One of my biggest passions is recording. Especially albums. I love making them and I love listening to them. As a listener, I’m always excited when an artist I like puts out a new LP. Singles are great, EPs too, but I think the full album offers so much more. From a songwriter’s point of view, the album can be the ultimate undertaking. It is a big challenge that will require time, energy and sacrifice to achieve. The motivations are numerous – fun, self expression, documentation of experience, liberation of ideas… It’s exciting to imagine what might be learnt throughout the process and what growth could be experienced as a musician along the way. It’s an exhausting road, but it’s also a chance to say something that's important to you and to get your thoughts and feelings out there, in all their manifested purity!
When I was a wee lad I had a cassette tape Walkman that I used to rip tracks off the radio. I was ready to hit record as soon as the ads ended. It felt like obtaining a treasure. Once you had the recording, you held the Holy Grail. I’d listen back a lot, absorbing and dissecting it as much as I could. Years later, I commandeered (nautical term) the cassette tape section of dad’s old analogue stereo system. This beauty had not one, but two independent tape decks (I still have it – don’t tell dad). With this, I began to experiment, bouncing between two tapes and layering tracks on top of each other to build songs. No computers. I would record a rhythm guitar track to tape A. Then play that back through speakers and simultaneously record a lead part to tape B. Then I would playback tape B and re-record over tape A, adding vocals, and so on... It was just as lo-fi sounding as you might imagine, but that really didn’t matter. I was just a little kid experimenting with sounds and having fun. I learnt a lot from those childhood experiences.
Around the age of eighteen, I bought an 8 track, semi digital console and set it up in my bedroom, right next to my great grandmother’s old upright piano. I lived in a cave dwelling at the far back of my parent’s (now earthquake demolished) house. Every square inch of wall space was covered with band posters and in the corner sat a 100watt guitar amplifier (my poor neighbour, Foxy John, in all his patience – he was also the chief of discipline at my school, so I knew him well). My friends would come and have regular album appreciation nights and we would often jam and cut little late-night blues bits and pieces on the 8 track, drinking bourbon and beers in true Christchurch style. Represent. More fantastic times of self guided 'education'.
I studied a music degree in Christchurch before leaving and took a real interest in the production side of it all. My band made it's first album (which was terrible - no discredit to anyones' performance, I just wrote 12 rubbish songs that had no business ever being recorded) and I had a few recording experiences throughout a number of different studios, some very professional. Although nothing much good came out of it, in fact I made a fair lot of musical mistakes around this time (including an attempt at a 25 track double album), but again, it was all prime hands on learning and good fun with good friends, so I'll take it and run... It's so important to have the space and time to practise what you're trying to get good at, all of the greats started out somewhere. Even if the early results aren't flash or don't lead anywhere, keep on trucking I reckon...
Photos by Mike Neumegen, Elliot Howey
I relocated down to Dunedin in 2012 and set up my own little freelance business called Smokey Room Records. It was a side project to my bands, but I managed to produce some great projects and meet some awesome people as a result. At the time, a group of us teamed up, operating out of “Bond Street Studios” – a bit of a dive that was always filled with last night’s left over bottles from someone's rehearsal. Yet, it was a wonderful place to hang out and make music late into the night, without any frills or pressure and some really great things happened there. I actually used some old footage shot in Bond St for the video of my song “Not Space Nor Time”. We got so far behind on rent in the end that we were evicted. Pretty comical in hindsight, that the 15 people within the bands couldn’t pull the $$ together for what I’m sure was the cheapest rent in town, without any noise restrictions. We were all in our early 20’s, so it is possible that our collective leisure interests may have involved other, more pressing expenses at the time. I also had various bedroom studios around that era that I would return to for mixing or tracking less obscenely loud things (sometimes)... I'd normally use Bond St or hire King Edward Court hall for drums / electric guitars, but not always. Some days the neighbours just had to wear it on the chin.
