Innerviews, music without borders

Open Possibilities
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2023 Anil Prasad.

Strawpeople Fiona McDonald Paul CasserlyStrawpeople: Fiona McDonald and Paul Casserly | Photo: Bigpop

Strawpeople’s brand of expansive electropop was one of the first pebbles of its kind thrown in the waters of global music culture when it released its first single "One Good Reason" in 1990. The work of the New Zealand duo, today comprised of producer and composer Paul Casserly and singer-songwriter Fiona McDonald, has been described many ways. It has been called trip-hop, electronica, downtempo, and deep house. But the truth is no single category is accurate for Strawpeople’s immersive, multi-genre output that combines original songs, reinvented covers, and instrumental works.

The group was ahead of the curve, emerging before Massive Attack, Portishead, Tricky, and DJ Shadow in the early ‘90s. It was originally formed in 1985 as the brainchild of Casserly and fellow producer and composer Mark Tierney, who departed in 1996. In addition to McDonald, Strawpeople has featured several other vocalists on its seven albums, including Bic Runga, Leza Corban, and Stephanie Tauevihi.

Strawpeople achieved considerable chart and sales success in New Zealand, with several records hitting the top-10, and its fourth LP, 1996’s Vicarious, named album of the year at the 1997 New Zealand Music Awards. Vicarious was also notable for McDonald serving as Casserly’s key collaborator and the group’s main vocal presence after a history of using several singers on previous efforts.

After 2004’s well-received Count Backwards From 10, which shifted back to a multi-vocalist approach, including McDonald, Pearl Runga, Jordan Reyne, and Mahinarangi Tocker, Strawpeople came to an initial end. Despite the album charting in New Zealand’s top-20, the collective feeling was the group had run its course after 20 years.

Casserly went on to a successful career as a television writer, director, and producer, and formed his own company Perendale Productions. McDonald engaged in myriad roles, including TV presenter, New Zealand Idol host, voiceover actor, casting producer, ukulele teacher, and real estate agent. She also reunited with the celebrated alternative rock act Headless Chickens, which she had been a member of between 1991-1995, for reunion shows in 2008 and 2018. That band and Strawpeople have an intertwined history, simultaneously existing between 1986 and 1998.

In 2023, Strawpeople reemerged with a new album, Knucklebones. Casserly and McDonald worked on the recording intermittently across eight years in between their many other endeavors and commitments. It’s a dreampop album of the now that moves between pulsing electronica and meditative ambient realms, supported by a cast of stellar musicians. It includes contributions from saxophonist Nick Atkinson, keyboardist Matthias Jordan, bassists Mark Hughes and Joost Langeveld, guitarists Luke Hurley and Chris van de Geer, and drummer Chris O’Connor.

Distinctly adult topic matter is at the heart of the album’s lyrics. They explore frayed and collapsing relationships, betrayal, narcissism, and ultimately, emancipation. It also includes a track titled “Love Diktat” that offers an intriguing duet with the voices of Pope John Paul II and Idi Amin intermingling to describe how love informs their worldviews. One suspects sardonic humor is at the heart of the contrasts in the piece.

Innerviews spoke to McDonald via Zoom, discussing the making of Knucklebones, as well as her solo output and journey with Headless Chickens. She also offers insight into the pragmatic streak that’s enabled her to work in so many realms beyond music, and why she has no regrets about her choices throughout those experiences.

Strawpeople Fiona McDonaldPhoto: Bigpop

Talk about when and why you and Paul Casserly made the decision to pursue a new Strawpeople album.

In 2015, we were at our joint 50th birthday dinner. I had recently thought, “I’d love to make more music.” And Paul said, “Do you want to do it?” I said, “Yeah, I really do.” So, that was the beginning of it. I’ve got children and Paul is really busy as a producer in TV and for documentaries. It took a while to crank the gears again. We also didn’t want to spend huge amounts of time on it. We were working a couple of hours a week on it sometimes. That’s why it took so long. But the process suited us. We rediscovered our own music and it took a while to find out where we wanted to go with it.

What considerations did you have in mind as you thought about returning to the music industry 19 years after the last Strawpeople release?

