Already one of New Zealand’s most well-known and respected musicians, Fiona McDonald has reached an important point in her musical career with the release of her solo album 'A Different Hunger'. Blessed with a powerful voice and a talent for writing equally powerful songs, Fiona has already reached the top of the charts with The Headless Chickens and the Strawpeople, winning music award accolades as New Zealand’s Top Female Vocalist three times along the way.
This solo album, a couple of years in the writing and making, is long-anticipated by Fiona’s fans. 'A Different Hunger' delivers the goods – immaculate production and playing by the cream of New Zealand musical talent all work to present ‘that voice’ and this woman’s songs in a stunning light.
Fiona McDonald was born in Huntly in 1965. Her early childhood was spent moving around the Waikato with her family of mother, father, two older brothers and younger sister. The family settled in the Auckland suburb of Otara and from age eight Fiona spent three years happily devouring comics and lollies out the back of her parents’ dairy. She made her first public singing appearance aged 10, playing Miss Buttercup in Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore. The McDonalds next moved out of town to Albany where Fiona finally got a horse – a palomino called Pollyanna 14.1 hands high – along with a goat called Seagram, a dog called Gypsy, a cat called Trotsky, lots of chickens, and some pigs…
Attending Carmel College, a Catholic girls school on Auckland’s North Shore, music began to play a bigger part in Fiona’s life – whether it be performing as King Nebuchednezza in the school musical Cool In The Furnace or dressing up as members of Kiss with her best friends. The Ace Frehley gear was soon binned, however, as the Carmel girls fell under the spell of bands like Echo & the Bunnymen and Joy Division, and, in their imaginary pop star hours, decided they would be the next Human League…
After her seventh form year, Fiona headed to Auckland University to start a BA. She ended up spending most of the year away from lecture theatres and tutorials at the music-mad environment of the campus radio station, BFM. And while Fiona made an enthusiastic assistant station manager, by her own admission she was a lousy deejay.
A year later, someone rang BFM to ask whose was the voice singing all those jingles? The caller was from a local band called Diatribe; they were looking for a new singer and Fiona was invited to join her first band, which also featured a young fellow named Greg Johnson. "Although Diatribe weren’t actually playing the kind of stuff that I was really into at the time, it didn’t matter," she says, "… I was very young and just super-excited to be singing in a band."
At the same time as her career as a musician started, Fiona moved on from BFM into a string of classic musician’s day jobs – cooking breakfast in the Auckland Police cafeteria, bank teller, porno bookstore clerk, proofreader for Best Bets…
When Diatribe split into two a few months later, Fiona found herself fronting a new group called Seven Deadly Sins. "Through 1986, we played all over town – from the Black Power nightclub in South Auckland to a special show inside Mt Eden Prison. But when our bass-player Justin Harwood left to join The Chills and tour the world, I decided that I was off too. I left the music career behind and headed for Sydney."
Fiona spent two years living in Sydney and working in a record store. Her last night there was spent singing 'Don’t Go Back To Rockville' with REM in their hotel lobby.
Back in Auckland in 1989, Fiona hooked up with a couple of her old BFM buddies, Paul Casserly and Mark Tierney. They were just beginning their parallel careers as Strawpeople and ace jingle writers and invited Fiona to help them finish writing an ad for Primo drink. After she sang the Primo jingle for them, Paul and Mark asked Fiona if she could work on the new Strawpeople project with them – an album called 'Broadcast'.
"At the time, Strawpeople had a few singers floating around," says Fiona. "I think they got interested in working with me after the Primo ad because I could write songs with them as well as sing. So we got working on finishing their album and in 1990 I was the official third member of the Strawpeople."
Around the same time, another offer to sing came along – this time from Auckland Flying Nun band, NRA. As opposed to the Strawpeople (at that time and to this day, an avowed studio-only outfit) NRA offered a chance that Fiona was eager to take – to sing again with a working live band
Another Flying Nun band making waves in Auckland at the time happened to be Fiona’s favourite band in the world – The Headless Chickens. The Chickens had been working at Incubator studio on their second album for Flying Nun, and their first under that record label’s major funding deal with the Australian record company, Mushroom, when head Chicken Chris Matthews approached Fiona with a problem.
