Goldenhorse girl, interrupted

21:43, Sep 08 2013
GIRL, INTERRUPTED: Kirsten Morrell in her rented Ponsonby villa. She's performing in the chorus of The Flying Dutchman.

It's an unusual career change, from pop star to opera chorus girl, and appropriately, it is accompanied by a physical transformation.

In preparation for interviewing Kirsten Morrell I had been watching videos of her biggest hits with the breezy, triple-platinum-selling Goldenhorse. So when we meet, I don't recognise her. This is not the glossy, scarlet-haired singer of those cheerful three-minute dramas, all retro dresses and whirling arms.

Her hair has retreated to a presumably more natural Anzac-biscuit shade, and she's dressed in a student-esque long dress and natty scarf. The girl-next-door look more than suits her. ''I think I did wear a lot of makeup on stage, for armour,'' she says.

The armour is off, the defences down, perhaps because she's quite distracted. At the midpoint of a master's degree, she says she's really stressed and the ''intensity has heated up''; simultaneously, and it seems typically, she's also working on a 'secret' album project, chasing work in Britain, and singing in the chorus of the New Zealand Opera production of The Flying Dutchman.

Her career plan, she says, if there is one, is ''chaos theory''. The result is that sometimes the questions she answers aren't really the ones she was asked. Her laptop plays the role of comfort blanket, there to ensure she doesn't get any opera facts wrong. After all, it's unusual for a chorus singer to take centre stage and she's conscious of being singled out. But she ''really, really loves'' opera and is more than happy to spruik this month's production with relentless enthusiasm.

Morrell, whose last pop release was the 2010 solo album Ultraviolet (which followed three with Goldenhorse, including 2002's wildly-successful debut Riverhead), loves opera so passionately that she was happy to spend the last English winter, impoverished and cold, in a south London flat, chasing auditions for opera companies. She was raised in the genteel suburb of Hampstead, before emigrating here in her teens, and her mother would often walk her through Covent Garden, home of the Royal Opera House.

It became a dream, she says, so even to audition was brilliant. She didn't get any work, but without a manager or agent, and after an 18-month email campaign, she reckons just getting through the door was an achievement. The fee for recording a cover of the Stones' 'I'm Free' as a jingle for TV2 paid for the trip. She stayed with friends, sometimes her brother - a London-based photographer and designer - and took cut-price lessons from a noted teacher who lived down the road when Morrell was little and could still remember her trick or treating at Halloween.

But by February it was snowing, she was skint and had been forced to go for two real-world job interviews amid the auditions. Then a friend mentioned an arts management masters at Auckland University of Technology. Morrell decided seeing out the year in London ''would be dire''. Within a fortnight she had applied, been accepted, and come home.

''I am just joining the educated masses in England; there are two generations of unemployed in England at the moment and they are all getting very educated doing all these courses,'' she explains (you may gain a hint here of her left-leaning politics; she has lent her name to campaigns for Greenpeace and Fairtrade).

''I am just keeping up so I can survive.'' She's living in a classic old Ponsonby, Auckland villa, rented with three flatmates from her mother, and we sit in the kitchen where she rehearses. It all seems very starving-student-in-garret for someone whose first album sold 50,000 copies. So, does chorus singing pay the bills? No, she says.

''There are people who get paid to do their art, but I never seem to. At some point I was.'' It seems a good deal for the New Zealand Opera, for as well as having Morrell in its chorus, it has the benefit of a university-mandated 120 hours unpaid work experience and a coursework project to develop the company's sustainability policy.

Opera, she explains, was actually the first love, long before pop stardom. As a sixth former at Auckland's Selwyn College, Morrell won a music scholarship and used it to train classically with baritone Richard Green. The Flying Dutchman (or Der fliegende Holländer), she believes, is a  ''once in a lifetime experience'', and to prove it she has swotted up on its back story; how Richard Wagner, dodging his creditors, took his family by boat from Germany to Paris, got caught in a storm, was inspired to write the opera, but fell into poverty when he struggled to get it commissioned.

