Its biggest song is about an American legacy family and its second hit is about the cold war. Yet despite the global and political concerns of (Glad I'm) Not a Kennedy and Soviet Snow, Shona Laing's 1987 album South remains a true Kiwi classic.
Now that designation has been made official with Laing's synth-powered album being named winner of this year's Independent Music NZ Classic Record award.
"It's a real buzz," Laing tells TimeOut over the phone. "It's an album that, looking back on my career, was probably the highlight in many ways. The whole recording process had a defiant independence about it. We were crazy and made a rule that there were no rules. It was a wonderful moment of unfettered creativity."
South marked Laing's arrival home from a life in London and some time in Manfred Mann's Earth Band. She'd left a major label and signed to local indie Pagan Records, whose manager Trevor Reekie got her in the studio and then got out of her way.
"He has got to be included in the wonder of it all because he said, 'just go for it'. I think we only ever saw him in the studio once in six weeks," she laughs.
Laing's memories of recording the album are fond. She'd record basic demos of songs on a Walkman at her home and then take them into the studio the next day. Because the album was, in her words "machine based", they'd be reworked in the studio using various synths, predominately the then brand-new E-mu Emulator II sampling synthesiser which was used for everything from strings, horns, perky arpeggios, and even the album's drums.
"We'd spend hours going through samples. We must have wasted days just listening to snare sounds," she grins.
While known as a guitar player, on South Laing played all the synths and programmed the majority of beats herself, even though she had no formal drumming know how.
"When I first started writing drums they didn't make any sense at all," she laughs. "Then I realised what a drummer is actually doing and knowing where his foot was and where his hands were."
All of this fed into her biggest hit, the globally beloved classic (Glad I'm) Not a Kennedy which, in an interesting twist first appeared on Genre, the album that preceded and set the template for the synth sound of South, before being reprised for Laing's later album.
When asked if she remembers when inspiration for the song struck she answers, "Yeah, I do. Because it was one of those lightening bolts."
"I think it was 1984 and Edward Kennedy was involved in the Democratic Primary and I hadn't seen him for years. When I saw him I couldn't believe how unwell he looked. He was the baby of the Kennedy family and he looked old and puffy and half dead. When I saw him I said those words out loud, 'I'm Glad I'm not a Kennedy,' and when they came out of my mouth the sequenced synth part – the ding-ding-ding-ding – went off in my head. The first verse was written in the time it took me to get to my gear in the other room. It was pretty quick."
In a surprising admission, she says she wasn't particularly enamoured by the song after recording it.
"To be perfectly honest, I never really rated it," she says. "It didn't feel like I'd put the work in, say, compared to another song that might be more special to me and took three days. But from the very minute that people heard it, their ears pricked up and they'd say 'wow, that's interesting'. The whole idea just blossomed."
The song famously includes snippets of poignant speeches from former American President John F Kennedy that fit so perfectly you'd think it was planned that way. But Laing says that idea was suggested by a random dude who just happened to be hanging out in the studio that day. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Shona Laing. Photo / Supplied.
Looking back on South today she describes it as an album that's "full of confidence".
"It's weird. I was pretty sure that I knew what I was doing. It's like the manifestation principle; I made it happen because I thought it would," she says. "It was a time of buoyancy and hope and infinite possibilities, in the making of it and what happened with it. It had a natural momentum that kept me going for a couple of years. It was wonderful."
Laing will receive the award at the Taite Music Prize awards ceremony on April 20. Details of how the event will take place are for the meantime being kept under wraps.
- text by Karl Puschmann