Don Rowe interviews one of New Zealand’s most familiar voices in his central Auckland Bed and Breakfast about breathing life into The Abdomenizer and the intricacies of John Key’s accent.
There is only one house left on Parliament Street. It’s been there since 1901. Behind a low cast iron fence the grey walls rise two stories above the footpath. The windows are framed in red timber and the front door is set back beneath an arch on the left of the facade. John Sweetman has lived here with his wife Susan for more than twenty years, taking up residence in ‘94 to protect the section from circling developers. Half of their time at Braemar house has been devoted to its restoration and reincarnation as an operating bed and breakfast, but the mammoth project is just John’s side gig.
Sweetman has been a daily presence in homes and waiting rooms across New Zealand since the 1980s, but you probably wouldn’t recognise him. Unless, that is, you struck up a conversation. Anyone who’s chucked on the telly after say, 3am, knows his voice. So too do the people who prefer their 6pm news privatised as opposed to state broadcasted. And anyone with a dusty, unused Abmaster stuffed under their bed might remember it better than most.
Sweetman is a professional voice actor. He’s the voice of TV3, 3 News and Classic Hits, as well as a former longtime Radio Hauraki jock. But wait, there’s more – he’s also the voice behind infomercials from the Ginsu knife to the Abdominizer. “Call within the next ten minutes, and receive three pillows for the price of one!” From a converted coal cellar beneath Braemar, Sweetman records and voices professional advertisements to be sent out to clients across television and radio.
I met with John at 7 Parliament Street on a grey Wednesday morning. We sat in a lounge warm and aromatic with the smell of bacon. Kauri bay-windows looked down over the Auckland CBD. John said they used to be covered in lead paint, like most of the house. It took 6 years to scrape it all back. A large and thick rug covered much of the wooden floor, but the room reverberated pleasantly with John’s rich voice. The light fittings and window hardware were polished brass. In the roof, a modern smoke detector and security system were the only clue we hadn’t slipped back in time. The room exuded attention to detail and a perfectionist work ethic. Comfortable on plush, aged furniture, we got stuck into it.
How did you become one of maybe two or three household voices in New Zealand?
I wanted to be the guy on the radio. Growing up before TV, that was where you got your drama, that was where you got your news. It wasn’t quite ‘family gathered around the wireless’, but I loved to listen to it. The magic of music and talking stories coming out of the air. I thought ‘yeah, this is fascinating.’ When I was in high school, Radio Hauraki was a pirate station, and they used to record the programs on land, on reel-to-reel tape. They had this caravan where the radio studio was and they’d take it ‘round shopping centres and they’d do the show in front of people. Then they would send the tapes to the ship in international waters and they’d play them back a week later. I’d be there watching through the window and I see all these girls pressed up against the glass, watching the DJ. And I thought ‘I want to be that guy’. So that – and I liked the music. I didn’t know how to play much music but I loved listening and dancing, so it seemed to be just perfect. There was no pressure, the boss probably wasn’t listening, and we’d get up to all sorts of mischief.
It doesn’t seem like a straight line from pirate radio to TV3.
Part of the radio gig is recording commercials as well as doing your shift on air. I used to really enjoy doing recordings because you could do it again and again and again, until you got it right. Until you got it perfect. And I loved the challenge of that. I studied and tried to get as much experience as I could. I went to some speech and drama teachers who helped me understand phrasing, and rhythm, and how to extend your range and get emotional content and breathe properly. And that really helped me do recording.
When TV3 started, they needed a station voice. I sent a tape up there of a couple of spots that I’d done, fillers and that sort of thing but especially the big movie trailers. They were the, “Harrison Ford is…FRANTIC”, and all that sort of stuff. And they’re like yeah, that guy sounds good.
And that launched your career in a sense?
No, it tended to work the other way around. They’d say ‘No, you can’t play that ad on TVNZ’, because my voice was so closely aligned with TV3. The agencies wouldn’t call me for big campaigns because if they were playing on TV3, they would come right up against a promo and there would be this confusion. On one hand, I couldn’t do as much work as I’d have liked to, but, on the other hand, my work became more effective.
If you become a familiar voice – if you’re a voice that people have heard for years and years and years – then when they access it, they really listen to it. They prick up their ears because you have this relationship. Even though they don’t know me, they know that sound and it becomes more effective. And it becomes more credible and it really helps sell things.
How important is that credibility to your infomercial work?
Well, there are a whole bunch of hidden techniques that you need to internalise if you want to be a good commercial voice. There are three things that are very important. First of all you need to be heard, which means you have to have a clear voice, loud enough to carry to the person. But also familiarity helps people open their ears up to it. Then you have to be understood. And that means you have to speak clearly, sound like you know what you’re talking about. That clarity helps the audience to understand what you’re saying. Not just hearing it, but understanding it. They have to understand it. So you have to be heard and understood.
The most important thing is that you need to be believed – that credibility is very, very important. There are people that have lovely voices and people that love listening to their voice. They go, ‘I love listening to his voice, fantastic voice’. And then you say to them ‘What’s he talking about, the message?’ They go, ‘Oh, I wasn’t listening to that, I was just listening to him.’ Well hang on, what’s the point? So, I’ve developed ways of being able to deliver messages, in a way that works. Heard, understood and believed.
What if you don’t believe in a product?
Well you have to sound like you love it. ‘Cause that’s what you’re getting paid to do. And that’s what you have to do, if you want to keep doing the gig. One of the mantras where I work is ‘get the phone to ring, get the phone to ring.’ Because once they get the calls up, on the line, those guys will get that sale. So all I have to do is get them to call.
Do you ever get recognised?
People ask what I do, and I say I’m in TV, I’m a voice over artist. And they’d say, ‘No, really? What do you do?’ and I like to go right up close to their head, work with the proximity factor, I get beside them, quite close to their ear, and I go…”This is 3 News, with Mike McRoberts, and Hillary Barry.” And they go, oh yeah you’re that guy!
Your voice is very relaxing. How can we improve the timbre of our own voices?
Breathe deep! Most kiwis chest breathe. That means that you don’t have any capacity and you don’t have any control. So you need to internalise. You need diaphragm breathing. It needs to be your go-to way of breathing to the point where you’re not even thinking about it. Breathe down low in your guts. So you get a lot more capacity, you get a lot more control, so that you can do long sentences and not have to interrupt the flow of the thing until – there’s a full stop.
But also, you connect with your centre, you connect with your guts. When somebody says ‘that guy’s got balls’, it’s because there’s a bit of that strength in there. But also, it connects with your life force, your energy. And you need to internalise it. So you’re not thinking about doing it. You just do it. And then to resonate from that.
That sounds like a sort of mindfulness training.
Yep, when I work with people, half of it is therapy – they’ll just talk about their troubles. And I’ll show them how that’s affecting their expression. Once they’ve got it out then they’ll relax. And we’ll go through some exercises.
So you seem to be saying that the voice is an extension of our physical and mental identity?
Exactly. For example John Key, our PM, he has this…pronunciation, and I think, ‘this guy is the leader of our country?’ He’s supposed to be this statesman and he just doesn’t sound like a statesman. But he can’t change. His mother, she was from Europe, Jewish, and she’s had this accent which he’s picked up talking around the table when he was still learning to speak. He’s softened the Jewish part because he’s mixed with school kids, but he still has this kind of ‘shish’. And he can’t change that, it’s who he is.
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