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Piano player comes home

harry at the piano

by Harry Hodgman
My last memory of Wellington before moving to Melbourne was performing three consecutive concerts at Tuatara The Third Eye, the final gig being about twelve hours before my one-way flight to Melbourne.

I hosted these three concerts with some other incredible Wellington artists:Violet Hirst, Lucky Jim, LOST BiRD, Connor Moore, DOONS and Benji’s Palace. I was even lucky enough to have my dearest friend, Kat Ralph, come on stage to sing a duet of KD Lang’s cover of the Beatles song ‘Golden Slumbers’.

Tuatara was a perfect venue for live music. No distractions of a bar upstairs, just couches and musicians. Sadly, it closed last year and Wellington lost a prime venue.

One of my long running issues with Wellington, especially being the alleged creative capital, is the lack of pianos and venues in general. When I started playing bars as a teenager, I did sets entirely on guitar – which is odd for a piano player. It wasn’t until I moved to Dunedin that I managed to perform regularly on a piano at Dog With Two Tails, and in some unusual places wherever Adrian Mann & I could get a piano. One winter, we busked from the top of Baldwin Street to Wanaka and Queenstown, stopping to play on the Crown Ranges along the way.

harry and te papa piano

The only other venue apart from Tuatara where I performed in Wellington was on the Michael Parekōwhai Steinway piano at City Gallery. Performing on that piano was magnificent, I’d love to see it on display again when Te Papa will let it out. Talk about art! I’m glad to have the memory (and video evidence) of playing a beautiful instrument and sculpture that collaborates the German engineering of a Steinway, and the native Māori design, surrounded by gorgeous paintings of flowers. I later produced a short concert with my collaborator, Tyler Burke (Whereabouts) where we filmed Bic Runga playing at City Gallery, another iconic piano moment in Wellington.

The main options for piano players in Wellington are either establishing yourself as a classical pianist capable of playing the Adam Concert Room or Michael Fowler Centre, or as a local dabbler playing the little upright at the Welsh Dragon Bar. I remember working as an usher at the St James Theatre and listening to the lunch-time pianist playing some charming crowd pleasers; the James Cook Hotel had a regular pianist similarly.

The other option is being a piano teacher.

For someone like me, who grew up obsessed with Liberace and Rufus Wainwright, there has never really been a playground for anyone other than guitarists here in Wellington. I may or may not hold some resentment towards this city for that lack of opportunity. However, if a city doesn’t feel compatible for me, then no problem – I’ll find one that is.

In 2019, I moved to Melbourne. After seeing the way Melbourne embraced Marlon Williams, I for sure found some decent appeal as a tall, lanky kiwi boy looking to make some music. My flatmate Johnathan Crawford was a electronic music producer, and formerly in a band called Hunting Grounds who shot to fame with Triple J’s Unearthed High 2009. We had some mad jams until 4am a lot of the time, a very unusual end product as you can imagine. I found gigs at a bar in Preston called Ragtime Tavern, a slightly out-of-the-way bar with a baby grand piano on a rotating stage. Not the busiest venue, but on a Wednesday night I’d be there playing my gay hymns and eclectic arrangements of obscure cover songs.

I already had one songbook of demo styled songs published, and I’d finished writing all the music for my second: Sadness & Horror for piano and voice. I spent many hours in Melbourne designing stupidly intricate details of the cover art. I was writing and performing songs, old and new. Melbourne had a romantic tide of creativity through subcultures in and around the city. Although it shares a similar, but slightly less restrictive amount of opportunities to play piano as Wellington does, it is for sure a place of inspiration and value for the, shall we say, more alternative performers. Well, with less mainstream appeal, anyway

There was a new and incredible venue opened that June called Tempo Rubato. An old warehouse in Brunswick turned into a modern classical piano dive without any of the traditional formalities that come with classical music. They hosted free concerts every Friday with severely talented local pianists, playing an Australian-made Stuart & Sons piano. I couldn’t quite convince them to let me take over the place on a Monday night to play some contemporary singer-songwriter tunes, but I was happy to enjoy a beer there every Friday and even see some brilliant artists like Michael Leslie, Josh Hooke, and Jenny Lu.

In early 2020, I was working a colourless day-job at a pharmacy. It wasn’t the most ideal place to be – a pharmacy in Melbourne during a pandemic. Australian politics were very confronting, and as the cases of Covid-19 were doubling every day, and as the world’s border securities started to react, I had to make a very panicked decision. My family in NZ were calling me back. All the effort I had worked towards in starting to establish myself in Victoria was in jeopardy.

On Friday March 21st, I quit my job that day, packed up all my things and flew back to NZ on the 23rd.

This was the biggest decision of my life, throwing away all I had been working on, to potentially be stuck in NZ for who knows how long, and to conceive starting again in Melbourne or somewhere else entirely. I cried the first night back, and spent my 25th birthday in isolation. A few weeks later, I bought a BMW F650GS, and in June I rode solo to Dunedin and back. On that trip, I felt the urge to finish the artwork for Sadness & Horror. So when I returned to Wellington (driven by distaste of riding in the rain), I finished the cover art for the songbook and published it.

One thing I am grateful to have found from the lack of piano opportunities in Wellington is the expanse of social media. I have a piano at home, and all the social media platforms – who the hell can stop me performing then? I started doing weekly livestreams on Instagram and growing an online audience from all around the world. I have rarely found recognition in the music I make, and I am extremely grateful to have found such a rewarding and generous response from strangers online – without taking my clothes off.

These days, I’m working on writing a third songbook for piano and voice, called ‘’Little Dirty Cinema’’. A collection of songs based on a street in a fictional city, telling the stories of derelict buildings and their shady clientele. I’m also working on a project with Jason Parker, and making plans to record a solo debut album. I’m keeping the online content flowing. If you’re not enticed by the cynicism by now, I’d still encourage having a look and listen to my work to see some art that isn’t so common down in this hemisphere.

I’m moving back to Melbourne in February, if their situation stabilises by then.

One-way ticket booked.

Again.