Interview: John Hanlon – An Accidental Pop Star

I found out about John Hanlon’s music years ago like I found out about a lot of vintage rock and roll deep cuts, just browsing YouTube and learning about 60s and 70s rock and pop music from around the world, and I loved what I heard. I’ve briefly discussed his music in my Asians in Classic Rock and Oldies post, you can learn a bit about him and other rock stars there. We at The Diversity of Classic Rock are very lucky to have John Hanlon on the blog here with us to talk about his music. It is not every day that you get to talk to a music legend from the classic rock era and this is a really special treat for you guys and I hope you enjoy this interview and feature. But first, a little background information about John Hanlon.

John Hanlon is a folk-rock musician from New Zealand and one of New Zealand’s most famous musicians of the 70s and one of the country’s first truly successful singer-songwriters. He’s of Eurasian ancestry, his father was from New Zealand of Irish, Scottish, and Swedish descent and his mother was Chinese Malaysian, and he was born in Kuala Lumpur and had a pretty international upbringing: being raised in diverse environments from the jungles of Malaya to growing post-WWII Singapore to peaceful, serene seaside villages in New Zealand to going to boarding school in West Australia. All around, a fascinating life. He’s a man with many artistic talents, not only a great singer-songwriter, he writes poetry and originally trained as a graphic artist. To this day he still enjoys painting and he’s great at it!

He’s best known for his folk music he recorded in the 70s, which has earned him multiple awards: winning New Zealand Album of the Year for 3 years in a row, something no musician has achieved before him or after him! While international music fans may not know his work, once they hear it, they’ll love it and wonder where it’s been their whole lives. He’s basically the Donovan of New Zealand. If you like Donovan, Nick Drake, Bob Dylan, and Simon & Garfunkel, you’ll love John Hanlon.

In the 70s, he was best known for his singles, the environmentalist “Damn the Dam” and his biggest hit “Lovely Lady”. If you like to go beyond the hits and listen to deeper cuts, like I do and love to promote on this blog, I recommend “When Will I Write This Song”, “Platform No. 9”, “Old Fashioned Music”, “Floating”, and “Shy Anne”, from Floating; “On a Hillside in the Rain”, “I’d Rather Be a Bird”, “I Care”, “The Original Hood”, and “Patterns” from Garden Fresh; “Windsongs”, “Apple Wine”, “Higher Trails”, “Mouldy Sunday”, and “Crazy Woman” from Higher Trails; “Nightlife”, “I Still Believe We Can Make It”, and “I Will Take The Sunshine”, from Use Your Eyes.

In 1977, he took a break from music to work in advertising. He came back to music in the late 80s and has released music ever since, even in this decade. So let’s count: 70s, 80s, 2000s, 2010s, 2020s – that is five decades where he recorded albums. There is no doubt that music has changed a lot since the 70s and it’s hard for musicians of yesteryear to get recognition for their new work. In a blog post titled The Reason For My Madness on his website, he spoke frankly about the sad realities of the music industry, which is hyper-focused on what’s new and hip. Entertainment as a whole is a young person’s game and it’s really a shame because people of all ages have interesting stories to tell and by the media keeping a narrow mind, they miss out on compelling stories form people of different walks of life. John Hanlon spent 33 years in Australia before coming back to New Zealand, leaving a music legend and coming back an unknown since the music world kept moving and young people didn’t know much about music of decades past. Luckily with the internet, people have more information than ever before about music and music of the past is better remembered with fan communities and musicians who are still around telling their stories. For John Hanlon, he just wants to be remembered, and it’s not about money or ego. He wants his new music to be just as loved as his old music. When you make music, you want it to be heard and appreciated. When you write a poem, you want it to be read. When you paint something, you want it to be seen. Art is there to make life better and hopefully touch someone.

