George – the star of the Neonatal Trust.

Today is International Prematurity Day, a day when the work of the neonatal staff around the world gets celebrated, and when families going through the neonatal journeys are recognised. George is our third child, and little did he know that he was doing his bit to promote the Neonatal Trust whilst still in the womb.

Georgie-boy was born on August 25th, 2011, and shortly before that time, I had been asked by the Neonatal Trust in Wellington to perform in their fundraiser concert called Project Born. I jumped at the opportunity to work alongside some of Wellington’s finest creatives and to see the work of Weta Workshop and in particular Sir Richard Taylor.

In my wife Sam’s second-to-last ultrasound, I asked the obstetrician if there was any way to record the incredible sound of George’s heartbeat, and he said he didn’t know. Next thing, we had both stopped worrying about how Sam was doing and were instead checking to see where we might source the audio from. At the next ultrasound appointment, I was armed with my recording equipment, and I managed to capture George’s heartbeat.

Michael Meads was heading up the Neonatal Trust back then, and he shared he and his wife’s harrowing yet inspiring neonatal journey. When it came time to writing a song for the show, it was his story that stayed with me. Michael spoke of coming home from the hospital to an empty house, opening a tin of baked beans and eating them cold from the can. Melissa was in hospital for a couple of months, and when Max and Blake were born, he told me how hard it was to be able to get close to his twin boys, but not close enough.

I wrote the song from a father’s perspective, of the one-way conversations he might have with his newborn child, a child he was not yet allowed to know. It made me very thankful my children Lily, Sonny & George and how lucky we were that their births were relatively straight forward (apart from the water pipe coming away from the waterbirthing pool as Lily was born, and Sam’s arm losing all sensation for 2 weeks following Sonny’s birth…)

When the song was written, I sent my ideas to my long-time producer Asa Bennett in London, along with the audio from George’s last ultrasound. What came back was truly stunning. Along with Aotea Cornelius, Felicity Wait and one Lily-Wai Edwards, I went to Scots College to use their newly installed recording suite, and the vocals were laid down. It was a new thing for me, as all of my singing had to this date been understated and in my comfort zone, but such was the emotion in this song, I had to really push myself and reflect the journey Michael and Melissa had endured nearly a decade before.

The song is one I’m very proud of, and it represented a huge challenge for me, as I performed it live with a backing track for 3 nights in the Project Born show. I was used to performing with my guitar, with a band, in a very different stage setting, but this had me singing the song whilst sitting in the audience, then walking down and onto the stage as the story developed. I have never known nerves like it.

Fast forward five years, and I’m now doing more work with the Neonatal Trust, but this time through Points for Purpose, the social enterprise I am part of which allows people to use their loyalty points to help make a much kinder world. I performed this song at a speaking event for the Neonatal Trust recently, and it brought it home to me just how incredible their work is. They do ground-breaking work, they are underfunded, but certainly not under-appreciated by anyone they have helped.

 

 

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Stuff that matters

 

The Kardashians don’t matter much, unless you’re a Kardashian, that is. Or one of their 400 million close, personal friends. The result of sports games don’t matter much, unless you were involved in the said games. 90%* of the stuff we do, especially around social media – doesn’t matter at all.

Last night, I was asked to speak/sing at the One Percent Collective’s Generosity Sessions, in support of the Neonatal Trust. For those who have no clue what that is, think babies born too soon, babies born sick, think incubators, unthinkably tiny hands and feet, think ridiculous sadness and hope and love all rolled onto one. This area of medicine, like so many, is under-funded and under-resourced, so they rely on the goodness of others to help. So when I was asked to help, I agreed immediately.

First to speak was Dr. Max Berry who is Consultant Neonatologist based in Wellington. The stuff she does matters. She took those gathered on a stormy, hideous night, through the struggles and triumphs of working in a world where so much is yet to be understood. It would appear they operate on the best knowledge that they can get their hands on, passion, commitment and the sniff of a (barely) oily rag. That this exceptional woman spends much of her time raising funds, as opposed to being exceptional – makes no sense whatsoever.

