Dave Dobbyn is regarded as a national treasure in New Zealand. Wherever Kiwis gather around the world, it is likely to be songs by Dave Dobbyn they sing when thinking of home.
In 2001, after almost 30 years as a musician and songwriter, Dobbyn was given a rare, lifetime achievement award by the New Zealand recording industry. Instead of a speech, the managing director of Sony New Zealand just read out a long list of song titles – ‘Beside You’, ‘Be Mine Tonight’ ‘Language’, ‘Outlook for Thursday’, ‘Loyal’, ‘Whaling’, ‘Kingdom Come’, ‘It Dawned On Me’, ‘Guilty’, ‘Devil You Know’, ‘Slice of Heaven’, ‘Magic What She Do’, ‘Oughta Be in Love’ …
These songs, written by Dobbyn, had moved people throughout the country. They were songs they had danced to with their first lover, songs they have married to, songs that made them laugh and cry or even played when burying their loved ones.
Everyone in the room that night knew them, from retired music legends to teenage musicians in their first band, even New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Helen Clark. Dobbyn had written the soundtrack to their lives. A wave of emotion swept the room.
Dave Dobbyn says that since day one, he has had a tune in his head. A slight boy with a head of ginger curls, he found his niche with music rather than rugby. The middle child of a large family, he spent his time daydreaming. He’d be twiddling the dial on the radiogram, “travelling the world in music”. Across the road was a church, full of songs in which to hide. Now he realised what he learnt there. “After being exposed to such emotion, how could you not sing?” he says. And on that radio, he heard the tunes he wanted to sing: Beatles, Motown, David Bowie.
“Growing up, I got a good sense of ‘the song’. It was regarded as a precious, fleeting thing on the radio. And when you got the records, you didn’t have to wait to hear the magic.”
The shy schoolboy blossomed into a peroxided popstar in his first band, Th’ Dudes. Formed with his schoolfriends, Th’ Dudes hit singles from the late 1970s have become perennial favourites, particularly Dobbyn’s ‘Be Mine Tonight’ and ‘Bliss’. Taking centre-stage with his next band DD Smash, Dobbyn made history when the band’s debut album rocketed to No 1 in the first week of its release.
Dobbyn is well-known for catchy singles that prove irresistible – and also for deeply emotional ballads. ‘Outlook For Thursday’ was written about the weather and ‘Slice of Heaven’ (for the soundtrack for an animated feature about a sheepdog), spent eight weeks at No 1 in New Zealand, and four in Australia.
In the early 1990s, after nearly a decade in Australia – with regular visits home for annual summer tours around beach resorts – Dobbyn returned to New Zealand to live. Mitchell Froom, the American producer of Crowded House, masterminded Lament for the Numb in 1993. The recording sessions in Los Angeles were interrupted by earthquakes, but the album found a new maturity in Dobbyn’s songwriting.
This continued with Twist (1994), produced by Neil Finn of Crowded House. New Zealand’s other favourite songwriter, Finn had also recently returned home to recharge and for New Zealanders this was the “dream duo” finally collaborating. Dobbyn was also invited to take part in ENZSO, the tribute to Split Enz featuring songs of the Finn brothers performed with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.
Dobbyn’s albums The Islander (1998) and Hopetown (2000) saw the singer-songwriter producing himself, then going full circle, co-producing with his old friend from Th’ Dudes, Ian Morris. A national tour with Tim Finn (Split Enz and Crowded House) and Bic Runga (Beautiful Collision) packed out town halls and picture palaces throughout New Zealand, including five nights at the grand Civic Theatre, in Dobbyn’s home town of Auckland.
A tribute to the lasting impact Dobbyn’s songs have had on his compatriots – and his musical peers – came in 2001, when New Zealand’s songwriters and music industry experts voted five of his songs onto the 30 best New Zealand Songs list.
A May 2006 poll reinforced his enduring popularity with the public voting ‘Loyal’ at No 1 on the Top 100 songs. Dobbyn features more than any other artist with three in the Top 10 and a total of seven placings.
After a five-year recording break Dobbyn released ‘Available Light’ in 2005, which was recorded with bass-player Bones Hillman (Midnight Oil) and drummer Ross Burge (The Mutton Birds) and produced by David Long. It was released to critical acclaim, and the first single ‘Welcome Home’ (produced by Neil Finn) became a new classic, winning him single of the Year at the NZ Music Awards. In 2006 he went on to win Male artist of the Year and the album has achieved in excess of double-platinum sales. In 2006 he performed ‘Welcome Home’ for the Queen and Royal Family at the dedication in Hyde Park, London, of the New Zealand War Memorial.
‘Anotherland’, his 2008 release, was produced by legendary dub-reggae maestro Adrian Sherwood and Skip ‘Little Axe’ McDonald. Recorded in London with New Zealand musicians Ross Burge (drums), Marcus Lawson (bass, harmonica, bvs) and Mark Vanilau (piano, bvs), Sherwood said “The album was a new departure for all of us; a healthy, fruitful creative journey”.
Twenty-five years into his career a best-selling retrospective album of Dobbyn’s career was called Overnight Success. In the world of pop music, longevity is rarely achieved but Dobbyn’s talents have consistently charmed their way into the consciousness of New Zealanders. This is a national treasure who keeps on shining.