Recently, he had some music videos made for his old songs and they’re up on his YouTube channel. You can find the one for “Damn The Dam” below:

In July of this year, he released Naked Truths, an album he recorded while struggling with his health, not knowing if he would live or die, thanks to a life-saving kidney transplant and excellent care from doctors, he’s still here with us. It’s a collection of 23 songs, essentially a double album’s worth of music. Very honest, poetic lyrics and a nice mix of music: folk, jazz, soft rock. Some songs I enjoyed are “Everybody’s Talking ‘Bout The Weather”, “Be”, “Muriwai Road”, “On a Boulevard in St Germain”, “Girls Around Here”, “This is New York”, “Things Are Rarely Absolutely True”, “Isn’t It A Lovely Day”, and “Daisy”.

You can stream it on Spotify below.

We’re lucky to have John Hanlon here with us on The Diversity of Classic Rock to talk about his life and music. If you want to learn more about him, keep on reading!

Angie Moon: What musicians and albums were the ones that influenced you most in your career? 

John Hanlon: Growing up in the 50s melodic pop was ever present and melody features in everything I do. But that was basically a subconscious influence. The real uppercut came with the arrival of The Beatles and the turning point was undoubtedly the album A Hard Day’s Night. That’s when I really became interested in who wrote the songs. In the years that ensued I eagerly devoured every Beatles album. Other influences? There are too many to remember but here are a few: Bob Dylan. He had me from the outset and unlike many I was not at all put off when he went electric. Donovan — loved all of his early work. Paul Simon (Simon and Garfunkel) everything they did but remember being totally fascinated by the Bookends album. The Kinks — just great songwriters. Beach Boys — not so much the surfer songs but their later work like Pet Sounds. Joni Mitchell. Everything then and now but especially Court & Spark. Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson, Tom Waits, Gilbert O’Sullivan, Nina Simone, Van Morrison, Cream, Nick Drake, Elton John, David Bowie (got we first with Hunky Dory), The Chieftains, Don McLean, Little Feat, The Band/Robbie Robertson … this list could go on and on and on. 

Angie Moon: How did you get into poetry and music?

John Hanlon: Poetry just arrived out of the ether. One day I wrote a poem. More followed. It just happened. My interest in music was shallow initially. Being pathologically shy, I thought that if I could play guitar and sing Beatles’ songs I would meet girls. Turns out I was too shy to perform live and too incompetent to learn Beatles songs. But you add poetry to an ability to pluck melodies out of the harmonics of guitar chords and suddenly I was a songwriter. Again, no plan, it just happened.

Angie Moon: You moved around a lot growing up, what was your favourite place you lived and why?

John Hanlon: I’d have to say it was Kuala Lumpur in the late 50s. In fact the years we spent in both Singapore and Malaya (including some time in the jungles of Pahang) was the most exhilarating time for us. It was very ‘British colonial’ on one level, but as a Eurasian with Chinese cousins, we really lived in among the people and it was wonderful. Now those countries, like pretty much everywhere in the world, are just huge shopping malls packed with tourists. Sad.

Angie Moon: Growing up, how were you treated as a mixed race person?

John Hanlon: Mostly I as treated like any other boy. There were, of course, exceptions. When I was 8 years old I was asked to leave a family swimming pool in Singapore by an English lady who mistook me for a ‘native’, which is what they called the Malayans. When I was 11 years old I was asked to leave the swimming pool at a member’s club where I was the guest of some Australians. Again it was the English members who had complained that there was a native boy in the pool. The English seemed convinced that my dark skin was sign of dirtiness not pigment ☺

But the worst by far was my time in a boarding school in Perth, Western Australia, between 1961-64. I used to fly down to Perth, (from the jungle in Malaya) in January and return home in December. Couldn’t ring home to moan to my parents. Had to deal with it on my own. It was there that I encountered racism on a daily basis. I became a good fighter and was comforted by the realisation that being of mixed race was like having a built-in arsehole filter. Think about that. None of my friends were racists.

Angie Moon: One of your biggest successes was ‘Damn The Dam’, can you tell the story behind that song and the Save Manapouri campaign?