Then there was Emily Writes. Mother/Blogger/Author/Bogan. She tells a story like no one I’ve ever had the privilege to listen to. She was funny, touching, dark, realistic and refreshingly honest as she told us of the struggle she and her husband (Hot-Hataitai Gardener-Guy) had bringing their son Eddie into the world. There were few dry eyes in the room. Her work matters a lot, and I now know why 35,000 people follow her. Make that 35,001.

How the hell do I follow that? My speech went out the window.  What could I add to it?The reason I was invited was because in 2012, I wrote and performed a song called “What you don’t know” at the Neonatal Trust’s provocative production “Project Born.” It was written from the perspective of a father who visits his premature babies at the hospital morning and night and goes home to an empty flat to eat his cold baked beans out of a tin. What made this particular song special to me is that my daughter Lily, aged 12 at the time sang backing vocals on the session, and at the beginning of it, the sound effects are those of my wife Sam’s sonograph when she was carrying George (who will tell you that he is now “5 years and 10 monfs”). Most recently, as part of Points for Purpose, we have decided to support the Neonatal Trust, so I dusted off “What you don’t know” and – with a voice chilled by nerves, the southerly blast and the strain of holding emotions at bay – I gave it my best. It was croaky, emotionally charged, but honest.

 

I followed it up with Innocent & Wise, and I’ve never, ever been so proud of a song. I knew as I wrote this song that it was good, but I never knew just how much I would enjoy performing it. In that setting, talking about generosity and about stuff that matters so much to so many, Innocent & Wise was a story of hope, honesty, respect and resilience – much like the journeys neonatal families face. I sat IN that song. I didn’t over-sing it. I didn’t need to try, – I just told the story the way it was supposed to be told, just like the speakers before me had told theirs.

Last night mattered, and I made a mental note on my drive home with the assistance of an urgent southerly wind – to matter more. Thanks to Pat from the One Percent Collective, to Neil and Justine from the Neonatal Trust, to Max and Emily.

Emily Writes                      www.emilywrites.co.nz/

Max Berry                           http://www.otago.ac.nz/healthsciences/expertise/profile/?id=1263

Neonatal Trust                   http://www.neonataltrust.org.nz

One percent Collective     www.onepercentcollective.org

 

*This figure has been arrived at through the exacting powers of the author’s hunch, and should therefore not be quoted under any circumstances.

 

 

4 Sessions to sanity – R.I.P Liz

Tonight I was googling a counsellor I knew, because I wanted to recommend her to a friend. Actually, she wasn’t just any old counsellor, she was the one that helped me to realise that I was perfectly normal during a period of sustained plot-loss in my early 20s. Sadly, instead of contact details for Liz, I found her death notice.

Gutted.

Let me set the scene: it was the early 90’s, I had big hair, big potential, big plans – and ultimately – a big crash.

Turns out that media isn’t the best industry to be involved in when you’re a bit loose up-top, a touch vulnerable, if you will. Turns out that doing the graveyard shift isn’t great for your wellbeing. It also turns out that you shouldn’t tow a large promotional sign on a trailer down narrow streets, especially one which behaves like a sail in Wellington’s wind.

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This stunning photo was taken mere months before Liz worked her magic. Big Hair. Big stripes. 

I was lurching from one idea to the next to try and get myself sorted, until one day I found myself standing toe to toe with a stranger, going through an excruciating exercise where you have to look directly into the eyes of the said stranger for 2 minutes. (Try it, it’s just so, so wrong.) As part of these sessions, we were encouraged to share. So share I did, by saying something like:

“I’m going to be fired from my job tomorrow.” At which point the love poured forth from the other developees “no, it will probably be a pay rise” “be positive, and it will be a positive outcome” “let light into your heart before you go into the meeting, and the light will”…..

