INTERVIEW: Artist Mandii Pope

Mandii Pope is one of New Zealand’s greatest creative exports: an acclaimed artist with exhibitions across Europe, Dubai and the UK, and with many works in both private and commercial collections across the globe. Her work is often seen all over the UK, be it her emotive spin paintings – or out in public spaces, you will find her book benches, a bus painted like Buckingham Palace, a Darth Vader Gorilla or a dolphin warplane to name but a few. Senior royalty have even added the finishing touches to one of her artworks. An iconic member of the Kiwi community in the UK, Mandii is often seen out and about at London-Kiwi events, and supports the community in a variety of ways. She has now returned to New Zealand for the first time in six years to be part of the Christchurch Stands Tall Giraffe sculpture trail – I grabbed the opportunity to find out more about the art, and about the lady herself…

Tell us where you’re from in NZ, when you came to the UK, and why?

I’m originally from Auckland. I followed love to the UK! Justin Bade came to London to gear up 42 Below. We’d been friends for years; I left my happy life in NZ after a romantic month in Rarotonga for the thrill of “what if”. 11 years later, 42 Below is a great success story, Justin and I remain friends and to this day is the best decision I have ever made in coming to London to chase my dreams.

How was it first settling in to life in the UK – both in a general sense, and in terms of your career?

I came to London on a red carpet. We lived in Knightsbridge, my job was £50K per annum, and we led a glamorous life. We broke up a year later, and the company I worked for went into receivership. I ended up pouring pints in a gay bar in Soho at night for about £5 per hour before tax, and a film set during the day for free. I had nowhere to live, so the pub owners after a week of knowing me offered me their flat in Leytonstone. I averaged an hour’s sleep after I’d finished my night shift and I travelled 90 minutes on the night bus. I’d get home around 4.30 or 5am, and I’d be gone again by 6ish to be on set by 7am. After 4 months I was exhausted. A friend came back from travelling and was my saviour – thanks to her, I ended up settled in both the same flat and job that I’m still in 10 years later. I have two lives: as an artist, and an office job – both complement each other nicely. My office job keeps me safe and the people I work with have been like family to me in the UK. They have supported my full-time art career from day one, and supported me with an art studio to make spin paintings for 4 years – plus a Darth Vader Gorilla and a large corporate commission. I miss NZ, but London is where I need to be art-wise. There are so many opportunities the UK. I’m working to a 10-year plan and opportunities are plentiful after years of hard graft and determination.

What is the inspiration behind your work?

I’m a sponge to my environment. If it’s a public art sculpture, I like to utilise the organic shape of the sculpture and keep to the theme of the brief or project. The cityscapes are places visited. My spin paintings are emotive, fun to create and are the format of my current artworks. I’m very guided by a greater force and my intuition guides me to most of my inspiration. Sometimes I just get an idea and it explodes from there. I have a couple of hundred ideas for my NZ-themed spin paintings; I just need time to paint them all. It was great fun creating a colouring book for Kiwi-run Ziggle-Itwhich has seen me now turning my sculptures into colouring adventures for the kids. Ziggling-it is colouring fun for adults, and I seriously recommend it!

What are some of the career highlights of things you’ve worked on while you’ve been in the UK?

All Wild in Art projects are completely epic… Also a 15ft Big Ben BT Artbox for Childline in 2012, designing the Bagpuss costume for the VLM for Hospices of Hope, painting with royalty a couple of times, working on 60 Minute Makeover, film sets, painting the UK New Zealander of the Year, solo exhibitions in Cork Street and Dubai… They keep coming!

You’ve done a lot of work for Wild in Art. Tell us what they’re about, and what you’ve worked on for them?

Wild in Art are absolutely massive in the UK, and are taking over the world! Their sculptures raise hundreds of thousands – if not millions – for various charities around the globe. They have four or five public art trails in the UK and one on another continent per year. In 2012 it was Lions in South Africa; 2013 Rhinos in Australia – and this year, it’s giraffes in Christchurch, New Zealand! A Wild in Art trail consists of a town, a charity, and anywhere between 20-70 sculptures decorated by local and famous artists which are sponsored by local businesses, and then put on display for the public to enjoy, take photos and create memories… The sculptures are then up for auction, where all proceeds go to charity. Miniature sculptures are created by schools of a similar number. These projects bring enjoyment to entire communities and raise huge amounts for charities who need it. I’ve just completed my 11th public art sculpture – 8 have been for Wild in Art, with more to come in the new year. 2013 was a talking, breathing Darth Vader Gorilla (@DarthGorilla); 2014 has seen three book benches for Books About Town, a WW100 warplane dolphin named @TrevorWarphin for Wild Dolphins in Aberdeen, a Buckingham Palace bus for TFL’s Year of the Bus, and two giraffes for Christchurch Stands Tall: @MoaGiraffe, as well as designing “The Longest Girink in Town” giraffe (painted by Sarah Greig).

mandii trev

Your latest London project is the TFL Year of the Bus sculpture trail. Tell us a little about that?

