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find: Music New Zealand

Lindsey Shields  

singer/songwriter, musician, New Zealand

Lindsey Shields, 1999.

I don't know why I write songs, but I know I have to. They come from an inner place. I feel as though some songs almost get themselves written! They come easily and are completed quickly. But others need discipline to get them completed and ready to "air" in public. I have a few at the moment that require discipline to get them finished. I picked up a guitar for the first time when I was 15...

I'm still pretty rough on sight reading for guitar; I almost never do scales, and have to think hard to figure the names of some of my more wayward chords. I play what sounds right - progressions that I hear in my head or that come from experimenting with patterns on the fret board...

I came to song writing quite recently, in the last 10 years. When I was young, I cut my vocal "teeth" doing cover versions - Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Neil Young, Crosby Stills Nash, a bit of Dylan - but mostly I studied and mimicked Joni Mitchell's early work. She is still a significant hero of mine.

The title song for the 1996 cassette, "For The Trees", was written after I had left a small dying sawmilling town in western Southland. I was a teacher there, which was pretty difficult at times, with my being a solo mother and all. I remember going to a meeting between conservationists and the timber milling people, which was pretty tense...

Some of my songs take a lighter look at life, such as "PMT Blues". PMT is something that has bothered me much of my adult life, as it does many women. Few seem to sing about it, yet it affects our lives, often seriously. In this song, I take a more flippant approach, likening the release of the ovum to a train leaving a station, with a build up of steam. I was fortunate to become acquainted with a woman, a fellow theatre student, who played the harmonica on "PMT Blues". I've no idea where she is now, but she is immortalised on my recording!

Another song on the cassette (later released on CD when I could finally afford it) "Civil Emergency" finds the funny side of an emergency situation: the way that people become inordinately disorganised when they have to hurry; the fact that there are people just waiting for a good disaster so they can get busy "helping"; the inclination of news media and politicians to zoom in for photo opportunities once the immediate danger is over, under the pretext of surveying the damage in some pumped-up "important" way. Like Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant", "Civil Emergency" takes a small event in a southern New Zealand setting and builds the event up out of proportion.

Anything can be the raw material for a song, so there's a variety of subjects covered in my work. It really depends what is grabbing my attention at the time - love, nuclear tests, school camp, relationship breakdowns, private and public violence, always with a personal response or a close focus. My song "Eugenia" deals with the troubles in Ireland, and happened as a result of my meeting the "Eugenia" in the song...
Meeting her helped me to write down some things I had been feeling about Ireland for some time.

CD cover For the Trees, 1999.

list of tracks

A bomb goes off in Belfast
In a shop in the Shankhill Road
The IRA says it was a mistake
But what else is a bomb for but to explode?

"Song for the Women" has a more universal application than the event that spawned it. I was at a festival session in which two women, who were quite new to festivals, felt shy and needed time to get the feel of the gathering and encouragement to sing and play. Unfortunately, the men and their guitars filled up every moment and there were no silences for the women to take up.

"For the Trees" is my first recording, and it came about at a time when I was taking new directions. My two sons had finished school and were at university, living independently, and I was freer to pursue my own directions. In fact, I was studying at university too, and had been a guest at a few folk music festivals. I felt I had sufficient songs that were worth recording. This was made possible because I was earning enough money from playing regularly with The Pioneer Pog 'n' Scroggin Bush Band ("Pog Band"). I have been a member for almost five years, playing acoustic rhythm guitar and singing. The Band's main focus is the songs of New Zealand that tell our European history, and dances. We sometimes use material written by members of the band. Our most recent project was a video and CD featuring the songs and landscapes of Otago. We play for weddings, conferences, anything really. The Pog Band was formed in 1980 and is something of an Otago institution. It has quite a list of past members. It seems to have a life of its own regardless of its membership. You can visit our web site at

Lately, my music has followed themes of separation and dislocation. Since my visit to the UK in 1997, I have been aware that it is still my home, even though my family came here when I was a teenager. It was amazing to discover that I still had those aunts, uncles and cousins that I had loved as a child, and that I was as much part of the family as ever, almost as if I had never gone away. Some have died, sadly, and my mother has been dead now for several years. My need to make my pilgrimage seemed to grow after her death, and I had a strong sense of my mother there when I was in Scotland. That's something I refer to in "Finding Home", which I wrote after my return to New Zealand. I also had a feeling that I was taking something of my mother home. I learned later that there is a protocol in Maoridom for that - kawemate, I think it's called. I have no "story" for it in my own culture. I feel privileged to learn Maori things from living in New Zealand and I feel I wouldn't have understood the significance of place and ancestry had I not been here.

