Sue harris - Singer Songwriter
Perched on the edge of her lounge room table, Sue Harris strums the guitar as she sings her upbeat country tune; her alto-tones reverberating like surround-sound. Her head is tilted upwards; her eyes closed. Behind her, the view stretches across Central Otago pastures and grazing cattle to the folds and towering skyline of the magnificent Hawkdun mountain range. This is Sue’s place; her world: a world of difference.
Sue is relaxed and buoyant as she discusses her music and Central Otago: the region she has always called home. This 50-something grandmother of three lives with her partner on the rural outskirts of Lauder, where they run a bed & breakfast accommodation. Sue estimates she has written “a couple of dozen” songs. Nearly all have been about and performed for family members and people she knows. But one of her latest is different and it is causing a stir well outside family circles. All the attention has caught Sue by surprise, for this songstress of enormous musical talent is also very modest. “I can’t believe its happening. I’m gobsmacked,” she says.
Sue’s interest in music began when she received a ukulele for Christmas at the age of nine. She picked up the guitar as a teenager and went on to perform successfully with her cousin. “But my nerves got the better of me and I gave it up.”
During the 80s and 90s Sue performed in amateur musicals in Omakau and then Clyde. She started writing songs then, too – one is a tribute to her mum and was a gift for her seventieth birthday. In another, the title says it all, My Friend and Sister Jill. Then there’s the one about her brother-in-law to the tune of Lord it’s hard to be Humble – “he’s a bit loud”; and others of course. But it is only since 2006, when Sue had a brush with cancer, that she has pursued her music with vigour. “It made me realise that life is pretty precious so I’d better get on and do the things I need to do.”
In 2007 Sue wrote the song that is getting her all the attention. Inspiration for Central Otago – A World of Difference came as she was driving home one day amid the stunning autumn hues that the region is famous for. It reminded her of how distinctive Central Otago NZ is and how well this had been captured in the region’s brand byline: A World of Difference. “To me Central Otago is a world of difference. It’s different to everywhere else and everywhere within is different, too,” enthuses Sue.
The song’s verses travel across different parts of Central Otago, highlighting the area’s uniqueness. It is a departure from her others in that it is not about a person, nor is it set to an existing tune. For the first time, Sue created her own music for the lyrics. Remarkably, she made it up as she went along and then memorised it. “Nothing’s written down,” she says. This marked a turning point. Sue has since written another completely original song. Such developments don’t surprise her sister Jill whom Sue says has always believed in her. “She’s my biggest fan.” Sue sang the World of Difference song at the Shotover Country Music Club soon after she joined in 2007, but it wasn’t until she performed it at a local fundraiser in 2008 that the buzz really started. People urged her to tell the district council about her fantastic song. “I’m not that kind of person,” she says, “I wasn’t going to push my own barrow.”
As fate would have it, a month later the council launched a survey asking people to comment anonymously on their perceptions of the region’s brand. Sue seized the opportunity, topping off her survey comments with a mention of the song she had written and her contact details. “Then I rang Jill and said, ‘Well, I’ve done it’.” At first nothing happened and then, the district council called and invited Sue to perform at a council meeting. A recording was subsequently arranged.
It has been a rapid rise from obscurity for Sue. While she concedes, “it’s exciting”; she is still a little baffled. “I just can’t believe my music is anything to be excited about, it’s just my feelings written down.”
So often those feelings have been inspired by her environment. “It’s the Hawkduns I look to whenever I pick up my guitar,” says Sue gesturing towards the mountainous view from her lounge room. With such a World of Difference to draw upon and so much talent at her disposal, this self-effacing singer-songwriter is clearly going to have to get used to the limelight.