There are 60 bus sculptures – 40 in London, with 20 to follow in Croydon in late November. The buses are celebrating 125 years of the bus, for Transport for London (TFL) in conjunction with three charities: Transaid, Kids Company, and the London Transport Museum. Mine is Buckingham Palace Bus. You can download an app to find them (search for “Bus Art – Year of the Bus”). Later in the year they will be up for auction, and the money raised will be divided between the three charities.

You’re in NZ at the moment working on Christchurch Stand Tall. What does this mean to you personally, and how did it come about?

I’ve been a big supporter of this project as soon as I heard about it a year ago, regardless of if I became a part of it or not. I believe in the project, the product and the people of Christchurch, and I really hope New Zealand realises how incredibly huge this is to have Wild in Art come to Christchurch. I’m the only Kiwi in the UK to have painted so many sculptures for Wild in Art, so it was super special to receive a phone call from Wild in Art Director Charlie Langhorne, who decided out the goodness of his heart to give me his own Air New Zealand ticket to send me home and be a part of the Christchurch Stands Tall project. It’s been nearly six years since I’ve been home, and it has been so special to be amongst a bunch of super-talented Kiwi artists at Giraffe HQ. One fellow artist – Justine Ottey – even surprised me with aTip Top container full of freshly backed afghans! Made my day! I have two giraffes; one is the famous red-and-blue spotted The Longest Girink in Town which I designed (painted by Sarah Greig and sponsored by Buildtech), and the other is Moa Giraffe (which I designed and painted), sponsored by Dulux New Zealand. Dulux chose my Moa design because of their huge involvement work with the Department of Conservation (DOC) and environmental conservation. Dulux have been great supporters of the project, supplying all paints for 50 schools, as well as the artists in Giraffe HQ. Back in the UK I use nothing but Dulux paints – I don’t like the expensive artist’s paints anymore, so I am a natural advocate for my sponsor. A match made in heaven! The Giraffes have just had a coat of varnish from Urban Hygiene and are looking magnificent! Campbell Live reported that they could sell for NZD $10,000 each. These sculptures have sold for £55,000 and £60,000 GBP each in the UK on some trails, so they have potential to raise so much more.

Mandii giraffes

I understand that Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, put the finishing touches on one of your paintings. Tell us about that!

Ceilidh Dunphy from the NZ High Commission recommended me to the New Zealand Women’s Association (NZWA) as a live art artist, to paint a very special painting on Waitangi Day at New Zealand House in the presence of HRH the Duchess of Cornwall. I was chosen as I had painted Buckingham Palace live for King Edward Hospital with the Duke of Kent in previous years. President Jane Thomas and I decided a cityscape of Clarence House (residence of HRH) would be most fitting. I completed the painting with a portrait of a Maori warrior (Bruce Simpson from Ngati Ranana, the London Maori Club) in the foreground with a Queen’s Guard. The Duchess of Cornwall was a fabulous sport when I asked her to paint a few windows. The painting was then up for auction a last month, and all proceeds went to a WW100 charity for NZ soldiers.

mandii camilla

What’s next for you?

As soon as I land back in the UK, I have 10 days to paint current 2014 UK New Zealander of the Year, Eric Tracey. I also have an Egg for The Big Egg Hunt, two magnificent Wild in Art Dragon sculptures for Go Go Dragons, plus many more submissions for Wild in Art projects of Buses, Owls and Barons. I still have a 100 or more NZ-themed spin paintings to complete as well. I’m due for another big exhibition, so I’ll make sure that happens next year. The world is my oyster, anything is possible – and I’m up for all of it.

You can find out more about Mandii here.

All photos courtesy of Mandii Pope. Interview by Charlotte Everett; may only be re-used with permission.

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INTERVIEW: Anika Moa

I grabbed the opportunity to chat with Anika Moa for NZNewsUK ahead of her recent London show on October 30.

Anika, you are one of NZ’s most iconic singer-songwriters. How did you get into music, and had it always been your dream?

Anika: Hi! Both of my parents are singers who travelled all over New Zealand, so I was born into it. I truly fell in love with music at high school because it was so much cooler than maths or science. I started writing at 13, and grew from there. Such a nerd! My dream is to write for other people such as Beyoncé. Haha! I wish.

