By RUBEN MITA

 

When I ring Andrew Keoghan, he’s sitting with a coffee in downtown Auckland after a busy morning of interviews and, as he tells me over the phone, “feeling alive.” The Canterbury-born singer-songwriter has resided in the USA since 2013, but is currently back in Aotearoa to play some shows on the back of last year’s Every Orchid Offering, his quirky and acclaimed second album.

Open and amiable, he is more than happy to spend a quick twenty minutes before his phone goes flat spilling the beans on his latest album, his time in the US, and his outlook on life in general.  

Keoghan received a classical musical education as a child and was trained as an opera singer. He tells me he briefly headed in the direction of opera in his early 20’s, and he feels that his classical training has impacted on the way he approaches making music today. “I don’t quite know exactly how directly it does, but I know it does… I do love the theatricality around opera, and listening to an orchestra bring to life a piece of music. Perhaps that does enter what I do, in terms of some of the arranging and bringing some of the string and brass elements to Every Orchid Offering. But I still approach things, you know, as a song, in a personal sort of way.”

The ten songs that make up Every Orchid Offering were written over the period of several years between NZ and the States, including a brief writing spree out at West Auckland’s Piha Beach, a place he used to “have a bit of space to reflect” and escape the “fury and craziness” of the Big Apple.

“When I moved to New York a few years ago, I didn’t move there in that traditional way of, ‘I’m gonna go to New York and attempt to make it’,” he explains, “it was actually more a chance for me to sort of broaden what I do musically.” This included immersing himself in the masses of different styles of live music on offer there. “It is a real sort of, to use a cliché, melting pot of ability and cultural diversity. I think it’s inevitable that it has changed the way I approach music.”

I point out that the album’s ten songs work together very cohesively considering the long period of time they were written over, and ask if he had this in mind when writing them. “That’s nice of you to say that,” he laughs, but says that no, he didn’t.

“I think that what perhaps helped to hold things together was that I was sort of going through a period of upheaval and change in terms of moving from New Zealand to the States and trying to integrate into this sort of alien environment, and really being an ant in New York… so I think that definitely influenced the songwriting. Coexisting with a lot of people in a small space is probably a recurring theme through the album.”

Another recurring theme is that of identity and sexuality in the 21st Century. This is particularly apparent in They Don’t Want A Boyfriend, a track Keoghan tells me he wrote just before he moved to America, inspired by an event when he observed two teenage girls hopping onto a school bus holding hands in central Auckland. “For me that was like a really wonderful thing, because it was to me a real sign of where we’re at now.”

He compares this to when he was a schoolkid to illustrate the increase in acceptance since then. “I think that there’s more talk and understanding that, you know, we’ve got to let young people do what they want to do and be who they want to be… Especially in the States now, we know that politically things have taken a rather concerning turn, but we as people supporting one another can ensure that at least the climate that people make their choices in is one of support and understanding, and just acceptance that really people have got to be able to do what the hell they want to do. I think that’s a really positive framework for a society.”

Musically, Andrew Keoghan’s work has often been likened stylistically to the 80’s, but he insists that isn’t something he has strived for himself. “’Round the time of making this I’d actually been listening more to mid-to-late 70’s albums. David Bowie’s Heroes was definitely something I was listening to, which for me was that sort of perfect combination of pop sensibility but with more experimental aspects, you know, the Brian Eno influence, soundscapes. It’s almost like an album of two halves, and so that is something I was really drawn to.”

Other mentions in his latest album’s eclectic list of influences include works by The Cure, Roxy Music, Paul McCartney, and most interestingly “the minimalist type music that was coming out of New York in the 70’s, by Philip Glass… repetitive, cyclical, rhythmic sort of things. I wanted that sort of rhythmic component to just be the kind of thread that kept the album pushing forward.”

To present this in New Zealand he’s stripping his live show back to a three-piece, while using the computer program Ableton Live to present the electronic textures of the album, as he has been doing in America. “It seems to work… I think that audiences, we’ve got used to seeing a laptop on a stage now, I don’t think that there’s that same stigma of, “Hold on a second, what I’m hearing is not what I’m seeing played…” While it would be lovely to have a few synthesiser players making us a seven-piece, it’s just not so realistic at the moment.”

Technicalities of touring aside, Keoghan’s musical approach continues to be driven by an ingrained interest in the modern human condition, and this flows throughout Every Orchid Offering. “I’m interested in that sort of line between the comedy and drama of life, you know, and I think that I’m sort of drawn to our clumsiness, I guess in the way that life unfolds… I think that there’s a certain beauty and celebration in that, I don’t think it’s something that we need to fear.”

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