Lockdown 2 – Tried To Wave Hello: The Music of SJD

Today is the fourth full day of our Level 4 lockdown in New Zealand. As expected, our cases of Covid-19 continue to rise exponentially and now stand at 514. There are 9 people currently in hospital, and today we are mourning our first death.

I’m not actually sure what day of the week it is. The novelty of being at home has not yet worn off completely but we sit at an uneasy point in this quarantine process where the NZ Police are still using humour to convey the need to stay isolated and there is an online form where people can report ‘lockdown outlaws’… yet the Military has been activated.

Reports of young people having Covid-19 parties and windsurfing are circulating on social media, and mature people are shaking their fists at the sky before rushing back inside to wash their hands again.

I’m grateful for social media, and grateful to have a wide variety of political perspectives represented in my news feed. In our highly opinionated world, crisis is a good litmus test for character. However, even as some opinions evolve, others regress as time wears on. It’s interesting to see how the shutting down of physical borders has a parallel effect on intellectual ones.

Outside, it’s a beautiful, crisp, autumn day with clear blue skies and more birdsong than usual. I have woken in a pointy frame of mind… fidgety, short-tempered and distracted… thoughts scattering to the four corners.

If there was ever a songwriter worth turning to for clarity under these circumstances, it’s Sean James Donnelly (SJD) – a songwriter and producer who filters existence through such a uniquely intelligent lens, and who has created such an embarrassment of musical riches over the course of his career, that it almost hurts.

From SJD’s 2019 series of Miniatures (Short Songs for Short Attention Spans)

I first met Sean in 1998 through a mutual friend – Andrew Dubber – who was producing a sci-fi radio drama called Claybourne for Radio New Zealand. Andrew had asked me to compose the music in collaboration with Paul Casserly who I was in a band with at the time. However Paul had become busy with other things so we’d arranged to meet at Andrew’s and make a new plan. It was here that I was introduced to Joost Langeveld which was a happy meeting indeed, and perhaps a story for another time..

(You can hear Joost’s and my opening theme for Claybourne HERE – note the Jerry Goldsmith homage. All 96 x five minute episodes are also here… a bit of fun if your brain needs filling with a wonderfully esoteric example of 90’s NZ storytelling on this socially distant day.)

Andrew lived in a loft apartment on Lorne Street – a central city street lined with art, fashion and nightclubs. The apartment had wooden floors and exposed brick. Every night, heavily perfumed young people circled each other on the streets below, smoking cigarettes and making aloof pilgrimages to throbbing bars.

My 25 year old self was utterly entranced by how intoxicatingly similar this place was to how I imagined New York to be… a preconception based entirely on my memory of Madonna’s boyfriend’s flat in ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ (I am not now, nor have I ever been, a ‘cool’ person).

Easily distracted… I have just googled Desperately Seeking Susan to indulge my recollection of seeing this film for the first time at the age of 12 – dressed in lace gloves and a newsprint t-shirt – only to discover that one of the film’s stars, Mark Blum, died two days ago of complications due to Covid-19.

As Andrew, Paul, Joost and I sat talking, the sound designer for Claybourne – a curious, introverted psychiatric nurse who I had yet to meet – was sequestered in a cupboard at the back of the apartment, mucking around with samples on Andrew’s computer. At one point in the evening, he emerged and wandered through the lounge to get himself a drink, pausing briefly to offer an anecdote about one of the many prescription medications he’d tried – experimentally – in the course of his line of work.

‘Who the hell is that guy, and what on earth is he doing?’ I asked Andrew.

THIS was the answer.

And thus began my life-long love for the music of SJD.

The thing that Sean was making in Andrew’s cupboard was ‘3’ – a harbinger of the brilliant career to come (a career which, of course, is still unfolding). It can be found and purchased HERE in its fullness.

Years passed and then, at Andrew’s again (Andrew was now living in Sandringham because everyone gets older), I saw Sean at a party.

Sean had released his second album ‘Lost Soul Music’ to richly deserved adulation from critics and student radio.

The music video for ‘Tree People’ by SJD

Listen to ‘Tree People’ HERE on Bandcamp for better sound quality.

