TelevisionMay 28, 2022

Behind the music: Making the Shortland Street theme song


Is it you, is it me, or is it a part of all of us? Alex Casey speaks to the people behind our unofficial national anthem. 

To celebrate Shortland Street’s 30th birthday, we are dedicating a whole week to the good (and not-so-good) people of Ferndale. Check out more Street Week content here.

Graham Bollard was sitting in his parked car one night in suburban Mount Eden, sometime in early 1992. He had been working on a new theme song for a show that was in development with TV2, but had hit a wall with the writing. The backing track was there, the melody was there, but he was yet to pen any lyrics. While thinking about his university girlfriend at the time, inspiration struck. Still in the car, he feverishly began to scribble lyrics, beginning with a simple, hypothetical question that would soon become ingrained in New Zealand pop culture history:

Is it you, or is it me?

Lately I’ve been lost it seems

I think a change is what I need

The Shortland Street theme song is perhaps our most enduring piece of television music, right up in the god tier with the Country Calendar song and the Interislander jingle. But at the time, Bollard had no idea he was composing something so significant. He was still at university when he began working for TV2, beginning with writing the channel ID music for then-programming director John McCready. When McCready mentioned there was a new local show being developed that needed a theme song, Bollard thought he would give it a crack. 

There wasn’t much to work with in terms of material. “I knew the name of the show, that it was set in a hospital, and that the story focused on the relationships between the main characters,” he explains. “I hadn’t seen any footage or scripts.” At the time, Bollard had been making tracks for Zane Lowe (Urban Disturbance, later Radio 1 DJ) and had become “immersed” in the world of sampling and sequencing. The backing track that would become the theme song was just a “test doodle” that he had made for a new sampler. “I thought I’d try using it for the Shorty Street song – I could hear the vocal melody against the track and it fit.” 

After the inspired car-writing session that night in Mount Eden, Bollard had the lyrics and the melody, but he needed a vocalist. At Auckland’s Stebbing Studios, where the theme was recorded, the engineer pulled out “the book” and suggested they contact singer and television personality Tina Cross. Having recently returned to New Zealand after a successful decade in Australia fronting the techno-pop group Koo De Tah, Cross remembers she had been keen to re-establish herself locally when she got the call to come in and do a session at Stebbing on Jervois Road.

Outside the Stebbing studio. (Photo: Facebook)

Like Bollard, Cross knew little about the project she was lending her musical stylings to. “Back in the day, you’d just walk in and find out you’re doing a tasty cheese jingle or a Lotto ad or whatever,” she says. “You just rock up and sing whatever they put in front of you as a singer, that’s how it works.” She remembers walking into the studio, spotting a TV producer, and getting the sense that she wasn’t just recording a cheese ad. “I could see there were wheels in motion for something a bit bigger…  it was definitely an odd one, not kind of a normal studio session.”

Cross was played the guide vocal and quickly went about learning the song. “Oh, the music was there”, she says over Zoom, humming the iconic opening bars with her eyes closed. “It was a very eerie, moody and atmospheric vibe.” She only had 45 minutes to record the theme – she had to pick up her son from kindy – which back in 1991 was just a single verse:

Is it you, or is it me?

Lately I’ve been lost it seems

I think a change is what I need

If I’m looking for a chance

Or to dream

Shortland Street

“I sang the whole thing through a few times and I remember thinking to myself ‘this is really interesting, I wonder what it is’,” Cross laughs. She remembers everyone being pretty happy with her performance, including Bollard. “Needless to say she was great and sang it in two takes,” he confirms. “The G minor key was quite low for her but she found a suitable ‘breathy’ tone. She’s the only person who can pull off that song.” 

For Cross, who had spent the 70s singing disco and the 80s doing techno pop, the recording session was “an easy sing”. “It was really nice to hear something moody and a bit breathy and a bit more atmospheric, it was quite a cruisy sort of cool vocal. A very cool, cool sound.” But before she had to leave to pick up her son, Cross says she went into the studio with one key question about this cool, atmospheric song. “I walked in and I said ‘what is this’ and they said it’s a theme song that had been written for the pilot of an up-and-coming New Zealand series.” 

