“When it’s good it’s worth it, but there sometimes is a bit of toil. It’s not lucrative, that’s the main thing.” One thing about Hayden Donnell is that he’s upfront and honest about the difficulty and work that goes into his music. “I just picked the two worst possible industries to be in if you want to get any money,” he laughs, “music and writing.”

The frontman and central creative force behind Auckland’s folk outfit Great North is sitting against a wall tucked around the back of a building on the outskirts of the Auckland Folk Festival, seeking shelter from the punishing sun on a small green deck. The sound of three-part harmonies and frenetic strumming drifts over the roof, setting the atmosphere as the singer-songwriter opens up about songwriting, folk music and his group’s musical future.

The band have previously played at the Auckland Folk Festival for the Tui Awards ceremonies in 2013 and 2015, but 2017 is the first time they’ve been included on the main lineup. “We’re doing two year shifts,” he jokes. “We’re really looking forward to the 2019 show. It’s gonna be a doozy.”

I ask if he could predict what might change for the group by the next time they play, if they do indeed stick to this mathematical pattern. “I’m not sure,” is his vague response. “Maybe things will have stepped up a bit.”

This certainly seems likely – the band are on the verge of their first overseas tour, comprising “30-ish” shows around Europe with fellow Auckland folk singer Will Wood, a prospect Donnell describes as “interesting, even if we’re not successful.” The singer has been friends with Wood since Great North toured with Auckland artist Luckless, who he was playing drums for. “He organised the whole tour, he’s a great guy.”

Despite the fickleness of the local music industry, Donnell claims that their success with the Tui Folk Awards hasn’t added any extra weight to their future work. “The only pressure would be if I was really deeply embedded in the folk scene maybe, but that’s not really the case. I’m probably a little bit of an outsider still.” However, the knowledge of their growing listening platform certainly has changed the way he experiences songwriting. “It’s hard to keep the audience out of your mind.”

Donnell’s anecdotes, even as an apparent ‘outsider’, reveal the large spread of the contemporary folk audience and the increased fracturing of the term ‘folk’ in modern music. “You’ll have traditional folkies that don’t want… electric instruments. I played with drums once and that was very controversial here. It was like Bob Dylan goes electric sort of thing.”

Yet it’s fair to say the genre’s devotees are increasingly progressive, and for the most part accepting of the increasing diversity of music under the ‘folk’ banner. “I used it because it felt like a broad enough church to encompass our music,” explains Donnell. “I’ve never quite fitted in [one] genre, maybe because I’m quite a romantic thinker or whatever, I always just thought, “Oh I’ll just do whatever comes out organically and see what happens”.”

Despite this seemingly intuitive approach, he continually refers to the work and effort behind his songwriting. “I adhere to a mixture-of-magic-and-toil approach,” he summarises. “You know, you’ll play the same chord fifteen thousand times, and fifteen-thousand-and-one there’ll be something magic about it and you’ll hear something. But you have to toil to get to that moment of inspiration.The regularity of these moments are what has essentially determined the cycle of Great North’s album releases. “I find it very difficult to write when I’ve got another album in the can, ready to go. I find that I always have to get it out and then I can write again. It’s like, you know, you have to give birth.” He laughs. “I know a lot about giving birth, obviously.”

The band collectively “gave birth” to their latest full-length, Up In Smoke, in 2014. “I kind of went in with a set of influences and a kind of style I wanted to play, which is actually kind of slight Dad-rock, 80’s Americana, kind of fun, slightly cheesy stuff… I want to do the cheesy thing, some of the stuff that makes you cringe a little bit and try and explore it. “

These personal interests are largely what has shaped Great North’s output, as their process involves the frontman bringing in the songs already fully formed. “A lot of people try and collaborate and have equal distributions of power and all that sort of stuff, but I’ve always preferred a band as kind of a benevolent dictatorship, sort of like Singapore or something,” he laughs.

Despite these dictatorial aspirations, Donnell’s appreciation for his audience and self-awareness of his work as a performer are distinctively grounded and blue-collar, as are his memories of his earliest musical aspirations. “To stand on stage and play your music seemed like such a ludicrously outsized thing to expect of people, for them to stand there and listen to you. I guess you can lose that. And people start to think that they earned it and they deserve it and that they’re in some way really special, but it’s just an incredible thing to be able to have the words and stuff that comes out of your brain be appreciated by people for their enjoyment.”

“I spent a long time thinking that you had to be more special than me to be able to play music, and it turns out there wasn’t anything that’s particularly magic.”


Ruben Mita spoke to several acts at this year’s Auckland Folk Festival. Stay tuned for his next interview!