CubaDupa, working alongside professional journalists and photographers, and meeting some of her music idols. “We attended every family-friendly festival, because I’m too young to cover gigs in pubs,” she says.

In 2014, Jennings-Gruar made her debut at Womad, which her father has covered for several years. “Dad got me a media pass, which allowed me to interview musicians and get into the pit to take photos,” she says. Her first interview was with pop/R&B artist Kimbra. “Dad was interviewing her for a magazine, and Wellington radio station Groove FM needed a bit of audio, so Dad asked if I’d like to do it.”

It was the end of the day and Kimbra had endured a gruelling media schedule. The singer was, recalls Jennings-Gruar, a little jaded. “But when I started asking Kimbra questions, she got excited. I didn’t really know what I was doing, so I asked her about things that girls my age want to know, and she ended up telling me how she makes her own costumes.”

Jennings-Gruar is too young to cover gigs at pubs but takes photos at most family-friendly festivals. Photo/Alexander Hallag.Although she wasn’t able to interview Sinéad O’Connor, the teenager was one of the few allowed backstage at Womad to photograph the controversial Irish performer. “She was so different, with tattoos, a shaved head and wearing a priest’s cassock. But she was also funny and cracked up when she was upstaged by the ducks on a nearby pond!”

Jennings-Gruar’s father says other media-hardened musicians have told the young reporter she’s “like a breath of fresh air”. But she’s not the only youngster on the Womad media team: three sisters from Dargaville have covered the festival alongside their father, photojournalist Mike Brown, including producing pieces for the Northern Advocate. Students from Waitara’s Manukorihi Intermediate, who operate radio station Manu FM, were also back on site this year.

So, who are Jennings-Gruar’s top picks for 2018? “I’m hoping to interview Aussie rockers Dragon, because my Mum sings their hit ‘April Sun in Cuba’ in a covers band. And the Mexican classical guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela, because Gabby is a super-guitarist, as well as the US-based Thievery Corporation because they play great electronic dance music.”

This was published in the March 2018 issue of North & South.

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