Delaney Davidson, whose album release tour starts today, talks to Henry Oliver about storytelling, collaborating and his new album Shining Day.
Delaney Davidson sees himself as a travelling salesman. He has slicked back hair and a couple of days’ stubble. Suit, tie, hat when he’s performing. Clean shirt tucked into clean jeans when he’s not. He has the soft gruffness of someone who drinks whisky alone in cheap motel rooms, away from friends or family. He drinks coffee like he’s a Jim Jarmusch movie. “It’s kind of what musicians do, isn’t it?” he says over a cup in downtown Auckland, a couple of weeks before the release of his new album, Shining Day, and his six-month tour of Europe, much of it with Marlon Williams. “Going round selling records to people, con people into coming to your show. Move on to the next town.”
He’s worn a hat since he was young, he said. “A guy next door died and threw away all his clothes, so I climbed into the skip and fished out his hat and his tie.”
Another old hat of his, now retired, was in the Volume exhibition at the Auckland Museum. He said he was given it by a friend who worked in Amsterdam and worked at the morgue. Davidson wore it to Disneyland; people thought he was an Indiana Jones fan. And he had an old tie too, black with flowers on it, which was his favourite. He got a lot of compliments for it, he said. “My grandfather got married in this tie,” he’d tell people. “My father got married in this tie. And I got married in this tie.”
I smiled as he spoke, softly and sentimentally, with constant eye-contact.
“It was such a nice story,” he continued, breaking into a wry smile, sensing he had me in his grasp. “It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, if it’s a nice story, people like it. You can tell them it’s not true and they’ll still enjoy the fact that it’s a nice story.”
Davidson is a storyteller and a mythmaker, a singer and a one-man-band, a producer and a ringleader. And he’s a worker. After three months of touring, he stayed in Europe to complete his next project – Ship of Dreams, the second instalment of his Magic Lightbox films – before he’d even toured the album in New Zealand. When he’s not making or touring his own music, he’s producing, writing or recording with other artists like Marlon Williams, Tami Nelson, SJD, Bruce Russell and Barry Saunders.
“It’s my job and I take it seriously,” he said. “I see everybody as having a job. If they do a nine-to-five job, they have a 40 hour week and they have a certain amount of stuff they have to do. Why should I be any different? I don’t believe so much in waiting for things to happen. You’ve got to push, you’ve got to work. You’ve got to put in the time, basically. I’ve never worked so hard in my life. I’ve fantasised about getting a job stocking shelves at a supermarket. It’d feel like a holiday.”
Delaney Davidson is one of those artists who seem to just appear one day, out of nowhere, fully formed. You’d never heard of him until you had, and then there he was, everywhere – making albums every year, always on tour, winning awards (Arts Laureate 2015, New Zealand Music Awards Country Album of the Year 2013, and three years in a row, the New Zealand Country Music Song Of The Year).
He grew up in Christchurch, moving to Melbourne after he was expelled from school. There he focused on art (painting, drawing, printmaking) and played drums in bands with names like Doghouse and Brass Bed before moving back to Christchurch. He didn’t even start singing until he was 28. He hadn’t written a song before either. “I didn’t know why you would,” he said. “That was a moment of realising, fuck, there’s no one to sing anymore, you’re going to have to do it yourself. I remember talking to people and asking, ‘How do you do it?’ I was just really scared of the exposure. I put together this band for some guy’s birthday party and we played a bunch of Hank Williams songs and I started writing from there.”
Soon he moved to Switzerland, where he lived for seven years, performing with bands, theatre troupes and performance artists, and learnt to write songs. “I realised you’ve just got to put in the time to this songwriting thing. You sit at a table with a pen and paper – not even an instrument – and just write songs.”
He spent three years touring as a member of Dead Brothers, a country-folk-punk band, before starting to hone his craft on his own. By the time he moved back to New Zealand, he was not just Delaney Davidson, but ‘Delaney Davidson’. “I had a really heavy influence from European folk music, really heavy influence from the whole blues trash scene I was hanging out with in Switzerland, so when I came back here and brought all these ideas I had about music back with me, that translated pretty heavily into that Lyttelton Americana thing – the sound of those records me and Marlon did, producing Tami. It was this older idea about what music was – going back to analogue, getting into tape machines again, dragging out shitty old amps.”