John Hanlon: At the time I was an advertising copywriter/art director on the cusp of taking the leap into life as a full time singer-songwriter. A client, who knew of my passion about protecting/conserving the environment, asked me if I could write a soft sell radio ad that made the point that insulating homes would dramatically cut energy wastage. So I wrote a two minute jingle that spoke of the environmental impact of building dams. The client loved it. And so did my record company. They all thought it would be a hit. I did not. However since a song that had been an ad would never be played as a single on the government operated radio stations, it was decided to release the single first. Much to my surprise it went to No 3 on the charts. The ad came out months later.

Save Manapouri was an independent movement centred in the South Island. The song came along at a perfect time for them. They grabbed it with both hands. It became irrevocably associated with their cause even though it had never been intended as such.

Angie Moon: Do you think the commercialisation of protest and political songs dilutes the meaning of those songs?

John Hanlon: If the message of a song is valid, it remains valid. Where things go awry is when a song is usurped in the way some Presidential candidates in the USA have used songs for their rallies thereby suggesting they have the support of the artists/songwriter when they clearly do not. As well, changing the lyrics of well-known protest songs for a commercial cause sucks. I once heard this done with ‘The Times They Are A-Changin'”. Awful.

Angie Moon: I see that there was a significant gap between album releases between 1976 and 1988, why did you leave the music industry for advertising and what inspired you to come back to music?

John Hanlon: I never set out to be an entertainer. I was a songwriter who became an accidental pop star. My initial aim in life was to be an artist and I’d attended art school with this in mind. But eventually accepting the reality of my mediocrity I went into advertising where my all round skills stood me in good stead. When my records took off I left advertising and became a full time performer. This was fun until I found I was singing the same handful of songs three or four times a week. My original audience of people interested in the work of a songwriter was replaced by a crowds of people who only wanted to hear the hits. I’d morphed into an entertainer which was never my intention, or my passion. 

As well, my record company refused to negotiate with the international record companies that came after me. They held out for a greater percentage. Since I had no say in this I thought it best to let my contracts expire and wait until I could negotiate myself. This was another reason I left the spotlight. That and the arrival of disco. Hence the world was saved from the sight of me in a jumpsuit and platforms. 

In the meantime I moved to Australia, where I was pretty much unknown, and concentrated on just writing songs. But no one recorded my songs even though they liked my demos. So in 1988 my publishers funded an album made up of my demoes. This was SHORT STORIES. But, in a hilarious case of bad timing, this album was released on vinyl at the very same time CDs were coming into vogue. Bad move.

However, I continued to write songs and publishers chased me, signed me, then did nothing with my songs. It was pretty much the same story every time: The person who signed me would leave the company and all interest in my music would go with them. But I couldn’t get my songs back. It drove me nuts.

I actually crept back into recording in the mid-90s when Russell Finch, a producer/arranger I was working with on an advertising job heard me at the back of the studio working on a song called “Twenty Men in Penguin Suits”. I’d like to produce that, he said. So he did. That was my first foray into programmed music and ‘groove’. I loved what he did. And before I knew it I had been seduced back into the world of recording. At this stage, being co-owner of a successful ad agency, I was able to fund this myself. In other words music became an expensive hobby, which is pretty much what it remains today.

Angie Moon: There were some challenges and roadblocks when recording Naked Truths, when it came to your health. What kept you motivated while recording it?

John Hanlon: My initial motivation for recording the songs that now make up Naked Truths was because, after living for 30+ years in Sydney, Australia, I returned to New Zealand to discover that — despite all I had achieved in my brief career — I had been completely forgotten. I did not exist on any list of Kiwi songwriters I could find online. To a large extent this was my own fault since I’d so emphatically walked away from the stage and not looked back. So — having literally scores of unrecorded songs lying about — I decided to record some for posterity. To leave a reminder that I was — and still am — a potent Kiwi songwriter.

The project began in a relaxed way. I recorded about 40 guitar and voice demoes. The producers Russell Finch in Australia and Bruce Lynch in New Zealand (Bruce is the bass player on Cat Stevens re-releases) chose some tracks to work on, I did not tell them what to do, they chose what they liked. Rough backing tracks were done based on my demoes. I did the vocals seated on a couch in Bruce’s studio (a room in his house) even as my health was failing due to my hereditary renal condition. (I has been on dialysis for years).