I mean… the lo-fi crackling, bass-line ambling, pitched-up intro, pitched down commentary, faux-American accent, blissed-out string sample, hand-made puppetry, glockenspiel solo, sine-wave melody, wiggling cardboard bottoms… it’s beautiful, right?

In passing at Andrew’s party, Sean asked me if I’d be keen to write string arrangements for the album he was working on next… Southern Lights.

Of course I was.

The music video for ‘Superman You’re Crying’ by SJD

I still believe that ‘Superman You’re Crying’ is one of the very finest songs that anyone has ever written. I think it should have won every music award in the country when it was released. Listen to it HERE on Spotify for better sound quality.

In Prince-like fashion (the highest compliment I can offer) everything in this track and on this album, like most of Sean’s work, was made and produced by Sean himself – perhaps with the exception of Sandy Mill‘s lovely backing vocals and my own humble string arrangements.

As an aside (and Sean will say I am misrepresenting him here but I will plough on anyway and apologise to him later) Sean once told me that he’s never been that keen on Prince. I mean, Sean likes Prince well enough… but he’s certainly not in the same ‘restraining order’ category of fandom as I am (although this is by no means a fair criteria for comparison). Still, this missed musical connection has always astonished me because I do hear spiritual similarities between SJD and Prince – not least because Sean is a great bass player. And while Sean may not have chosen the funk himself, I know in my heart that the funk chose him.

As a case in point, I give you ‘Bad Karma in Yokohama’. You can listen to it HERE on Spotify for better sound quality.

The music video for ‘Bad Karma in Yokohama’ by SJD

What makes Sean’s music so distinctive is that it’s so tightly and beautifully controlled in its construction, yet so boundless in its imagination. Worlds within worlds. Listen to all the gorgeous detail. It’s extravagant but never wasteful. I think this beautiful balancing act is why SJD is so critically celebrated. It’s also why I fervently wish that he was at least as commercially successful.

Who else would even think to call a song ‘Bad Karma in Yokohama’ and follow this titular opening line with a lyric like ‘jazz fusion causing me confusion’? And why is this genius?

By way of explanation, here is Weather Report. Weather Report is jazz fusion.

In a perfect piece of timing, one minute after I started up that Weather Report track (Teen Town) my 13 year old daughter emerged from her bedroom with a look of such complete and utter confusion that I had to take her into my arms and tell her everything would be alright. Such is his prescience that, back in 2007, Sean articulated something that my daughter didn’t know she would feel about something that I didn’t know she would hear.

To further demonstrate my point about Sean’s lyrical gifts – but in a more serious way – here is one of the most beautiful things you might ever hear or read:

On The Driveway

Another brand new year, for hours now it’s been

a bright and a merry scene

Deflating in the corner to distorted disco tunes, drunk uncles breathing fumes

Oh such sweet dreams are coming our way, let’s sing our songs of good cheer on the driveway

Oh such sweet dreams

How strange to see the moon’s reflection in piss puddles by the porch

They inch along the weatherboards

Strangers laughing in the kitchen, sloppy kisses in the hall, but I found the softest place to fall

Oh such sweet dreams are coming our way, we sing our songs of good cheer on the driveway

Oh such sweet dreams

Love all around you, and you most of all

I want to say that Sean’s singing voice is not perfect, but I also want to say that it is. The wobbly softness of it transforms his melodies and lyrics from the acerbic insights of a distant genius into the reassurances and consolations of a best friend. To deliver these songs without his beautiful, warm frailty would be to render them dishonest.

This is why you can turn to SJD in the midst of a global pandemic – when we are all more alone yet more entwined than ever (the perfect SJD paradox) – and find genuine solace and comfort in his tricky, cheeky music. He wrote these songs for you, recorded them for you, observed the ordinary and turned it into the transcendent for you.

So I really think you should pour yourself a glass of something crisp and cold – perhaps at dusk one evening. Be sure to also wrap a warm blanket around yourself. And then watch the sky change colour with this chronological SJD playlist that I prepared earlier:

PS: Sean’s favourite Prince song is ‘Joy in Repetition‘ from Graffiti Bridge. It’s a strong choice.

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