You were picked up by Atlantic Records in the United States as a teenager. You were determined to stick to your own unique style of Kiwi-folk acoustic songs… did the record company have other ideas, and how difficult was it to remain authentic?

Anika: My record company were amazing. Not only did they want to nurture my needs, but they waited for me to grow a bit musically. I toured my first album all over America and it was so full on, I got homesick and had to come home… That is where I discovered that I had to do it in my own country before I went anywhere else.

You’re now mother to twin boys. How has it been, juggling family life with your music career?

Anika: Having twins is soooo hard but sooo amazing. My sons have inspired me to work harder and my heart is full of love for them. I write less but when I do, I really make the most of it!! I’ve released a baby album called Songs for Bubbas that I released last December and it’s been a huge hit – even more so than my actual adult albums. LOL.

You’ve been recording your fifth studio album. What can you tell us about it?

Anika: It’s simple, elegant and heartbreaking. The usual, but with strong beats and my producer Jol Mulholland makes it. We wrote the songs together and it was a slow, easy process. I will release it and then tour it everywhere I can! I hope you love it.

You’re playing Bush Hall in London on October 30th.  How do you find the vibe here in London?

Anika: I’ve lived in London so I’m happy to be going back to see all the old haunts. I love the live music scene and catching up with old friends. It’s super exciting being there – I also see my family in Gloucestershire, which will be fun, fun, fun!

What are you most looking forward to with the London show, and what can the crowd expect?

Anika: I can’t wait for people to hear my new stuff. I want them to swim in it and my voice, and to have a drink and listen to my intensely strange but awfully good stories – and to be taken back to life in New Zealand.

Will you have any “down time” in London – and how do you plan to spend it?

Anika: Downtime with friends and family and beer. LOL.

After London – what next?

Anika: Spain! Part holiday part music conference, then back home to nearly summer in New Zealand. Yay!

Interview by Charlotte Everett. May only be re-used with permission

INTERVIEW: Thomas Oliver and Louis Baker

Next week welcomes Thomas Oliver’s debut show in London, as well as the return of Louis Baker to UK shores. The singer-songwriter friends – who have burgeoning solo careers – are taking this opportunity to play a double bill show in London before their duo performance at the Edinburgh Festival, and solo stages at Sziget Festival, Budapest. I grabbed the chance to chat with them.

Thomas and Louis

Louis, you’ve made quite an impression the last couple of times you’ve been here – how does it feel to be coming back?

 

Louis: It’s a joy to be coming back to the UK. I am highly fortunate. I have an outstanding manager (Cushla Aston at Aston Rd), so things run smoothly and I’m always taken care of. Aston Rd is very supportive of my career, helping to make this trip possible. Last time I was over this way, I did shows at Field Days Festival, and Sonar in Barcelona, Spain.

Coming back this time with Thomas Oliver and Cushla is a fresh thing for us all, and we are super excited!

Thomas, this is your London debut. How are you feeling about it, and any expectations?

 

Thomas: I am really looking forward to finally getting a chance to try to understand the sheer size and depth of activity in London. It’s hard to comprehend from the mellow streets of Wellington. I really want to ingest as much of it as I can while we’re there – food, drink, live music, art, culture, architecture, history, countryside, everything! Our manager, Cushla, lived there for years, so we’re fortunate enough to have someone who can show us what’s up! There are also a few musicians and label owners over there whom I have collaborated with but never met, so I look forward to meeting them, as well as anyone else I can, and of course catching up with all our Kiwi friends living there. I hear it’s sizzling there right now too, so that will be welcome change from cowering next to the heater back home!

You guys are friends from back in New Zealand – how did you meet, and how has this joint-tour come about?

 

Louis: Wellington has a close musical community. Thomas and I met at a show I was supporting him on at a small cafe down Cuba Street one night, where we played to around 20 people. This friendship flourished through our common love of music and musical taste. To this day he stands as a sort of musical mentor of mine, helping guide and connect me with some key people that I work with today. A tour together has always been on the cards. It makes me so happy that we now have this opportunity to play our songs for people in faraway lands.

Thomas: Music brought us together a few years back – the Wellington music scene is very tight-knit and supportive, so everyone knows everyone (almost). Louis and I really connected over our desire to create music with emotional resonance, and we’ve been friends ever since. We’ve toured together many times, and played many shows on the same stages, but, for some reason, it wasn’t until recently that we actually started playing together. We got asked if we would play as a duo for a festival in New Zealand called Homegrown, on the Red Bull “Sound Lab” stage which was all about artists coming together with other artists and working together to create something new. And we enjoyed it so much that we decided to do some more of it! And we’re stoked to have the opportunities to do it on the other side of the world.

