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Survival stories: Donna Dean, singer-songwriter

Survival stories: Donna Dean, singer-songwriter

It was meant to be about Donna Dean’s first tour of the US, but a documentary on her journey has turned out to be rather more than that.

The Auckland born-and-bred country singer-songwriter is the subject of The Sound of Her Guitar which, to her surprise, became part tour-doco and part personal story, chronicling both her family’s love of music and its history of addiction and domestic abuse.

The Sound of Her Guitar premieres at the Documentary Edge Film Festival in May, one of 52 local and international features and shorts in this year’s line-up.

In 2013, director Bill Morris travelled around the US with Dean, her frequent collaborator John Egenes, and a small band, intending to make a portrait of a New Zealand country musician taking her music back to its spiritual homeland. When they returned to Auckland, Morris and Dean met up to film an interview about the tour which, unexpectedly for them both, veered into Dean’s personal history.

“It was really intimate and pulled out some old stuff, some historic stuff,” she says. “But I didn’t have any reservations about doing it. I didn’t even know Bill when we left to go on tour. There were five of us crammed into a van, so I got to know everybody a whole lot faster than you would if you’re just hanging out with people now and then. So I felt really comfortable with him.”

Dean’s musical lineage goes back to her maternal grandfather, who played steel guitar in Hawaiian dance bands around Auckland in the 50s. Her mother loved country and American folk music, singing songs with Dean’s father around the house. “I fell asleep to the sound of her guitar,” she sings on the song from which the documentary takes its title.

“The stories they were telling in the songs were about a simple, everyday life,” Dean says. “You know how in some cultures, stories are passed down orally? I didn’t realise it was that at the time, but I think that’s what drew me into it, telling a story about something that happened.”

Dean left school at 15, met a boy, married, and had her first child at 16. She became very unhappy with her marriage, during which behaviours were repeated that Dean had grown up with. “I chose that,” she says in the film. “It was familiar.”

Music became her therapy. Songs started streaming out of her and they’ve never stopped.

Her husband discouraged her from playing music, so her guitar went unplayed until the marriage broke up, with Dean leaving to seek help for her alcoholism.

Music became her therapy, a way for her to reckon with the abuse inflicted on her and the addiction she used to deal with it. Songs started streaming out of her and they’ve never stopped. She has since recorded eight albums, two of which won best country album of the year at the New Zealand Music Awards.

“Music’s been a huge part of my life, and it’s been difficult,” she says. “But I know, when I’m writing songs now, the more I work on myself, and I’m constantly doing that, trying to change and be a better person in the ways that I’ve learnt how to, the songs are changing too. So I still feel like I’ve got lots to write about yet.”

The Sound of Her Guitar screens on May 22 and 27 as part of the Doc Edge Documentary Film Festival at Q Theatre. (May 18-29). See docedge.co.nz for the programme.

Photo: Stephen Langdon.

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