The original Shortland Street cast in 1992

On May 25 1992, the first episode of Shortland Street went to air. “I remember watching and thinking ‘oh that’s what I did’,” Cross laughs. “It’s not like making a record that you record yourself that you then have a copy of, so it was really nice to hear it a few months later.” Bollard says he realised the impact of the theme song one day in 1992, when he was standing in the courtyard at TVNZ and heard some school kids walk past singing it. “I thought it was odd how it had become part of the culture –  I’m even more surprised the show is still going 30 years later.”

Cross says she mostly tuned in show to see her showbusiness friends – “I knew Dr Ropata” – but never watched Shortland Street religiously. Still, there was one detail Cross noticed: she didn’t get a credit in the show’s end titles. “I didn’t know why I didn’t get a credit, because everyone else on the show got a credit including the camera people, the sound people… this, that and the other,” she laughs. A couple of years into Shortland Street’s run, she had a meeting with the director and put her case forward to get credited. “I said ‘look I’m played every night, it’s my vocals, and strangely a lot of people recognised my voice’.” At the time she had been doing stage shows of Rocky Horror and Cats, and would frequently get asked by people about Shortland Street. 

Cross eventually got her credit – once a week, on a Friday night only. “I’m not kidding,” she laughs. “Go figure.” Decades on, she tells the story with bemusement. “No hard feelings at all, it’s the way it works. I wasn’t contracted in the way everyone else was – I got a one-off fee to record so, I guess, at the end of the day, there was no requirement for them to have to credit me.” 

That original Stebbing recording is also far from the only version of the song. In 1993 a three-minute long promotional version was released, along with a thrilling acid house club mix. The three minute version featured some additional verses, containing equally evocative lines:

Taking time to hold my place

Yesterday’s another race

Just living for the times we’ve seen

When the writing’s on the wall says I’ll be

Shortland Street

If you want to find a way of searching for another world

It’s hard to see

Shortland Street 

In the early 2000s, Cross’s vocals were phased out for an instrumental version of the theme, one of 16 different versions that Bollard says he still has on his computer – he continued to work as the music director for Shortland Street for decades. Most recently, the theme has evolved once more for a special performance that took place during Shortland Street’s 30th birthday extravaganza episode. Adapted by composer Sam Watson, the bilingual revamp restored Cross’s status as the show-stopping voice of Shortland Street, now alongside vocalist Bella Kalolo. 

For Kalolo, who performed the beginning of the song, getting the call to record the new version was both an “exciting and daunting” opportunity. “I started watching Shortland Street back in the day when it first started, you know? Back when you had the likes of Marj and Nick in it!” To prepare for her session, she listened to the new theme for a few days on her headphones, until it reached “earworm” status. “I really didn’t want to go into the studio cold at all,” she says. “I knew how huge this was, especially because you have people that have been following the Shortland Street journey from when it first started.” 

Just as Cross had done 30 years previously, Kalolo recorded her part in the studio during the last session of the day. Producer Oliver Driver sat in, which she says “brought another level” to the experience. “It wasn’t just about the singing and the feel and the flow of the lyrical content, it felt like you were acting from a very, very real place,” she says. “It was great to have him in there to guide that part and push out a little bit more of the passion in it.” 

Cross recorded her part separately, after spending some time getting her head around the new theme. “I was expecting something similar, but this was not even vaguely similar,” she laughs. “It was way harder for me to sing than the original one, because it was quite a challenge with the key – it’s not where I would naturally go to these days at 63.” Although she says she is not a soprano, the showbiz stalwart hastens to add “that doesn’t mean I can’t get there if I have to.”

Tina Cross returns for the 30th birthday party. Image: Supplied

Needless to say, Cross got there. “In a funny sort of way it still has the same vibe, it’s a very 2022 version of a song that was recorded over 30 years ago, and that’s a good thing,” she says. Kalolo describes the special 30th birthday theme as more of a “journey” for the listener. “There’s celebration in there, there’s history in there, there’s te reo Māori in there too – there’s those extra layers of richness because we have put all of those things together that are uniquely New Zealand.” 

In many ways, the evolution of the Shortland Street theme song reflects the way that the soap has moved with Aotearoa over the last 30 years. Incorporating a kapa haka group, te reo Māori lyrics and a cohort of drag queens, all while acknowledging the original vocalist and version, it feels like the perfect celebration of a show that is both ever-changing and an institution. “Shortland Street spans time and age group,” says Cross. “Because of what it is, the themes will always keep people roped in and interested because this is life – this is life as we know it.” 

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Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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