Dudley Benson: the musician with a vision

Dudley Benson: "I was quite terrified for a long time of how to articulate this idea."
Photography: Max Bellamy. Assistants: Hayden Ferrier & Sophie Black. Hair: Bella Sinclair. Thanks to Chris Gable, The Scottish Shop, Dunedin

Dudley Benson: "I was quite terrified for a long time of how to articulate this idea."

On his latest record, Dudley Benson aims to express – through pop music – no less than a new vision of New Zealand identity. Jeremy Olds talks to the former choir boy who set out to produce an epic.

For three hours the 50 members of the New Zealand Youth Choir have stood in a swelteringly hot recording studio, singing music they've seen for the first time today. Their restlessness is showing – scores hang limply in their hands, the microphones pick up rustles and yawns. Now, with just 10 minutes left in the recording session, their weariness is turning to intrigue.

Dudley Benson, 31, enters the room. He has thick-rimmed glasses, a scraggy black beard and a mop of dark hair pulled back off his face. The composer and musician stands in front of the choir and tells them to turn their scores to the song 'Séance'. There, they find a long list of extinct birds.

"So," Benson begins, "what we're going to do is, I'll say to you the correct pronunciation of the animal and the rhythm of it – for example, upland moa – and then I'll just beat you in and you say it back to me. But whisper it."

Benson's diction is clear and proper, hinting at his choir training – every weekday from age 10 to 14, he would rehearse with the Christchurch Cathedral Choir before and after school, and sing in services during the evenings and on Sundays. For a time he was the choir's head soloist.

The singers whisper "upland moa" together before bursting into giggles at the oddness of the task.

Dudley Benson , photographed on Dunedin's Signal Hill.
Photography: Max Bellamy. Assistants: Hayden Ferrier & Sophie Black. Hair: Bella Sinclair. Thanks to Chris Gable, The Scottish Shop, Dunedin

Dudley Benson , photographed on Dunedin's Signal Hill.

Sitting behind a computer screen in the adjacent room is sound engineer Andre Upston. He's more polite than the singers: "I have actually done some pretty weird recordings before," he says. "This is nothing, really."

The choir begins whispering the bird names one after another: whekau laughing owl; New Zealand owlet-nightjar; Long-billed wren. Benson is pedantic in his pronunciation. There are 58 birds in total. The whispering lasts seven long minutes.

"I mean," says Upston after a few minutes, shifting in his chair, "this isn't an everyday recording session." A hesitant expression has creeps onto his face. "There's a lot more than I thought," he laughs. All those extinct birds.

"Do that one again – South Island pio pio," instructs Benson, enunciating the p sounds and the vowels while waving his elbows like a conductor. The choir whispers back and then, abruptly, they're finished. Benson is beaming: "I can't thank you enough," he says, and the singers cheer and clap.

It's taken about a year to set up this recording session. The New Zealand Youth Choir comes together only three or four times a year, so to get the members in one room at one time has been an exercise in dogged patience and persistence.

"They don't really cross over into pop stuff. They've never performed on a pop album," Benson says the following day. "I've been caressing the director, so to speak, for the past year, just trying to gently convince him that this is a worthwhile project."

It's been nearly five years since the world has heard new music from Dudley Benson. Since his second album Forest in 2010 (which followed his 2008 debut The Awakening, he has been uncharacteristically quiet on the creative front. Last year there was Deforestation, a reworking of his second album, and there has been the odd performance, but nothing new.

What has Benson been doing?

Benson: "I think tragedy, for young people, can take them to a place of intense imagination."
Photography: Max Bellamy. Assistants: Hayden Ferrier & Sophie Black. Hair: Bella Sinclair. Thanks to Chris Gable, The Scottish Shop, Dunedin

Benson: "I think tragedy, for young people, can take them to a place of intense imagination."

As it turns out, he's been working on something rather ambitious. Whereas his first two albums were, to use his words, "small, DIY, cottage-industry", his third, titled Zealandia, is a much bigger beast.

Along with the choir, he has brought in the 60-piece Southern Sinfonia – a huge, expensive step up for him. The album isn't quite ready for the light of day yet, but the first single, called 'Muscles', has just been released.

"Zealandia is an exclamation mark at the end of a sentence, and is epic in every possible way. I wanted to rewrite our national anthem 12 times," says Benson. "It meant bringing in an orchestra, a choir. The sound I knew I had to achieve was a patriotic sound – the hand-on-your-heart, standing-in-a-line, flag-waving sound."

In conversation Benson is thoughtful and articulate, most of all when it comes to discussing his music. He attributes this to his time studying composition at the University of Canterbury: "You would have two, three weeks to work on a piece, an idea, a concept, and then you'd present it. You'd have to sit on a stool facing everyone as it was played, and then have to face them like a fucking firing squad," he says. "I learned how to defend my music and speak from the heart about it." He didn't do well there, he adds.