 

 

 

I was duly fired, and I never saw those sorry fucks again.

And then, in a letter, cos that’s how we rolled back then, my sister suggested I go and see Liz Clewley. In just four sessions, from her office in Cuba Street, this lovely-woman-who-just-happened-to-be-an-occupational-counsellor opened my eyes to what was going on in my world: I was trying to live the life of the potential me as opposed to the REAL me.  Worse, I was being hired (then fired) based on this potential version of me. Yes I was clueless, and yes I was useless (my words, not hers) but I was not on my own, apparently loads of people at the same stage of life are equally inept.

I will remember for as long as I live, the feeling of relief when, after a particularly gruelling role-play session where I had a heated conversation between the two warring versions of me, I uttered the words “but I’m not ready!!!!!”. At which point Liz, in her quiet way, told me our work was done.

Years later, I heard Liz Bowen-Clewley on Radio New Zealand as I was driving home from work. I decided to let her know what she meant to me. I hand-wrote a letter to her, included a copy of the Whirlwind CD, and thanked her from the bottom of my heart for setting me free all those years ago. She replied saying that, although she couldn’t recall the sessions, my letter was perfectly timed as she was having her own crisis of confidence in her career, and it had given her the courage to carry on.

It felt good to be able to help the helper, and to have given my thanks while I could.

So Liz – thanks again, I’m doing ok.

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Liz Bowen-Clewley

 

How moving 2 chairs into a different room saved me $119,964.

Growing up, I was quite deaf. It meant I spoke loudly. All my friends and teachers would say that I talked too much, and did it too loudly. When I began singing, I did so very loudly. I have been a maker of noise all my life, so the irony was not lost on me when I discovered recently that I’m more than just noise-intolerant, I actually have misophonia.

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Oh my poor children.

Chewing. Mispronouncing words. Breathing too deeply. Speaking with a blocked nose. Shouting. Cutlery on plates. Cutlery going into the drawer. Reading aloud. Whispering. Singing under one’s breath. Running on floorboards to escape an enraged sibling. These things are enough to make me want to do quite bad things to the perpetrators. it should be noted that my wife, a teacher of 5 year olds, hears none of this, and smiles beatifically as the said apprentice people very loudly tear the fucking world apart.

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She assures me that I am the problem. So, being a solution provider, I came up with an expensive solution. Clearly, what  we needed was an extension. So in came the architects and the builders,  and in came the knowledgeable friends who had extended their own houses. It turned out that, to  get a room built on that was all our own, an escape, if you will, we were going to have to find something around $125,000, at which time it was pointed out to me that it would be cheaper if I were to just be less of a dick. I saw such a price tag for peace and quiet as nothing short of an absolute bargain.

Then my daughter qualified for an international school, with international prices. Even with her scholarship, there was still a decent fee each month, plus flights to and from 8 countries in 2 years. Then I went more freelance than employed. Then I thought about the noise that would have been made by the builders, and the prospect of living close quarters with my family in a small, uncomfortable space until all was finished.

And still they chewed. And still they whispered. And still they walked to and fro with anvils attached to their feet.

What was needed was not an extension, but a mind-shift. We are renowned for changing rooms around on a whim, and in a moment of inspiration, I took our two occasional chairs out of the lounge and put them, along with a small coffee table, into our bedroom. Which has a lock on the door. And carpet. And an ensuite. So it is OUR space. The morning and midday sun pours into this room, making it a beautiful place to be. What’s more, a complete lack of media in the room means the children see no benefit in being in there.

We drink our coffees here. We talk about the day here. We avoid parental responsibilities here.

Turns out, however, that pesky children love a challenge, and my youngest two have begun camping out just outside the locked door, whining and begging for food/attention/digital. So naturally I bought myself a pair of Flare Audio state-of-the-art ear plugs ($49 NZ plus postage). Since they arrived, these devices I call “Aural Heroin” mean I can see their mouths moving, but all I can hear is a very distant kind of dissonance.