Photos by Mike Neumegen, Tom Batchelor
In 2016 my band, The River Jesters, made our first album. We’d done a video and single for $12k a few years earlier and the album cost us roughly the same again. It’s expensive business, for something that usually doesn’t make the money back in full. We toured hard to pay for it all, so the songs were tight and we knew they rocked live (apart from “King Long”, which just confused everybody - still, it made the cut). We worked hard on the preproduction, first in our band rehearsal room and then at Sammy’s Theatre in the two weeks lead up to full production. The album was tracked in stages at “The Helpful Studios” in Christchurch. The drums and bass were done together over the first week, guitars and vocals followed. I was there for a whole month in the end. It was a little gruelling at times, as we wanted to give the project everything we had, but overall, it was a fantastic experience with a result that I'm still really happy with now. Tom recorded all his vocals in two evenings, wearing nothing but his undies....
Photos by Mike Neumegen, Andy Farrant
One of my all time favourite recording experiences was the session I produced for one of Tom Maxwell’s wee projects, “The Lonely Crowd”. Five Queenstown musicians that decided to descend upon Dunedin for a weekend, seemingly just to drink booze mischievously and make what I still consider to be an outstanding 6 songs. We opted to do it all old school – Tom Petty / Bob Dylan style – all the band members in one room together, everything completely live (even vocals). No overdubs. Magic captured. I even mixed the whole thing live, through my tube analogue desk, adding spring reverb to each track as it was needed. Everything was bounced down to 2 stereo outs, unable to be tampered with after the fact. The more that I’ve worked alone since (overdubbing – recording each part separately and working to get everything sitting “right”), the more I’ve come to realize that this is where the beauty of music really lies – people playing together in a room. Not overthinking it, not looking for perfection, just a pure feel. It’s also the most enjoyable way to do things in my opinion. You share a human connection that’s removed when you do everything alone. I look forward to making my future records with more of that approach.
Photos by Wioterangi Ngarimu
Currently, I’m finishing up the recording stage of my second solo album. As with my debut, I’ve played all the instruments, apart from the drums and saxophone. So far, it’s taken over a year of mostly full time work. That’s not something I necessarily enjoy by the way. It’s something I’ve had to do (being so far away from both my home and so many working musical relationships). It’s been a great challenge for my abilities and it's pushed me to become a better player, but it hasn’t been out of a desire to do everything alone. To illustrate the workload, I’ve used the document below to plot my progress and stay on track throughout the whole project. Think of each box as a different performance. Once each instrument is recorded, it gets coloured blue, meaning it hasn’t yet been reviewed (normally I do approximately ten takes of each part and then go back through them to select the strongest one). There’s a lot of time spent listening back. Once something is completed, it then gets coloured purple and I do a dance of obsessive compulsive joy. 248 performances! Logistically and emotionally, that’s so many different situations to facilitate… Writing and learning the part, sourcing the instrument and equipment needed, arranging spaces and times to record, paying for studio time, setting up, packing down, travel, time off work, etc. For me, it’s a real mental exercise to get through it all, particularly alone. You have to be ready to battle your own mind, which will undoubtedly attempt to convince you to quit, every single day. It’s all a bit heavy. In the end you just hope people will listen to it lots and take something good from it, but you can't expect to get paid!
I do look forward to starting a recording studio of my own one day. It's something I'm sure I'll do, although I don't know where or when exactly. There's just something about working at a sound and trying to bring what's in your head into reality. I love working on both my own music and that of other peoples, so one day there'll be a designated space for all of that to happen. It's going to be very special. Remind me to try and figure out how to put in a window or some form of view to the outside world??? Cheers.
Photos by Elliot Howey
My move from New Zealand to France occurred in April 2018. I came here for a number of reasons, most prominently, to pursue my relationship with then girlfriend, now wife and baby-mama (to our little wee daughter), Alix. But that’s jumping ahead a fair way. In the lead up to departure from my homeland (a magical place that I love immensely and am deeply connected to), I had become a bit tired of my lifestyle. I was ready for a big change of environment and alongside the desire to travel Europe extensively; I had this burning ambition to live here in pursuit of an ongoing musical dream. I had spent many incredible years working as a musician back home and I felt really curious to learn if that might be a possibility elsewhere. Granted, it's unlikely I would have chosen France had it not been for the fore-mentioned French woman. Holding a UK passport I suppose I might have otherwise ended up in London. But now, a few years down the track, I am very grateful it all turned out the way that it did… And here’s why (broadly).
