Dudley Benson Shares New Album 'Zealandia' + Interview

Dudley Benson Shares New Album 'Zealandia' + Interview

Stevie Kaye / Friday 10th August, 2018 8:35AM

Eight years in the making, Dunedin avant-pop artist Dudley Benson unveils his stunning new album Zealandia today, following on from 2008's The Awakening and 2010's Forest. Endlessly ambitious, it features a meticulously arranged tapestry of over one hundred and sixty contributors, including the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra, the New Zealand Youth Choir, and beats made with GNS Science geologists from rocks and minerals within the Zealandia continent. We've seen videos for the title track and 'Rutu', as well as a handful of remixes; now stream the record below and read on for Stevie Kaye's chat with Benson...

You've talked about Zealandia as completing a trilogy - did you have this in mind when you were working on your debut, The Awakening?

I definitely didn't plan a trilogy when I was thinking about The Awakening and writing that record, but it became clear when I moved into Forest that record was such a reaction to The Awakening and I was left with these bookends - very much a Pākehā record and then a te ao Māori record. I guess I could have left it at that, but being such a fan of trilogies, especially in film, I thought it would be a fascinating project to try to find the balance between those two records, in terms of the kaupapa.

You've described the album as "twelve alternatives to the national anthem" - how did the flag referendum tie in with your thoughts on New Zealand symbology?

I find it really interesting when we as New Zealanders have discussions about our symbology, our patriotism, and what it means "to be a real New Zealander." For some people, it means that you wear a rugby jersey out, and for some people it means have a silver fern bumper sticker on your car, but I'm quite interested in throwing away that sort of traditional and often kinda masculine symbology, and instead thinking about patriotism and nationalism and what it means to be a New Zealander on a scale that links us to actually caring about the country. By that I mean taking responsibility for our land, our water, our air and each other. I find I think that symbology can be an easy escape from responsibility so writing these songs is kind of an opportunity for people who feel the same way as I do about this stuff to sing along in a pop context.

In the eight years it took to complete Zealandia, what aspect was greediest with time consumed? What did you learn?

The editing - with my first two records, I didn't touch a computer, I had an engineer who did all of that. I had the vision, and I waved my fingers at different knobs occasionally, but apart from that, I was quite independent on a software level from the production process. But with Zealandia, it was me doing 95% of that stuff, and I had to learn to be an editor, a beatmaker, an engineer - I recorded my own vocals on this album - and I mixed the album, too, so that all took a huge amount of time, and I guess like... with great projects, you learn from them, right, and I learned so much as a producer from making Zealandia.

I was really interested in pushing myself as a composer or writer with this project and that's reflected, I guess, through the length of the songs; they're relatively long songs, generally. Though some of them have a quite traditional pop structure, many of them don't, and I was quite interested to challenge myself as a composer to allow a song to song to start at Point A and get to Point Z, and me not understand exactly how. I think that it could be fair to say my first two records have a lullabic tone to them; they're pretty gentle records really, and in some ways Zealandia is too, but these are anthems, these are songs to be sung at the start of rugby games in stadiums, and with that in mind I was constantly asking myself "Could I be performing this at the next Hurricanes versus Chiefs game?"

More New Zealand songwriters should ask themselves that!

I hope those are actually teams... I think they are!

Eight years is a long time for a musician who can't tour easily - how did you stay engaged? How did side projects tie in?

It's been really important to have side projects during this eight year period, because this record has been hard work, and at times when it's been all-encompassing and there might have been a funding roadblock that I've faced or something like that, it's been so great to be able to step aside and enjoy something different. I put out the Deforestation record in 2014 and that was so much joy - I love the remix process, collaborating with people who otherwise I might not collaborate with. I have a hibernating performance art project called Michael Dies which allows me to experiment with my body and physicality in front of an audience, which I'm really interested in.

Something that I have found through talking to artists is that they often enjoy physical exercise, and for the last four years I've done weight training, like four or five times a week, and that has actually helped my creative process so much. I never though it would, I've never been a person attracted to gymnasiums and that kind of thing, but what I've loved about weight training during this project is when ... well, while each step in the Zealandia process might take six months to a year, I can train and successfully reach a goal in one morning! I guess it was actually writing the song 'Muscles' that made me realise that I kinda didn't have any at that point! That was my weird introduction to weight training.

So the side projects have been really important to just maintain a kind of level of creative satisfaction at a time when otherwise I haven't had an audience, I've had very little engagement with people about my work for quite some time, and I think that the energy that an artist creates with their project does need an audience! It's fifty-fifty, so it's been at times, it's felt difficult not to have that engagement.

'It’s Ōtepoti’s Fault' references The Bell Jar, and your first record is named after a Kate Chopin novel – how are these female writers important to you?

I wanted to put the Plath reference in for the similar reason I named my first record The Awakening, because it's all thoughts around my mother, who committed suicide when I was fifteen; who is still a present part of my life and my thoughts and my value system. I like to include the perspectives of or references towards female writers whose work I've responded to, and that is based on a female experience of depression. It's a way for me to acknowledge what my mother went through and the fact that that's important to me.

There's some boldness in the framing of this album - I didn't think this album would be the place where I'd see a Birth of a Nation reference in 2018!

It's a risk - it's always a risk, and I'm aware that not everybody will be into all the ideas on this album, and all of the references. I get that it's bold to call one of the songs 'Birth of a Nation', and I'll take responsibility for that, but I'm doing it because we're a racist country with a racist history! My role as an artist is to highlight the things that frustrate me about our culture, and to transfer to that energy into making pop music. So there are provocative ideas on the album, and I'm hoping they aren't so provocative as to offend people, that's certainly not my intention, but it is my intention to create discussion and thought around ideas of colonisation, care for each other and care and nurture of the environment.

This doesn't seem like an album that's possible to tour without a further round of funding - how will Zealandia be presented to the public?

I'm very aware that without touring, the album could disappear pretty quickly, so I'm mitigating that by thinking of it as this living thing that I need to nurture. I'm doing that through many more remixes, and there's also a visual side of the project, through videos. There are another two we've got in the bag, and I'm working to make more. Directing them myself is something that I've really enjoyed doing - I think if I wasn't a musician I'd probably be a filmmaker, I think.

Stevie Kaye is a Wellington-based music writer and DJ.


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