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New Zealand Music Features


Jay Clarkson has been recording and performing music in New Zealand for many years, and she continues to do so. We asked Jay to give us the back story on a number of photos and letters we've unearthed from the archives, as well as what she has in the pipeline. 

What musical things have you been up to lately? I hear you have quite a few releases planned for this year?

That’s right, we’ve been recording - Jay Clarkson & The Containers, that is. What with the whole Covid thing there weren’t many gigs last year and in Levels 4 and 3 we didn’t have our weekly practices either, which we all missed heaps. Playing in a band is good therapy! Or bad, I guess, if you don’t get on. But we’re all rather mature now so the angst and paranoia is pretty well gone. We play cos we love it. So, yeah, the basics for an album worth of songs have been laid down. We’re calling it: “FALLING THROUGH.” Powertool Records is going to release it on CD, vinyl and digital.

The songs I write for The Containers definitely reflect the state our world is in. Most of them, anyway. Some of the lyrics are quite blatant, quite different from the camouflage and smoke screens I dodged behind in, say, They Were Expendable. I don’t tend to write about me me me these days. I’m more at peace with myself and less inclined to hold others responsible for my mental health. Trump and his like aside!

In 2018, we also recorded a couple of songs at Tom Bell’s beautiful studio in Port Chalmers and Independent Woman Records is going to put these tracks (Wakey Wakey World & Tangled Up & Bleeding) out on a 45" when they can. Like most labels they have a bit of reorganising and catching up to do due to Covid.

The other release (March/April) I’m pretty damn happy about is my 1999 album KINDLE being reissued on vinyl! A new(ish) Melbourne-based label Rose Hobart approached me. KINDLE has only been available on CD and digital thus far. People seem to have a true fondness for this wee collection of songs. I did it all on a 4-track, and I found the process quite liberating at the time. 

Gig-wise, we’re just getting going again really. Port Chalmers and Wellington in February. The Crown in Dunedin in March, with Seafog. Opening for The Bats when they next do Dunedin & Christchurch. Plus Alan Haig and I perform as a duo, Jaal:- keys, guitar and vocals, and we’ve been asked to perform at a private soirée in the Maniototo, opening for Shayne Carter. Always good to see Shayne Carter play.

Hoping to get up to Auckland soon. Andrew Maitai (Powertool Records) wants us to play at UFO. I also like performing at the Audio Foundation and the Wine Cellar. Plus The Others Way Festival is one we are keen to be part of.

  • Friday 5th of Feb - Jay Clarkson And The Containers at The Gallery, Port Chalmers. Info here
  • Sat 13th of Feb - Jay Clarkson And The Containers w/ Cookie Brooklyn And The Crumbs at Moon, Wellington - Get tickets here.


They Were Expendable (Approx 1983) - tell us about these photos?

Kaye Woodward did some photo shoots for a few bands around then: Mainly Spaniards, and one or two others including Expendables and later on Breathing Cage (plus she was employed by Farmers pre-Christmas to take those child-on-Santa’s-knee pictures!). But looking at these two photos now, wow, weren’t we fresh and young and lovely! Hard to tell that each of us was, in our own way, rather anxious. But hey - you lose yourself in the playing of the songs and there was, I believe, a subconscious thankfulness for this that we individually had and it held us together. For a time, anyway. Dave Toland, what an ace rock drummer. He had been The Playthings drummer too, of course; and Nicky Strong, a superb, unique bass player. That bass line for the title track of the Big Strain EP is bloody marvellous.

The picture in front of the cathedral - was that around '86? What was going on there? Also the solo photo with the wire grill/staircase.

Yeh, could have been '86, maybe. My first solo album was due out with Flying Nun. Pretty sure Roger’s brother Simon took these. I learned something from this series of photos he took of me. I got quite a shock when I saw them. That beseeching look in my eyes! I had no idea this was how I was representing myself. I could get all analytical as to why I looked like that but I won’t. I’ll just say I am glad to be over the innate lack of trust I harboured.

This photo on the stairwell is, I think, taken in the building where Flying Nun was set up at that time. In the Christchurch Square. I used to go up there quite often. Check out the new releases. It was always interesting seeing how the artwork for this or that cover turned out. Whether the colour had turned out ok! Pretty much all the covers were drawn by a band member, or the photo used was taken by one. Although the Big Strain EP cover was a photo Dave Merritt and Roger Browning (if I am remembering correctly) found in an old car manual!

