I shared the stage with Phil at the Hokonui Moonshiner's Festival in Gore last weekend and I took the oportunity to ask him a few questions:
Perhaps more than Neil Colquhoun or any of the other veteran collectors of NZ folk songs and lore, you are the most well known and respected. What do you credit this to?
Stickability is the buzz word! Hopefully it's because I've been steadily collecting, researching, recording and performing for over 40 years now and if one keeps persisting with something you really love, then eventually you must get noticed. I do maintain a high profile and consequently manage to entertain all manner of audiences throughout New Zealand and Australia. Fortunately most of them all seem to like what I do.
Tell us about your recording label, Kiwi Pacific and your relationship with them. How many albums have you recorded?
It's an interesting relationship. I first joined forces with them back in the early 1970s - the original deal was done with the shake of a hand and they've been looking after me for some 35 years or more. They used to pick up the expense tab for all my recordings, but that changed after "How Are You. Mate?" in 1990. Since then I've either had to self finance all my projects or find sponsorship from other sources. Kiwi still take care of cover design, packaging and pressing, so I consider myself quite fortunate in this regard. If the albums didn't turn a profit, then I'm sure I'd have been an indie artist long ago.
I've recorded some 16 albums in all mostly with Kiwi Pacific bar one and been involved with or contributed to a further 6 with other companies over the years.
Your latest CD has a Southland theme. What brought this on? How much of this material is your own?
I was commissioned by Creative Southland to research and write appropriate material related to a tourism package combining arts and heritage trails around Southland. I wrote 8 songs for the Southern Odyssey project, and included a couple of trad songs plus some appropriate material from the likes of Paul Metsers, Dusty Spittle, Helen Henderson and Brendon Fairbairn.
The project isn't finished yet - I understand there are still another seven trails to come on board, which means I may well have to write some more songs in the near future.
You have a fairly simple, no nonsense approach to recording your songs. Do you worry that your recordings may become dated or is that consistency a plus for your audience?
Yes I try keep things as simple as possible in the studio. I normally record my voice and guitar at the same time, which I think helps give it a better feel of "live" performance - it sometimes requires a little more effort in miking up to obtain the best results, but it is the way I work best. I have had some very understanding musicians working alongside me over the years and I'm very grateful for their ongoingsupport.
I do my best to work within the parameters and boundaries of the tradition. I don't want to compromise my ideals too much, although I must admit I have made use of modern techniques when recording my backing artists. My feelings are that if the technology is available then why not use it.
I have never worried about my recordings becoming dated - I'm sure they must do over time, especially given the rate of modern technological advancements. If I started to worry unduly about such things then I'd probably never get anything started or finished. Regarding 'consistency' it's not something I've consciously thought about, but there may well be a stream of consistency lurking within!
I really can't answer for my audiences, although to be fair I have had the occsional person say they preferred an earlier and simpler arrangement of a song, to a more modern up to date treatment of the same piece.
I know you sell albums overseas. Is there a good level of interest in your material outside of New Zealand? What other artists recorded your songs?
There is a good level of interest overseas and in this regard a number of people make contact searching out my recordings of New Zealand songs. This has certainly been helped by the world wide presence of my website,enabling me to sell to people in countries I've never been to. Interestingly, whenever I perform at specialised outdoor events and a queue forms to buy albums afterwards - I can guarantee that over 90% of those purchasers are from overseas - In many ways I feel the cultural cringe is still alive and well in Aotearoa New Zealand.
There are a number of overseas artists, who have either incorporated my songs into their performing reperotires or in some instances even recorded them. A few that immediately come to mind are Gordon Bok and Schooner Fare in the USA - Martyn Wyndham Read and The McCalmans in the UK as well as such artists as Wongawilli Bush Band, Leaping Lizards, The Pioneers, Denis & Lynne Tracey, all of whom are from Australia. Graham Wilson - Mike Harding - The Worsfolds - Shona Lang and The Pog Band [oh yeah, that's right - Ed] all recorded something of mine down the years for which I'm eternally grateful as well.
What is your vision for New Zealand folk music and folklore?
I would like to see New Zealand folklore and music incorporated into the education syllabus and eventually made available as a fully fledged folklore studies unit in the Universities. I long to see more Kiwi songs being sung in schools and more people being exposed to our wonderful musical heritage. Radio NZ is the only network that does lend real support to the music via The National Programme. I'm convinced that if more people were made aware of the music it would start achieving better listening levels Maybe even better use of such music at overseas promotions marketing New Zealand. I live in hopes!
Thanks Phil. You can see Phil on YouTube here and visit his website here.