17 Feb 2018

Celia Mancini: bringing music back from the abyss

From RNZ Music, 2:20 pm on 17 February 2018

The surprise release of a collection of songs by Celia Mancini is the result of a project orchestrated by the musician herself, shortly before her sudden death last September.

King Loser

King Loser Photo: Serena Stevenson

Posthumous albums often seem to be ethically questionable cash-grabs that dig into an artist’s vault of unreleased demos and other various scraps, until there’s nothing left on the shelves. 

Normally, musicians aren’t able to contribute to the creation and direction of their own posthumous records, but in the case of New Zealand multi-instrumentalist and creative hurricane Celia Mancini, that’s just what happened.

Before her sudden death last year, Celia had been working on a project with Melbourne-based archivist Glen Brewer to collect, catalogue and digitise hundreds of her recordings from over the years.

“We spent about four days collecting a whole lot of semi-lost tapes,” says Glen. “We went on a big mission finding all these various tapes, reels, and video tapes, which she had stashed over the decades all around Auckland. It was quite an adventure.”

“A lot of it was buried in boxes and cupboards, bottom of closets. So it was a matter of just collecting it all together.”

Tapes of Celia’s show Slightly-Delic were part of the haul she and Glen Brewer had digitised.

 

The notoriously tempestuous musician is best known for her work with Flying Nun act King Loser, but over the years Celia had, at her own count, played with close to 50 bands.

These included Peter Gutteridge’s Snapper, punk rock group The Axel Grinders, and her metal act The Stepford 5.

Celia Mancini

Celia Mancini in the late 80s Photo: Brigid Grigg-Eyley

After collecting around 200 tapes, the pair had them digitised, so they could start working out what to do with the wealth of material.

“I’ve always loved New Zealand compilation albums, AK-79, etc. So I’ve always wanted to do something similar myself,” Glen says.

From his home in Melbourne, Glen would chat online or on the phone with Celia and develop plans on how to move the project forward. The ultimate goal was to master some material in late December 2017, with the view to compiling a retrospective collection.

But on September 1st, news of Celia’s death broke. 

“It was devastating you know, I had become quite close with her. It was a difficult time. Things had been going well technically, everything on target. It couldn’t have gone better. Suddenly it’s all gone terribly wrong.”

Glen was faced not only with the loss of a close friend, but also with the decision on whether to continue with a project the two had already invested so much in.

“I had to dig pretty deep. Look down in myself and find what I thought was important, and I thought this was important and just had to get over the line, whatever it took,” he says.

What had started as a fun archival project, had shifted into a bittersweet undertaking to preserve Celia’s legacy.

Glen had inadvertently taken on the task of creating an album that represented not only his friend, but the other musicians with whom she played over the years. All without Celia’s input, knowledge and endlessly entertaining storytelling.

After countless hours of listening, Glen painstakingly whittled down the material to 12 songs that he had mastered in Melbourne where he could supervise the process.

Celia Mancini and Glen Brewer

Celia Mancini and Glen Brewer Photo: Supplied

The resulting collection of tracks was released out-of-the-blue earlier this month on Soundcloud under the title The Celia Mancini Tapes: Volume One.

All the material was recorded between 1988 and 1998 with various local bands and musicians, and covers a myriad of genres.

From the Shangri-Las style number ‘Donny’ to the twisted tones of ‘Celia Goes Into The Void’ performed with Christchurch act Into The Void, the collection showcases the many shades of Celia’s musical palette. And thanks to the mastering process it sounds remarkably cohesive.

“I wanted to represent the different sides to her. She had a lot of different sides to her, both her own personality and character, and the music she played. The many moods of Celia Mancini.  And there were many.”

Other gems include an organ heavy tune with Dimmer’s Shayne Carter, and a demo of Snapper’s ‘Lock and Load’.

'Bad Girl' (Lock & Load Demo) - Snapper with Celia Mancini

'Hammond Fu' - King Loser with Shayne Carter

But the jewel in the crown might be Celia’s dulcet cover of Bobby Hebb’s 1966 tune ‘Sunny’, performed with her early act The After Dinner Mints - a lounge covers band that played at functions and race courses to earn a bit of coin.

It would be all too easy to label the album’s overarching sound as ‘lo-fi’, but that’s overly simplistic. It’s lo-fi not just as an aesthetic, but as a byproduct of Celia’s rawness and urgency to create.

And thanks to her foresight in collecting and keeping these musical treasures, the world can now hear the breadth and depth of her work over the decades.

“I really think in the fullness of time this might be seen as a legendary underground compilation,” Glen says.

“I’ve listened to it many times now, and yeah I love it. I don’t regret a single thing. Except the fact Celia’s not here to help celebrate.”

Glen has plans to release the album on vinyl later this year, and there’ll likely be a volume two at some stage. On top of that, there’s the potential for album of unreleased King Loser material.

“It’s a good feeling sort of being some musical archaeologist, like bringing them out from the bottom of a crumbling box in a cupboard. Bringing them out so that people can listen to them. Bringing music back from the abyss.”