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So – in short, change your mindset, not your floor plan, and like me, you’ll begin liking your kids again.

And smiling.

Beatifically.

Florence Nightingale

Oh Florence. As in Florence from the “Machine”. What a woman. I know nothing of her, other than the soaring, powerful voice, the lyrics that partner that power, and the fact that she looks to be a bit beautiful.

Then THAT video. The one where she sings to a young woman in a hospice. The one where she sings from her heart to that girl, not doing a little rendition, but doing Dog Days Are Over like it was meant to be done. And that brave young lady who seemed to forget her world for a moment and just become a girl at an amazing concert, putting in a request, clapping along, loving it.

Here I am, in my own little world, wondering about whether I might do this or that, whether I should put a song out or not, gazing so deeply at my lint-filled navel – and then Florence comes along and gives me a stern talking to. She doesn’t know it, but as she sang, she had a message for me. In her beautiful English accent, she said:

“Look here. You are wasting your time, you crazy thing. You’re there with your abilities and your time and your lack of terminal illnesses, and you’re worried what your Facebook friends will say when you tell them about yet another song! For Christ’s sake man – get some perspective. There is no reason to overthink a single thing. Just fucking well DO something, because I can tell you that looking at your world from this bedside, in this hospice, there is not one thing in the world to stop you doing what you want………..and as an aside, you’re not bad looking for a man of your age…..”

She digressed at the end there, but I got the message loud and clear.

You don’t need the big production, the lights, the reverb, the harmonies.  If it’s from the heart, it will shine.

Watch this woman. Witness the magic of music at work. Listen to the purity of her performance in the face of something that would make most of us fold in on ourselves. In this special moment, I see grace, compassion, humility and strength. Her music is light in darkness,  she is the modern day Florence Nightingale, the lady of the lamp.

 

 

Angel in Black Boots

 

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bootsThis is perhaps the most feel-good song I’ve ever written. Which is a big thing, because I don’t tend to write big feel good songs. I try, but they mostly end up wistful. But this one – it’s got the big hooks, the big chorus and ever since the release of Toasted, it has been a crowd favourite.

The song came about in an unlikely manner. I was due to go into the studio in Hoxton Square, just to the East of the City of London (well before Hoxton became cool, of course) to record my first album. I had signed to Colossus Records, and was being looked after by the long suffering Chris McNabb. I took a week off work at my job as a copywriter in Soho Square at TMP Worldwide, and on the day before the recording was to begin, I got the flu. You can hear it in every song from that session.

 

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The Scene Of The Crime

At about that time, Travis had released the pop classic “Why does it always rain on me?”, and I remember being remarkably jealous. Its easy delivery, the fantastic harmonies, the huge hooks, and just the fact that it is just so bloody singable – pissed me right off. And inspired me. So, on the morning when I should have been going through the songs we had to work with, I sat down in the waiting room and wrote Angel in Black Boots.

To be honest, the song is the very definition of an insecure creative throwing his toys. I remember my wife had suggested to someone at school that her husband wrote the odd song and wouldn’t mind at all writing something special for the said school. THAT SHE SHOULD ASSUME SUCH A THING!!!!! WITH MY ART!!!!! Sam, at the time, had a pair of decent black boots that she wore with her combat trousers (as one did) and I decided that she was stomping heavily around my precious music/art.

What a dick.

I can’t remember if I wrote the song for the school or not, but I do know that I needed a solid clip around the ear for being such a pretentious little so and so.

The song was recorded in the little studio by a Scottish bloke we called “Teeth”, mainly because his gnashers weren’t exactly in tip top condition. There wasn’t enough room for a drumkit, so we found the sounds in a computer, and I remember there seemed to be a lot of love for the less than dynamic drum beat which props the song up. It was decided that it must have been a one armed Irish drummer lurking somewhere in the ancient Macintosh (Cos that’s what they were called then) computer that played drums on Angel in Black Boots.