The question was whether or not we were still relevant. We didn’t want this to be an ego or vanity project. But part of me thought, people in New Zealand and Australia grew up with Strawpeople music. We introduced a certain sound to Australasia. What we were doing at the time was really quite new and fresh. It got into people’s hearts and lives there quite deeply. So, I knew there was this appreciation for the band. But I wasn’t sure people wanted more. As it turns out, they did, and the new album has been received incredibly well. It’s very heartwarming and satisfying for us. It’s a beautiful thing.

It has been nearly 20 years since we left the scene and we’ve made a deliberate, conscious decision to reenter it. In your twenties, things are even more deliberate compared to when you’re in your fifties. It has been quite weird in that way, but we were determined to make more music, and that was simply the best reason to do it.

Your voice is in excellent form. Were you keeping it in singing shape during the intervening years?

I did not look after my voice at all. I’m an educator and teach ukulele, and share the gift of music with students, especially kids. When I taught, I’d belt out “Baa Baa Black Sheep” and “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” without a microphone. I actually gave myself nodules as a result. I had them removed. I risked losing my voice and I was really worried. But my voice was okay. And then I got nodules again. I’ve still got them, but I’ve managed to learn how to sing around them.

How did the creative process work for Knucklebones across such a long gestation period?

Even with so much time in between Strawpeople albums, Paul and I are very used to writing with each other. We know how to collaborate melodically, harmonically, and lyrically. It was about getting back into the groove with your old partner.

Let’s use “Second Heart,” the first track on the album, as an example. There was a line he’d read in a book about your memories living inside your heart. He really liked it. So, we constructed the whole song around that. We talked about what it means, and the song grew from there.

I also had a song called “Watch You Sleep” which was 25 years old. It started as something intended for my solo album from 1999. Paul and I worked on it for the new Strawpeople album. We reconstructed it and rewrote some of the lyrics.

When we work together, we say things like “Oh, that lyric sounds a bit pedestrian. I don’t like that rhyme. Let’s have some more mystique here. Let’s make that part crunchier. Let’s make that bit dreamier.” It’s about what we’re feeling, what we’re trying to communicate, and what aesthetic we want.

There’s a definite benefit to writing the music slowly. We’d work on a song for a while, put it down, and start writing another one. Then we’d come back and revisit the other track. Sometimes the essence of a song would end up being quite different to the way it started. That flexibility gives us room to rework things as we see fit.

When you’re working on songs for years, they can continue developing. We’re really happy with how it all worked out. We got really excited about the songs. We lived with them for a long time and didn’t share them with anyone. We got quite precious about them. I admit, it got quite frustrating during the last couple of years, because we wanted to share them, but they weren’t quite finished. We had to hold on to them for a little longer.

What makes the chemistry between you and Casserly work so well?

To be fair, I’ve only written music with a few people. Paul and I give each other the space we need to collaborate. But in Headless Chickens, it was more a kind of isolated writing. People would be in different rooms writing songs and then give them to the others to record. In contrast, Paul and I are in the same room writing together. We’re always talking to each other. It’s not like, “Here’s a drum loop. This is the melody.” Rather, it’s “What do you think about this melody? What do think about this sound?” It’s an incredibly satisfying way of working. And because we’ve worked together so long, there is no ego attached.

If either of us has doubts about something, we say so. If Paul’s not happy, it’s not a Strawpeople song. We both work together with a genuine desire to make the music as good as it can be. We don’t argue. We just discuss. It’s very refreshing.

Both the title track and “Paper Cuts” have provocative lyrics about decaying relationships. What can you tell me about them?

I was going through a very bad period in my life. I was on a family holiday, swimming in the Coromandel Peninsula in New Zealand. It’s a series of beautiful beaches along the coast. One can be quite creative in weird places. I was just walking along the ocean and the song “Knucklebones” came out. And when I brought it to Paul, he said, “Why don’t we work on this?”

It would have been easy to have made it a very sad, despairing kind of song, but Paul said, “Why don’t we take the lyrical idea, but make it a pop song, and even kind of uplifting?” I wrote a gospel choir part for it, but we didn’t use it in the end. It was a sort of Diana Ross and The Supremes Motown thing. That was the original idea of it, in terms of the juxtaposition of the lyrics and the way the music sounded.

