Port Chalmers is a little town on a snaky line of peninsula just northeast of Dunedin’s heart. You drive along the coast to get there, with the sparkling blue harbour on your right and the soft green hills on your left, until you reach the container dock, a big concrete pad of reclaimed land loaded with square metal stacks and watched over by two spidery cranes. It’s a beautifully strange and strangely beautiful spot, and one that’s been called home by Dunedin artists and musicians for decades. It’s also where Nadia Reid finds her equilibrium.
She grew up in the port town, with a mum deep in the arts scene – actress, jazz singer, band manager – and friends with their own musical proclivities. She took guitar lessons from her mate’s dad (ahem, Robert Scott of The Clean and The Bats) for a short while, and carved out a little bedroom-composing niche for herself, never really focusing on making a career out of making songs.
‘It was more of an outlet to cope,’ Nadia admits. ‘In my teenage years it was really helpful. And then a couple of people said, “Hey, you’ve got the potential, I think that you should make a record” . . . They saw things that not everyone else did.’
Those people were fellow musicians Hannah (aka. Aldous) Harding, Tim Moore (Von Klap) and producer Ben Edwards, all of whom Nadia credits with encouraging her to take up the slack and focus on output. Edwards went on to produce both of her records, 2011’s Letters I Wrote And Never Sent and 2015’s Listen To Formation, Look For The Signs. Reid says that it’s only over the last three years that she’s become serious about music, about pushing through, keeping on, sticking to it, and a lot of other expressions that really just mean believing in yourself. Having the powerful legacy of Dunedin music behind you could be intimidating, but Nadia’s quiet determination speaks of a very well-honed sense of self, and of her place in the lineage. Her connections to other Otago and Canterbury singer-songwriters are acknowledged not-quite-flippantly. Harding (whose mother, Lorina, was also an important player in the Dunedin music scene of the 90s), Marlon Williams, Delaney Davidson and Anthonie Tonnon (who Nadia’s mum managed in his early days) all have a part to play in the milieu of southern artists beginning to ‘make it’, but she laughs off any deeper connection between the group.
‘It’s hard – people are really interested in this whole “folk from Lyttelton” thing, but I often get really stumped on what to say about it. People are really interested in the fact that Marlon and Hannah and myself and a bunch of others come from this area, and they want to know why or how it happened, but I think it’s just coincidence . . . or is it the climate? It must be environmental . . . I mean when I was living in Auckland I couldn’t write and I wasn’t feeling a lot of things actually, and I think that was part of the desire to shift down here, and, like –’
Get your groove back?
‘[Laughs] Yeah! I came back in the middle of winter and it was quite overwhelming being back on these familiar streets, you know? So perhaps it’s environmental.’
Certainly Nadia understands the effect environment has on creativity; she’s spent the last six years traversing the country, living in every major city, doing stuff and not doing stuff.
‘In 2009 when I left high school in Dunedin I moved to Christchurch, which kind of felt like a natural progression, you know, and I was just working in bars and cafés. But the earthquake sort of shortened my time there . . . Then I went to Auckland, and then I fell in love with someone who lived in Wellington and moved down there, and then of course when it finished I left and moved back to Auckland.’
In the big smoke she worked on her music while waiting tables at Coco’s Cantina, K Road’s famously plucky Italian joint. ‘I found it fascinating. It’s incredible – people can be really amazing, and there are people that are fucking insane, absolutely rude. You get the best kinds of people and you get the worst kinds of people. From Damaris and Renee [the sisters Coulter, owners] at Cocos I’ve learned some of my most treasured skills in working with people.’
So Auckland twice, Dunedin twice, most places in between . . . What’s the takeaway piece of advice from all that?
‘Now, here I am in Dunedin, because I needed a bit of quiet, I think, a slower pace. Place is really important to me in terms of writing. I mean, you’ve gotta be where you feel the most content.’
Indeed, between the bustle of a critically acclaimed album tour in June and July this year, and the pressure of being a first-time Laneway artist at the start of 2016, one might well need a respite. Nadia is now back on her tried-and-true combo of music and hospo, working at a seafood restaurant on the coast, where she’s been on and off for the last fifteen years. It’s a bit of a change from Coco’s, with more drunk fishermen, of whom she’s become ‘quite fond’. Come February, however, she’ll be right back in the thick of it in Auckland at St Jerome’s Laneway Festival, the happily-overheated-and-sunburnt-ness of which she’s painfully familiar with.
‘Every time I go I think, fuck, I’m only coming back if I can get backstage,’ she jokes. ‘I never actually thought I’d get asked to play, though. [As a performer] at least there might be a level of luxury this year. I’ve already sent though our hospo rider.’
Oh, sweet. What’s on it?
‘Just twenty-four beers and some water!’
As of July, Nadia’s living with a friend just off the main street in Port Chalmers. Her mum’s house is just down the road, and those eerily graceful, spidery container cranes perched on the land’s edge are ever-present. Is this contentment, then? ‘It’s all very familiar. It wasn’t really part of the plan to come back, but, you know, sometimes . . .’
Yep, we know. Sometimes you just need to feel embraced by that special, particular, strange and loving sense of place.
Nadia has just embarked on a world tour. Check it out on Facebook.
This content initially appeared in The Seasonal #02 SUMMER in December 2015.
Words by Rebekah Guy. Photo: Supplied, taken by Aimee Cane.