 

Thomas, you’re internationally considered as one of the leading players of the Weissenborn lap-steel guitar. What can you tell us about the instrument, and how did you become interested in playing it?

 

Thomas: Of all the musical instruments on the planet, the Weissenborn is my favourite. For me, it sits somewhere between an acoustic guitar and the human voice; a guitar because of its 6 strings and the hollow chamber, and the human voice because of its infinite intonation and its raw and distinctive character. I started playing when I was 17 as a result of being captivated by Ben Harper’s first album, Welcome to the Cruel World, upon my first listen. I stared at the stereo, trying to decipher what this sound was. It sounded similar to a guitar, but it was deeper and richer and scratchier, and I just had to know what it was! I soon learned that it was a Weissenborn, and soon after I had one of my own. But I never knew at the time just how deep my love affair with it would run!

 

You’re going on to play the Edinburgh Festival after London. Have either of you played Edinburgh before, and what can our readers there expect from you?

 

Louis: I can’t wait to get to Scotland and be immersed in its vibe! Edinburgh will be a new place to play for both Thomas and I, and the show will be a duo set as part of New Zealand Season at the festival. We have unique and distinctive sounds, and I think that people can expect nothing less than an all out, expressive, soulful and uplifting performance.

Thomas: We’ll be doing a full duo set in Edinburgh. We have a good time playing this way. Some songs are all about Louis and I just do what I can to make him sound better, and some songs are the other way around, and then some are just the meeting of our minds in real time. It’s a progressive dynamic that we both enjoy. I’ve never been to Edinburgh before, but I am eagerly awaiting our time there! As a kid, I had bookshelves full of books about castles, and I used to draw castles in the back of my school books when I should have been paying attention. I was probably the only 10-year-old who knew what crenulations were. Haha. However, despite my obsession, I have never seen a castle! So, whilst I’m sure many people over there are entirely accustomed to the idea of one of the world’s most amazing castles right in the middle of the city, it excites the hell out of me!

Any plans for how you intend to spend your time in London and Edinburgh, other than gigging?

 

Louis: Travelling is one of the most life-expanding things to do; I love it. There are places to go and people to meet! I think it would be rude not to get involved in the local food, nature, whisky, markets, sightseeing, and the arts.

Thomas: We plan to do a bit of driving to check out some English and Scottish countryside. I hear it’s remarkable. There’s a few clubs I’d love to check out as well (especially Fabric), and Cushla knows a few amazing restaurants which I’m sure we’ll make the most of! Aside from all of the things I mentioned above; the culture, the castles, the art, the history, I just want to feel a part of the place, alongside the company of my friends.

 

After your UK duo shows, you’re taking up solo stages at Sziget Festival in Budapest. How are you feeling about the festival, and what do you expect the crowds to be like there?

 

Louis: To be able to perform at a festival like Sziget in Budapest – playing musical creations of your own to people for the first time – is a dream come true. It has been an aspiration of mine ever since I was a young boy to play around the world so I am fizzing. In my limited experience, European crowds are very warm and receptive so I look forward to this very much.

Thomas: To be honest, it’s really hard to know! The line-up is so amazingly diverse. Everything from NOFX, to Deadmau5, to Louis Baker, to Queens of the Stone Age…I expect there will be a lot of open-minded music lovers there. And it will certainly be the biggest festival I’ve ever played at. I just hope I’m not playing at the same time as NOFX…Haha. I collaborated with Black Sun Empire a couple of years back, so I was stoked to see them on the bill, and I look forward to catching up with them again, as friendly faces will be most relished in a 400,000 strong festival!

What’s next for both of you after this tour?

 

Louis: I have a lot of plans for my career, and visions of where I’d like to go with it. When I get home I will be back into song writing, performing, working, teaching and more shows in NZ and Australia.

Thomas: I’ll be heading back into the studio to keep working on my next album. I’m about halfway through it right now, and I’m amped about where it’s heading and how it’s sounding. Come November, it looks as if Louis and I might be touring NZ together again, so I look forward to that. But for now, my mind is purely set on the UK and Europe!

Thomas Oliver and Louis Baker will play a FREE double bill show at London’s Bedroom Bar, this coming Wednesday 6th August (on stage at 8.30pm), and will feature in the NZ Music Showcase of the Edinburgh Festival on Monday 11th August (on stage at 10.15pm).

This interview originally featured on NZNewsUK.

I also interviewed Louis Baker when he was in London last year – you can check out the original feature here.