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Benson grew up on a goat farm on Christchurch's Port Hills, which sparked a lifelong interest in nature. "I spent a hell of a lot of time just me and these goats," he says. "I remember at one point drinking their worming medicine because it looked a lot like a strawberry milkshake in a bottle. I spent like a week in hospital getting my stomach pumped."

Benson's parents met as nurses at the now defunct Sunnyside mental asylum (a photo of a sun-soaked, rickety room from the hospital is the cover of his first album). They left Sunnyside together and started a plant nursery, which was successful for many years but later went into liquidation. By that stage they had three children (Benson is the eldest), and the family moved from their hillside home to Christchurch's notorious Manchester Street.

"My parents found it really hard because they had been so aspirational, and middle class, really, and wanting to play that Christchurch game of getting the kids to the right schools," says Benson. "That just didn't work out for them. And then my mum committed suicide maybe a year and a half after that."

Unbeknown to Benson, his mother had become seriously depressed, and her death when he was 15 devastated him for years: "It's those experiences that make you that much wiser about life and what life can be. I feel like I've been to the pit of life. Now I'm a very happy and fulfilled person, [but] I understand just how low it can go."

In some ways, the experience also led him to be a musician, he explains: "Being gay, and then losing my mum, forced me into quite an insular place. I think tragedy, for young people, can take them to a place of intense imagination, like a parallel escape from their daily life. And for me, that was imagining myself as a pop star. So I think it was in those years, it just naturally became what I wanted to do."

During the 18 months in which his mother's depression grew worse, she had begun researching her family history. Benson thinks she was looking for anchors in her ancestry, and after her death, he did the same thing. His search is captured in The Awakening. "That album is about my Pakeha whakapapa settling, and the stories of that area, and an undercurrent – and I guess I can say this now, because I'm removed from it – of me looking for my mum, really."

Making that album helped him through his grief, and these days he sees pop music less a therapy session and more as an outlet to take a stand. "Music's a way to channel more conceptual ideas, frustrations that come from another place: politically or environmentally. Societal issues."

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Zealandia is Benson's biggest statement yet. On the 12-song album, he is asking something rather large of listeners. Through his new music, he wants listeners to ask themselves: what does it means to be a New Zealander?

After reflecting on The Awakening – which dwelt on his Pakeha identity – and Forest, an exploration of te ao Maori (the Maori world), Benson felt there was something missing from his artistic record. He was frustrated by what he perceived to be a 'Kiwi' patriotism that reeked of racism, and he wanted to create an identity in-between Pakeha and Maori, with a world view that bridges both cultures. "I would like this album to be an opportunity for people to re-identify themselves as 'Zealandians'," he says. "I think that it's already happening for a lot of people who are dissatisfied with what our society is at the moment. I think that my record is just going to help express those ideas and help those people, like me, to feel that there is a movement. There's nothing better than being able to sing along with that."

If it sounds like a lofty vision, Benson knows it. Part of the reason he has taken so long to release Zealandia is because he was intimidated by his concept. "I was quite terrified for a long time of how to articulate this idea. How do I express a new vision for identity as a New Zealander in pop music?"

He fretted over the album to a point where, for a while, he gave up music entirely, and sat down with his boyfriend of nine years, photographer Josh Thomas, and talked about what he might do instead. But a month after his meltdown, the music started to flow, and he got to work in the laundry-turned-studio on his Dunedin property. The studio's white walls soon became scrawled with notes and lyrics. Sometimes, no matter how hard you will it, you can't force creativity.

Like its creator, the album is earnest and diligent, from the big-picture concept down to the beats. Benson made the beat patterns by visiting GNS Science in Wellington, where he recorded the sounds that minerals and rocks make when they bang together, and sampled those noises. "The beats are all sampled from our continental history, our crust. So when you dance to this album, you dance to this tectonic rhythm."

Whereas Benson's first two albums cost $7000 and $15,000 respectively to produce, Zealandia will cost $75,000. If you were to look at the funding as a pie chart, a big chunk is from the Arts Foundation (who gave him the New Generation Award last year, with a $25,000 prize) and to Creative New Zealand (who gave him $15,000). A smaller slice would go to the Dunedin City Council (who contributed a smaller grant) and then, more unexpectedly, there are slices for a number of companies contributing cash.

"For example, Ceres Organics are a major sponsor of this album. I'm doing [corporate sponsorship] in a way where there are no tacky logos, there are no lines about 'I love Allpress Espresso,'" he sings. "I'm a major hustler."

There's one more slice to be had: Benson's just launched a Boosted crowdfunding campaign to raise the $12,000 needed to finish the album. (Boosted is a crowdfunding website run by the Arts Foundation.) After investing so much time and money, the emotional meltdowns and all the endless, all-consuming thinking, he just wants to get it done. Once the album's finished, he plans to head overseas in search of a label to release it. He wants this to be big. "Maybe no one will want it, and I'll just come back here and self-release it to 500 people," he says. "That might happen. I do have faith that whatever happens will be right for it. But I'm aiming for … is it 'six'? Do you hit a six? Yeah."

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