Dudley Benson premieres his new video ‘Zealandia’ and speaks to Hussein Moses about his high concept political album of the same name that’s been eight years and $90,000 in the making.
The day after Dudley Benson sent off his new album Zealandia to be mastered, he was back singing again, only this time it was in front of the prime minister. It was early February and he was performing at an exhibition opening for his father-in-law, acclaimed New Zealand artist Nigel Brown, at Te Kōngahu Museum of Waitangi on the Treaty Grounds. Benson may be an ex-choirboy, but he didn’t look like one. He had just shaved his head and was wearing a singlet adorned with the New Zealand coat of arms under his leather jacket. When he went to meet the new PM, her bodyguards didn’t know who he was. “Man,” his brother-in-law later told him, “they were ready to step in.”
In the previous nine years, no one from the government had ever been to Brown’s art openings. Then at his first show in 2018, Jacinda Ardern was there speaking. She shared a story about how the first piece of art she ever bought was a $30 print of Brown’s work. When she met Benson, he told her how proud they were of her. She said this beautiful thing, which wasn’t a prepared line,” Benson remembers. “She said, I just really don’t want to let anybody down.”
Benson voted Greens in the last election – “Labour’s still a little too centrist and capitalist-focused for me,” he says – but he loves what Ardern represents. “The care for our children and our poor that she is vocally – and through her policy – tackling, I have a huge amount of respect for.”
For Benson, the meeting could hardly have been a more fitting punctuation to a period of intense rumination on the state of the country. Zealandia, out 10 August after eight years in the making, is a political album born out of frustration at watching the National government in power, and one that asks what it means to be a New Zealander in the 21st century. “If I wasn’t aggravated and frustrated as an artist,” he says, “I don’t really know what any value in writing music there would be for me.”
It hasn’t been easy. Taking up the greater part of a decade, getting the album made has come at a cost – over $90,000 to be exact. “I would never do this again, to be honest,” admits Benson. “If Dudley in 2018 came to Dudley in 2010 in a dream and said ‘this album is a great idea but it’s going to take you eight years and be potentially suicidal for your career in the meantime’, I don’t know if I would’ve done it. But here I am.”
Over two albums, 2008’s The Awakening and 2010’s Forest: Songs by Hirini Melbourne, Benson’s early career showed him to be one of New Zealand music’s most mesmerising figures. “I had these two yin and yang records,” he says. The Awakening was about losing his mother to suicide when he was 15, his colonial ancestry and the dark history of his hometown of Christchurch. Forest, meanwhile, was an a capella collection of waiata shaped by te ao Māori. Both pushed the boundaries of pop music in New Zealand and earned him widespread acclaim.
In 2009, eager to learn more about the world he was exploring on Forest, the self-described “Pākehā pop star” enrolled in Māori studies at the University of Auckland. In typically eccentric style, he arrived for his first class dressed in shiny black gumboots, retro dress shorts, and a shirt with a bow tie. “The Māori students in the room took one look at his clothes, his shy smile, and then a love fest happened,” recalls his former lecturer Lisa Chant (Ngāti Whātua), now senior research fellow for Māori Health Research at AUT. “From the moment they set eyes on him, he was a member of the whanau.” As well as the language, she says, he demonstrated a strong desire to absorb the cultural perspective. “He wanted to know what every Māori in the room was thinking, not just the person standing up at the front.”
He learned te reo Māori and took part in discussions with his classmates around decolonisation and identity, talks which would soon end up helping to shape Zealandia. “I believe he sees the global injustices to indigenous peoples as part of the heritage of the peoples of the world,” says Chant, “and the impact on indigenous New Zealanders as part of his personal responsibility to restore balance.”
As a deeper understanding of te ao Māori began to sink in, Benson questioned what sort of person he wanted to be. “You know how when you’re in your 20s, you’re becoming the adult that you’re going to be for the rest of your life? That was happening for me too, particularly around understanding that I really care about the environment and I want to be an advocate for nature in my music.” Geologists had also just discovered that New Zealand was not actually part of Australasia but a 94% submerged continent called Zealandia. The word entranced him. “It feels like a word with possibilities and many exciting interpretations,” he says. It would be the perfect name for the final part in his trilogy.
“With Zealandia, it was about acknowledging that yes I’m a Pākehā from that first album, but I’ve learnt all this stuff that helped me make Forest and now I want to become this person who is both.”
