Critics' darling has big future

Last updated 12:58 07/02/2013
Caroline Michelle Bellamy
CULT STATUS: Vorn Colgan is winning big raps from respected critics.

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The underground muso who no-one has heard of is gaining a large following, writes Naomi Arnold:

If you haven't seen Vorn live, take your chance now. The man behind the moniker, Wellington singer-songwriter Vorn Colgan, is famous as the underground artist that no-one's ever heard of - though surely that can't last for long.

Mind you, people have been saying that for some years now.

Colgan has won a cult following with his touring, without any mainstream airplay, label support, NZ On Air-funded videos, or any other type of love that denotes mainstream "success". Vorn still seems to be ignored by much of the country, despite the band's sleepy-eyed appearance on that juggernaut that's launched a thousand worthy musical careers, TVNZ's Good Morning.

In fact, he jokes on his Facebook page that he has sparked "national indifference" with his albums and live shows.

It doesn't matter at all to his fans, nor to the country's top critics; indeed, it's almost a badge of honour.

When Vorn released their sixth album, 2011's Down For It, it so moved the Dominion Post's Simon Sweetman - who is not renowned for treating musos with kid gloves - that he gushed: "Colgan is one of this country's greatest songwriters, never cloying or faux-romantic; these are direct songs; honest, cynical, sincere, hilarious and in many cases ridiculously catchy." Sunday Star Times' Grant Smithies said: "Here's a man capable of wringing great pop from the bleaker aspects of modern urban life", before retrospectively declaring it 2011's album of the year, touched with humour, sadness, and affection for the underdog.

Reviewers keep regurgitating the "best you've never heard of" line when it comes to Vorn. Doesn't that gall, just slightly? He takes it in his stride, with a healthy dose of humour.

"I'd prefer that than the worst musician no-one's heard of," he says. "It's pretty common for the critics' darling musician to be not always the most commercially successful one. I'd rather have a small audience of music fans than a massive audience that aren't fussed."

No danger of that. Colgan's talent has been noticed from the very beginning. He made his reputation, he writes on an old webpage bio, "as a drooling, long-haired bogan" playing in Hamilton indie legends The Living Room, and his first album, Normal the Normal Normal, was recorded in a Hamilton lounge room on a four-track.

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It was described by Chris Knox as "a great grinding grandpappy of an album" that "returns self-indulgence to its rightful place at the top of the desirable qualities list". Critical accolades continued throughout the years.

Colgan describes his sound as "oddball pop music", creating songs such as Upper Hutt Symphony, Get Better Work Stories, Mental Health Issues in Newtown, The Tinny House Hop, and You Don't Have to Hate Yourself to Sleep With Me (But it Helps).

He is working on his seventh album, the fruit of 13 years of songwriting. With a degree in English literature, his wit, intelligence, lyricism, and love of language make listening a treat.

He works a mix of part-time jobs to survive, including being a qualified teacher who coaches primary-school kids part-time in the art of ukulele. He has taught English in South Korea and plays in the Wellington Sea Shanty Society. "It's a small society," he says. "There's only two of us. We play exclusively songs about pirates and sailors and shipwrecks and that carry-on."

But ironically, he's perhaps most well-known in his hometown of Wellington as a train ticket-clipper on the Tranz Metro, a split-shift job that enables him to write, play, and sing as much as he wants.

"At the risk of losing it, it is a job that gives you lots of time to yourself," he says. "Once the tickets have holes in them there's nothing else to do but sit on the train."

During the last few years he's developed the ability to invent an entire song in his head, arriving home after his morning shift with it ready to go.

Vorn the band - Thomas Liggett on electric violin, Simon Bayliss on bass, Nick Brown on drums, and keyboardist Dr Strangeglove - start their tour playing two shows this week. Vorn Destroys Nelson, the official Facebook event name for the Nelson leg of their Vorn Eliminates South Island tour, descends on Deville on Saturday night, supported by Nelson's Ukes of Hazzard, Terry Telford and Ron Kjestrup. They'll be picking material from their enormous back catalogue plus a few songs not yet heard in public for your aural pleasure. And it will be that. See them now - before they're big.

  • Vorn, Saturday, Deville, 8pm, entry free; and on Sunday at Motueka's Hot Mama's at 4pm, $10. See more at

- © Fairfax NZ News


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