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Songwriting in style

1 July 2022
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Dunedin-raised musician Anthonie Tonnon talks the art of songwriting, his passion for public transport and the perks of having a professional stylist as a partner. Interview Josie Steenhart

Last month, Anthonie deservedly took out the prestigious Taite Music Prize for his album Leave Love Out Of This, a record influenced in no small part by his younger years in 1980s Dunedin.

Style caught up with the talented artist from his new hometown of Whanganui, where he settled with wife Karlya Smith a few years back and now mans the historic Durie Hill Elevator in his free time.

Congratulations on the win! What does being awarded the Taite Music Prize this year mean to you?

The Taite Prize honours the album above all, and since I started as a musician I’ve been fascinated with albums as bodies of work. And even though (or perhaps because) the album format sometimes feels under threat, the format is still really important to me and most of my peers – it’s a format and an experience we have control over, and most musicians have many albums they look up to when they’re making work. To be nominated amongst nine really great albums and to be honoured in this way, for something I’ve been trying to make since I was 17, feels really significant.

What influenced the album?

I have two kinds of writing I do – ‘project-based’ writing, like for my Rail Land show, where I’ll write on a specific theme like New Zealand’s public transport system; and then writing ‘as a practise.’

Early on a friend at Elam told me that making art as a practise meant turning up in your studio and making work for no preconceived reason. The songs I put on an album like this are the ones that accumulate from that writing for no reason, so it can be a bit mysterious to assemble meaning.

There are threads in the album that sometimes connect clearly – themes about the nature of work for example, and others that feel related but in mysterious ways. There are jumps between the present: ‘Two Free Hands’ is about a careers counsellor with an existential crisis, ‘Entertainment’ is about a television station restructure; the 80s: ‘Old Images’ is a love song that also explores raising families in the threat of nuclear war; and as far back as the Canberra air disaster of 1940.

I’ve said before that the title track explores the way that growing up after the 1980s affects the way my generation navigates the world. I feel like I was raised in a project to create ‘rational actors’ who calculate incentives in almost mathematical ways, even in areas of life we don’t think of being the realms of economics.

Tell us more about growing up in Dunedin, and how your time there influenced you as a musician…

It wasn’t until I had lived in Auckland for quite a while, and travelled in places like the US, that I realised how hard hit Dunedin was by offshoring, and the centralisation of business and government to the largest cities.

People talk about the rust belt in the US, but actually we have plenty of examples of the same thing in New Zealand. Dunedin has a whole area of town called the exchange, set out much like Lambton Quay, which used to house a local stock exchange, government and administrative jobs.

Throughout most of my early life in Dunedin that area of town was empty – when I was a kid my dad took me to the massive Chief Post Office, when the new owners were selling off as much of the interior of the building as they could to tradespeople, before it sat empty for two decades.

It didn’t all happen in the distant past either. There’s a song on the album about the Mataura paper mill – which ran for 100 years and used to employ 300 people and be the economic centre of that town. It only closed in 2003, and people were told it would be ‘mothballed’ in case it could be used again – but instead it was sold cheaply and used to store toxic waste. Of course now we have a paper supply crisis in Australia and New Zealand because we don’t have enough paper mills in this part of the world.

Tracks such as ‘Mataura Paper Mill’ and ‘Water Underground’, which references water management issues in Canterbury, are not conventional song topics…

I’m always hoping to hear something in a song that I haven’t heard before, something that is new, but feels true to experience, and the way we speak, interact and feel. Songwriting is a different language to spoken language in my view, because the music and melody change the context of the words and it’s hard to control what that does to them. That’s why so often it’s easy to rest on phrases in songwriting that hark back to another time – we know they work.

A true story, from our place and with our own kind of wording will sound cringeworthy or overly didactic with the wrong music behind it. It’s quite hard to get that magic combination but every now and then you break through, and a song can be talking about local government in a way that feels thrilling, Machiavellian, and complex – like a condensed HBO special. When that happens I no longer care if the topic is odd – I’ll do anything that works.

You’ve talked about moving to a smaller town allowing you to work full time as a musician, can you talk to this a little bit?

My wife Karlya and I met in Auckland, and we lived there together for five years after that. It was a great
time in that city, it was really fighting to make something better of itself after years of comparing poorly to Wellington or Melbourne.