“Paper Cuts” is also extremely personal. I think it’s the most cathartic song on the album for me. It resonates in a similar way to how Headless Chickens’ “George” did. I think there’s a point in most people’s lives in which they experience deception, betrayal, and intense heartache. And that’s where that song lives. Everyone has their own story and I’ve got mine.

What I like about the song is it’s very relatable and people can get lost in it. So, it becomes cathartic for the listener, as well.

Strawpeople Fiona McDonald Paul CasserlyPhoto: Bigpop

Knucklebones was released through Bigpop Recording & Publishing, after years of working with permutations of Sony. Tell me about the company and why it was right for this record.

To be honest, we weren’t even looking for a record deal. We’re in our fifties. We’re not here to start a career. We just wanted to make more music.

Joost Langeveld and Chris van de Geer run Bigpop. Joost is someone I was in an alternative rock indie band together with when I was 19. It was called NRA, which stands for Not Really Anything. Chris was in a huge New Zealand band called Stellar. Bic Runga’s sister Boh was in that band. Also, Chris was the engineer on Strawpeople’s Vicarious album. So, our relationships with those guys go back decades.

When it came time to wanting to release this record, we just wanted to work with people we knew, like, and trust. They’re also our age and have similar musical experiences. They said, “Just go and make a record.” And so we did. Then we said, “We’re finished now.” Then they said, “Great, let’s put it out.” It was simple as that. It was really easy and no pressure.

Do you see Strawpeople continuing beyond the Knucklebones cycle?

When we started working together again, I thought we’d just make one more album. But it seems like the bugger has taken hold, which is really good and so satisfying. We’re in our late fifties now and this is a unique position to be in—to be able to explore a passion like this again, and have people interested. Sometimes people do things like this and nobody cares, and it’s like, “Why did we bother?” But it’s not in this case. I’m very grateful and happy.

Both Paul and I have children and were doing other things before we came back together as Strawpeople. People would ask me if I missed music, and I said no, but that really wasn’t the truth. It’s a very vulnerable subject. I’ve spoken to fellow musicians my own age about the process of being a creative person and what you do with that creativity as you get older. I made a conscious decision that I didn’t want to do it anymore. I got involved with television as a TV presenter. I just ran out of juice, somehow. But I admit, I always did miss it.

Headless Chickens did a couple of reunion gigs, with the last one being in 2018. The last gig hit me hard, because it was an amazing show. I came off completely sober, but high as a kite. I thought I was Beyoncé that night. [laughs] There’s nothing like playing live and creating music. If you’ve experienced it, you know it’s totally unique and it has been incredible to experience it again.

Until now, Strawpeople has almost never played live. They did one gig before I was in it. But now Strawpeople will be playing live to support this record. There’s a big buzz about it and it’s incredibly exciting. Paul has always resisted the idea previously, but he’s wrapped his head around it and is super-keen. There are a lot of opportunities coming up in 2024.

Today, Strawpeople live can be so many things. We could perform with an orchestra. We could play to backing tracks. We could play with a live band. We could play with a string quartet. That’s what I love about the possibilities. Also, I’m the main singer, but we could have other singers live, too. My brain is full of ideas right now about what we could do.

There’s also a certain freedom we have with this version of Strawpeople, because we’re not in our twenties. We’re not trying to start a career. We’re doing this because want to. I’m completely open to whatever may happen next.

Tell me the story of making your 1999 solo album A Different Hunger and why you didn’t continue with your solo career.

I was going to do A Different Hunger before Vicarious, but then I got quite nervous about it. I was with Headless Chickens and Strawpeople at the same time. Strawpeople is a studio band and Headless Chickens were a live band. So, I’ve been involved with bands my whole musical career.

When I was going to do the solo album, Paul approached me to do another Strawpeople album, and it felt like a really nice excuse to put my solo album off. [laughs] But it also felt like a nice stepping stone. Making Vicarious helped me when considering how to move forward with my solo work.

Creating A Different Hunger was a learning experience. I love that album. There are some really beautiful songs on it, but it was interesting how much I didn’t know about production.

There was a lot of internal pressure from myself. I’m a much more confident person now. There was a lot of money involved with that record because of the success of Headless Chickens. “George” went to number one. Strawpeople’s Vicarious was also named album of the year. So, there was a question of what my solo album might be.