Actually, she says, Wagner is an easy transition, the Metallica of the opera world. Expanding, she reckons there's a bit of Daft Punk and Abba in there, too. So what would be the ideal role in opera? This stumps her. She umms for a bit, and says: ''I've never been given a straightforward career path. But I do get the feeling somebody, someday, might go: 'You, you're going to sing La Boheme. And I just won't be ready.''

Kirsten Morrell in her Goldenhorse years, with Geoff Maddock in 2005/ Photograph: David White

For this indecision, we might blame Goldenhorse. There are various mentions of opportunities proffered, but denied by yet another tour. As a teenager she began an English literature degree, stopped to tour, went back to university at 24, ''rushed'' through the rest of her degree, combining the English with women's studies and a bit of Italian and French, seemed to do a bit more touring, turned down acouple of post-grad opportunities... ''I was constantly Girl, Interrupted.''

She talks about how versatile she's been, and concludes: ''Some people do just do one thing. I crave that. It's the parallel life I crave; for simplicity.'' Despite that she insists: ''I am really focused, I am a really driven person.'' Then, cleverly, she comes up with a suitable simile: "I am actually like the sailors in the Dutchman, I just go with the wind.''

She's crafty like this, shoehorning extra references to the opera into virtually every answer - not least when she comes up with a particularly convoluted metaphor of how National's higher education policies have turned Auckland University into a storm-tossed ghost ship (because the user-pays mentality has stripped away the fun).There is some theory to the chaos theory, despite the stated lack of a five-year plan - that eventually a bulging CV of study, voluntary work and such unusual footnotes as her childhood judo championships and her most recent enthusiasm, qualification as a yoga teacher, will eventually translate into some concrete, well-paid job.

There must, of course, have been some security back in the Goldenhorse days. They last recorded in 2007, their third and least-successful album Reporter. For years after Morrell would tell journalists the band was ''on hiatus''. Surely she can't still use that line? No, she says. It ''remains an entity''. And indeed, there is a ''secret production'' afoot to come up with another album, either a solo project or one that reunites the entire band.

So they must all still get on well? ''No,'' she says, emphatic but smiling. ''But who does with touring and living together for 12 years?  No way.'' But, she says, they all love music and so ''we are not going to destroy the thing that we love''.

After Goldenhorse split/went on hiatus, Morrell wrote and sang the chirpy Ultraviolet: she remembers phoning up Maddock and fellow former Goldenhorse member Joel Wilton and recording it inside two weeks in her brother's lounge. She recalls it as a ''very girly, very feminine [album], and that was fine after three big rock'n'roll albums.''

That said, she says she never listens again to any of her own music and nor does she chance across it. ''People say they hear it all the time. I'd like to hear it more because it equates to slightly better APRA [royalty] cheques.'' She seems reluctant to talk too much of Goldenhorse, but in a moment of revelation she declares: ''I went through a crisis of confidence towards the end of Goldenhorse, but I am really through that now. I can't imagine having to sit down and debate how I live my life with anyone.''

She may be stressed, but she doesn't look indecisive. ''I've always been a wild child like that and that's probably why I had a 'crisis of confidence' [she doesn't sketch inverted commas in the air here, but they are in her tone] with the band. I really don't like having to negotiate what I do with other people, it's just so... (with a sighing inflection) uninspiring.''

Bearing in mind that she was in a long-term relationship with lead guitarist Geoff Maddock, she says she told her bandmates they couldn't have girlfriends, that they ''shouldn't bring them on tour, but they really shouldn't have them outside the band either''.

''I really believed it. For one, we couldn't afford it, and two, it proved the thing that pulled us apart. For me, the more people we had to accommodate the more I felt responsible for these people in my life. But I don't do any of that now. It sounds dreadful, but that really is the dynamic of a pop band.''

So amid those metaphoric storms, some shoe-horned and high-flown, some real, Morrell says she has found the chorus comforting: as a perfectionist, she likes the high standards; the high expectations. The boundaries. ''I like all that,'' she says. ''That's what I was trying to get in the rock'n'roll band and it didn't happen.''

I can't tell if she's joking when she adds: ''People got married and had kids, you know - how do you contend with that stuff?''

New Zealand Opera's The Flying Dutchman: Wellington, September 14-21; Auckland, October 5-12.


Sunday Magazine