NOT HEARTLESS: Kristal G, left, Caoimhe Macfehin and Karl Steven, of Heart Attack Alley, part of an incredible music community.
As blues stomp band Heart Attack Alley gets ready to sign European record deal, Nicola Russell meets frontwoman Caoimhe Macfehin.
It's Friday night in Auckland's Karangahape Rd and downstairs in the dark and dirty Wine Cellar and Whammy Bar, people are being turned away at the door.
It's the Gunslingers Ball, a country-and-blues gig run by New Zealand's grandfather of country, Bernie Griffen, and alternative country five-piece The Broadsides, and the place is full to capacity. Their personal space left at home, hordes cram into the corridors between the rabbit warren of bars.
On stage is Caoimhe Macfehin, a dark-haired 20-something. She looks small until she opens her mouth, then out comes the gutsy voice and raw emotion of someone tougher and older.
Macfehin, whose first name is pronounced "kee-ve", is the frontwoman of Auckland blues band Heart Attack Alley (and the Drab Doo Riffs).
On stage with her is the blonde, tattooed guitarist, Kristal G (Las Tetas, Vietnam War) and the foot-stomping Karl Steven (Supergroove, Drab Doo Riffs), bashing out tunes that are all heartbreak, hair and harmonicas.
The suited Steven switches harmonicas from his briefcase, playing with feverish possession, while Macfehin bashes her tambourine on the concrete floor in a frenzy. "And you look at me and you say, 'Baby you've found it!' " she sings.
"They are the only authentic blues stomp band in this country," says Griffen, and he reckons Macfehin is "redolent of Janis Joplin".
Steven is married to Macfehin's sister, Laura, and he feels lucky to have a family member who approaches music from the same place. "That is putting everything into it and making it emotional in a raw way. It's not about being slick, but about communicating something that is personal and intense."
Reverend Beat Man, the Swiss boss of Voodoo Rhythm Records and leader of the garage band The Monsters, discovered Heart Attack Alley on a recent trip to New Zealand and is in the process of signing them to his label.
The band is awaiting confirmation, but word is they will travel to Switzerland and play their way to Italy, where they will record their album.
A few days later, I find Macfehin at a cafe just along from the Wine Cellar at 3pm with a cigarette and a beer.
In the husky voice that emerges from her freckled, makeup-free face, she reflects on life with a maturity that transcends her 25 years. On stage, she can be herself, sharing the depth of emotion she feels about the world, she says. "I like sad songs, and I like emotional songs, and so the blues and soul for me cuts straight to the heartache.
"The thing I like about music in general is when you are on stage, you can be exactly how you are feeling and say exactly what you want and you don't have to apologise for it. It's important and it's true just by doing it."
She feels lucky in life and says she doesn't have a particularly sad story to tell. "But I love a lot of people a lot and just being alive in the world with your eyes open is enough to make you understand how bad it can be."
Macfehin was 22 when she started to sing with Heart Attack Alley, but she has sung since she was a child. She remembers the joy of being given a Supremes tape to sing along to by her elder sister. "Music for me is the thing that keeps me feeling connected to the world and connected to other people."
Raised in the Auckland suburb of Grey Lynn, Macfehin grew up in somewhat of a country institution. Younger sister of Lubin Rains, of the country band The Vietnam War, Macfehin says she hung around on bandmate Kristal's deck in Arch Hill until they asked her to join in.
"Every Wednesday, Kristal and Karl would have a blues jam and I stuck around long enough until they said, 'Do you want to do some singing? "
Heart Attack Alley joined a group of friends and family who put on intimate shows under the name The Country Club and a whole lot of music and marriages followed.
"There is a lot of sister-in-law, brother-in-law action," says Macfehin with a laugh.
She takes a deep breath. "Lubin is my big brother and I have an elder sister called Laura who is married to Karl.
"Lubin is engaged to Louisa, who is the sister of Lucy, who is in the Drab Doo Riffs. And Kristal is a sister from another mister."
Music is in her blood. Her Irish father loves folk and played the bagpipes, Lubin played the borin (Irish drum) and Macfehin did Irish dancing. "We were never really family band action, but music was a part of life."
Macfehin formally trained in performance arts at UCOL in Palmerston North, where she found the confidence she needed.
"I wanted to see if I could do it without anyone watching. I met a whole lot of actors and musicians and they were really encouraging. I came back to Auckland and there was a massive music scene here already that I could fit around."
The evening Culture went along, she and Heart Attack Alley also sang at Occupy Queen Street, the makeshift protest camp in Aotea Square.
"All of that stuff about community and sharing resources and caring about each other is very important to me," says Macfehin, who was raised firmly on the left side of the political spectrum.
"I think there is an emotional element to the music and I think that the state of the world makes us all very emotional so in that sense there is a political element."
During her performance, Macfehin practises what she preaches when an excited woman jumps on stage to play the drums.
It's ruining the song, but Macfehin carries on unrattled, clapping her in to the beat.
The woman is eventually led off the stage with her dignity intact.
This, says Stevens, is typical. "Caoimhe has a very strong sense of justice and fairness. She is not a snob at all and that is something to be admired in a world that can have a celebrity element to it."
Macfehin says a stint in Europe will be incredible, but New Zealand remains her focus.
"I just feel there is an incredible community of brave artists here, so I feel like I would be hard-pressed to go anywhere in the world and find better characters.