I moved here without knowing anybody besides Alix. When I first arrived, we moved into a really old and classically Parisian apartment in the 20th arrondissement. The area is called Belleville, which translates to “Beautiful City”. Historically, Belleville was (and still is) a ‘working class’ neighbourhood. It’s also one of the cheaper areas of the city, with many artists living and practicing there too, so it is quite run down, having avoided some of the big architectural makeovers of the 60’s and 70’s. Belleville was a settling place for a large Chinese migration in the 1980’s and there are also strong African and Middle Eastern communities residing there. It’s a real mixing pot, known for its cultural vibrancy. We lived at 60 rue Piat, right around the corner from where Édith Piaf was born and Jim Morrison was buried. Through the blue door and up the red spiral staircase… We had the Parc des Buttes Chaumont (a landfill and sewage dump following the 1789 Revolution, converted into a beautiful park in 1864) just five minutes walk from our house – my daily running destination. The neighbourhood was packed with cheap restaurants, local farmers markets, bars, live music, street art, festivals, cafes, art initiatives and the hustle–bustle of it all happening. People of all backgrounds where mixed up and going about their business and (especially during the summer) there was always a sense of life. It is what I consider to be one of the more interesting parts of Paris: a little dirty, a little gritty, but overflowing with colour – the perfect landing point for my “big change of scene”. I spent my days there walking in the streets, falling deeper into love, writing my music in the sunshine and recording demos of new songs in our apartment, with the windows open wide.
My wife and I spent our first European summer together travelling around, whenever we had the chance. Most weekends we would get out of the city and visit new areas of France, or further afield in Portugal, Switzerland, Greece, Italy, Spain, Denmark, Germany, Belgium, England, etc. We have built so many happy memories together throughout these times and it's been a dream. Inspiration for some future writing, no doubt. One of the things I have loved most about living here is the extent of the access throughout Europe. Everything is so well connected and it’s easy to move around, even on a limited budget like my own. When you're based here for a decent amount of time, you can see and experience a huge and varied amount.
Alix comes from from a small and beautiful town at the top of the Loire Valley called Châteaudun, which is where we got married, just there in the town hall. The wider area is known for its long string of medieval castles (more than 300 – some dating back to 10th century). It’s also famous for its wine and fresh produce in general, sometimes referred to as the “Garden of France”. Last summer we moved down there for a few months, awaiting the birth of our baby. We lived with Alix’s parents and it was just so blissful. The small French towns offer something really different from Paris and the time just seems to move more slowly. In Châteaudun, there’s more access to nature (one of the things I miss the most about New Zealand), with a big woods near by and Le Loir (a river). We would hire kayaks and row ourselves round, swim in the pool, walk in the forest and eat, eat, eat – seemingly endlessly.
By this stage, work on recording my second album had begun. My money was running out, so I skipped the winter here and returned home to replenish funds with a national tour. I started by recording all of the basic acoustic guitar tracks in the garden shed at my parent’s house in Christchurch. The final month of the trip was spent down in Dunedin, tracking drums with Ryan Finnie and living with my friend Sam McKean out in the seaside paradise of Macandrew Bay. It was a special time, although it felt strange to be away from Alix during the initial months of the pregnancy. In hindsight, the timing was right and it was a move well played, both financially and creatively too. I returned to Châteaudun and set up camp in my sister-in-law, Jeanne’s horse themed bedroom, with a beautiful view out over the back garden. Somehow I managed to smash out all of the bass tracks there before my life would change forever.
Our gorgeous little girl, Violette, was born in Vendôme, a town close to Châteaudun. She was just a wee one, weighing in at a little over 2.6kg. This has been one of the most spectacular experiences of my entire life. Following her birth, we moved back to Paris. This time to the 15th arrondissement, right next to Bir Hakeim bridge and only two blocks away from the Eiffel Tower. It's been an interesting contrast to life in Belleville. We are happy to have an apartment that's more comfortable and practical for bubba life, but we sometimes miss the vibes of where we were before. However, there are a great many enjoyable things about the new neighbourhood too... I have far more home studio space and better access to recording studios in the area (where I’m now spending most of my days). La Seine river is at the end of the street (for running) and I've managed to find much more work here as a freelance sound engineer and guitar teacher. So all good!!!
