I worked for a while in a chain bookstore in a wealthy neighborhood. My manager was a sweet middle-aged Pākehā guy who didn’t give a shit about books but was savvy and fun. The franchise was owned by a very well-to-do man who owned four stores of this kind across Auckland. I quit when they wouldn’t pay me the living wage. This is just a bit of context around my relationship to chain bookstores as they are the central character in this story.
I saw a tweet recently from the ever-astute Ngāpuhi, Waikato-Tainui journalist, Shilo Kino (https://twitter.com/shilokino), who had tried to buy Becky Manawatu’s award winning novel Auē (out on Mākaro Press https://makaropress.co.nz/makaro-books-2/aue-by-becky-manawatu/) but couldn’t find a copy in her local bookstore. Becky Manawatu had just won NZ/Aotearoa’s highest praise for fiction and yet it took Shilo Kino asking after the book to get a copy. No display. Nothing. She also posted a photo of her experience and I instantly recognized it as my bookstore.
I was appalled and unsurprised. Independent book sellers in our little country hold and push smaller press releases, celebrate local authors and do the majority of heavy lifting when it comes to NZ authors. But considering the store I worked in had more or less total autonomy over what it chose to order and how it displayed its books, I assumed others did too. So why were they not supporting local authors?
You could argue, this was about demand. Customers were not interested in NZ writers and so we had better double down on Lee Child and Lynda La Plante to break even. And while I sold a stack of James Patterson-esque books, big-name American authors were there for those interested, I spent the majority of my time in the store finding and recommending books for customers who had no idea what to read and where they should start. Or they were buying for someone else and wanted to get them something really nice.
Yes, cookbooks like, Simple by Ottolenghi probably paid my wages, but I spent my time directing customers towards Pip Adam, Catherine Chidgey and Dominic Hoey and they came back asking for my opinion in spades. How did I know about these ‘local’ writers? How was I so tuned in to the ‘scene’? How could I reply without saying, “ummm… I read.” Or that all of these writers had won or been on short/longlists for high level awards.
As we dropped alert levels and were encouraged to buy local, my thoughts about Becky Manawatu’s stunning novel and the importance of NZ/Aotearoa literature became a focus. I began seeking out chain bookstores to see what was going on. My hometown of Hamilton did not fare well. All I could find was Lord of the Rings as if it was hanging from the celling in Wellington Airport, but little else NZ adjacent. Auckland was not much better. All my research finished up in a trip to the Manukau city mall today. I’d finished a hui there around lunch time and took my break wandering the bookstore. They at least had a NZ section which had its obligatory discount Barry Crump and a couple of titles from Witi Ihimaera and Elizabeth Knox but little else. No Auē, no Kate De Goldi, no C.K. Stead etc. Another vacuum of NZ art.
So what was behind this? Is it more of our cultural cringe? I had recommended Hoey’s novel, Iceland to a customer at one point who explained that it looked good, but she didn’t want to read about Auckland. Perhaps there is an idea that it is hard to delve into the escapism or get swept up in a book that feels like it is about your home, but then I went to the library. I looked up Auē and there was a waitlist of 350+ people.
Books have very much become a luxury item – a gift at Christmases, birthdays and the like, so this idea that people only want to buy page-turning action or romance novels is so past what the commodity of books even are. They’re more than that, more than the term, high art or literature, they give us an important understanding of our relationships and ourselves. So maybe it was time they were more visible. I know people are losing their jobs and livelihoods across the board, but for those who haven’t, please consider your local bookstore and NZ authors. And maybe chain stores could consider their relationships to the people here too.
The self-titled album from Hamilton’s Datemonthyear (https://datemonthyear.bandcamp.com/) has been long in the oven. Head chef/band founder Trevor Faville has been working on this material for the last five years and the results show a true dedication to the craft, both in musical arrangement and aesthetics. This is an album that, despite being created by “independent music bohemians”, is professionally astute. It is paired with quirky lyrics and memorable hooks that will no doubt ensure its popularity.
Opening number, entitled, ahem, Numbers, is a great example of this. The vocals of Emma Koretz float breezily over the instrumental but spike surprisingly in the ear. Lines like, “dancing with Machiavelli’s Ghost” followed quickly with “Supermarket queue on a Saturday” give the elaborate and the mundane so succinctly. The song gives way to the punchy Flowers. Here, the instrumental prowess of Brooke Baker (guitar, keyboards), Tyler Leet (guitar) and Hayley Schwass (bass) come to the fore to support Koretz’ smooth vocal delivery.
July must have been written with out northern hemisphere whanau in mind (“July/making hay while the sun shine’s down”). It is the lead single and sees squelchy guitar and soaring singing keeping fans of everyone from early Neil Young to Fur Patrol hanging onto every note. It would be easy for these songs to be lumped into something quintessentially “Kiwi” with some similar sounds to other local heroes like the basslines of Lucid Three or the understated but complex drumming of someone like Ross Burge of The Mutton Birds, but there is something more here.