We did three tours of the US together over that time, and something we noticed was that rent was getting really astronomical in the big cities and, in response, a lot of American musicians and artists would vote with their feet and move to cheaper cities that were still close to the markets they needed to be near – cities like Minneapolis, St Louis or New Orleans – where you could still play dozens of cities, including NYC or Chicago, within a day’s drive. I worried about rents exploding in Auckland, and I often thought to myself, ‘If only we had that option in New Zealand.’ It turns out that for us, Whanganui was that option. Our cost of living dropped by about a third when we moved here, and that was just enough for me to take the leap and make music a full-time job. It’s also big enough to have the benefits of an urban centre, but it’s located within a day’s drive, and usually less, of almost every North Island city, so it’s great for touring.

And once that happened you picked up an interesting side hustle/hobby in the Durie Hill Elevator…

What I learned was that when you make music your full-time job, you need a hobby.

On a trip to Dunedin to make a music video, I got interested in the remnants of railway stations I’d seen as a kid. What I didn’t know was that Dunedin had a rail system, modest, but comparable to Wellington’s today, and it had it right up until 1982. This was earth-shattering news to me. I’d always believed that Dunedin was too small for good public transport, especially outside of the era of black and white photographs. As I travelled around the country on tour, I would pop into the local museum to see what public transport options each town used to have.

I found that almost everywhere outside of Auckland and Wellington had better public transport in the past, and not in the 1940s, but even as late as the 90s or, in
the case of interregional rail, the early 2000s. I didn’t know what to do with this obsession at first.
I just knew I didn’t want to be another voice bemoaning the present, I wanted to do something practical, and related to my practise as a musician.

So I started a show called Rail Land. In it, my audience travels with me, on a train or a bus to a beautiful community hall for a show. Near Wellington or Auckland, the show can use their rail systems, but in Dunedin, I realised that if I could convince 150 people to pay a little extra on their ticket, we could afford to charter a Dunedin Railways train. It’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. I thought that would fix the bug I’d developed for the topic, but I was wrong. In 2020, I accepted a committee role representing Whanganui District Council on public transport matters, and when the tender came
up for our most unique public transport service – The Durie Hill Elevator – I entered because I wanted to see it retained, and improved as public transport, as well as a visitor experience.

It’s a symbol of the way Whanganui built its city and its housing around public transport, and I’d like it to remain the jewel in our network as the buses improve around it. We have a great team of eight people, and most of us do two-to-three half-days a week. I love the process of starting the day with a simple, repetitive act of service – it’s charming, boring, and it helps put the rest of your tasks in a better context.

What were a couple of the most memorable South Island moments/experiences for you during the Rail Land tour?

The Port Chalmers Town Hall has become really special to me in the last couple of years – I’ve done two of Nadia Reid’s Christmas shows there, and it’s just a beautiful environment to play in. My sound engineer, Mal, says the room itself is a musical instrument. But I’ve always played there solo. To be able to come back with a five-piece band, with a larger stage, and with more PA and lights than we’ve ever used was really something else. It’s special too because Stuart Harwood (drums) and I are both from Dunedin, and Brooke Singer, our keyboardist, used to come down with her band from Christchurch and share bills with our bands, sleeping on floors. It’s taken a lot of time since to be able to bring something of this scale home.

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You have a distinct sense of style, and I know Karlya is an amazing stylist. Especially with what you wear when performing or in promotional stuff, is your look/aesthetic more directed by her or, a bit of a collaboration, or all you?

It’s mostly all Karlya! She calls me her most difficult client. When she met me, I’d taken to wearing 80s polyester suits from the op shops – she got me thinking about better fit and natural fibres, and she’s always willing to think outside the box, whether that’s repurposing odd items for flourishes, or trying
womens’ labels when menswear doesn’t fit or doesn’t work.

She also introduced me to Doran & Doran [bespoke tailors] in Auckland, and I’ve used a lot from their ready-to-wear collections. I like how they make combinations that have the presence of a suit, but the comfort and flexibility of casual wear – their Tokyo jacket [pictured] can be worn in formal situations,
can be used as a blanket on a plane, or scrunched up in a bag like a jersey.

Is that your living room in our cover photo? And again, who’s responsible for the aesthetic?

Our home style is all Karlya again. She’s always moving furniture and artworks around, and I’m proud of how welcoming she has made that room.

Plans for the year ahead?

Over the lockdowns I set up a writing and recording studio in the backyard – something I’ve been working towards for five years. I’ve just wiped my white board clean, and I’m looking forward to going back to the practise – writing songs for no reason. There’ll be shows again soon, I’m sure, but for now I’m looking forward to playing the piano and not knowing what will come out.

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