Delaney Davidson is the Kiwi songwriting guru you've probably never heard of

by James Belfield / 30 May, 2018
Delaney Davidson: His new album features Neil Finn, SJD and more.

Delaney Davidson: His new album features Neil Finn, SJD and more.

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Delaney Davidson hasn’t let his seemingly permanent orbit around the planet get in the way of a new solo album and being a mentor to other Kiwi musicians.

Over the past half-decade, Delaney Davidson’s name has cropped up time and time again in my interviews with Kiwi musicians, always at their instigation and in relation to how he’s helped them develop their art.

And yet it’s probably fair to say that this 46-year-old Auckland-born, Christchurch- and Melbourne-raised peripatetic workaholic hasn’t earnt quite the recognition enjoyed by many of those he’s worked alongside.

Possibly it’s because he spent about 10 years living and touring in Europe after moving to Bern with his Swiss wife in 2000; maybe it’s because even since becoming part of Lyttelton’s music scene sometime around 2009, he still favours the eternal summer touring schedule that allows him to spend our winters in Europe and the US; or perhaps he’s just too busy for the fame game.

Even his latest album, Shining Day – his 15th since 2004 and ninth on his own – is as much an exercise in showing Kiwi musicians how to work together as it is a demonstration of his own growth as an artist.

“It came about because I had these ideas and demos as a rough sketch of strands I wanted to weave into an album, and for a long time I’d been telling people around me that in New Zealand we should have an informal – or formal, even – agreement that would let us mentor each other,” he says.

“If you have a question and you think Dave Dobbyn is the right person to answer it, don’t be intimidated about asking him, or even if you are Dave Dobbyn and you think the guy at the dairy is the right person to ask about drum machines, go and ask him.”

Of course, it’s one thing having this grand scheme of artistic reciprocity, but rather than “just banging on about it”, Davidson decided to act on it. He put the collection of songs together and sent them to Neil Finn to ask him what he thought of them.

Davidson on stage in England, 2015. Photo/Alamy

Finn liked what he heard and invited Davidson to Auckland to help work through some live drum sounds and ended up playing bass on What Am I Doing Wrong?

“He was really generous with his time in Roundhead Studios – I don’t think the album would have come about in quite the same way without his support.”

Throughout the 11 tracks, the fingerprints of other collaborators can be found. Ex-partner Nicole Izobel Garcia’s vocals are on Washkas; So Far Away first saw the light of day on Tami Neilson’s 2015 album Don’t Be Afraid; US Americana artist Nathaniel Rateliff gets co-writing credits on opening single Strange I Know; and there are frequent instrumental and vocal cameos from SJD’s Sean Donnelly.

Davidson has also gone hunting through his repertoire for the perfect mix of dark, brooding and slightly eccentric tracks – from Bottomless Hole, which dates back to 2002, to the title track itself, which came from a writing session he and Donnelly had at the start of this year that gave rise to six new songs.

Donnelly is another Kiwi artist who, like Marlon Williams, Neilson and Nick Atkinson, has enrolled in the Davidson school of songwriting, at one stage committing to writing a song a day for a month. So, how does Davidson feel about his teacher role?

“I’m flattered if they see me as having that influence, because it’s completely in line with what I believe anyway,” he says. “People should be doing that for each other, and sharing and helping each other. Music is so much about collaboration, and it’s at its most beautiful when there’s a connection of all these people’s energy pushing in the same direction.

“In terms of work ethic, that’s your job. If you’re serious about it, then you should do it nine-to-five like everyone else has to work – just put in the time, it’s not that hard.

“Some people see that as if it’s some strict authoritarian, teacher-y type of thing, but I just think that it’s great – I think it’s a craft and a skill, and if you love it for those reasons, you should be pouring yourself into it.”

Davidson certainly pours himself into his work. There’s an intensity to his long thoughtful answers about how he sees himself as an artist – he’s either “a window” between his audience and his favoured other world of “rough edges” or a whisky barrel.

“When you distil things in barrels, it takes on that flavour and the barrel can’t help that.”