That may well be picked up by listeners as far flung as Essex, Argentina and Germany, (where Datemonthyear are already getting airtime) and it may be that artists in general are not being hemmed in by geographical constraints the way that may have been true of the Dunedin Sound for example. The smaller the world becomes, the bigger a band like Datemonthyear will be able to be. It feels like that Datemonthyear are “making faces to the scenery” and taking a journey that is just as emotionally varied as it is not grounded in solely being a “kiwi” band and that makes it a mighty fine record.
2011 is ancient history for some. My son for example, who was not born. Start ups like Code Lingo and the rise of Jacinda Ardern were all unknown futures. It was then that rapper, David Dallas released his album, The Rose Tint. It was free to download and though I didn’t have reliable access to the internet then (read, waster), a friend of mine downloaded it and burnt me a copy on to CD. Yes, ancient history.
I have reflected on and off since about the value of art and what it means. I wrote about ownership of music here https://writingincapitalletters.home.blog/2019/11/14/where-did-all-the-cowboys-go/ which got me a little closer to what I think I am trying to say, but the issue is so much broader. Back in 2011, when one of my favourite artists just gave away what would have been months of work, I was so excited to hear the record. It became an instant classic and launched his career in a way that his undeniable talents had failed to do so previously. But I didn’t pay for it. I’ve spent more on tea over the years and I hate tea.
I became quietly obsessed with musicians who were willing to do this and compiled their efforts on a (different, older and uglier) blog. There were hundreds, thousands. Some were fellow NZ rappers hoping for the propulsion that Dallas experienced, others were obscure South African desert blues bands, Spanish salsa DJs, Scandinavian death metal screamers, well you get the picture. What has struck me recently that musicians shell out serious money for instruments, recording spaces, mixing services and then, so often, put out their music for free. Or they’re on Spotify which has similar financial rewards as busking in a cul-de-sac.
Authors, however… Authors use their computers. Their skill, time, their knack with words sure, but their financial investment is significantly less. But I still am required to cough up $30ish in the local bookstore. I can’t decide what is worse, that an art form as incredible and moving as a book is out of reach for most people, or that my position in society means that I don’t have the kind of money to value an author’s efforts by paying them what they deserve. Especially when I am comparing them to an album that I now either stream for next to nothing or illegally download.
I read recently that artists often feel they are in competition with other artists, but this is a falsehood, what they/we are really in competition with is peoples’ spare time. I appreciate there’s a whole arts grant/funding model that does suggest the former is true, but for the sake of published, produced works, I’m hopeful you can follow along. Why should they read your book over David Dallas’ album? It made me consider how to grab attention from someone who is more likely to carry on watching Netflix. I don’t have an answer yet, bust asking the question helps.
Speaking of reading things, why would you read this? Well, I have some recommendations for you is why. Here is some free art that I have found particularly good lately. I don’t know if promoting it on a blog no one reads is the same as spending money on it, as that seems highly doubtful, but this may end up showing something new and beautiful to you. Or hey, you could go and rent that beauty at your local library cos libraries are choice.
Did commercialisation and peer pressure convince you into celebrating Valentine’s day? I think any notion that helps us appreciate the people we love in our lives is a good thing, but I don’t see how annual overpriced roses do that. My friend made dinner for her mum “my first love” which I thought was amazing. Love is love, is love, is wonderful and let us celebrate it, not just because Saint Valentine is the patron saint of epilepsy, but because it inspires some of the best music and art in the world.
Anyone who knows me, knows I love a good list, so let is compile the best post-Valentines Day love songs. Songs that maybe have a tinge of hurt, regret, pain, but are ultimately love songs. In no particular order:
Tom Waits- Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis. The piano in this is some of the most earnest and weighted of Waits career. The narrative speaks for itself. Superb love song form prison.
Method Man Ft. Mary J. Blige – You’re All I Need. Hot Nick’s biggest single and the realist version of love alongside this chorus. Mary J. Blige does not get enough credit full stop but nails her contribution to this.
Aretha Franklin – Do right woman, Do right man. Slightly less well known than Chain of Fools or R.E.S.P.E.C.T. but is Aretha’s soul on show in this song. It elevates her from being a gorgeous voice, to a soul icon.
Aaron West and The Roaring Twenties – Our apartment. Rousing guitar and punk rock energy to underpin a brutal break up. The whole album is heartbreakingly beautiful, but this song in particular with lines like, “I found enough of your hair pins, to build you a monument”.
The Cure – Friday I’m In Love. I think what I like about this song is its juxtaposition with other things The Cure had done at that point. Heaven Knows I’m Miserable now et al. made this song even more fun in contrast.
D’Angelo – Shit, Damn, Motherfucker. An absolute fave of this artist’s up and down career. Wonderfully haunting, sweet and violent a perfect post-Valentine’s day love song.
