The South Island musician who spent much of his musical career in solitude died near his home in Timaru on 3 December at the age of 50. Obituary by Noel Meek
Donald McPherson was born and passed away in small South Island towns. Attracted to the quiet and the wild landscapes of the bottom of New Zealand, he spent his career largely in solitude. He created a music that reflects this life, songs and improvisations that are open, unfinished, stark and beautiful. He described his style as “taking a ‘my rules and no-one else’s’ approach”.
McPherson trained in classical guitar from the age of 11 before studying painting at Otago Polytechnic in the late 1980s. Despite being described by his tutors as one of the most talented artists to pass through the school at that time, McPherson became disillusioned with art world politics. His Willem de Kooning-style abstract paintings gave way again to the guitar. He developed a new home-recorded freeform approach that combined a distinctly New Zealand lo-fi aesthetic with an improvisation style equally influenced by the English folk revival and Takoma Records.
From then on McPherson dedicated his life to music, working in recent years from his home town of Timaru without an internet connection and access only to modest recording equipment. His sister Alie describes how his whole life was arranged around music. “There wasn’t much else that mattered,”she says, “aside from his daughter, family, friends and the collecting of books and films.” He worked part-time his whole life, most recently as a carer for adults with special needs. He lived simply and frugally so that he always had as much time as possible for playing, recording and listening. He practised every day and recorded extensively.
McPherson was a perfectionist, however. While the music he has made available to the world has the freshness and delicacy of folk music and free improvisation, his working practices bordered on obsessive. He would often rework and re-record pieces many times, often over several years. Friends would receive multiple iterations of possible albums on CD-R, but McPherson seldom settled on a final version. Careful watchers of his bandcamp page will have noticed that releases came and went, new versions popping up and disappearing mysteriously.
While McPherson wholeheartedly adopted bandcamp in recent years, up until then it was almost impossible to hear his music. Both the isolation from large labels endemic to New Zealand and his own perfectionism limited his ‘official’ releases to just two extremely cherished albums, Bramble on the Dunedin based Metonymic label, and the duo album Vinegar And Rum with Japanese guitarist Tetuzi Akiyama on Bo’Weavil. He did release a number of locally made lathe cut records in the 1990s and early 2000s, but in such small numbers that they are now impossible to find.
McPherson featured on a few Sandoz Lab Technicians recordings and regularly played with local experimental musicians, particularly during his years in Dunedin. As a classically trained musician who could read music, he was a bit of an anomaly in the scene, but friends describe how he found the local ‘free-range aesthetic’ liberating. Few of these ad hoc ensembles found their way into live gigs or released recordings.
It was his incredibly rare solo performances that cemented his jewel-like reputation in New Zealand. Getting McPherson to perform live, as Tim Cornelius from Sandoz Lab Technicians puts it, “was not an easy task, involving weeks of careful planning, hinting, and cajoling… which ultimately may still result in him not turning up on the night… But,” he continues, “when he did, those who gathered were treated to an extraordinary performance of songs and remarkable improvised guitar music.” His performances became legendary, unmissable occasions, all the more special for never happening outside of the South Island.
Despite this, McPherson did build an international reputation, largely through musicians sharing his home-made CD-Rs. I’ll admit myself to first encountering his name via Tetuzi Akiyama after a gig in Tokyo, only to run into his reputation again in London while talking to Alexander Tucker and Daniel O’Sullivan of Grumbling Fur. “It’s hard to believe an artist as gifted as Donald could be so underappreciated,” O’Sullivan commented recently. “He was a very gentle and humble soul, with the kind of bespoke musicality that can only be cultivated by someone who enjoys their own solitude.”
Akiyama, who spent time with McPherson on a number of occasions in the 2000s, found playing with him an open and beautiful experience: “When I met Donald for the first time, we played as if we had known each other for long years. No need of much conversation, even no need for concentration, there was only freed mind and a few cups of warm tea. He was quiet, but his guitar spoke. He seemed to be looking deeply into his soul. Playing with him always brought forth moments of magic.”
McPherson was a kind, gentle man, much loved by those who knew him well. He was shy, humble, almost phobic about performing, but as his sister Alie says, in recent years, “he felt like he was achieving the kind of authentic expression he had always hoped to. Something that he felt was unique and true to himself. He had reached a sense of confidence with it.”