As she was about to start the fourth song of her final New Zealand date, Lydia Cole spoke of a young woman – a long-time fan from Gisborne who had planned to attend the show. A family accident, however, prevented her from coming, and Cole dedicated “Time Is A Healer” to her, singing it with the grace and power of a person suffering. This little anecdote summarises the affable, caring personality of Cole, a two-time Silver Scroll nominee as New Zealand’s top songwriter. It is not an act, as these traits are heard throughout her remarkable sophomore album, The Lay of the Land, and shown when meeting face-to-face.
It’s a wet and windy Sunday morning in Wellington. Lydia Cole and I are sitting in the cozy Five Boroughs after finishing our brunch and sharing our thoughts about music, our stories about living in New Zealand, and life in general. There is a genuine curiosity in Cole’s eyes about the world outside New Zealand, a place she has called home for her entire twenty-something years.
“I’ve never been to Europe or North America, and I’ve only been to Australia, so this move to Berlin is something incredibly new for me,” she comments about her pending re-location to Germany at the end of April.
Her decision to uproot herself wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision. It was made with much reflection and consideration. Love indeed played a role – her partner moved to the German capital last year – but it is the excitement of living somewhere new, learning a new culture, and extending herself musically that excites the Auckland native. While many people emigrating to a far-off place are engulfed by trepidation, Cole has fully embraced the move and tackled it with full confidence. And why shouldn’t she?
For nearly two years, Cole sacrificed and risked everything to write, record, and release her critically-acclaimed sophomore album, The Lay of the Land. She quit her full-time job and lived off her savings to make everything happen. She opted to manage the entire process on her own with little support aside from friends and publicists. It was a process that made the usually calm Cole extremely nervous.
“(Long-time collaborator and producer) Nic Manders and I sat down and came up with a budget, and I then realized that I didn’t have the money. However, I had locked him in, so from the very beginning I didn’t have the resources to create this album,” she recalled with a quiver in her voice.
After The Lay of The Land was released in February and a four-date New Zealand tour was announced, things were still unsettled. Knowing this could be her last tour in her home country for some time, she wanted to bring her backing band, which includes Manders, on the tour. However, flights could not be booked until tickets were sold, but would people turn up to see Cole who had not released new music in nearly five years? Would people even remember her? Given the uncertainty, Cole could not even promise to pay her bandmates for their time, but they agreed to come for the ride anyway.
The tour was a smashing success, highlighted by her sold-out performance at Wellington’s Meow. “Being out there last night was like validation that this was all worth it,” Cole says. “The band was also really tight – we finally found our groove because it was quite a short tour with just four shows. I think every show we played was twice as good as the one before!” She also added, “I can’t wait to get back to Auckland and pay them!”
As we discuss more about her final show, Cole at first stated that she didn’t really think about the significance and gravity of the event. That this could be her final gig in New Zealand, as she’s booked a one-way ticket to Berlin. But as she reflected more, she remarked, “There were a couple of times where I forced myself to sit back and enjoy the moment and, I guess, just ‘bliss out.’ Like on ‘Sober’ on that bit at the end where the band really goes for it; I just took it all in.”
The tour, though, was more than just a goodbye to New Zealand and one final hurrah with her band. Intentionally or not, it was in many ways a necessary step in Cole’s growth as she prepared for the next stage of her life and career. New Zealand had given her one final parting gift: proof that she can overcome anything the future has in store for her.
“The positive response here in New Zealand has given me confidence that I can succeed. It’s just a matter of me finding the people in Berlin who will connect with my music,” comments Cole as she looks distantly at the corner of the busy restaurant. “A year from now, though, I could be in a position where I might say to myself that I don’t really know what I’m doing. Or maybe I will discover a new part of my art. This is all part of the excitement. I know it’s going to be really tough, but I’m looking forward to what is before me.”
For 75 minutes, Cole serenades the audience with songs from The Lay of The Land as well as Me & Moon and Love Will Find A Way. She engages in light banter with the crowd while lovingly and playfully complimenting her “boys” (her backing band) for their performance. A permanent smile is fixed on her face, and the entire crowd is smiling back. Yet a heavy haze hovers in Meow, as everyone knows this could be the last time Cole performs in her the country.
