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Bringing Her Make Believe Band To Life

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media
Cy Winstanley
Cy Winstanley

NZ expats Cy Winstanley and Vanessa McGowan are off on a national tour to introduce their home country to the debut album of Her Make Believe Band. JULE SCHERER of NZPA talks to singer/songwriter Winstanley about his love of bluegrass and acoustic performances.

Wellington, March 24 NZPA - Like most New Zealand teenagers, Cy Winstanley didn't grow up with a great fondness for country and bluegrass music. That came later.

However, his love for music started at an early age. He took up playing the guitar at the age of 13 and soon moved from grunge to blues and jazz and joined Auckland's Queen City Big Band. In 1999 he was awarded Best Jazz Guitarist at the Annual New Zealand National Jazz Festival.

But it took a couple more years for him to find his true love. He was about 20, playing Irish music in a pub in Auckland, when he stumbled over a CD of 1970s bluegrass supergroup Old and in the Way, featuring the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia.

"From there it just snowballed and I got deeper and deeper into it," the singer and songwriter of Her Make Believe Band told NZPA.

Now, seven years later, Winstanley, currently based in the UK, has released the band's debut album Radio AM.

The record features beautifully crafted alt-country tunes with pop, jazz and soul influences. Winstanley creates sweet, memorable melodies with smart and romantic lyrics and has assembled talented musicians to carry off his original sound.

The album was well received in the UK and got rave reviews from the British music press when it was released late last year. More than once his singing and song-writing was likened to Paul Simon.

"That was pretty wicked," Winstanley says.

"I love Paul Simon, I think he is my number one songwriter and influence of all time but I never thought that my voice or the songs, or any of that, sounded anywhere as good as Paul Simon.

"The fact that there are a bunch of references -- I found that pretty crazy and surprising," he says.

Although some of the songs were written as long as six years ago, the album by Her Make Believe Band -- named after US country artist Conway Twitty's song Its Only Make Believe - would probably still not exist without fellow New Zealander and bass-player Vanessa McGowan.

The couple first met about a decade ago, both playing in the Queen City Big Band, but lost touch when Winstanley was forced to stop playing guitar for a couple of years with a serious strain injury in his hands.

McGowan moved on to study Jazz Performance Bass in Auckland and Las Vegas but they met again in 2006 on a holiday back home. After finishing her studies in the US McGowan joined Winstanley, who had moved to the UK a few years earlier.

Apart from adding to the band's distinctive sound with bass and vocal harmonies she was the driving force behind releasing the album on their own label Old Oak.

"Vanessa is the organisational guru," he says. She took it into her hands to release the album without a major label in the background and the band had to learn in the process how much work was involved.

"One of the good things of being signed to a major label would be having access to the infrastructure, the PR and all the people who know all the different things that are required to make a record."

But in the end, Her Make Believe Band managed without.

The band, who also comprise Sebastian Weiss (vocals, assorted keyboards) and Tom Greenhalgh (drums) are proud of what they have achieved.

"We really like the sound of it and a record is always a snap-shot of this particular moment.

"The way we perform those songs is really personal for me for that particular time and maybe now some of the songs have changed a bit and on tour we're going to do things a bit differently," he says.

For their New Zealand tour Her Make Believe Band are cutting back the line-up to a duo. Playing the songs just with guitar and harmonica and McGowan's double bass gave them a stronger country feeling, Winstanley says.

The seed for their upcoming tour was sewn last year when the couple came home for a holiday and ended up doing a couple of gigs as a duo.

Winstanley says he enjoyed playing as an acoustic duo because it gave them more space.

"There is lots of room for both of us to improvise.

"When you're playing with just two people you can have much more control on the dynamic and the shape of the song.

"I really like the space and the sound of acoustic instruments.

"A beautiful double bass and a really nice guitar, played well sound very complimentary together.

"I like the way electric instruments sound too, but playing acoustic instruments is like eating a really nice apple, it's like eating something that is organic and unaffected by preservatives or any other artificial means," he says.

*Tour dates:

March 25 - Auckland - The Wine Cellar

March 28 - Wellington - Acoustic Routes at The Ruby Lounge

March 31 - Wanganui - Repertory Theatre

April 2 - Katikati - Katikati Folk Club

April 4 - Auckland - Nightingales

April 6 - Kerikeri - Bishops Wood Estate

April 8 - Wellington - Mighty Mighty

April 11 - Palmerston North - The Bent Horseshoe Caf©

April 14 - Golden Bay - The Mussel Inn

April 16 - Wanaka - The Riverhouse

April 17 - Oamaru - The Penguin Entertainers Club

April 18 - Christchurch - Christchurch Folk Club Dux de Lux

April 21 - Picton - Le Cafe Picton

April 23 - Nelson - Fairfield House

April 25 - Auckland - The Bunker


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