Dave Dobbyn Talks Songwriting

Kiwi icon Dave Dobbyn recently sat down with The Spinoff to talk about the highs and lows of his career and what continues to inspire him. It’s a must read for any songwriter, with many tidbits of wisdom and insight into having longevity as an artist.

Dobbyn’s career has spanned four decades, and he’s written some of New Zealand’s most anthemic songs, including ‘Slice Of Heaven’, ‘Loyal’ and ‘Welcome Home’.

He explained to Spinoff writer Henry Oliver that there’s an element of luck to writing an amazing song, saying, “Anything that lasts, you have to be as dedicated as you can to being there at the right time. Like a Cartier-Bresson photo. Just be there at the right time. [Laughs].”

He added that it’s all about serving a song when it comes to you: “If you can even sense the hint of a song, you have to become subservient and serve it until it’s finished. Then a lot of stuff just happens in ten minutes one day so you’ve just got to be fairly vigilant I suppose.”

Dobbyn went on to explain the need for songwriters to be observant of the world around them, saying it’s important to notice the, “stuff that moves your heart. You have to witness it and hopefully have a response. And that’s a daily challenge… You can have all the goals in the world as to what you want your music to do, you can have all the aspirations, but the very question of it is kind of selfish. So you just have to do it, you just have to work, and then discover or rediscover what moves you in order to be vulnerable enough to come up with something that surprises you and then makes you excited about it.”

An example of this was in ‘Welcome Home’, which Dobbyn was inspired to write after seeing an anti-racist march in Christchurch. He says, “All these neo-Nazis were taunting the anti-racists, who were fresh citizens, saying ‘we’re citizens, we belong here’, and that really moved me. The police were kind of protecting the neo-Nazis while the marchers went on and I thought ‘oh, the world’s upside down!’”

Dobbo also said that he loves to do New York Times crosswords when he’s writing, adding, “You have a process, something that’s almost a distraction, just to help motivate what comes next.”

And finally, he gave some real pearlers about keeping a healthy attitude to towards success: “It’s the work that matters. But I’m grateful [if] somebody is moved by the song. It means the songs have done their work and I’ve done my job properly. That’s the only success that matters really. It really does. It’s that and then everything else beyond that is a kind of a nice surprise, you know?

“You need to always be in the school of something in everything you do. You have to be, if you abandon that then you’re just making tribute albums to yourself. We don’t want that. And we don’t want any reunions. For me anyway, anybody else can do it, that’s great, but for me I don’t want that to be my living.”

What an absolute legend. Read the full interview here.