The Lyttelton scene he came back to was a loose-knit network of musicians that tightened into a scene after the Christchurch earthquakes in 2011. “That’s when it really came into perspective,” he said. “It got rid of all the venues. You had to have a permit to get through the tunnel to get to Lyttelton. So all the people who lived in Lyttelton were just always around. The Eastern, Adam McGrath. Marlon was there, Hannah [Aldous Harding] was there, I was there. Ben Evans had a studio. We had this idea to make this album of songs written about the earthquake that we’d sell to provide relief for earthquake victims that weren’t able to go through the normal channels. That gelled it all together somehow, that’s when it became a scene.”
Davidson, who comes from multiple generations of teachers, became not just a producer, but a mentor figure, pushing his contemporaries to play more, to write more, to do more. “When I first met him I was definitely in awe of him,” Williams told me last year. “I was a big fan of his music and just getting to be around him and absorbing his energy and drive… He definitely challenged that part of me that was superstitious about writing. He’s so disciplined, he likes to write every day, he instilled a lot of the ideas of craftsmanship, as opposed to just inspiration or whatever. Just literally being around someone who’s that restless and hungry to create and do good things and to do good work was the number one thing that you take away from being around Delaney. It can be overwhelming because he’s so driven you can end up feeling a little bit like you can’t keep up with yourself, let alone him.”
Now, years later, Aldous Harding, Marlon Williams and Nadia Reid are each touring the world on the back of acclaimed second albums, and Davidson is spending most Lyttelton winters in European summers. “The funny thing now is that the sign of its success is almost its demise,” he said. “It was such a fruitful time that everybody’s gone now, doing the projects that had their roots in that time. But I’ve always been half somewhere and half somewhere else.”
Shining Day, Davidson’s ninth album, is both a progression on his previous work and a kind of boiling down of his disparate influences into both their darkest and lightest essences, from sweet singer-songwriting to primitive rock. He told me it feels both bleaker and happier than anything he’s made before, though it resonates with an optimistic kind of existentialism, encapsulated by the title song: “The message there is that it’s always a good day, just make it a good day. Just do it. Here it is.”
‘Shining Day’ is both the beating heart and a musical highlight of the album. Inspired in part by Nick Cave’s recent album Skeleton Tree, Davidson felt free to break with the conventions of songwriting he’d learnt from artists like Hank Williams, whose songs were built on pared-down, highly-structured memorable stories. “I felt like I didn’t care about rhyme scheme, I didn’t care about repeating lines. This is what I wanted to say and I don’t give a fuck if it’s correct or wrong, I just want to say this. Just let me say it. That felt really nice.”
The song was one of six written in a three-day songwriting session he had with Sean Donnelly (SJD). He’d invited Donnelly to Christchurch for what he called a ‘synthesiser seminar’ and two hours before Donnelly was due to leave for the airport, the two decided to write one more. They both played on the same drum kit, recording it on an iPhone and then cutting it into loops. On the album, you can hear the lo-fi drum recording behind a seemingly simple piano line that shoots off in different directions, subtle guitar accompaniment and Davidson becoming, compelling the listener – this is it, this is the time, there is no better, “this is your shining day”.
While Davidson often operates as a lone traveller, the album is full of collaboration. ‘What Am I Doing Wrong’ features contributions from Neil Finn, who Davidson wrote to, asking if he could get some feedback on his ideas for songs from the album. “I have this theory about approaching people – if we all agree tacitly that we’re here for each other, to raise the game across the board of New Zealand music, and if there’s someone who has a missing piece of the puzzle, you’d like to know. Maybe Dave Dobbyn knows something you don’t about songwriting. Maybe the kid at the dairy knows something you don’t about synthesisers and drum machines. So feel free to approach anyone you want and ask for help.
