The words of poet, actor, musician and storyteller Noel Coutts roll and rise like the ocean.
ONE LOOK AT, OR LISTEN TO, QUEENSTOWN POET AND BLUESMAN NOEL COUTTS TELLS YOU HE IS NOT A MAN WHO HAS LIVED A MAINSTREAM LIFE. A CHAT WITH HIM TELLS YOU THIS IS AN UNDERSTATEMENT. HIS IS A TRAVELLING THROUGH EASTERN EUROPE WITH AN OPERA TROUPE, SHOWING UP IN XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS KIND OF LIFE.
Talk to any local about Noel, and it’s not long before the words “legend”, “icon”, “veteran bluesman” come up. He fronted Custer’s Last Band, a familiar sight on the Queenstown scene for more than a decade up until their 2007 swansong gig at the Dux de Lux, and he still plays around town, sometimes with his family. His children, including daughter Jessie and her husband Mathurin Molgat, who formed the band Beach in 1998, are also prolific resident musos.
Noel has also made a name for himself as a poet, particularly of the performance variety, his blues-gravel voice made for the stage. Noel reached the finals in last year’s Across the Bridge Slam Series in Bannockburn, and came second overall in the 2017 Southern Lakes Southern Lakes slam regionals.
Stories from the seaThen the sun that I’ve been seeking
dark clouds getting darker
with the onset of the night
the cruel sea rushes in
a storm so wild and mean
and we pray to God in heaven
From ‘The Dark Side of the Dream’, Noel Coutts
“Perhaps you would describe me as a bush poet, although I haven’t written much about the bush,” Noel says. “Being a seafarer, many of my poems are about the sea.” The world’s oceans are a common theme in Noel’s work, as well as in conversations with him. “I used to be a merchant seaman, at one point in time,” he says. He holds maritime qualifications from Norway, Britain and New Zealand.
He also has a 50-foot, 100-year-old schooner called the Lady Sterling. Built in Auckland in 1920 by Bailey & Lowe using the finest Kauri timbers, she was made “to race up to the islands and drink gin and tonic on, old boy!” The saloon even boasted a small piano, though it was taken off before Noel took ownership. “They’ll go to hell for that.” He found her almost sinking in the docks in Marlborough. “I pretty much stole her and I’ve had a love affair with her ever since.” Noel lived on her for a spell, playing music and performing wherever there was a decent marina nearby.
His own wordsThe kinda man
There were miners on the river
After working as a merchant seaman, but before falling in love with the Lady Sterling, Noel got into doing up old houses, then became the co-director of a commercial property company. There were buildings here and there, including motels in Queenstown, but a tenant stopped paying the rent, and the mortgage payments fell behind.
He says he was geared up and ran hard on the treadmill back then, but after the crash in 1986, the wheels fell off.
“I had my neck on the block at the wrong time. I lost my shirt. I learned a lot. And the guy in the bank just worries about his chardonnay at night. So, I thought: fuck this, I’m not killing myself for this. I decided I was going to become a professional musician and they said: ‘Well, you can’t play nothing!’ And I said: ‘Well, I can play a little bit.’”
Noel’s father was an accomplished pianist and he’d grown up with an appreciation for music and songwriting. He took a leap and embarked on a career as a full-time musician, playing covers in bars around the country, including Cecil Peak and the Remarkables, and Out of my Trio.
But he never performed solo until the legendary drummer Kevin Thomas pushed Noel to play his own music. “We were up there, figuring out what to play next and I suggested ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ and he said: ‘Nah!’So I said: ‘What do you mean, Nah?’
And the crowd was watching us, waiting for the band to play.
He said: ‘I didn’t come here to play fucken’ ‘Brown Eyed Girl’! Play your own songs!’
I said: ‘But they might not like my songs!’
So, he made me play my own stuff and it went from there. Now I prefer to play my own songs. I think that if the universe gives them to you, you should play them. Don’t you? It’s the same with poems.”
Noel has been showcasing his songs–and poetry–ever since, but Kevin died tragically in 2008. Noel wrote a song for his friend:Kevin was a drummer,
and everybody knew
When it came to playing drums
Could play as good as Kevy could
Noel has now recorded seven albums, composed and played the theme for the TNVZ series Remarkable Vets, and recently played his song ‘29 Ghosts’ at Parliament during the commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the Pike River Mine explosion. He wrote it for his West Coast friend Rick Durbridge, who’s son, Daniel Herk, died in the tragedy.
“I prefer to play my own songs. I think that if the universe gives them to you, you should play them”
As a writer, he has penned books for children and had them translated into multiple languages, as well as a series of poems focussed on New Zealand history– including a one about Bully Hayes, the notorious slave trader, pirate and gun runner who caused havoc in Arrowtown.
Speaking of loveStill I see
gulls drifting on a summer breeze
with sad eyes
you spoke of love and whispered
while distant waters sang a lullabye
Becoming a full-time travelling musician and artist opened up a plethora of opportunities for Noel. He played a Warlord in the TV series Xena Warrior Princess and did a stint as Captain Cook for a German TV series. He kept the Captain Cook getup, and has appeared as the British mariner at events across Aotearoa.
Another opportunity swam up to him when the Living Arts Inc. production company brought Porgy and Bess to New Zealand and Australia. They needed someone to play the only white character (the horrible sheriff); the original actor’s father was sick, so he couldn’t make the tour. A friend offered Noel the role, assuring him it was an acting role, not a singing role. “I wasn’t sure. But she said: look, you’ve got a good Southern accent and you look as mean as hell. You’ll be fine.”
He went on to tour Russia, Belorussia, Poland, Greece, Estonia and Latvia with the crew. In Poland, he found himself backstage at a party in the dressing room of the Polish National Opera Orchestra. It was there he met and fell in love with flautist Ela Tabernacka. A photographer captured them, deep in conversation, on the evening they met, and that picture now hangs in their home. They got married in Poland in 2009.
“I decided I was going to become a professional musician and they said: ‘Well, you can’t play nothing! And I said: Well, I can play a little bit’”
Ela and Noel tried living together on the Lady Sterling for a while, but it didn’t quite work out. (Noel’s looking to sell the Lady S. Check her out on YouTube if you fancy becoming the caretaker of a 100-year-old luxury yacht.) Instead, for much of the last decade, they spent half of the year in Poland, with Noel touring everywhere from the Slovakian Mountains to the Baltic States to Germany, and half in New Zealand, where Ela sometimes accompanied him, playing her flute from what Noel has called “the cool side of heaven”.
With international travel off for now, the pair are living in Queenstown, singing, playing music, writing poems and creating art together, while waiting for time and tide to carry us through this difficult chapter. Or, as he writes in ‘Life’:The only thing constant
But time is the treasure
Originally from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, Bethany G Rogers travelled the world a little before becoming ‘stuck’ in New Zealand. bgrogers.com