Gin Wigmore up close and personal

GOLDEN GIRL: Gin Wigmore arrives at the 2010 Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards in Auckland.
PETER MEECHAM
GOLDEN GIRL: Gin Wigmore arrives at the 2010 Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards in Auckland.

Gin Wigmore is full of surprises. One of New Zealand's most successful musical exports, the 25-year-old sounds raspy and raw when she sings, but her speaking voice is high-pitched and girly.

On stage and in her music videos, her eyes are ringed with dark kohl eyeliner, dark roots show through her bleached blonde hair and tattoos snake up her arms. She seems edgy and mysterious.

But when you talk to her, Wigmore - christened Virginia Claire Wigmore - is open and friendly, chatting like an excitable Kiwi girl who can't quite believe how life has turned out.

She comes across that way when she tweets to her 8780 Twitter followers too. Fame hasn't gone to her head. "Last day in the studio," she tweeted in July. "This record is so bad ass! I can't wait to get it out to you all."
And despite the brooding image, Wigmore is "happy for once in my life".

She's found love with "a dirty rock 'n' roller" and there's a dog, a husky, waiting at home for her too. "I'm getting all domesticated. I feel like Susie the homemaker," she laughs.

Likened to a cross between Amy Winehouse and Macy Gray, Wigmore is over from her Sydney home to tour and promote her latest album, Gravel and Vine, which is out early next month.

First up was a gig last week in front of an estimated crowd of 12,000 on Auckland's Queens Wharf during the Rugby World Cup final. And when Your Weekend speaks to her, it's still a secret that she has been chosen as one of three acts in the high-profile Classic Hits Winery Tour, so she'll be back across the ditch in summer to sing 16 gigs at wineries, joining The Mutton Birds and Avalanche City.

If you don't know our favourite blonde singer, who has had a meteoric career rise, you'll know her music: Under My Skin  soundtrack to the Air New Zealand safety video featuring aerobics guru, Richard Simmons; Hey Ho, Oh My and I Do, which all rocked up the top 40 charts. Her raw and emotional voice delivers a mix of genres, often in one song  pop, blues, soul, rock and roll  and she's typically playing the guitar or the ukulele too.

"It's wicked to be home, and to be home when I feel like I've got a sense of purpose, you know?" she says.
Of course, she's hopeful that this album will be at least as successful as her debut one, Holy Smoke, which was released when she was just 23, scoring five platinums and selling 75,000 copies here in New Zealand.

For Gravel and Vine, Wigmore's producer was Butch Walker, and the band was his, the Black Widows, a bunch of "men from the South". All but two of the musicians and backing vocalists were men.

The songs and music were inspired by the two months she spent in Mississippi and Alabama, listening to the music there.

She also watched a lot of old films, including westerns, and embraced the American south in every way. So the songs have a masculine energy about them, delivered in Wigmore's sassy, seductive style. "It's jungly, rhythmic, spaghetti Western," gushes the singer.

In publicity material, she writes that she spent time in the "juke joints" of Clarksdale, Mississippi, learning from locals about "the real blues".

"I got down to business and started writing furiously. I wore my fingers down to a callous state writing with every Tom, Dick and Harry around the world, including a chap named Charlie who plays for a man named Bob, to wrestle my emotions and bring out the raw grit hiding in my tightly guarded sub-conscious. Lucky for me, it all paid off in the way of 11 tip-top songs that have the love of a cowboy, bathe in a little lonesome blues, dance to a touch of rock 'n' roll and have the swagger of a woman past midnight."

There's only one song, she says, that isn't "twisted". That's a love song, Saturday Smile, and the singer confesses that the man who inspired that is Andy Cook, the drummer in the Australian band, The Snowdroppers.

"Finally I've met someone who understands me," says Wigmore, laughing  again. "Yeah, I'm in love. We're both on the road a lot, too, which is great, because he doesn't have to put up with me 24/7."

One song, Black Sheep, is so energetic to perform that the svelte singer exclaims: "It's a bitch to sing. I've had to get physically fit. I've actually taken up swimming."

Black Sheep, which has already been released, was a last-minute addition to the album. She says: "Yeah, I'm not much of a conformist.

"We had all the album songs figured out and on the second to last day of recording, the producer and I sat down and we were talking about getting more and more successful and how the more options you get, how people are giving you advice all the time. And you say, 'I want to do it my way'. It's really hard to be the black sheep and remain a black sheep, so Butch and I wrote about that. It all came together really, really quickly. All of us were bashing about and I played on the drums, too. The record company loved it."

While making this album, Wigmore lived for three months in edgy Venice Beach and biked along the boardwalk to Butch's studio every day, carrying "my shit" in a basket on the front. "It was a beautiful studio with lamps and fairy lights. It was relaxing and loungy. Butch likes nice wine, too, so there was a bottle or two around," says Wigmore, the party girl.

"I love the energy in the US, you know. Everyone is really psyched. You feel really privileged to be there.''

In fact, Wigmore spends a lot of time in the United States and it feels like her third home.

While she has a house, boyfriend, dog and vegetable garden in Sydney, she spends more time in the US and in New Zealand.

Even though she didn't move to Australia for her career, it makes sense for her to be based there. In fact, she fled to Australia five years ago because of "a bastard boyfriend". Wigmore was based in Taranaki with him when their relationship broke up.

"He was my first love and I thought I'd get married to him.