By the end of the set, the singer-songwriter seems to understand that this could be it. As such, she extends the set to play one more song solo, “Undone,” which is from Me & Moon and has not been played in many years.
When she sings, “As you chased, I shut tight my eyes / But you still found me / You still found me,” a sense of mourning envelops the venue. One of New Zealand’s finest artists is about to leave home. Yet these three lines are a reminder that everyone comes home at one point, and when Cole returns, we will be waiting.
A full transcript of the interview is below, which includes the usual “Feedback” section of rapid-fire questions. A photo essay of Cole’s performance, provided by Stella Gardiner, is also below.
Full Transcript of Interview with Lydia Cole:
Last night could be your last show in New Zealand in possibly some time. What was going through your head at the time?
I’ve always had really, great crowds in Wellington. They’ve always been bigger than other places, and the audience is always engaged and vocal in the right way. They’ll go, “Yeah!” when they hear a song they know. They’re just really alive and interested and present, and that gives me a lot of energy and good vibes.
Having the room full of people last night was such a good feeling, especially because the whole process of making this album and booking the entire tour myself without any management has been one big accomplishment. This entire tour and album felt like one big risk. I was booking certain sized venues without knowing them and putting on shows for the first time in four years, hoping people are still out there and interested. But being out there last night was like validation that this was all worth it. The band was also really tight. We finally found our groove because it was quite a short tour with just four shows. I think every show we played was twice as good as the one before! And sorry to the people from the first show, but that’s how tours go.
I’m still feeling really good about last night. The guys in band are great, and they were so good. A few of them I have a long history with, especially Nic Manders. I’ve worked with him since the first EP, Love Will Find A Way, so 8 years now.
As I’ve changed and grown up as a person, Nic has been there throughout and during important moments. Recording Me & Moon was pretty much a breakup album, and he was there with me when recording was tough. There were times I was in tears because I was still in the moment, so he’s seen me in all my states and been there for me beyond the music.
But I wasn’t really thinking about this being my last show. There is only so much you can think about on stage. I was just trying to be in the moment. There were, though, a couple of times where I forced myself to sit back and enjoy the moment and, I guess, just “bliss out”. Like on “Sober” on that bit at the end where the band really goes for it, I just took it all in. There aren’t many songs on my albums that have this wall of sound, where I get to sit back and just watch. Moments where my voice and lyrics aren’t the main part, but instead there are these extended parts and I get to enjoy music and have fun.
As you look back at making the album and planning the tour on your own, what are some lessons or takeaways you will remember? And would you this again?
This makes me emotional thinking about it. But yeah, definitely, I would do it again.
From the start of The Lay of the Land, everything has been one big risk. I felt songs coming to the surface, so I quit my full-time job to allow the space for the songwriting to happen. I made this important decision based on a belief that something was happening. The songs had not been written, but I had a sense they were coming. And then they started to evolve, I was really happy with what I was writing.
Afterwards, I booked Nic Manders for a month to record and produce the album. We sat down and came up with a budget, and I then realized that I didn’t have the money. However, I had locked him in, so from the very beginning I didn’t have the resources to create this album. Even booking the tour, I had to wait for some ticket sales to come in before I could book flights to fly the band around the country. This entire experience has been personally stretching, and I’ve learned a lot of skills – tour management, budget planning. So, if I had to do it all again, I would definitely get a bit more help, and I would know which areas I would need help in. Despite the challenges, I’m really happy with everything. I’ve been able connect with my fanbase in a different way and gotten through this tour. I would like to think overall it’s been a success.
Let’s reflect back on a different time. When you were nominated for Silver Scrolls (annual songwriting award given to best New Zealand song) twice, how did that acknowledgement inspire you to continue to pursue a career in music?
When I received the nomination for “Dream” (from The Lay of the Land), it was really encouraging and gratifying since I was managing myself and hadn’t written anything for nearly five years. However, I’ve always known I wanted to be a songwriting since I was 15. I’ve never questioned my decision to be an artist. It was a really deep calling, like I knew this was what I am suppose to do. The questions instead have also been what’s in front of me, what is to come, and what can I do right now?