Also, after so many years in the music industry, it was kind of weird to realize that it was my solo album—at the end of that stage of my career—that showed me I wasn’t listening to my own heart enough. To a certain extent, that album went places I didn’t really want it to go. I went to London and did it with an English producer named Robin Hancock who had worked with Pet Shop Boys, Janet Jackson, and Depeche Mode. I tried to make the best of the situation so I was happy, but I kind of wasn’t. And I didn’t have the self-confidence to put the brakes on it.

After that album came out, I was 33. I had met the father of my children and wanted to travel. I had done music for a long time and that album was so hard to make. After I realized it wasn’t exactly what I intended, I just went “I might stop now. I might have some kids and do something else.” By that point, I had made great music with two amazing bands. So, I was really quite happy to stop there.

Headless Chickens Fiona McDonaldHeadless Chickens, 1994: Grant Fell, Michael Lawry, Anthony Nevison, Bevan Sweeney, Fiona McDonald, and Chris Matthews | Photo: Flying Nun

Let’s discuss your experience with Headless Chickens. Describe the early-‘90s New Zealand alternative music scene, how you entered it, and how you get involved with the band.

I joined the band in 1991 when I was 25. Paul Casserly from Strawpeople and I were involved in student radio at bFM at the University of Auckland. That’s where we met. The first Strawpeople album was made at bFM. The scene was such an intermingling of people and personalities. Mark Tierney was also there, and he went on the produce Headless Chickens, including the first EP which they also did at the station. So, everyone knew each other. It was a great place for creatives and weirdos to hang out, and it was also predominantly women-driven. There were a lot of women in managerial positions at bFM and it was very, very pro-New Zealand music. The only reason Headless Chickens and Strawpeople ever got anywhere is because of the support of student radio across the country.

A couple of years before that, I had gone overseas to live in Australia and worked in a record store. I’d promote the first Headless Chickens EP. Then they came over to play and I was like, “What the fuck am I doing in this rock town? It’s so full of rock music. I need to go home.” I’d heard Strawpeople were making amazing music, and I was quite jealous. I thought, “Those boys are doing stuff without me. Headless Chickens are happening. This is the music I love. I’ve got to go back.”

So, I went back, got involved with Strawpeople and sang “Trick With a Knife.” Chris Matthews from Headless Chickens heard the work I’d done with Strawpeople and loved it. Rupert Taylor, who sang with Headless Chickens at the time, then left the band. So, Chris was looking for someone to fill that slot. He and I crossed paths one day and Chris said “I’ve got a song I need a female voice on. Would you like to sing it?” Headless Chickens were my favorite band—not just my favorite New Zealand band. So, inside, I was freaking out. But on the outside, I just said, “Yeah. Sure, Chris. I’ll come and sing this song.”

At the time, I didn’t even know what the song was or that it would be “Cruise Control.” I had no idea. I just went up to the studio, Chris taught it to me, and I sang it. Then he said, “Do you want to do some backing vocals on a couple of other tracks?” I said, “Yep, I’ll do that.” [laughs]

As far as I was concerned, that was it. I had done a guest appearance for Headless Chickens. And then “Cruise Control” went top-10 in New Zealand and went crazy in Australia. The record company strongly suggested that “Maybe Fiona might want to join the band?” [laughs] So, that’s how that happened. I sort of tripped and fell into it.

Headless Chickens Fiona McDonaldFiona McDonald and Grant Fell perform with Headless Chickens at Big Day Out, Auckland, New Zealand, 1994 | Photo: Big Day Out

Headless Chickens’ Body Blow album has an intriguing history, with three different versions released between 1991-1994. Tell me what was going on with the band and label at the time and why you left the group afterwards.

It was incredibly frustrating for me as a songwriter to be with Headless Chickens, and not because of any fault of the band. Rather, it was because of the record company, Mushroom. Body Blow had almost been finished. I went in to just sing on “Cruise Control” and do some backing vocals as I mentioned. And there it was, done. But then “Cruise Control” blows up. It was quite a different sound for the band and connected with a completely different audience, particularly a female one, now that it had a female singer. So, we’ve suddenly got this mainstream audience who had just discovered the band and fallen in love with it.

There were some people who only liked “Cruise Control,” because Headless Chickens are usually a very dark, brooding beast. Mushroom flogged “Cruise Control” so many times with many remixes, trying to break into commercial radio. They were trying to break through to a new market and we probably lost two years doing that.