"So I went to the Gold Coast for two weeks and I ended up staying six months. I did no music. I did nothing of any value or substance. I hung around the beach and surfed and took way too many drugs and I was gross for six months."

It was in Australia that she launched her career, after a Universal Records music producer, Adam Holt, flew her down to Sydney and, says Wigmore, "told me to do something with my life". That was a turning point for this free spirit  well, one of several in her career, so far. In 2007, she was signed by Australia's Island Records, an imprint of Universal, the first artist to be signed by the local label.

Wigmore has a way of making it seem as though everything has fallen naturally into place. She was just a teenager when her single Hallelujah saw her beat 11,000 songwriters from 77 countries to win the US-based International Songwriting Competition in 2004, making her the youngest grand prize winner in history. Hallelujah was dedicated to her father, who died when she was just 16.

On the strength of that  and also a collaboration with the Auckland band Smashproof, on the hit Brother  she caught the eye of Motown Universal Records in the US and they signed her up in 2008. That year, she released her critically-acclaimed debut EP, Extended Play, which featured Hallelujah, as well as another epic ballad, These Roses.

Holy Smoke was recorded in Hollywood's Capital Studios and Wigmore sat on Frank Sinatra's old leopard skin chair. Ryan Adams' band, The Cardinals, backed her. Afterwards, the Cardinals guitarist Neal Casal described Gin as "unquestionably one of the most exciting new artists to emerge in many years". Her songwriting is at once diverse, intelligent, melodic, and soulful.

"Her voice is raw and emotional, with phrasing far beyond her years. Her debut record is a fully realised statement of intent, promising a great career ahead."

A year ago, Wigmore cleaned up the prizes in New Zealand's Tui music awards, winning the coveted album of the year, best pop album, highest-selling New Zealand album, and breakthrough artist of the year.

Australia is where this singer needs to be based for touring, and it has been purely a business decision to stay there. Like Stan Walker (who was born in Australia, but grew up in New Zealand) and Kimbra, from Hamilton and now in Melbourne, Wigmore has her sights set on big audiences offshore.

"To sign out of New Zealand with a record deal is hard, as there's not the money here to support touring. I need to be in the [US] and I want to be touring there, but it's so expensive. It costs tens of thousands of dollars to tour in the US.

"They take you on and sign you out of Oz, but you don't get a look in if you're trying to do that from New Zealand."

But she will always consider herself a New Zealand musician. "I'm always a Kiwi girl at heart, but the bills are getting paid out of Australia."

So where to next for this Kiwi girl who is more savvy and directional about her career than she would ever let on? Wigmore knows where she wants to go. From the US, she'd like to tour Europe. Eventually, she says, she'd like to be like [American singer] Tom Waits, "able to tour tomorrow and pull about 500,000 to any town".

"That would be awesome, to be totally making records whenever I want and to play a show and have a few hundred thousand people there at any city you go to because people know you and your music."

It's a big leap for a girl who grew up in Devonport, did poorly at school and had no idea what she wanted to do.

Wigmore has a brother and one older sister  34-year-old actress, Lucy Wigmore, of Shortland Street fame, who is now also based in Sydney, playing a role in Network Nine's most successful television drama, Underbelly Razor, about Sydney street gangs.

Her mother played the violin and her father was given a guitar for Christmas one year, which Wigmore picked up and began to strum.

Her earliest foray into making music came at 13, when she started helping her best friend's dad produce some demos in his home recording studio. She would occasionally also help out with backing vocals at weddings and parties, too.

A year later, she and her friends began singing at an open mic evening at a pub every Wednesday night, until she won, had to give her details and was found out for being under-age.

But she never took music lessons as she didn't like learning. She was also too disruptive to be in the school choir.

"I had no idea what I wanted to do. I remember being terrible at school and a horrible teenager.

"My dad said, 'You can't be bad at school, you'll end up as a supermarket checkout operator'. So I thought I'd try to be a primary school teacher. I think I once wanted to be an actress. But I never had big aspirations."

Her father's death when she was a teenager rocked her world, and since then, Wigmore has been thinking a lot about dying. She is fascinated by death, and is drawn to crosses, skeletons and skulls.

Some of those symbols are now inked on her arm. Tattoos are part of her free-spirit image. They also prove that Wigmore is "not a girly girl".

In one interview, she told how on her 23rd birthday she was drinking with friends in a Los Angeles bar when a burly punter threw water on them. Wigmore leapt up, jumped over the chair, and socked him one. Rather than being thrown out of the bar, she and her friends were treated to drinks all night.

As she writes on her Twitter page: "Well, my full name is Virginia Claire Wigmore, shortened years back to Ginny, then with a little more innocence lost, it dwindled down to an even tidier Gin."

While on tour around the country until next Saturday, she's looking forward to being in small, intimate venues  such as San Francisco Bath House in Wellington, on Halloween.

"I'll be doing these small, dirty club shows where I'll be right up close to everyone. I want to be able to see the reaction. It's good to take these left turns.

"One of the great things now is I've got more material. I can cherrypick what I want to sing. In the past when I didn't have as much, you'd have to do every song, even if you were thinking, 'f. .k, I can't be bothered'."

On her Facebook page, more than 118,000 people "like" the fact that Gin's Gravel and Vine album is coming soon. And as a sign of how much clout she has here at home, one fan wrote: "Hate to admit it but seeing u live for the 3rd time kinda outweighs the RWC final ...

Gin Wigmore performs at The San Francisco Bathhouse at 7.30pm on Monday, October 31.

The Dominion Post