ARCHIVE: Interview with Ladi6

ladi62013_square

It had been a long time since Kiwi Hip Hop Queen Ladi6 and her band had been in the UK, and fans here were looking forward to finally having her back. Fresh from releasing her critically-acclaimed third album, ‘Automatic’, Charlotte Everett managed to have a quick chat with Ladi ahead of her shows in London and at Glastonbury.

You’re back in London on 26 June. How do you feel about coming back?

Ladi: We were last there quite awhile ago. Perhaps the last tour we did there was Gil Scott-Heron’s last tour; we supported him throughout the UK and some of Europe. We can’t wait to test the London waters – and looking forward to reconnecting with some old friends, as well as making some new ones. It’s been a long time coming!!

How’s the vibe in London and how do the crowds differ here from those back home?

Ladi: I want to say that they do, but the reality is that they don’t really… we have so many expat Kiwis living in London as well, it is often not too hard to find a friend or someone you know through 2 degrees of separation! We look forward to the familiarity of London.

Your third album – “Automatic” – is out in Europe on 23 August. How much material from the new album will feature in the London show?

Ladi: Most of the show will be made up of songs from ‘Automatic’; we’re really enjoying playing this record out!

What can fans expect from this show in general?

Ladi: They can expect the goodness!

How did the new album come about?

Ladi: We approached a wish list of co-producers and at the top of our list was Waajeed. We were big fans of his work with Slum Village and Platinum Pied Pipers – we wanted to have that sound on this record. We connected with him, and he was up for it, so we flew out to the D (Detroit) twice to work through the record, and finished it off during a summer on a farm in New Zealand, in a small spot called Waiuku. It ended up becoming quite the perfect contrast and the album came together relatively quickly.

Are you likely to have any down-time in London, and how do you plan to spend it?

Ladi: Not at all, unfortunately this London date is just before we play Glastonbury, and part of a three-part world tour we’ve put together… Europe – UK – USA – NZ (YIKES?!!!#%&^?!)

Interview by Charlotte Everett – may only be republished with permission.
Adapted from the original interview published on NZNewsUK.

ARCHIVE: Interview with Six60’s Ji Fraser

Ji Fraser

Kiwi rock superstars Six60 were back on British shores in May, with gigs at London’s O2 Empire and Edinburgh’s Bongo Club. I had the pleasure of chilling with lead guitarist Ji Fraser over a flat white in London’s East End, ahead of the band’s much-anticipated return to the UK.

Given that the band had been based in Europe last year, many of the Six60 faithful in this part of the world may have hoped that their six months living in Berlin would have become a more permanent thing. Yet moving back to New Zealand has not meant that the boys will be spending less time up here – quite the opposite in fact. And with Ji’s girlfriend living in London, perhaps we may even be able to seduce them back to this side of the world on a more permanent basis.

That being said, “It’s hard to base yourself anywhere”, Ji remarks. “We travel so much. I mean, even though we had the house in Berlin, during that time we were in the US, we were in the UK… we were everywhere. It doesn’t really matter where we’re based. I’d say we spend at least quarter of the year in New Zealand, but the rest of it would be spent in different places, touring.”

So how do they find the scene in Europe?

“Good! It’s funny, when we first came to London, our first show was at The Forum and we sold that out – it was like 2,500 people, and I was like: this is it! You know, I really didn’t realise it was like the second biggest Kiwi city in the world. But yeah, it’s good. I guess we’re quite spoilt in New Zealand and Australia – you can play anywhere from 1,000 up to around 6,000 people in a night. Just recently, we did 6,000 in Dunedin and then 10,000 in Wellington – and then you go to Frankfurt and do 500 people! But it’s good – it keeps us real.”

I was curious to know how many fans in places like Frankfurt are actually Kiwis. “Yeah they’re definitely not all Kiwis,” Ji explains, “but there’s quite often some kind of connection. That being said, to be fair, in Germany it is becoming quite organic; they’re really starting to take a bit of ownership of us – which is what we want really. And we want to go to the States and have people there that have that same connection with us like the Kiwis do… they start to say: ‘You’re our band’. We want that all around the world. And I feel like that’s really already happening in Germany at the moment. The more we can do in Europe, the better. The bigger the shows we can do, the more time we can spend here, rather than having to go home to do the big shows in New Zealand to be able to afford ourselves the opportunity to come over here. It’s definitely happening though. I definitely feel like we’re getting there.”