"Chris had a great song called 'Cruise Control' that wasn’t in his key and he had an idea anyway that a female voice shoud sing it," explains Fiona. "I went up to Incubator, sang the track and did backing vocals on a few more songs that formed the basis of the 'Body Blow' album."
'Cruise Control' was released and hit the New Zealand Top 10 in late 1991. The Headless Chickens asked Fiona to join the band full-time (meaning she soon had to quit NRA). At the NZ Music Awards for that year, Fiona was voted Best Female Vocalist of 1991 – a feat she was to repeat again in 1993 and 1995 – and the Chickens swept up the rest of the awards with the hit single and album. Both Strawpeople’s 'Broadcast' and the Chickens’ 'Body Blow' albums soon went Platinum in New Zealand.
Fiona’s voice added some light to The Headless Chickens sound in its contrast to Chris Matthews’ often-menacing presence. As she settled into the band, however, it became obvious that what she brought to the Chickens was more than a sweet voice. Fiona’s presence suited their eclectic blend of elements from all parts of the musical spectrum and in her collaborative songwriting contributions, she was soon adding her distinctive bent of complicated and moody pop.
In 1992, this was proven when The Headless Chickens recorded two new tracks in Australia with American producer, Michael Koppelmann, both featuring writing and lead vocals from Fiona. The tracks were 'Mr Moon', a brilliantly scary piece of modern pop penned by Fiona with Chris Matthews, and 'Juice', a song originally (and appropriately) titled 'Dreamchild' when Fiona had written it with her Strawpeople cohorts, Paul Casserly and Mark Tierney. Both songs were hit singles in New Zealand.
The Headless Chickens racked up more hit singles from 'Body Blow' in New Zealand and continued their assault on Australia with regular tours. They eventually broke that territory when the Eskimos In Egypt re-mix of 'Cruise Control' reached the Australian Top 20 in 1994. Fiona co-wrote the soundtrack to Nicky Caro’s short film, The Summer The Queen Came, with fellow Chickens Michael Lawry and Chris Matthews and wrote more new material with the band.
In 1994, The Headless Chickens planned their assault on Europe, where Flying Nun and Mushroom had set up a London-based operation and planned to push the band. Before they left on a tour that took in the UK, half of Europe supporting Pop Will Eat Itself, and New York, the band recorded a new single Fiona had written. By the time they returned home, their single 'George' was sitting at Number One in the NZ charts, a position it occupied for eight weeks through the summer.
Despite that great success back home, The Headless Chickens had failed to make progress internationally, consigned to a ‘cool, but too alternative to be commercial/too commercial to be alternative’ basket that ironically Mushroom broke a year later with the Anglo-American band Garbage. In 1995, tired of the lack of any new Headless Chickens album recording on the horizon, Fiona announced that she was leaving the band.
"I was working back in a record store when I got another phone call and another strange offer, this time to sing and act in a musical. Now I reckon that on the whole, musicals are naff but these people were doing a version of the amazing Peter Jackson movie, Braindead, and the producer said the music was going to be Nick Cave-y. I figured let’s do something different, get in with a different creative crowd, go and live in Wellington for a couple of months. It was a lot of fun and I learnt something about acting."
After Braindead finished its run in Auckland and Wellington, Paul Casserly approached Fiona and asked her to work with him on the next Strawpeople album.
"I was still too scared to do my own album and liked the idea of working with them again. We started writing an album in 1996 but Mark quit pretty much immediately, leaving Paul and I to write and record the whole thing."
The Strawpeople album 'Vicarious' quickly reached Platinum sales in New Zealand and was voted 1996’s Album of the Year at the NZ Music Awards. In early 1997, Strawpeople went to Australia to play some rare live shows in Melbourne and Sydney and they also released a remix album called '100 Street Transistors'.
The next phone call came from Television New Zealand, inviting Fiona for a general audition, which soon led to an offer for her to present the TV2 internet show @xtra in 1997.
"Doing the TV show gave me enough money so I could live on my own and spend more time songwriting," Fiona says. "I knew I had to get stuck into it, spending more than just a few hours here and there at the piano, which is where I do all my writing, and get my record underway. It had been waiting round long enough."
By early 1998, Fiona had at last written enough songs to start thinking seriously about her solo album. She recorded demos with Nick Roughan (a member of the Skeptics and producer for acts like DLT, Bailterspace, Shihad and The Headless Chickens). Some of the new songs were given a live airing in mid-1998 when Fiona played a couple of sold-out acoustic shows with Jan Hellreigel.