“If you have someone else, they can take you outside of yourself. And you can’t ever do that for yourself. Even if you’ve produced other people’s albums, there’s no way you’d be able to take yourself beyond your own capabilities or see what’s outside of the boundaries you have of yourself. It’s physically impossible. Even if you did it, it’d just enlarge the boundaries so someone else can do that. They can see you from the outside, see what works and what it doesn’t.”
One of the many striking things about Davidson is his ability to exist simultaneously in different contexts, while never diluting what he does. He sells out indie venues in Auckland and plays to over 160 people in Featherston. He’s a finalist in the Silver Scrolls but wins at the Country Music Awards in Gore. “You can kind of half exist in these worlds but never fully in one,” he said. “That always used to be something I noticed on a much simpler level; too loud for the folk venue, too quiet for the rock venue. I can’t quite swallow it somehow. It’s how you might feel at high school almost – you can’t fit in, or you can’t be wholly one thing or another, or you don’t want to wear a t-shirt with writing on it, even if you see a Jack Daniels t-shirt on someone else, you never could wear one. It’s a strength in that you’ll never fit so you’re intrinsically yourself. But you don’t stand still for long enough to be one thing.”
That dichotomy is evident in the two albums he’s recorded since finishing Shining Day, one with The Warratahs’ Barry Saunders and one with The Dead C’s Bruce Russell.
He met Saunders at a songwriting camp in Wairarapa put on by his publisher Native Tongue. They spent an afternoon writing in the kitchen and got three songs out of it. So Saunders took a trip to Christchurch to continue the collaboration. “He’s just so straight,” Davidson said. “He doesn’t want to dress it up in fancy stuff. So me with this long trance-like attitude to songs, and him with this really cropped, straight attitude is this nice meeting where the best of both exist together. And it’s a side of Barry you don’t usually get to see. He’s got a darker side and he doesn’t always present it to people, especially when he’s performing. I saw it on that churches tour we did. I’d hear it at soundcheck, he’d be playing these old gospel songs and you look at his face when he’s performing, there are these wrestling forces going on. It’s amazing to watch.”
The album with Bruce Russell is a tribute to country rockabilly musician Charley Feathers, though from the sounds of it, it’s a pretty loose tribute: a side of three-minute improv pieces and one 20 minute piece. They were asked to both play a show, so Davidson said he’d do it if they could play together. Then, when Davidson’s Magic Lightbox show played at the Christchurch Art Gallery, they played again and recorded the improvised set. “It’s the least commercial thing I’ve ever done and the most commercial thing he’s ever done. It’s some weird meeting ground in the middle.”
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If two albums weren’t enough, next year Davidson will also tour his new film Ship of Dreams, which he accompanies with live music. The film, which premiered at the Hawkes Bay Arts Festival in October, is directed by Miron Zownir, a Swiss avant-garde filmmaker, and features actors from Hamburg’s Thalia Theater. The narratives are all based on traditional fairy tales but distorted or flipped so the audience can see familiar narratives in a new light.
For the first Magic Lightbox show, Davidson played 31 cities and towns around New Zealand in little over a month. He wants to do the same with Ship of Dreams. Put on a show and sell his wares. He wants to walk into town with a suitcase and a guitar and walk out the next day with a couple more dollars and a couple more fans than he had the day before. “All you need is a thousand fans,” he told me. “All they need to do is buy something once a year for 25 bucks. That’ll support you. That’s not that hard.”
Delaney Davidson Shining Day Tour:
Friday 9/11: Auckland, WineCellar
Saturday 10/11: Auckland, Wine Cellar.
Sunday 11/11: Leigh, Sawmill Cafe
Friday 16/11: Featherston, Kiwi Hall
Saturday 17/11: Wellington, Meow
Thursday 22/11: Christchurch Art Gallery
Friday 23/11: Oamaru, Grainstore Gallery
Saturday 24/11: Dunedin, Captain Cook Hotel
This piece, as well as Delaney Davidson’s ‘So Far Away’ from Shining Day, was made with support from NZ on Air.