Life is sweet for Rodriguez

COLD FACT: Rodriguez in the early 70s when his two albums sank without a trace.
COLD FACT: Rodriguez in the early 70s when his two albums sank without a trace.

American singer-songwriter Rodriguez has gone from obscurity to stardom more than once. But on the back of Oscar-nominated documentary Searching for Sugar Man, he will finally perform in New Zealand.

The Oscar-nominated documentary Searching for Sugar Man tells the story of American singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez who in 1970 and 1971 released two psychedelic-tinged folk rock albums.

Back then nobody cared. Few people had ever seen Rodriguez perform and album sales were tiny. He was soon dropped by his record label and disappeared.

70S STAR: Rodriguez will play two shows in New Zealand next month.
70S STAR: Rodriguez will play two shows in New Zealand next month.

But then something unexpected happened. Over the next few years his albums started being bought in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.

Rodriguez, who still prefers to be addressed solely by his surname - "I worked a long time for that last name," he jokes - didn't even know this. He'd left the music business to work odd jobs as a labourer and construction worker in his hometown of Detroit. He even ran, unsuccessfully, for mayor.

Searching for Sugar Man by Swedish film-maker Malik Bendjelloul focuses on Rodriguez's popularity in South Africa during the apartheid era and how young white South Africans - often only hearing his albums on bootlegged cassettes - connected to his occasionally politically charged music.

They didn't even know if Rodriguez, whose songs included Sugar Man, Inner City Blues and I Wonder, was still alive. There were rumours that he'd died from a drug overdose, burned to death on stage, was in prison for murdering his girlfriend or in a mental hospital. They didn't know that he had played in Australia in the early 80s.

So what does Rodriguez think of the documentary? "I've seen the film over 40 times, now," he says gleefully, then gives a hearty laugh. "I have fun with it. I sit in the kitchen and I watch it and I'm pleased to see my face up there. I give [myself] standing ovations."

The kitchen is the one in the same modest Detroit house he has lived in for the past 40 years. "I live below my means and I think that's a discipline."

But Rodriguez, 70, says at first he wasn't keen to be involved with the documentary. "I was reluctant, I was resistant, I was sceptical about the whole thing. I didn't know what he [Bendjelloul] was looking for... I didn't choose who he interviewed or what they said or where he went."

Now Rodriguez, a big film fan, loves it. "He unravelled this whole thing, this whole mystery. I loved the way he created suspense, like a Hitchcock movie.

"There are certain elements that are unmistakably a very talented kind of approach to film-making."

The film shows how Rodriguez was eventually tracked down by some South African fans and played in the country for the first time in 1998, which the musician still calls his "turning point".

Since the documentary's release last year, Rodriguez has toured the United States - including several sold-out gigs - and played London's Royal Festival Hall last November. He tours South Africa this month, which means he won't be able to attend the Oscars ceremony, then has dates in Australia and his first in New Zealand.

Searching for Sugar Man's Oscar nomination announcement last month has garnered him the most attention he has ever got in his homeland. News show 60 Minutes have covered him - and are accompanying Rodriguez in South Africa.

Other television appearances - a new experience for the musician - included playing live on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno last month. "It was 25-piece orchestra. It's a different kind of public performance, so I'm learning. You can't miss your cue."

But Rodriguez says his recent tours weren't booked because of the documentary. "They are separate and I'd like to make that point." He believes recent television exposure has helped, as well as the continuing support of his three daughters. "They put me on the map. For me, they are the highlight of my life."

What has pleased him is that finally many of his fellow Americans are coming to see him. He also learned of his following in New Zealand. The tours are as much to vindicate that following. "It's the proof in the pudding," he jokes.

Rodriguez's new popularity has also meant renewed speculation on whether he will finally record and release his first new album 42 years on. In the past he's shown a reluctance to discuss or even commit himself to a project. Not now. "After June sometime, I've got bookings until then. I don't want to distract from what's in front of us," he says.

He's had talks with Steve Rowland, who produced his 1971 album, Coming from Reality, as well as Irish producer, DJ and musician David Holmes. Holmes included the song Sugar Man on a 2002 collection and opened for Rodriguez's British shows. "I met him in Belfast and we talked about music. It's open field now around the globe and I'm riding that kind of luck.

"Musicians go into music for the girls, for the money, for the recognition, for rock 'n' roll history. We go into it because it's fun. It's a pleasure doing it. It's not just spectator sport. You can dance to it, you can play an instrument and you can sing to it. You can meet someone. It's that freedom in the artform which I've been chasing since I was 16.

"I always like to say that you've got to . . . use all your talent."


WHERE: Logan Campbell Centre, Auckland

WHEN: March 17