Ji action

It’s quite an achievement when you consider that the band has only been around for five years. Ji agrees, “I think part of the key to our success is that we are so critical of our own achievements. We’re constantly trying to achieve more, and yeah, it is great, but we’re always trying to see how we can get ourselves to that next level. I think that’s been paramount, and how we’ve risen so far so fast. People often forget that we’re still in our mid-twenties. I was in Germany and I was talking to this lady who was saying they’d had Fat Freddy’s come in and sell them out the previous week, and I was like, yeah, but they’ve been around a lot longer than us, and she was like: ‘Noooo, they haven’t.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, they have. I know because I’m from New Zealand – I was at school when they were playing.’ She was still insisting, ‘No, you two are the same age!’ But all she was trying to say really was that we’ve been around a long time. But I think it’s good to remind people that we have only been doing this for five years, and that there’s still a lot more to come from us.”

So on that, when can we expect a second album?

“There’s a certain amount of pressure – second album syndrome,” Ji explains. “We gave ourselves a grace period of a year to tour, and the two-year mark has just passed, but if we look at it honestly, we’ve actually been writing for the past year and a half. We’ve re-written the material two or three times over, but we’ve been wanting the right ingredients and the right people to come on board with us so that we can take it to the next level this time. It’s just been a preparation thing, making sure that the songs are good and that the quality is there. But it should be ready in a couple of months I’d say. And then we can get recording and get the roll-out ready for the New Zealand summer.”

So with a new album in the pipeline, what can fans expect from this UK tour?

“Going from what we’ve just done in New Zealand, it’ll be a totally new thing again. We started this thing in New Zealand where we just started giving away guitars – I don’t even know if we’ll be doing that with these shows, but yeah, we were just buying them, signing them and giving them away. We’re always looking at making things a little bit better and a little bit bolder, a little bit more exciting. And we’ll be playing some new songs off the new album as well. Probably four or five new songs – we’re really looking forward to playing them for everyone. So yeah, there will be some new songs and probably some giveaways of free stuff! The tour in itself is different every time. We bring as much as our team over as we can, and we really try to take things to the next level. Every show we do, you can definitely see the appreciation in the crowd. We can even be playing a sold out show somewhere like New York, and you’ll spot in the crowd the Kiwi guys who have probably driven four hours to get that little piece of home. That’s really special, and definitely something we notice in the crowd. But what we want, is that feeling for everyone. That feeling that Kiwis get, we want that feeling for everyone who comes to our shows – the locals – without exception. And we want more of you guys – London and Edinburgh – to take ownership of us.”

Reviewed by Charlotte Everett – article may only be republished with permission.
Photos courtesy of and copyright Ji Fraser.
Interview adapted from and originally published on NZNewsUK.

INTERVIEW: From “Westie” to West End – Russell Dixon

ImageRussell with Marti Pellow.

It’s a hot summer’s day on Auckland’s North Shore, and I’m sitting in a French cafe with Russell Dixon and his wife Amber. It’s somewhat amusing that we’re sitting here having this interview, when it could have equally happened in London a few weeks ago. I’m in Auckland on holiday – Russell on the other hand, has just moved back to New Zealand permanently.

This is the story of a man with big dreams, who chased them, and realised them. It’s the story of how a West Auckland boy achieved his goal of playing a leading role in a West End Musical.

Russell grew up in the semi-rural district of Oratia, where he was exposed to the magic of musicals from an early age. His father was Head of Music at Waitakere College, and directed the school shows. His mother was involved in painting stage sets for the local theatre. Recordings from his father’s own productions would often be played in the hallway as the children went to sleep. Russell recalls his father bringing home cassette tapes of West End shows like Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, Starlight Express and Chess: “I must have been 7 or 8 when I started listening to these tapes and I thought, wow, there is this place in London called the ‘West End’. It became a dream to one day work there.”

From a young age, Russell became involved with amateur theatre in Auckland. It was during a production of 42nd St that he was identified as having the required attributes for an upcoming production of Copacabana in Invercargill, which enabled him to step from amateur to professional lead roles in New Zealand Musical Theatre. Copacabana established a good working relationship with the Director, Stephen Robertson, which led to him being cast as Danny Zuko in the Christchurch and Wellington productions of Grease, and as Gaston inthe Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin productions of Beauty and the Beast.

By this time, Russell had already begun to establish himself as a TV personality. He had filmed numerous TV commercials including the ‘Duelling Chefs’ advertisement for Pam’s Foods with Jamie Oliver, and was also the Presenter for the prime time ‘Tegel Taste Kitchen’ programmette series. This all changed when Russell joined the TV3 news team as a weather presenter in 2004. While his time at TV3 raised his profile, his commitments restricted his ability to participate in other TV productions and musical theatre – yet he still managed to squeeze in the productions of Golf at Auckland’s Sky City Theatre, Guys & Dolls for Christchurch’s Court Theatre and The Rocky Horror Show in Queenstown.