So, my Scottishness is strong in me just now, and I was really lucky to be commissioned to write a song for an Edinburgh-style Tattoo. This song was about the way we settle new places but bring cultural bits with us to maintain some sense of belonging and connection. It's called "Echoes of Scotland". Here are some of the lyrics:

The old songs resound in these new hills
We dance the old kilted dances still
And for every ship that to these shores comes
New glens echo with the pipes and the drums ...
It's the same moon but a different constellation
The same sun shines in foreign skies
It's the same old earth, just a different location
The same heart beating down the generation lines
It's the same old heartbeat ...

A song that I am working on at the moment is about the life of a local woman called Avis, who is portrayed in a play I was involved in recently. My job was to create a live soundscape, which I designed and scripted and played every night of the play's two-week season. The soundscape was not song or melody; I used an electric guitar with an effects unit. It was great to be stretched into some new areas. I do various theatre things. I'm a member of the trust that did the play. It is a community-based group called "Talking House", which produces a variety of original work. I am also a member of the Dunedin Playback Theatre Company, a relatively recently formed group.

A project I have just completed with Talking House was a commissioned work that Presbyterian Support Services funded for the International Year of Older Persons. Talking House are involved in creating art in the community out of local stories, so this was a perfect project for us. We had two sources of material: one was oral histories gathered from some local house-bound people; the other, a working group of old people who met regularly for six weeks planning possible character "life-stories" and giving us anecdotes from their own lives. My job was script writer - probably my most ambitious writing work so far...

...One character, James, who had always been well off with a family business, had to come to the realisation that no amount of money could save his sister from altzheimers disease and that he needed to tell her how much he appreciated her. Doris realises that it's okay to sit back and enjoy life and let someone else do some of the work, after being busy and helping others all her life. Then there's Fred, who comes to the realisation that what's important is what matters to him. Even if his skills are no longer needed by the world, he can still enjoy doing what he likes to do. Finally, Mary goes through a whole story trying to show she isn't "straight-laced", only to realise that she is, and that it's fine! The important thing for me was to affirm the lives of older people. They really do have a lively time, even when restricted physically, and their issues are as important as those of any age, but not often "centre stage". They're most certainly not just sitting around waiting to die. And getting old isn't necessarily a negative experience - for some it's a liberation, and they regard their time in very old age as a kind of bonus. I wanted to imbue the script with all this. I intercut the monologues so that each character had an introduction, a middle, and larger part to their story, and a closing section. But more than this, I needed to look at the rhythm of the piece - follow poignancy with humour and so on - and make some small links between the stories, where they are interwoven....

At the moment I'm writing a play for a church group in New Zealand, which will be historical in focus and a knock-about comedy in style. Talking House has several other projects lined up for this year, so our task now is to write applications to Creative New Zealand for funding. It's always difficult, working project by project with no assurance of being funded to do the work.

Excerpts from Arts Dialogue, June 2000, pages 8 - 10

My tour from Dunedin northwards and back again was lovely. You could call it a working holiday, but really there was nothing like hard work about it. I really enjoyed my concerts, the audiences who listened to my stories, the opportunity to share some time and experiences, meeting new people who took the time to talk to me. I learnt that doing what you really like to do is easy, it feels like love, perhaps it is.
Surviving financially and doing all sorts of organising feels more like hardwork, less like love! The tour worked so well because I had it organised by someone else, a tour promoter called Gill Winter of Flying Piglets. She did most of the planning and negotiated guaranteed fees for all the concerts. So it really was my job to just go out there and do good concerts, stress-free! That was a key part of its success.

On a global scale, in fact, on any scale, this was a small tour. Seven gigs over the space of three weeks and none of the audiences big. I had never played at any of the venues before and had only ever visited one. They moved from a quiet Sunday in an Irish bar, through local halls, one house concert (with a tiny audience) and some folk clubs...

For the first time in my life, these last few months I have been feeling very comfortable about my solo performing. Of course there is a certain level of nervousness beforehand, but nothing like the anxiety which has been a great weight holding me down. I think its been a matter of confidence too, which has nothing to do with how "good" your work is, or what other people think of it. Always I would think I needed other musicians around me to make my music okay, or that I should be able to perform in any situation, no matter what - bar, cafe, where ever. Of course, the personal themes in my songs is completely unsuited for those situations so I set about working for my kind of audience - people who want to listen to my stories. That's what many of the songs are really, stories, and in my concerts, I talk about how the songs came to be written...

..Touring is still on the agenda. I am keen to go further afield, and to that end I have been putting out feelers and sending material out. I've applied for the National Folk Festival in Canberra, Australia, and have been searching for someone in Canada and the UK (and other countries if possible) to organise a small tour in each country for the next northern hemisphere summer.

Excerpt from a letter in Arts Dialogue, December 1999, pages 3 - 4

The CD "For The Trees" is available for NZ$20 plus postage costs by e-mailing

or writing to Lindsey Shields, P.O. Box 155, Warrington, Otago 9060, New Zealand.

Arts Dialogue, Dintel 20, NL 7333 MC, Apeldoorn, The Netherlands