When it comes to his music, Benson has never been one to think small. Zealandia was originally going to be a double album, with one side a protest piece and the other about his advocacy for nature. When he decided to combine everything into one high concept album, he came up with the idea of creating 12 new national anthems. “Our national anthem is turgid,” he explains.
“You could wake up on a Monday and feel a certain way – maybe you feel frustrated with the refugee quota – so you can put on a song from the album called ‘We Could’ve Been Gods’ and that will be your anthem for that day. Or maybe on Tuesday, you feel really staunch about some kind of Parliament TV moment and you could listen to ‘Birth of a Nation’. I kind of wanted to supply this pick and mix of potential national anthems.”
To see his vision through, he worked with the National Youth Choir and the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra, who helped to bring his plush compositions to life. He also spent time learning beatmaking, sampling and mixing. It makes for an adventurous listen. There’s big pop hooks and dazzling electronic percussion. Inspired by the work of songwriters like Bjork, Owen Pallett and Arca, arrangements often end up in unexpected places. Half of the beats on the record are also made up from rocks and minerals he sampled on a visit to GNS Science in Lower Hutt – a Musique concrète-type move that he says helps to connect the land to his songs. The lines between pop and experimental music often get smudged on Zealandia but Benson’s voice floats above it all, hopeful and defiant.
It’s easily one of the most ambitious albums in New Zealand music history. “I don’t think people are making albums much like this anymore,” says Andre Upston, a senior recording engineer for RNZ who worked with Benson on some of the record. “People’s attention spans are so short, it’s just on to the next thing almost instantly. I’ve tried putting it on in the background, even if I’m just doing the dishes or something, and you can’t do that. It requires your full attention. I think that’s an amazing level to aim for.”
One of the first songs Benson wrote for the album was ‘Muscles’, a track reminding himself to play the long game when it comes to being frustrated and upset about the behaviour of politicians. “I forget what it was that John Key did around that time but it was something unspeakable. That song starts with ‘I know you feel like an old man’ – and that’s how I felt that day when I started working on ‘Muscles’. I felt drained and hopeless. But then the chorus is a reminder to just step outside and go for a walk and engage with nature. It keeps everything real and keeps me on track and helps me to deal with twats like John Key.”
The stunning closing track ‘Zealandia’, a nine-minute song about trying to open up a line of communication with nature, is the centrepiece of the album, says Benson. How do you speak to the water, land, stars, and get an answer? The video plays with that same idea. He cast himself as a guy who has obsessed over this quest for years, like a scientist on the fringes. “To me, it’s quite a funny video,” he says. “I don’t know if other people would see it that way.”
Now 34, Benson lives in Dunedin with his boyfriend Josh Thomas and their Jack Russell Terrier, Rupert. The dog became a bit of a household name in Otago when he was found by search and rescue in 2015 after spending 13 nights lost out in the bush. “He’s got a lot more profile in Dunedin than I do,” jokes Benson. The couple of 11 years made the move from Auckland after Benson finished Forest. “No musicians down here gives a fuck about social media or sharing their work in that way. It’s just so not about that. Here it’s about the process that you go through when you’re making a project.”
It’s his first interview since finishing Zealandia and he’s clearly excited to talk about the record. He shows off the spare room in his house that he’s converted into a studio and a Nigel Brown painting called Cook Beleagured that hangs in his living room, an inspiration for a new song of the same name.
Benson’s work might be best compared to those in the world of visual art, rather than music. As well as Brown and Peter Gossage, he counts a 1951 painting called Rutu by pioneering 20th century artist Rita Angus as a key inspiration for Zealandia. The piece is a portrait of a brown-skinned woman with blonde hair, a vision of pan-ethnicity in Aotearoa. “What I love about that painting is that I don’t think Rita Angus is being literal,” says Benson. It’s just this concept of melding our ideas and the best skills that we have from a Māori and a Pākehā perspective, and that’s where I’m coming at this from as well. I don’t have a clear vision and I don’t have a clear answer. I just feel that it’s my role as an artist to be asking questions about what our future might look like if we bring the best of our ideas together.”