ImageRussell with Hillary Barry and Mike McRoberts, TV3 News.

After two and half years at TV3, it was time for a change and Russell re-focussed on his dream of the West End. He said to his girlfriend Amber, “I want to do something radical. Why don’t we go to London – I want to see if I have what it takes to make it on the West End?”

Russell understood the difficulties of breaking into the professional theatre scene in England. Other friends in the industry, who had already tried, suggested he might not even be able to get a London agent. Fortunately for Russell, he had recently filmed a commercial with an English girl who was returning to London and who was happy to recommend him to her agent. It was a chance.

“Moving to the other side of the world was perhaps a bit of a risk,” Russell reflects, “but from an early age I decided: I want to have an extraordinary life. It’s really about making the most of the short time we have on this planet, maximising every moment. I craved adventure, wanted to experience life, meet interesting people, take risks – and learn from them. So we did just that.”

In an experience that mirrors how life in London starts for many Kiwi expats, Russell and Amber came to London with very little money, which they also found quickly disappeared. Russell lasted only a week in a (boring) office job. Amber was temping. Russell sent letters to about 20 agents. The few that were returned to him always had the same thing to say: “Our books are full; we’re not interested.” However, Russell got proactive. He dropped off his CV in person to his former colleague’s agent, and also brought along his show reel, managing to convince them to watch it while he talked through his experience.

That afternoon, the agency called him back to say that they were willing to represent him and the next day, they called him with his first audition – The UK tour of Blood Brothers, a show he was familiar with, having been involved in an amateur production in New Zealand. Within a week, he had his first job. But it didn’t stop there. Whilst away on the 6 month tour, Russell learnt that Bob Thomson – the original director of Blood Brothers – was assembling his dream cast for a 20th anniversary production of the musical, at the Empire Theatre in Liverpool. All of a sudden Russell found himself part of a hand-picked cast, playing the role of Mr Lyons, and covering the Narrator.

After performing in Blood Brothers for a year, Russell needed a new challenge. It was difficult to leave the small cast which had become his family but it was time to move on. His next role was understudying Marti Pellow from the Band WetWetWet, in the lead role of Darryl Van Horne in the UK Tour of The Witches of Eastwick.This meant touring for another year, which was challenging to his relationship with Amber, but they managed to survive.

Following a brief ‘fill-in’ in London on the West End as Mr Lyons in Blood Brothers at the Phoenix Theatre, an opportunity came up to perform in the United Arab Emirates premiere of the show. Russell asked Amber, “Have we had enough? We’ve been away for two-and-a-half years now; in Dubai we’ll be halfway home.” Russell took Amber to Paris and proposed. Following the Dubai production, they returned home to New Zealand as planned, got married, and Russell performed the leading male role of Chris in Miss Saigon at Auckland’s Civic Theatre. They were just getting settled back into Kiwi life when Russell got a call from Kenny Wax (Producer of The Witches of Eastwick) with an incredible opportunity: “Russell, we’re looking for someone with your skill set to perform in a brand new production called Top Hat. Would you consider coming back to the UK?”

After negotiating with the production company to organise flights – as well as give Amber a job in wardrobe so that they could be together, Russell was heading back to the UK for a 6 month tour and world premiere. The opportunity then arose for Russell to stay on with the show with its West End transfer, continuing with his own role, and also covering one of the male leads. During Russell’s time with Top Hat the production was massively successful, enjoying great houses, and winning three Olivier awards – including Best Costume Design, Best Choreography and most importantly: Best New Musical. When the time came for the actor playing the comedy lead – Alberto Beddini to move on, Russell was offered the role.

ImageAs Beddini in “Top Hat”.

“So here I was, nearly 7 years after first arriving in the UK, being offered my very own lead in a popular West End musical. Performing at the Aldwych theatre, part of an original cast, part of an Olivier award-winning production – I really felt at that time that I had realised the boyhood dream. I had achieved that goal. You hear of kids who watch the rugby and want to be an All Black, or kids who watch the Olympics and want to win an Olympic medal. I had the satisfaction of achieving the theatrical equivalent.”

The West End production of Top Hat completed its run in October 2013. A casting agent for the David Walliams TV film Gangsta Granny had seen Russell as Alberto Beddini in Top Hat and asked him to audition for a similar character in the movie. He would be first choice for the role of Flavio Flaviolli, in the event that the big star they had in mind didn’t accept, or couldn’t make the filming for whatever reason. Sadly for Russell, Robbie Williams did accept the role, but Russell did get to understudy him and was cast in another, smaller role.