This is all pre-computers, or just at the very start of home computers. Commodore 64s sort of thing. Hardly anybody had one. We did free-hand lettering. We also used Letraset for posters and covers! For those who don’t know I guess you could describe Letraset as a page of alphabet transfers? It was quite expensive. And after two or three posters the letters forming the name of your band were all used up and then inventiveness was required to turn other letters into what you needed. Like u could be n. o with I joined onto it could be a. W could be M. But there was a limit and my young son Sam would dance with joy when I handed over the leftovers to him (fast forward several decades and he is now a website designer and designs The Containers posters and album covers). Right from the word go The Gordons did great posters. The Jefferies Brothers too. Paul Kean did some wonderful screenprints for The Playthings. Classy stuff. What a hive of activity the alternative music scene was round then! 

The Breathing Cage photos - tell us about these? Why a skateboard in one? 

If I’m not mistaken Ian Dalziel and Sally Mekalik took these out on the back lawn at my house at 25 Austin St, Waltham (where many a touring Flying Nun band stayed!). They utilised the half-completed carport, hanging up the sheet to great effect.

I have to say the photo of the four of us sporting mischievous little smirks is one of my favourite band photos ever. When Breathing Cage reunited for a couple of gigs in 2017 to perform the songs from Misericord it was such a pleasure to revisit the beautiful arrangements - which had simply come about because of the combination of the musicians: Gary Sullivan, Michael Kime, Greg Malcolm and myself.

Not sure why I am holding my son’s skateboard. A wee aside - that carport also stars in The Jean-Paul Sartre Experience video for I Like Rain. It was dressed up using good ol’ aluminium milk bottle tops leftover from the bottling factory. In their early days JPSE also went to quite a bit of effort to make the stage atmospheric for their gigs. Often a Len Lye movie was played while they performed. The first band I saw who showed movies while they performed was Fetus Productions. Blew my tiny mind. It was edgy stuff. 

Bonus question: The letter to Roger. What was going on in relation to this letter? Were letters the main means of communication back then?

Reading this letter I sent Roger back then, well, yep, things were pretty informal. Roger was/is a friend. I mean before the move to Auckland he’d come round for Sunday roast and we’d all watch Radio With Pictures and then the Hammer horror movie. I don’t know if other Flying Nun band people wrote to him in this informal manner but I would imagine so. I do recall visiting the Flying Nun office on Queen Street in the first year and Roger showing me a drawer full of cassettes he had been sent to listen to. It was a bit overwhelming!

This particular letter will be to do with a QE II Grant. Must have been for Breathing Cage. The rules for grants can be so anal, but Brendon Smythe was a great guy and I usually just wrote him pretty straight-forwardly if there were minor changes in our meeting those rules 100 per cent. In this case, in our application I must have included a tape of Breathing Cage mark one when Graeme Jefferies was the second guitarist. At the time of applying though Greg Malcolm had taken over from Graeme. So nothing too shady, but still it needed to be acknowledged. 

Phone calls were the other main way of communicating. Fucking toll calls! Sometimes I was so broke the phone would get cut off. Actually sometimes Flying Nun was so broke the phone was disconnected! We were all doing this music we loved on the smell of an oily rag. If you want to do it you will do it. I’ve seen musicians passionate about making music transform the sound of a shit instrument into a vehicle of great expression. I did some work as a mentor in Intermediate schools for the New Zealand Music Commission some years ago and part of the deal was that first up you did a lunch time concert for kids who were keen to come along. Then out of that three or four children would be chosen to form a band which, ideally, writes a song and then plays it at the school’s assembly. The mentor would have five sessions to make it happen. Anyway, this drummer who was flatting with me at the time, Steve Rusak, myself and Stef Animal (on bass) formed a trio, just for this one-off performance. Well, Steve didn’t have a kit and the drum kit at the school was pretty much a toy one. But he transformed it! 

The guitar I’m playing these days is a Kramer Striker, usually to be found in metal bands I am told! My Swiss/Kiwi nephew, Stefan Oberli, spent six months back in New Zealand five or so years ago and first thing he did upon arriving was buy a guitar! He left me the Striker when he went back. He put an album out couple of months ago called Far Away From All Of This. My sister in Switzerland has a band too. And younger brother David is an Artistic Director of physical theatre. His company Box of Birds present works involving aerial performance and dance. Music seems to be in our blood.


  • Yes, a Jay Carkson retrospective is overdue! A truly unique voice, a great guitarist and brilliant songwriter; I would love to see a well-curated and documented collection of her work.

    Raewyn Glynn on

  • Jay is a global treasure! Her music has a timeless quality and can be energizing, tantalizing, revealing and relaxing from song to song. I can’t wait to hear her new material with her super-group, and Flying Nun really MUST reissue the complete works of They Were Expendable / The Expendables, or better yet just put out a Jay box set!

    Mitchell Dickerman on

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