The whole time I’ve been in Europe, I’ve been consistently writing new music. Since arriving I think I have written or finished nearly 80 songs, or strong ideas for songs at least. The change of environment has given me inspiration I could never have imagined before taking "the plunge". I’ve honed in on my craft and come across many new avenues of creative exploration. Above all, I'm proud to have allowed myself the chance to attempt some serious, long haul, focused development of my passion. The album I’m currently making will have been recorded almost entirely in Paris over a two-year period. That’ll truly be something to think back on with an easy smile and a tingly rush of joy, having ticked a mighty goal off the dream list. But it hasn’t all been so easy…
The challenges of France (from my personal experience only):
Wrapping up :
Since arriving just two years ago, so much has changed. I’ve somehow found myself a tremendously special ladyfriend and daughter, the start of a happy little French-Kiwi family who warm my soul. To watch a little one grow and realise there’s no place happier than with that child and her mother. The strength and power of love is the ultimate gift and finding from all of my time here. We’ve seen so many new places together and experienced so many new things that I almost struggle to keep a clear record or memory. As for music, I will be perfectly honest here. I came with an ambition of playing a million shows across Europe, hoping to sign up with a label and have more ‘success’ than I’ve found so far. It hasn’t worked out that way. My sights were set high in that regard and although I’ve worked extremely hard, it hasn’t happened. In fact, just as I begin working on booking a European tour with my friend and booking agent, Corona Virus hits hard and cripples the musical world for the foreseeable future. Almost got there, might yet still, who knows??? Some dreams have failed and some hard lessons have been learned too, the truth is I'm at peace with it all. I have performed nearly fifteen concerts in Paris and one in Berlin (some of the best, most intimate solo gigs I’ve ever done). I’ve un-dammed a well of new musical material for the future and I’ve made my second record, mostly in the clouds of isolation. You never know what you might find I suppose. It feels like I’ve unlocked something that I wasn’t able to see before. I’ve been able to let go of some things that I may never have been able to otherwise. The hardest part of the bungee is deciding to jump off the bridge. The bridge is safe, the jump is unnatural and the fall risks everything. The pure thrill comes next. I’d recommend taking that leap to anybody who is considering it, or anybody who feels like it’s something they need to do. I wish you great luck and fortune for it in fact. I can’t wait for whatever's coming next. I can predict a peek of it already, but not so much that I'm too content. It’s going to be good times for sure, thanks France!
Greetings dear reader, whomever and wherever you may be. Welcome to the new blog section of my website. This is where I hope to be posting every once in a while about a whole range of topics that interest me. Furthermore, things that I believe enrich the very fabric of life!!! Music, love, travel, friendship, nature, arts, culture, adventure, birds and boats, etc. I do hope to cover it all, but it might take me a little while...
I'll be sharing some of the seemingly billions of photos that I've been archiving rigorously over this past decade of recording and touring life. Also, stories of the road, its' many glorious characters and a behind-the-scenes glimpse into how the cogs run for me and my "creative process" as an "artist" - whatever that really means??? (Potentially not as cool or as glam as it sounds - but we'll aim to discuss that eventually).
If we haven't already met, my name is Michael and I'm from New Zealand. I'm 30 year old dad who does his best to keep it all together. I'm a musician and for the better part of these last 10 years, I've lived off music - somehow. It has not been easy!!! But it has been a hell of a ride... I have many stories to tell and many insights to offer from the over-packed and broken trunk-load of lessons that I've learned so far in this dirty, yet beautiful vocation. And of course, I'm still learning, forever more (fingers crossed). Anyway, I hope this might be at least a bit informative, inspiring and generally enjoyable for whomever may be interested.
The next post will discuss my personal experience moving from New Zealand to France for love, music and all the rest that's come from the decision to make a giant leap of faith.
Thanks for reading and see you soon!