During that period, we had started to write and record songs like “Juice,” which I created for Strawpeople under the original title “Dreamchild.” It’s very convoluted how these two bands mixed together. Chris Matthews heard “Dreamchild” and said, “Let’s do a version with Headless Chickens.” So, we released that version before Strawpeople released it under the original name. We had some other new tracks like “Mr. Moon” and “Choppers” as well.

“Mr. Moon” was based on a piano riff of mine, but basically Chris wrote the rest of it. It wasn’t very satisfying from a writing perspective. And then I started to bring in some of my songs into the band. But it just wasn’t working. Chris and I were also in a relationship and we had broken up. The situation was kind of okay, but a bit fraught. We’re best buddies now, but at the time it just wasn’t happening. The other thing was I didn’t have the experience of writing with Headless Chickens like I did with Paul Casserly from Strawpeople. Chris and I didn’t have a history of working together.

So, what happened is Mushroom, instead of letting Headless Chickens do a new album, decided to repackage Body Blow and add the new songs to it. They also did a double-disc version of it with a remix disc. The new songs were great, and that was an okay decision, and “Mr. Moon” and “Choppers” were top-40 hits.

In 1994, we released the song “George” as a single and it went to number one. It was the first number one the label Flying Nun ever had. I still remember getting ready to do a big festival show called Big Day Out as we were told it had gone to the top of the charts. Everyone was on a high.

“George” was put on Headless Chickens’ 1997 album Greedy, but I didn’t have anything else to do with the record. I felt it was time to move on and do a solo album, even though the record company tried very hard to convince me to also stay in Headless Chickens. But at the time, I knew the other songs that were being written for Greedy, and for me, personally, they weren’t the sort of songs I had adored from Headless Chickens previously. They were going off in a more rock trajectory which a lot of people absolutely loved, but it wasn’t floating my boat. So, Michael Lawry, one of the keyboardists, and I left the band. It was very upsetting for a lot of people. But I was very calm and considered, and very sure of why I wanted to leave. Headless Chickens chose to carry on, but without replacing me as a singer. Chris did the other vocals for Greedy. So, the rest of the making of that album is a Chris story.

Headless Chickens did two reunion gigs, one in 2008, just as the global financial crisis hit the world, and then in 2018, after our bassist Grant Fell died. We did that show as a sendoff to him. Honestly, that show was just such a lovely time for us. We were a little family who reunited. We were all missing Grant terribly, and it was really sad, but we did a great gig.

It was funny to look out at the audience and see all these middle-aged faces like mine. During our heyday, we were young, and our fans were young. But we’re all old now, aren’t we? But it was so good, I don’t know how we could improve on it. So, there won’t be any more Headless Chickens for me. For me, that book is closed. But what a great book it was. It was amazing.

Being in Headless Chickens were the happiest years of my life. Those boys were my brothers. I had an incredible time, and they were an incredible band. Just completely intoxicating. I’ll die happy knowing I was in that band. So, although I left, all I have are amazing memories.

Headless Chickens Fiona McDonaldHeadless Chickens, 2008: Chris Matthews, Michael Lawry, Fiona McDonald, Bevan Sweeney, Grant Fell, and Anthony Nevison | Photo: Headless Chickens

Headless Chickens and Strawpeople made efforts to break into the UK market. What’s your perspective on the desire and challenge for New Zealand rock and pop artists to cross over?

My thoughts on this traverse quite a few decades. Paul Casserly and I have wondered what would have happened with the first Strawpeople record if we had picked up our sticks and moved to London. Maybe nothing. Maybe something. There’s also always this notion that New Zealand bands have to live in Australia to do anything. Australia’s perceived to be a kind of rock place. But shifting from New Zealand to go over there is really hard. It’s a long way from home and there’s still limited record company support and money available—even there.

A few New Zealand bands like Crowded House and Split Enz did really well. The Naked and Famous did incredibly well, too. And of course, you have Lorde and Benee. So, how many acts have I talked about? Five. That’s not many.

There’s also Six60, who every year will sell out Western Springs in Auckland, which is like 60,000 people. They’re probably also quite big in Australia. But are they big anywhere else? No, they’re not.