Some of those ideas are the same ones he used to discuss with his classmates. “Racism is very much alive in New Zealand,” says Benson. “We’ve still got so far to go and I wonder what it might mean for some Pākehā, to ask if them decolonising themselves – understanding and breaking down the history of colonisation that their ancestors are a part of and how that’s affected Māori – might be a really useful thing.”
Benson knows this sounds like shaky territory for a non-Māori artist to be exploring and he’s open to criticism. “One thing I feel very strongly about is that on this album when I’m writing about a Māori perspective, I very much acknowledge that I’m not Māori and this is through the lens of a Pākehā,” he says. “I’m not an authority.” He’s turned down offers in the past to do some “totally gross stuff”, like writing music “in a Māori way” or advising someone doing a koru painting. He wants to make it clear he’s here to provoke conversation, not cross lines. “If I have got anything wrong or if I’ve made something that offends anyone on this album, I apologise – but also I hope that there can be discussion around it.”
He’s still hoping that it has its detractors and says he loves the thought of being a polarising artist. Debate, he believes, only deepens engagement with a text. “So I like the thought of my work being discussed critically and being thought about.”
Whether it charts well does not concern him. “I don’t think that’s a good measure of its success,” he says. “I feel like in five or ten years, if there are some people who might write something about it or there’s a choir that wants to sing a song from it, then that for me would be a great thing.”
If a record label had given him the budget he needed to see it through, Benson estimates the album would’ve only taken four years, not eight. The $90,000, a figure unheard of for an independent artist in New Zealand, came about through a combination of his own money, creative grants, sponsorship and crowdfunding (his Boosted campaign raised almost $14,000 from fans). At times, it could be a struggle. A one-off sum might open up the possibility of recording the harp, harpsichord and bagpipes for the record but then he’d wind up back at square one, hustling for another cheque. He won’t be touring in support of Zealandia anytime soon. To do it right would mean another year of fundraising and he’s already spent enough time with these tracks.
Putting that amount of time and money into something is the sort of thing that for many will only scream of self-indulgence. “I’m that passionate about what I do that I’ll put everything that I can, whether it be money or energy, into making my work happen,” he says. His projects have never made money anyway. “I live on a really meagre budget,” he explains, “but at the same time I know I’m a person of great privilege because I have a house and I have food and family and friends that will support me if I need it. So I don’t want to moan, but it’s kind of ironic that I’ve been producing this super gourmet hi-fi expensive record and living very frugally.”
Besides, the biggest sacrifice hasn’t been the money. He was on a roll after he made The Awakening and Forest, having garnered favour from just about every corner of the local media. Going MIA for eight years is more than enough time to put an end to a career. “I was slowly building an audience and opportunities, which I think possibly could’ve led to overseas opportunities as well”, he says. “But because I’ve instead chosen to make Zealandia, I’ve had to say ‘haere ra’ to those opportunities.”
Even after tinkering away at it for eight years, the perfectionist in him still didn’t see an end in sight. The album seemed imminent after he released ‘Muscles’ as a single in 2015, but he says he didn’t realise how much work was actually left. Benson even admits he could’ve kept working on it if it wasn’t for his boyfriend motivating him with a deadline. “He would say to me, when is this thing going to be finished?”
Not long after the two met in 2006, Thomas went to see Benson perform at The Odeon Lounge in Auckland, a space converted from an old funeral parlour into a venue. “He performed as a ghost under a sheet, with candles and everything. At first I was thinking, OK, what is this?, but it set the perfect tone and was spellbinding.” With so strong a vision, Thomas says he was not surprised by the ambition and scale of Zealandia – or the fact Benson’s made it happen. “Dudley has a remarkable commitment to his work,” he says.
Benson never listens to his old records anymore, or recommends them to anyone, but he’s proud of what Zealandia stands for. “If I get a terminal illness tomorrow and I’m dead soon after, the artist in me would be like well… it could be worse,” he jokes. Eight years ago, he set out to ask himself what kind of person he’d like to be. Now he’s got his answers.
“I most respect the New Zealanders who have fought for our people and our land through creativity and protest. That’s the kind of person I’d like to be. It’s not enough to stick a silver fern badge on your suit jacket. That’s just lazy patriotism, and doesn’t mean anything really. The people who really care are marching in whatever ways they can, whether that’s literally on the streets, or through music, writing, journalism, film and science.
“That’s where I want to be,” he says, “and who this album is for.”
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