Mary Gauthier – Drop in a bucket. One of the most sincere and overlooked song writers of a generation. Off an album which every song is a gold nugget, this is the saddest and most caustic of love songs.
Hüsker Dü – Don’t want to know if you are lonely. Brash, fast, gloriously fuzzy. A must be yelled along to at top volume kind of song.
Some more like this on a Spotify playlist I made just for you. Happy post-Valentines Day!!
One of the most celebrated MC’s in modern rap music, Eminem, dropped a new album, Music to be Murdered By, this week. This is his eleventh album and he remains one of the most popular and controversial figures in rap music, in part due to race, subject matter, beef with other MC’s and straight bravado. He has had the worldwide bestselling album twice, won countless awards and in so many other ways is a pillar of the rap community. On the surface, he seems very much like the two very different personas he presented us over the years with Slim Shady and Marshall Mathers, but neither of those public figures is Eminem. Listening to this record, I found myself asking if the real Slim Shady would ever stand up?
Unlike Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Stevie Wonder or Tina Turner, there is something about the majority of Eminem’s work that makes me think he won’t stand up in a historical context. Maybe he knows this too, and that’s why he is so venomous on the intro of his new record to assert his relevance and how his name is used by the media. He has always taken the violence of street rap and turned it darker, more personal and that has helped him stand out in the genre. And yes, being more twisted might get shock value followers, but is it going to be held up as an example of the art form? He might have gained popularity for those early sinister rhymes, but its on this album it feels like he is aiming to be his best self. The problem for Em, is that he has been someone else, insecure and so overtly saying he doesn’t give a fuck for so long, it sounds like he doesn’t know who his best self is.
There is no taking away from his skill though. First (real) track in, Unaccommodating he take Young M.A.’s meandering thought process and puts jumper cables to it. He’s so hot on his verse its almost excusable that he once again uses the most horrific social situations for lyrical fodder referencing the shootings at the Ariana Grande concert. Its less of a shock, because this is his tried and tested trope, but it still feels unnecessary. People died violently that night and trivializing it helps no one.
The next track features Bad Meets Evil partner Royce Da 5”9 and is a great in for raising an interesting issue for Em: Royce da 5”9 is such a staunch defender of anything Em does and as a white MC in an art form started by disenfranchised black men, does Royce (and Dre, D12 even 50 for that matter) give him legitimacy? And is that more so than Mac Millar for example (whose posthumous album was released the same day)? Why is Royce and others able to throw the culture vulture net over other white MC’s (Yelawolf anyone?) but Em is protected? How the hell Post Malone became popular is surely in relation to Em’s history and a fungal ear infection whose symptoms include deafness and seems to come complementary along with any of his music.
There are few “relationship” tracks in there where Em at least pretends to acknowledge women and to an extent D12 that can totally be skipped which is just as much a metaphor for his misogyny as any of his lyrics. The next must hear track on this record is Godzilla which feature the late Juice WRLD. I have mixed feelings about this track and the timing of releasing it. Juice WRLD was taken from us far too young and hearing his vocals saddens me. He provides a hook at the beginning of the song and the remainder of the track Em bodies, and hell does he go for it. I can’t decide if this is a fitting tribute for Juice or an arrogant way of outshining a youngster gone too soon. If it turns anyone onto Juice WRLD’s music than great, otherwise, more insensitive shit form the king of insensitive shit.
What might have been the highlight of the album if Juice was still touring Europe, is the track Yah Yah where Old schoolers Black Thought and Q-Tip show up. Its probably the only song on the album where Em doesn’t go out of his way to out do the feature, though it helps Black Thought comes hot and the hook is super catchy. Yeah Marsh and Little Engine are good tracks with that smooth Em flow, but nothing particular to say. Lock it Up comes curtesy of Anderson.Paak and is the next song that needs to grab you. It almost proves that you can rap at a katrilion BPM, but if you have the funk of Anderson.Paak you can lace a track with it and everyone else shines because of you. The best elements of Slaughterhouse (i.e. everyone bar Joe Budden) show up right at the end of the album. I personally feel Joell Ortiz is one of the best MC’s out there and he proves it again on this track. He and Royce hold their own on the track and the Wu Tang references make the nostalgia of the song swell, Its another stellar outing.
What is clear at the end of this record is Eminem is so concerned with how he is persevered, he keeps hiding behind aliases, ego, and his legacy. He has yet to show the vulnerability of Juice WRLD on a track or the straight funk of Anderson.Paak that makes other people shine, but that distance allows him to be horrendous. And that’s what people want. After the killing Kim lyrics and Slim Shady’s antics maybe no one expects Em to be himself. Maybe they believe he is this arrogant asshole he presents as or maybe no one other Machine Gun Kelly cares who Eminem really is and so this is the best we’ll see from him. Is it an album you need to hear? No, but there are three or four tracks that are so good they send tingles up the spine.