I stopped thinking about this. I thought about it a lot 20 years ago when I was trying to make a career in music happen. The truth is, it’s incredibly hard to make enough money from music in New Zealand to live off of, which is really all we wanted. It was true 20 years ago and it’s still true today. I would love to be a full-time musician and just focus on that. If Headless Chickens had the same level of success in England as they did in New Zealand, we’d have pretty nice houses by now. So, it’s frustrating and hard. But New Zealand is a great country to live in. It’s a mixed situation.

As you’re well aware, today it’s difficult for musicians in any territory to make a living with streaming services coring out any meaningful income from recordings. What’s your perspective on the state of things?

When Spotify came along, I thought, “What? Do you expect people to make music for free?” And then there’s the argument they make that goes “You should be doing music because you love it.” I’m like, “Fuck off.” [laughs] You know, you’ve got to pay the rent and mortgage, too. But of course, we’re doing it for the love it.

I admit, I use streaming services all the time. What they do is enable someone who has heard me do an interview on the radio, and straight away, they can go have a listen to my work, without getting in their car and going to a record store. So, it makes music incredibly accessible. That’s amazing and wonderful. But another problem is that there’s so much music, I feel like I’m drowning. Thank God, I’ve got two teenage kids who help point the way in terms of what I should listen to, because you can’t keep up. It’s like searching for diamonds.

There’s a fairly simple solution that would make a lot of people happier: have the streaming services pay artists better. Wouldn’t that be an incredible thing? And it seems easy to me. How many billions do they need to make off the creativity of other people? Even if they doubled the royalties, it still wouldn’t be fair. But why don’t they just start by doubling them and decreasing their profits a little, and try to help the musicians who allow them to exist? I’m not talking about Taylor Swift and Drake here, who are in the top one percent of the industry hierarchy. I’m talking about the rest of us who are out there making music and not making any money from it.

Imagine what a different world we’d have if artists were paid something close to approaching their worth. What an amazing world we’d have if artists could actually do their craft, be paid well for it, and not have to do part-time jobs doing things they don’t want to do that compromise themselves in order to survive. I’m not able to make music full-time. In fact, I’m worried about how I’m going to fit all this Strawpeople activity in with the other things I have to do to earn a living. I’ve got a mortgage. So, streaming services—can’t you just pay us more fairly?

It's really unfortunate the streaming services don’t have more integrity. They’re making money off the sweat of other people’s labor. And of course, people then say, “Well, just don’t make music.” But that’s the wonder, magic, and beauty of the creative arts, whether it’s music, dancing, painting, or writing. We want to do this because it’s good for human beings’ souls. It’s good for the species. It’s intrinsic to our happiness. People who have the desire to make music are not capable of not doing it. People would be depressed versions of themselves without the arts. Do we want that as a society?

The other argument that gets thrown back is “Well, people don’t have to use the streaming services if they think they’re cruel and unfair.” And of course, that’s naïve.

The biggest point I’m making is, let’s just shift things up a bit for the musicians and see how it feels. What does one percent less profits do to those companies if they give that to the artists? Isn’t it in their interest for artists to be happy?

Fiona McDonaldPhoto: Dallas Pickering

You’re one of the more pragmatic people I’ve seen coming out of a career during the ‘90s music industry heyday. You’ve done many things, including television, acting, casting, voiceovers, teaching, and real estate. In contrast, I’ve known plenty of musicians who’ve entered into a sort of personal death spiral once they felt their time in the spotlight was winding down. Talk about your determination to embrace new directions.

I’m very fortunate in that I’m not a shoegazing kind of musician. I always thought I could have gone into acting, and discovered I could be a TV presenter. I loved doing that. It has the same kind of appeal as getting up on a stage. I was a presenter for a few years on several shows, and that filled my creative cup in a different way.

Some musicians feel they have to be pure and not do anything to compromise their artistic integrity. But even at the same time I was in two cool bands, Strawpeople and Headless Chickens, I was also singing jingles because I had to make money to survive. Some people pooh-poohed that, but I didn’t care. It’s what enabled me to go on tour with Headless Chickens. So yes, I’ve had a very pragmatic streak.