I also knew when I was 20, 21, this would be a slow-building career. I couldn’t pick and choose when and where I wanted to play. So when something would come out, I would jump at the opportunity. I couldn’t be too cool for anybody.
As you look ahead to your new life in Germany, what’s racing through your head? What are you looking forward to?
Doing this tour and this album has really given me a lot of confidence. I can see what can happen if I continue to push forward, where people continue to show up and support me.
One thing I will take away from this tour and something I wasn’t expecting was people coming up to me after the show and telling me how their girlfriend or flatmate dragged them along. They had never heard of me before, but they said they really enjoyed the show. I’m aware that I have long-time, loyal fans who have been waiting five years to hear something new and I appreciate them, but it’s really encouraging to know that I can connect with someone at face value and who had no previous exposure to my work. So when I go to Germany, where I plan on doing some busking and just show up at places, I know that my music can appeal to people immediately.
I’m really excited about sharing my music in a different place and meeting new people and learning about the culture and music scene. The positive response here in New Zealand has given me confidence that I can succeed. It’s just a matter of me finding the people in Berlin who will connect with my music. A year from now, though, I could be in a position where I might say to myself that I don’t really know what I’m doing. Or maybe I will discover a new part of my art. This is all part of the excitement. I know it’s going to be really tough, but I’m looking forward to what is before me. I think this will be really good for me in so many ways.
Shifting the conversation a bit, when you get on the plane to Berlin, what do you plan on doing? Will you read something, listen to some albums you have left on the side, watch movies, or do something else?
I’ve never done a long-haul flight before, which people may not know. I’ll, therefore, be really prepared in case I freak out. In the past, I have had anxiety flying, but on this tour I haven’t been scared. So the tour has been really good for me in that way.
But in the past, I haven’t felt safe on planes. It might be the boredom or the confined space, but whatever it may be, I’ll be prepared. Over the next six weeks, I’m going to get recommendations on podcasts and books to read. Maybe I’ll get some German language books and do a cram session to learn the language.
I’m also a really reflective person, so one thing I will definitely do is bring a notebook with me and write down what I’m feeling and thinking. It’ll be a blessing in some ways to have the time to sit and reflect on the last year or two and just review and remember.
So what things that are very Kiwi will bring with you and stock up on?
Not chocolate fish?
No. Not at all. Whittaker’s Creamy Milk and Ginger Nuts. And maybe a bag of Pineapple Lumps if I have room. Oh, and coffee. Definitely coffee! I live really close to the Atomic Coffee Roastery in Kingsland, and every morning I can smell them roasting their beans. I’ll have to take a bag of Atomic Coffee with me.
And of course, I’ll miss people. My nieces, my family, my band.
As you prepare to leave New Zealand, what does the place mean to you?
I’m going to find out really soon. I’ve always been here, so it’s hard to know right now. That’s one of the reasons why I want to go. I think the distance will teach me more about myself and what it meant to be living in a place like New Zealand.
As I think about it, I’m part of close-knit community that sings together a lot. We sing in English and Maori, and last week we were singing together and I thought to myself how much I will miss the Maori language. I’ll probably incorporate it more into my daily language to keep it a part of me.
Feedback (word association)
Favourite Kiwi Album
First album that came to mind was Available Light by David Dobbyn.
Integrity and just a really genuine person. I admire and respect her for not compromising herself to fit a specific imagine and just allowing her talent to be the star. She hasn’t tried to fit within a certain box of ‘be like a person you see on a magazine,’ but has stayed true to herself. To me, she epitomizes what a strong woman is.
The first thing that popped into my head was a pretzel, and I don’t know why! (laughing)
“The Fool That I Am”
Aah, that’s a complicated one. It’s my general disclaimer.
Hollie Fullbrook / Tiny Ruins
MySpace! When she was living in Wellington like 9 years ago, we would often message on MySpace. Yeah, she’s the real deal!
Favourite spot in NZ
There are a few places, but probably Kaikoura. The mountains by the ocean are beautiful. It’s also just a really, really, special place for me, but that’s a long story.
Something you wish you knew more about
The Lay of the Land
How things appear is not always how they are.
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