In July, the start for an album producer began. Fiona and Flying Nun settled on an Englishman named Robin Hancock, who had worked with the likes of Bomb The Bass, Depeche Mode, Seal and Madonna.
"Robin was very keen to make the record. I went over to London in October to meet him and start some pre-production for recording. We sat at his house with an acoustic guitar and keyboard, going through the process of stripping the songs back and getting the arrangements right."
Fiona and Robin next hooked up with a young programmer/engineer named Steve Hilton, highly regarded for his work with Depeche Mode, Bjork, and Massive Attack cohort Craig Armstrong. In a studio at London’s leading recording facility, Metropolis, they put together the basis for Fiona’s solo album, 'A Different Hunger'.
"Getting away from New Zealand for this part of the process ended up becoming incredibly important," Fiona says. "It changed my focus from making a record with inevitable New Zealand limitations in mind – I felt like I was making a record for more than my friends and family.
"The guys also had an instant feel for developing my songs in the right direction. Straightaway, Steve was adding a lot of the kind of atmosphere and sounds with a groovy but spooky feel that I really wanted on the album. It was intense work – stuck in a studio six long days a week – but the results were wonderful. After a month there, I was incredibly happy with the recordings but homesick and looking forward to working back in the New Zealand summer."
The next stage in the recording involved bringing Robin Hancock out to record live instruments and vocals at Auckland’s York Street studio. Fiona enlisted a huge array of local musical talent to play on tracks through the weeks of recording sessions. Shihad’s Jon Toogood and Tom Larkin spent a day adding guitars and drums where some noisy rock was required. Some of Auckland’s top jazz musicians, including Greg Johnson, guitarist Joel Haines and keyboardist Kevin Fields, provided some live colour for the album’s grooves. Victoria Kelly led members of the Auckland Philharmonia through an intense weekend’s work adding live strings to a number of tracks. After finishing the last vocals at five am on the last night of the session, Fiona and Robin headed straight to Melbourne’s Sing Sing studio to mix the album.
"We ate eggs benedict every morning and chuppachups all day long in the studio," says Fiona. "All the time, I was amazed at the job Robin was doing. By this stage there were up to 48 tracks of instruments and vocals on some songs and he had a huge array of sounds to mix. But we always knew he had the skills of course."
The first single 'Sin Again' was released in March 1999 and reached number seven in the NZ chart. That month, Fiona played her first gigs as Fiona McDonald. She was backed by a band including Headless Chickens’ bassist Bevan Larsen, guitarist Joel Haines, drummer Wayne Bell, and a young keyboardist named Chrissy Diamond. Fiona had met Chrissy when she produced a song for Chrissy’s band Halogenic as part of the TV3 show, Get Your Act Together. 'Damage Control', the second single, was released in June as Fiona was putting finishing touches on the album.
"Making a solo album is a difficult but rewarding experience," says Fiona. "It has taken me a long time to come out of working in bands to reach this point. I’ve had a lot of amazing collaborators and support on 'A Different Hunger' but it’s ultimately going to sit there with just my name on it and that’s incredible but scary too.
"I’m writing about what interests me on a personal level. I wanted to write about relationships and I also wanted to write about sex from a woman’s perspective. It’s all serious, yeah, but that’s the kind of songwriting I’m into – artists like Elliott Smith, PJ Harvey, people with something to say.
"I love pop stuff too, but I try to let that come through more in the music than the lyrics. Pop is a flavour on my album, so is crazy rock, a lot of groovy stuff and the weird soundtracky feel that we had in The Headless Chickens and Strawpeople too."
The twelve songs on 'A Different Hunger' all reveal something about Fiona, whether they are stealing a bit of imagery from her Catholic schooldays or copping a few musical styles from her past and everybody’s present. It’s got attitude, it rocks, it’s sweet and it grooves… just like Fiona McDonald.
Fiona McDonald was also one of the NZ Idol judges in 2004.
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Location: Bay of Plenty
Bless them all
Posted: Sun Mar 6, 2011 10:58 am
Have just heard Fiona McDonald singing "Bless Them All" on TV, It was beautiful. Thank you Fiona, I love the way you sang that, is a fabulous version.. Move over Vera Lynn.
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