The end of the year was approaching and thoughts were starting to drift back to summer in New Zealand, and again, to settling down. The decision to return home was made.

ImageRussell and Amber, “Top Hat”.

So what’s next for Russell now that he’s back in New Zealand? While working in more conventional employment, he’s also been cast as Sam Carmichael in the Dunedin production of Mamma Mia! in May 2014.

“For me, it’s been an extraordinary adventure. That’s not to say I’d never return if the right opportunity came up. While we love London and have called it home for nearly 7 years, we’ve come back to the place we love most, and where we feel most at home. We’ve got great stories, had incredible adventures.”

Meanwhile, does he have any advice for fellow Kiwis who are also chasing the West End dream?

Regardless of where people are at in terms of their training or experience, the advice Russell has to offer is always the same.

“Be realistic. You need to look at yourself and you need to look at the industry on a regional, national or global scale depending on your aspirations. You are one person in a sea of people who want to do the same thing. Unfortunately because of the number of jobs that are actually available, only a small minority will actually succeed. You might get degrees of success, or you may be one of a handful of people who get ‘the break’. What will set you apart will be:

… How you look, the sets of skills and talents you have, a heap of luck, either knowing the right people or being in the right place at the right time – and how tenacious you are prepared to be.

You’re going to have to learn to take knockbacks, prepare for auditions and be scrutinised, with people telling you that you’re not good enough. You’re probably going to have to take rejection, disappointment and failure, time and time again. This industry is fraught with extreme highs and deep lows. But strange things happen. There are exceptions to the rules everywhere you go, but try to be realistic and in New Zealand especially, make sure that you have something else to fall back on.”

You can catch Russell on stage in “Mamma Mia!”, opening on May 22 at Dunedin’s Regent Theatre.

Article by Charlotte Everett. Photos courtesy of Russell Dixon.

Originally published on NZ News UK.

 

Interview with Don McGlashan – I chat to him ahead of UK tour with Dave Dobbyn

Originally published on NZNewsUK

By Charlotte Everett

Image

Two true Kiwi legends – Dave Dobbyn and Don McGlashan – have come together on stage for the first time, and this weekend sees the start of their UK tour. Don McGlashan took time out of their hectic tour schedule to have a cheeky chat with me ahead of their much-anticipated shows in Edinburgh and London.

Don – you are two of New Zealand’s most successful and best-loved songwriters. To have you sharing the stage together for the first time no doubt has fans all around the world excited. How are you feeling about it, and how has this finally come about?

There was a vague plan for us to do an acoustic show together in Edinburgh a few years ago, and although that didn’t happen at the time, the idea remained hanging in the air like the name of your favourite music teacher at Primary School, who you can’t quite remember, even though she looked like Ingrid Bergman.  Then a few months ago we were asked if we’d consider doing the now-established “Acoustic Church Tour” together in NZ this October. We jumped at it.

Your UK shows follow tours across New Zealand and Australia. How has the response been Down Under?

We got a great response to this show in New Zealand. We haven’t finished the Australian leg of the tour yet, but Melbourne was terrific, so I think it’s going to go well. 

 

What’s it been like working together for the first time?

Brilliant. Learning each one of Dave’s songs is like meeting an old friend.

Neither of you are strangers to the UK and Europe. How are you feeling about returning to the UK, this time together?

I seem to still have a fairly healthy following in the UK, both from when the Mutton Birds lived there in the 90s, and from my solo tours there in the years since. It’s always good to see old friends in the audience.

How do the London fans/shows differ from those back home?

No matter where you are, every audience is different; every night is unrepeatable. That’s why playing live matters so much.

 

Your Edinburgh show sold out, so you’re now doing another one. Did you expect as much? And how do you find the fans in Edinburgh?

I’m always surprised when audiences show up. You can’t take anything for granted in this business. But houses have been pretty full throughout this whole tour; I guess people realise it’s a rare occurrence, and they are interested to see how Dave and I bounce off each other musically.

Fans here know to expect a combination of classic tracks from both of you, as well as new material. How much of the content is new, and how has it been received so far?

We’re both playing a wide range of material across our whole careers, including one or two new songs.  The new ones have gone down very well.

Likewise, what old classics have driven fans wild on the tours so far?

Well, hearing ‘Loyal’ and ‘Anchor Me’ in the same set seems to wipe away any last vestiges of reserve in the audience.

Other than the shows, what else will you get up to in London and Edinburgh?

Eel and Pie in London; Haggis in Scotland.  Oh, and single malts. A lot of research needed there.