McGlashan's songs from the inside

SONGS FROM THE INSIDE: Laughton Kora, Annie Crummer, Anika Moa and Don McGlashan work with prisoners for Maori TV show Songs from the Inside
SONGS FROM THE INSIDE: Laughton Kora, Annie Crummer, Anika Moa and Don McGlashan work with prisoners for Maori TV show Songs from the Inside

Former Muttonbird and Kiwi songwriting legend Don McGlashan is one of four leading musicians challenging convicted prisoners to find and face the music in a new series of Maori TV's Songs From The Inside. He answers James Croot 's questions about what persuaded him to sign up for the project.

How did you first hear about the show and what persuaded you to be a part of it?

I saw some episodes of the first series and was really moved and excited by it. I think when Julian Arahanga called me to ask if I'd be in the second series, I said "I'm in!" before he'd finished asking.

Had you ever visited a prison before and were you surprised at the conditions and people you encountered?

When I was in Blam Blam Blam, we played one or two prison shows near Christchurch in the early 1980s, and then I did a couple of terms teaching songwriting to students at Paremoremo a few years later, so I have had some experience with prisons over the years. It's still a shock to see first-hand the power of the State to take away someone's liberty. I think everyone should visit a prison at least once - especially those who say that the inmates have it too easy. There's nothing "easy" about your whole life shrinking to the size of a concrete cell.

Were you surprised at the level of talent hidden away there?

I knew there would be some potentially good songwriters in prison - I don't think any of us expected the level of talent and commitment we found.

What was the toughest challenge of the project for you - and the most rewarding part?

Prisons are tough places, but they're also very honest places. If you're going to work effectively with the people inside, you have to let your various facades drop away. You can't hide behind the kind of car you drive, or the kind of house you live in. Everybody's equal, and you have to be straight up, or the inmates will see right through you. That's a challenge, but one worth rising to.

Had you heard much about Evan Rhys Davies' music programme before? How would you explain it to someone?

No, I hadn't heard of it before I joined the series. It takes the students through a step-by-step process, where the different aspects of songwriting are addressed alongside corresponding issues of rehabilitation and self-knowledge.

What were the particular benefits of music therapy that you saw first-hand?

Initially, I was worried that tying a song writing course to rehabilitation issues might be too constricting, but it ended up being quite the reverse. People write best about whatever's the biggest thing in their lives, and among the topmost concerns of the students we worked with were questions like "Who am I?", "How can I own up to my crime?" and "How can I change so I can fit into society again?", so linking their writing process to their rehabilitative process turned out to be a really worthwhile approach.

How did a typical day (if there was such a thing) with the inmates work?

Sessions would start with a karakia (prayer) and a waiata (song), and then Laughton (Kora) and I would introduce the theme for the session. It might be "Freedom" or "Choices" or "Commitment", or something like that. We'd then all work for five or 10 minutes individually writing on that subject (Laughton and I would do that, too. All of the sessions got into some intense, exposing areas for all of us). Then we'd break into groups and work, around that theme, on the germs of new songs. Then we'd bring those experiments back to the group for assessment and discussion. Later in the series there was more time spent on developing the songs the students had chosen to record, but we still pretty much stuck to that lesson format.

What are the keys to writing a good song? Music or lyrics first and why?

Ha! If I knew the secret I'd have more hits to my name. Whichever way you do it, you have to believe in every detail. It's a minimal art form, so there isn't any room for padding. For my own songwriting, I like to think around the ideas of the song before I start. I freak out when I've written a tune and then I have to work out what the song might be about. But a lot of better songwriters than me do it the other way round, with great results - so I don't think there are any hard-and-fast rules.

What is the state of Kiwi music at the moment from your perspective?

"It's burgeoning," to quote Tim Finn. Yes. "Burgeoning." A good word, that. And definitely the right word to describe the music scene here these days.

Finally, what does 2014 have in store for you?

Lots of touring and performing. And it's time I released a new album. I've probably nearly got enough new songs for that. I just need the time and space to record them.

Songs From The Inside, 9.30pm, Friday, Maori TV.