It was no easy song to sing, either – especially with a lung full of flu. Fittingly, I tend to leave the song till last on my set list, to deliver the realistic rasp that was going in Hoxton all those years ago.

Cold. Wet. Dank. That’s the memory of the studio in question. And the toilet. Oh the toilet.

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A surprisingly good example of the toilet facilities in the Hoxton studio.

The kitchen wasn’t much better, and as the music geeks gathered around the aforementioned Mac, speaking the arcane language only known to those who know what they’re talking about – I set about cleaning the cups and saucers to ensure we would have a disease-free week.

 

In the end, it was a really fun recording process, and the end result is that I still get people telling me that this song is a favourite.

 

 

The Vigil

When an adult cries in public, it’s a pretty moving thing. Not just at the movies, either, or at a wedding when it all gets just a little too much, but when a grown man or woman dissolves into gut-wrenching sobs, I defy anyone not to be moved.

The only places you’re allowed to be this emotional are hospitals, courtrooms, airports, churches and of course – funeral homes. Here, it’s ok to lose your stuff. People look on with sympathy, or respectfully avert their eyes, allowing you your moment to grieve.

But most recently I have seen some very normal, very cool people cry like little children – in normal, everyday places. In local cafes on consecutive days, shoulders heaved, tears flowed, and hearts broke. There was no effort to stem the flow or choke back the tears. No effort to regain equilibrium, no waving of the hands in an effort to apologise to witnesses.

As a friend, what can you say? I couldn’t soothe them by giving it the age-old “there there”, and tell them that it’s all going to be ok, because being a mere mortal, I’m not in possession of the kind of foresight to make such assurances. All I could do was offer hugs and be there for them.

The morning after I had witnessed the second grand outpouring (9:15am, popular coffee shop) the winter sun was shining beautifully, and an endearing image popped into my head. I imagined myself sitting outside a window in that sunshine, soaking up the good feelings, and sharing the moment with a friend. However the friend in question is not next to me in the sunshine, but in the darkened bedroom behind me with the curtains pulled closed to block out the light.

A beautiful winter’s day is so pure, so rare and so appreciated, that to block it out feels almost criminal. But that’s how black it can be for those caught in the long, dark night of sadness. The prospect of the stunning sunshine failing to cast any light in the world of someone in such desperate need of it was particularly moving.

So the refrain for the song popped into my head. “I knew for you there would be no end to this long and lonely night.” The knowledge that there’s nothing you can do or say to help may seem unempowering, but instead, what it does is relieve you of any pressure to fix things. All you have to is be there, and be yourself.

“When I came to see you there was winter-sun on my face.
It was a beautiful day to be breathing, believing in goodness and grace.
But my knock on your door went unanswered, the curtains were shut down so tight.
I knew for you there would be no end to this long and lonely night.

So I sat down outside your window, remembering when you last smiled.
I sang you old songs in the sunshine in the green grass growing so wild.
I said me a prayer to the heavens, I put a plea out to the light.
I knew for you there would be no end to this long and lonely night.

And if there’s a good in the heavens, with all your mercy and with your sight.
See this black flag in the window and make everything all right.

The sun disappeared around the corner, the shade left me chill to the bone.
I knew that I should leave you, but it hurt me to leave you alone.
And then came the man from the cafe, bearing soul food and flat whites.
Because he knew for you there would be no end to this long and lonely night.

And as the shadows gave way to darkness, there was nothing we could do.
So we waved blindly at your window, and took our leave from you.
Tomorrow someone will be hear, until the darkness steals the light.
Our hope for you is that there will be an end to this long and lonely night.
I hope my friends is that there will be an end to this long and lonely night.

And if there’s a good in the heavens, with all your mercy and with your sight.
See this black flag in the window and make everything all right.”

So, for anyone keeping a vigil, or anyone for whom a vigil is being kept, this song is my offering to what you’re going through.

R