"Not many artists have the imaginations of a Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. Or the creative lunacy of a John Prine, Randy Newman or Tom Waits. This is why many good musicians have short careers. It is not as easy to be consistent and creative as you may think. This is Americana music of the highest quality". John Apice, No Depression Magazine U.S.A, on Donna Dean
It’s no secret that many country singers have encountered great tragedy in their lives, or have overcome sharp odds to get where they are today. Many have battled unbearable, unimaginable pain, and it has bled seemingly effortlessly into their work. Lost loved ones, cancer, suicide and scary, unexpected brushes with death are just a few of the events massive country artists like Reba McEntire and Luke Bryan have faced, and then there’s the story of the late Mindy McCready, who’s tale of domestic violence, infidelity and eventual suicide is a study in heartbreak. A lot of artists overcame their obstacles and turned them into positives however, and thankfully that’s the case for much applauded New Zealand country artist, Donna Dean.
Dean is the subject of tonight’s documentary by director Bill Morris, THE SOUND OF HER GUITAR. Dean is one of New Zealand’s most respected, yet little known, songwriters and helped pave the way for a new generation of Kiwi country artists like the incredible Marlon Williams, currently gaining some serious traction overseas. Respected by her peers and revered internationally by those in the know – Donna Dean is perhaps the most famous local singer-songwriter you've never heard of.
The award-winning film of her music and life challenges was a huge hit at the N.Z Doc Edge Film Festival in 2016, and has been celebrated ever since. It begins back in 2013, when filmmaker Morris travelled around the States with Dean, her frequent collaborator John Egenes, and a small band. The idea was to make a portrait of a New Zealand country musician taking her genre back to its spiritual homeland, but became so much more. After landing back in New Zealand the pair met up to film an interview about the tour, but it unexpectedly veered into Dean’s personal history, which can be described as devastating at best.
Dean’s family’s musical history goes back to her maternal grandfather, who played steel guitar in Hawaiian dance bands that frequented Auckland’s dancehalls in the fifties. She says her mother fell in love with country and American folk music, singing songs with Dean’s father around the house when she was young. “I fell asleep to the sound of her guitar,” she sings on the song from which the documentary takes its title, but she also lay down to a much more soundtrack. In Dean's own words, she grew up in a home beset by alcoholism, abuse and violence.
She left school at 15, met a boy, married, and had her first child at 16. It was a marriage that was soon to mirror her parents’ own, unhappy and wrought with violence and addiction. “I chose that,” she says in the film, “it was familiar”. Her husband didn’t like her playing music, so her guitar was abandoned until the marriage broke up. Dean left to seek help for her alcoholism and over time, music started to play a key role in her recovery. Songs started to flow freely from her fingertips and they still do, her voice labelled “haunting”, “heavenly” and “mesmerising” by those who hear it.
The now award-winning artist has toured Germany since 1998 and been a guest at Festival Geiselwind, Germany, Illawarra Folk Festival, Australia and at home in New Zealand, Auckland Folk Festival, and Whare Flat Folk Festival in Dunedin. She has released seven albums (three of which have garnered some New Zealand’s highest honours for recording and songwriting) and has had songs covered by artists in both here and in Germany. The road wasn't easy for Dean, but she has emerged triumphant.
This film reveals how a profound love for music, sheer willpower and determination helped change Dean’s life, and it has been sensitively made. New Zealand music writer Simon Sweetman said that THE SOUND OF HER GUITAR is “brave and beautiful and it also doesn’t outstay its welcome, Morris knowing just how much of the story to share and how to tell it”, and I couldn’t agree more.
THE SOUND OF HER GUITAR premieres Thursday 4 May at 8.30pm on Rialto Channel SKY TV 039
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