Shining Day has certainly developed a complex blend of flavours – a blend with a very worldly-wise maturity.

For example, at the point in 2001 when he became the drummer for funereal Euro folk-punks the Dead Brothers, which he did for three years and describes as his “tertiary education”, he had just negotiated taking over the running of a cafe kitchen in Bern.

This means that his conversation is as likely to cover the artistic merits of various theatre and film styles as it is to veer off to the beauty of seasonal central European vegetables such as celeriac and salsify or the difficulty creating the perfect frites out of high-starch European sweet potatoes.

When he does return to talking about his art, Davidson counts his wide experience as having allowed him to develop beliefs that underpin his wry, quirky, noir style: that the world is a constant wrestling match between good and evil and that the songs don’t appear because he’s a songwriter but because they already exist and he’s able to tune into them.

These philosophies mean that despite not getting “orthodoxly” through the school system, he’s now enjoying taking a deeper interest in where his songs come from and how he can perform them.

“Joining a band and going on the road in Europe for three years and all those years in kitchens were what formed my view of all that stuff and crystallised my world view, so that now, when I do look into the academic side of life … I see how much it reinforces things I already know,” he says.

“So, I’m really finding that the world of academia is tempting and exciting, because more often than not it provides me with the tools to look deeper into that world.”

His background and broad artistic repertoire were reflected in the Arts Foundation Laureate Award he received in 2015, which came with a $50,000 prize he used as the deposit on a house in Lyttelton.

The award’s citation described him as “part wandering minstrel, part travelling salesman, one foot on the stage and one in the road. Six solo albums out and always one on the way. Tours and performances in 17 countries, across oceans and continents. Awards here. Collaborations there. A non-stop whirlwind … a hardworking miner of rich and varied musical ores from all over the world, a mad alchemist who produces wondrous new elements out of whole cloth.”

Over the past two years, the whirlwind has certainly not abated. From creating his own album artwork – the cover for Shining Day is a 19th-century-style tintype photo he took while at a festival in the backblocks of Tennessee – to playing the devil in a Christchurch production of the Tom Waits-William Burroughs warped Faustian fairy tale The Black Rider and mixing his love for vaudeville, home-made film and solo performance on his Magic Lightbox Tour of late last year, Davidson has continued his multimedia approach to storytelling.

At present, he and collaborator Williams are touring Europe. Back home, there’s a pile of projects waiting to see the light of day: the album cooked up over the kitchen table with Warratahs frontman Barry Saunders; a Charlie Feathers rockabilly tribute album with the Dead C’s Bruce Russell; and tracks recorded with SJD.

Does Davidson harbour thoughts that he might break out of his status as an international cult star whose trophy cabinet contains three New Zealand Country Music Song of the Year awards and one for “Berlin’s Saddest Song of the Year” in 2010 and hit the big time?

“I have different ambitions. I have high artistic hopes in terms of achieving projects and working with people, but when it comes to a higher profile and a larger audience, I’ve seen what that does for people and it’s not very good creatively. And creativity is what I’m most bent on achieving.

“People talk about being famous and having the big label deal, but what’s it all for – just so you can put out records? Well, just put out f---ing records; then what do you need all the other stuff for?” 

Fan club: Tami Neilson and Marlon Williams. Photos/Shot By Mrs Jones; Simon Young

Fan club: Tami Neilson and Marlon Williams. Photos/Shot By Mrs Jones; Simon Young

Delaney's disciples

Marlon Williams: “Delaney introduced me to a lot of new music, but more importantly, he showed me how to write songs. He’s so in control of what he’s doing that it’s a craft to him. I’ll get up in the afternoon, and by that time, he’s already got four tracks loaded up that he’s just written and recorded in the past six hours.”

Tami Neilson: “Delaney can always see potential in people, see what they can become.”

Nick Atkinson (Hopetoun Brown): “Delaney said something to me once that really turned on a light: ‘If you’re not finishing a song every month, what the hell are you doing?’ So now we’re aspiring to the Delaney Davidson message – and it’s been quite a learning experience.”

Delaney Davidson’s Shining Day is out now.

This article was first published in the May 5, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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