I also wanted to have children and give them a home that was comfortable for them—something that didn’t involve being dirt poor. There’s also the fact of how small New Zealand is and the financial reality of living in this country. But this is where I want to live, so I will do other things in order to be a grownup and the kind of parent I want to be.

I did go into real estate for a while and discovered it wasn’t for me, but I learned a lot. It was quite an unusual move. I did feel a bit weird, to be honest. It was quite like TV presenting in a way, but it was really quite removed from my life as a musician.

As we discussed earlier, I became a ukulele teacher. I taught myself the instrument, which was incredible. And then I started teaching adults and moved on to children. That was incredible and still is. Ninety-nine percent of the time, every adult will come up to me and tell me they can’t sing. And that breaks my heart a little every time, because I know that comes from primary school and some teacher that said something stupid. I had one adult student who after I’d taught her for about a year in a group, started singing with me. She just cried and said, “I didn’t think I could do this.” She was so overwhelmed.

I was told as a child that I’m not good at art. Well, who gives a fuck what a child is good or bad at, and who has the right to say that to them? A teacher in primary school does not need to have an opinion of what a child under age 10 is capable of in the arts. Give the child some paint, a glockenspiel, or a microphone and let them do it.

Teaching children has been incredibly enriching for me. My goal is simply to inspire pure joy. In my classes, I’ll teach kids “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash, “Take Me Home, Country Roads” by John Denver, and even stuff by The Foo Fighters and Bob Marley. I try to give them as much of a cross-section as possible.

I want all the kids to believe they’re punk rockers. I teach them the rock sign as an essential part of lesson planning. [laughs]

New Zealand Idol Fiona McDonaldNew Zealand Idol judges, 2005 | Frankie Stevens, Fiona McDonald, and Paul Ellis | Photo: TVNZ

In the ‘90s, you were a mainstay of New Zealand alternative music culture. In 2005, you became the host of New Zealand Idol, which is as mainstream a situation as it gets. Reflect on that period of your career.

Most people don’t know the whole Idol thing started in New Zealand with a show called Popstars. It was searching for a new girl group and TrueBliss was formed on that show. I don’t know exactly what happened, but the show got taken over and it was somehow adapted to become the Idol thing.

Now, musicians were quite scathing about all of this, in terms of manufactured pop, including me. I moved to Britain a few years later, and I was hooked by what the show became, which was Pop Idol. I loved it. There was a singer called Will Young who did a version of “Light My Fire” by The Doors and he won. The talent was incredible. But the whole premise of shooting down people’s dreams was something I had ethical qualms about.

Then I move back to New Zealand, and had done a TV show as a presenter about the arts at that point. They were holding auditions for New Zealand Idol, and I pursued it. I was such a fan of the format at that stage that I would have done anything to be a part of it, and I got the job.

I really did enjoy being on the show, however, I don’t know if I would do it again given the chance. I think the format has become very rough in the way people are treated, respected, and cared for. New Zealand Idol wasn’t very rough. There was no Simon Cowell on our show, but there was still that element of making fun of people, which didn’t sit well with me.

Again, doing this was me being pragmatic. And being on New Zealand Idol led to a lot of other TV presenter work. It was simply about recognizing an opportunity and wanting to do it.

You’ve said you have no regrets when looking back at your life in music. That’s a rarity. Elaborate on that statement.

When it comes to regret, it’s because certain expectations weren’t met. When I look back at my music career, I could go “Why didn’t we crack the English market? Why did it happen for those other bands, and not us?” But I don’t do that. It would be really sad for me if I did. And there’s that pragmatic streak, again. I’ve always been very realistic about where I was at the time. I didn’t want to shift countries. I made a decision very consciously to stay in New Zealand. And it was a good one.

The idea of going and living in England between ages 19-21 was never going to happen. I wasn’t mature enough or capable enough for that. So, when I look back, what I cherish is the fact that I was involved with two incredible acts: Headless Chickens and Strawpeople, and I’m still involved with the latter. Those two bands completely fulfilled me creatively, spiritually, mentally, and emotionally. How lucky am I to have been a part of their stories? Incredibly lucky. And that’s why I have no regrets. I’m super-satisfied and happy when I look back.

Strawpeople Audioculture Profile Part I
Strawpeople Audioculture Profile Part II
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Paul Casserly at NZ On Screen
Headless Chickens' Audioculture Profile