Sportsman of the Year: A Suburban Philosophy by Jan Hellriegel
Auckland: Seahorse Swim (2019)
RRP: 39.99. Pb, 220pp
Reviewed by Jessie Nielson
Self-proclaimed “Westie girl” Jan Hellriegel was named Songwriter of the Year in 1993 at the New Zealand Music Awards for her album, It’s My Sin. She had begun her vibrant musical career while at the University of Otago with her popular indie all-female band Cassandra’s Ears. Yet after this heralding and clear roar of a talent, there has been much self-doubt and avoidance of the limelight. Prior to this year’s offering, there had been two other solo studio albums, in 1995, and then, much later, in 2009. Each come from her raw experiences of life and its tribulations, of relationships faltering, and of goals perhaps thwarted, and she writes and sings of these boldly. As she states, songs must come from a place of authenticity, and she must in some regard have put down roots in the lines so that they are meaningful.
In between these albums has been a huge array of experiences, including those that remind oneself of common drudgery such as delivering fish to restaurants, all in the name of being able to survive. Behind the supposed glamour of a glam pop star or rock lifestyle, which she was never seeking, is the reality of trying to carve a musical career as well as raise young children. With this fourth album, Sportsman of the Year: A Suburban Philosophy, Hellriegel has tried a new design. Rather than produce a stand-alone album, this one comes with a book attached. She describes the overall package as being a “musical within a book”, and it has been marketed as such.
The book takes the form of her thoughts on her personal growth over the years, and how this has evolved into a personal philosophy. While the trope that it is better to look on the bright side is much used, it is nevertheless inherently true. Thus Hellriegel’s book is about encouraging one to view the world so that everything conspires for rather than against a person. She tracks her experiences and developments of ideas through twelve chapters which correspond to the movement through her album. She gives the back story to each song, such as her fascination with gemstones which are a recurrent image in her work, after her time working in a jewellery store. She considers that song and story walk together, as a “scrapbook of discovery”.
The book can be purchased alone, or with the album; the latter obviously is preferable as they clearly go together. The book is memoir in a loose kind of way, as it does not follow a chronological bent but rather a thematic one. It is chatty and often confessional. She has no problem recounting embarrassing incidents or being light-hearted about her mistakes, and this is refreshing. Often amusing, other anecdotes are poignant as they exemplify the vulnerability and sense of disappointment that most people share at some time.
Scattered throughout the book are images from nature, emphasising peacefulness, as well as the sense of gratitude she feels for all in her life. She has had to navigate her way through the gender-biased music industry as well as through her own, at times, debilitating anxiety. She is now Managing Director of her music publishing company, Songbroker, offering crucial support and opportunities to fledgling and established local artists. For Hellriegel, it is as if she has come full circle, though the pitfalls and the suburban quagmire or purgatory to a sense of empowerment. She is now able to mentor as once she was mentored, and to cheer on others caught up in self-deprecation.
As Hellriegel states, songs are “like pictures encased in a melodic motif”. She aims for purity in her writing and performing, and this sense of authenticity always prickles the surface. It would be difficult to listen to her music and not feel goose bumps for all that she shares so raw. As she says, this is a celebration of life and its foibles, as well as its “perfect imperfection”. Sportsman of the Year is a generous offering: both in what it confides and in how much Hellriegel has created for her audience. What comes across clearly in her writing is her humility, as it does in her songs which are at once finely-crafted and empowered.
Jessie Neilson studied English at Otago and has taught international students here and abroad. Jessie is a regular reviewer for the Otago Daily Times and works in the University of Otago Central Library. She has broad interests in matters literary.