Then a transplant came out of the blue. I was so happy. A new lease on life. But after the transplant, things went wrong. I nearly died. Twice. When I knew I was going to live but could have died I decided to put all the songs we’d been working on onto Naked Truths just in case it was the last thing I ever did.

So my motivation was to leave something to posterity. But since then I’ve written more than 20 new tunes so I guess I could go on and on recording– if I could afford it.

Angie Moon: What do you think are the best songs you’ve written recently?

John Hanlon:

On Naked Truths my favourites would be: Everybody’s Talking About the Weather, The Hero, Be, On. Boulevard in St Germain, Girls Around Here, This is New York and Daisy.

I have many more favourites on my retrospective set, After The Dam Broke.

Needless to say, I have a few favourites among the songs I’ve written this year as well ☺

Angie Moon: How do you think the music industry has changed since the 70s?

John Hanlon: Enormously. For a start, there is no respect whatsoever for intellectual property. Once something can be digitally reproduced it is a free for all in every sense of the words. The world of streaming and download only makes the providers rich, the artists get ripped off. Even the gazillion downloaded artists like Taylor Swift are being ripped off. 

Arguably, in the past it was the punters who were being ripped off in that they were paying far too much for CDs. (Although it was record companies feeding at the trough then). But now we are in an age where the writer/performer earns around .007 cents per stream (that’s 7 cents for a 1000 plays) it’s only those who perform live can hope to eke out a living. 

Also songs can now be created in home studios using off the shelf sounds and chord progressions and so forth. Rapping over stolen loops for instance. DJs getting mega rich by remixing the work of other people. But the fact that you don’t need to spend a fortune on big recording studios can be a plus.

Radio has been complicit in its own suicide. Too many stations high rotating songs that are all pretty much the same. All vocals auto-tuned. Forgettable/disposable songs. Too much style without substance. 

That said I do find acts that I love by trawling the internet. Ireland’s David Keenan is one such artist. I have NEVER heard him on the radio here or in Australia. It was the same with Glen Hansard and The Frames. 

Short version, today most mainstream music sucks!

Angie Moon: Who are your favourite musicians from New Zealand past and present?

John Hanlon: I’m not the best person to ask this question. However … In the 70s bands like Split Enz, Hello Sailor, The Dudes, and the Swingers. Songwriters like Shona Laing, John Timberjack Donahue, Brent Parlane. I was out of the country between 1981-2014 but the acts I heard when visiting NZ and liked were: The Dance Exponents, The Chills, Bic Runga, Dave Dobbyn, Don McGlashan, The Beths, Goldenhorse … and today; Nadia Reid, Teeks, Holly Smith, 660, Troy Kingi, Stan Walker …

This was hard to do because I’ve forgotten so many because they don’t really last very long. Musical acts in NZ have often been like Spring bulbs — they bloom brilliantly but their lives are short.

Angie Moon: Do you think it’s more difficult now to get to a point where you can be a musician and make a proper living from it?

John Hanlon: I think so, yes. But I am not really familiar with the ins and outs of the online world. How to gather fans and monetise music and so forth. For me this disconnect began long ago with videos. I missed the video age and the non-existence of John Hanlon videos has played large role in my being forgotten. Now people get famous for just being famous.

As for making a proper living: My wife is a Russian-born classical violinist. A plumber will make more in a 30 minute visit to our house than she will make for three rehearsals and a two hour concert. 

Angie Moon: What is the proudest moment of your career?

John Hanlon: There are two. Both involve songwriting: Winning two APRA Silver Scrolls in succession. And winning Song of the Year in the NZ Recording Industry Awards for three years in succession. 

Angie Moon: What do you want fans of your older music to understand about who you are now?

John Hanlon: In many ways I’m still the same. I still write tunes you can hum with words that matter. But I am a songwriter and like any artist I can’t just paint the same picture over and over again year after year. I will always incorporate some of my hits into my shows, but my new work is good, relevant and valid and I’d love people to understand that. And embrace it.

You can follow John Hanlon on Facebook, YouTube, and his website.

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