When Francisca Griffin’s 2016 LP The Spaces Between fell into my hands via a handoff from a friend visiting her in Dunedin, New Zealand, I quickly realized it was an essential missing piece of what I thought was a full grasp of the multitiered mass of classic releases I had virtually inhaled through my decades of fandom for the country. Why hadn’t I heard this yet? What other rocks needed to be overturned? I guess first some historical context in how we got to this place.

Album Cover

In the pre-internet days of the ’80s/early ’90s, New Zealand was a musical Machu Picchu of sorts: not easily accessible to the world, discussed by word of mouth (i.e., fanzines), and overflowing with bounty for those willing to do the legwork and tap in to access a cultural movement provided by its tight-knit inhabitants. That is not to say it was cut off from the outside world’s information, though, quite the opposite. Punk’s advent impacted the islands in a heady way in the very late ’70s, but also the ripples of DIY and postpunk from the U.K. in particular sparked a surge of activity in the artist-friendly big cities of Auckland and Wellington Christchurch, as well as lesser-known locales such as the South Island’s Dunedin and Port Chalmers. An influx of imports from the Rough Trade crew (Swell Maps, Cabaret Voltaire, the Slits, the Raincoats) seeded the notion of a musical ecosystem where labels didn’t have control, large studio budgets were unnecessary, and academic prowess on instruments was unneeded. The Fall scored an actual charting single in New Zealand, which resulted in a 1982 tour there, rare for any U.K. act at the time. Their visit further fueled New Zealand’s own DIY creative juices, though already in place were pioneers laying the groundwork like the Joy Division-tinged Pin Group and the lysergic, all-encompassing experimental pop of the Clean, who had already retired but resurrected to support the Fall’s tour down south. As far as a music “industry” was concerned, Roger Shepherd’s Flying Nun imprint was pretty much the sole navigator of these new waters, its network and roster deeply and interpersonally connected. From 1981 to ’91, the garden grew around Bailter Space, Tall Dwarfs, the Bats, the 3Ds, the Verlaines, the Chills, and Straitjacket Fits, who along with the Clean found a growing ’90s presence overseas thanks to schooled ears at Homestead, Siltbreeze, Matador, Merge, Drag City, and even the odd major label. Down in Port Chalmers, Bruce Russell and Xpressway Records were connecting more dots with some lo-fi and less pop-leaning trajectories, and from there Peter Jefferies’ extensive work and Bruce’s own Dead C gained international footholds.

This LP is an overlooked spoke in the New Zealand musical wheel

However, so many other damn dots to connect, and the world is still doing so. The all-woman Dunedin quintet Look Blue Go Purple stood out on my “where the hell is their U.S. deal?” list, finally rectified by Captured Tracks’ deluxe two-LP set of their combined 1985–88 EPs, issued in 2017. Far from being Flying Nun’s Go-Go’s, the band (Denise Roughan, Leslie Paris, Kath Webster, Norma O’Malley, and Kathy Bull, who later became known as Francisca Griffin when the mid-’90s hit) effused a gorgeously tense, pure-pop amalgamation of a strummier and sunnier Raincoats or Dolly Mixture, rife with artfully gray undercurrents emblematic of their South Island surroundings. Joyful and unlike anything else from the outside world.

Already-present supporters of the Dunedin scene at every local gig leading up to their inception, LBGP found themselves relatively free of sexism and were unconditionally supported charters of their own adventure. “The ‘industry’ was just Flying Nun, who let us do what we wanted,” says then bassist Francisca Griffin. Were they late-’80s proto–riot grrrls? No. “It could be argued we didn’t get as much attention as the Flying Nun boy bands. [Laughs] We didn’t go looking for attention, nor did we put up our hands for more.” Griffin’s post-LBGP work with the group Cyclops and other collaborations with the likes of Peter Jefferies and Shayne Carter continued to unwrap her sublime power, while the solo track “Antarctica” on the excellent Flying Nun ladies’ compilation Shrew’d showcased her luminous lyricism and spare sonic approach.

Francisca Griffin
Francisca goes fully on-the-nose for her Dusty Fingers pic. Photo by Matthew Crawley

With overseas fans gobbling up every NZ artifact they could, Griffin toiled quietly and sporadically with 1998’s Some From the Sky and 2019’s The Spaces Between, which evaded many foreigners’ radars but were excellent. The latter came from an extended period of songwriting. “My youngest son, Gabriel, and I—with Forbes Williams—laid down the bones of the tracks over Easter weekend 2015,” says Francisca. “My spectacular friends and family all had free rein to play whatever they wanted, and they all interpreted the songs in a wonderful way that took them in new directions.” With Francisca hesitant to take the solo-artist spotlight, The Spaces Between finds its songs colored by these collaborations on equal terrain. “Ghost Boy” minimally reverberates between simple Wire-like guitar-note plod and Alastair Galbraith’s dreamy backwards electric guitar feedback resembling a harmonium. “One Eye Open” and “Martyn” rep the trademark Flying Nun guitar flutter with ornate, baroque dashes. Indeed this LP is an overlooked spoke in the NZ musical wheel and deserves further inspection from the world.

While not prolific, Griffin tends to the fire these days when she can, most recently playing out with more frequency with her latest collaborators, the Bus Shelter Boys. “I’m a naturopath in my day job; have been doing that 21 years now. We’ve been playing a bit out and about and would love to go further afield one day, maybe after our new record. We’re working on new material, and when it’s ready, off we will go into the studio.” Griffin is now enjoying the autonomous perks of Bandcamp, where she acts as her own administrator. “So much of what goes on in this industry is still a mystery to me. Equally, I’m not at all interested in being molded into something I’m not. And I get to do whatever I please.” Take all the time you need, Francisca.

Thanks for reading CREEM. This article originally appeared in our Fall 2023 issue. Explore the full mag in our archive, buy a copy here, and subscribe for more.




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