The Dominion Post Indulgence


Kapiti musician Steve McDonald has sold more than a million CDs. How come few New Zealanders have

ever heard of him?

By Jennie Scotcher

Even those with no Celtic connections can recognize he rich historical pictures that Steve McDonald paints with his music. Few displaced ethnic groups would not empathize with Scottish crofters forced from their homes by their English landlords, leading to starvation and the mass immigration  known as the Highland Clearances.

Some fans believe McDonald’s music connects with their spiritual being, restoring links with their Celtic heritage, often three or four generations back.

“Steve McDonald’s music came to me when I was very sad. It filled an empty place in my heart. It really touched me like I can’t explain and the connection will be with me for life,” writes devotee Karin Cauley on McDonald’s fan club website, which sells Steve McDonald greeting cards (packet of six) , posters, t-shirts, badges, fridge magnets, mousepads and coffee cups.

Miramar-born McDonald says he has sold more than a million albums of his Celtic new age music in the United States. He described it as “red-blooded Enya”.  It has the multi layered harmonies and strong string sounds for which Enya is known, but is more percussive perhaps reflecting McDonald’s earlier career as a drummer.  Yet he has never been celebrated as one of New Zealand’s music stars, in the way Split Enz or Hayley Westenra are.

He can sometimes be seen around Wellington playing in a local jazz trio at corporate events or with 70’s style rock band The Sugar Daddies. “This is Kiwi-land--there is no big time here,” he says. His interest in Celtic music came from exploring his own roots. A friend gave him a scroll detailing the origins of the surname McDonald and that led to a visit to Scotland and contact with Clan Donald. He says he was drawn to the history of the clan system and, being a McDonald, feels part of that history. His grandfather was born on an Australia-bound ship in the 19th century, and his great-grandparents escaped the poverty they faced in Scotland.

McDonald learned to play the piano at age five and has since traversed a range of musical styles, including country, progressive rock, jazz & electronic instruments. The only thing that has stayed the same is his trademark long hair, though now entirely silver.

“My brother had a band in the early 60’s called The Strangers, which played early pop covers like Gerry and the Pacemakers.

I joined when I was 12 as the drummer. I wasn’t a drummer, but it was the only vacancy they had,” he says.

He stayed as a drummer in his next bands, including popular Wellington group The Dizzy Limits. They renamed themselves Timberjack and reached number 7 in the charts in 1971 with Come To The Sabbat. “We were nominated for a Golden Disc award, causing outrage among the staunch churchgoers at the time,” McDonald recalls.

Mr. McDonald’s grandfather, Arthur McDonald, opened family business The Electrical Service Company in Wellington in 1923 and Steve served his apprenticeship there for five years. “It was an amazing place in the 60’s,” he says. “The business was mine if I wanted it, but the musical pull was stronger.”

He has a collection of Modern-brand radios made by his grandfather “I have eight of them, and am always on the lookout for more. I think he made 20 different styles.”

Grandfather McDonald did not support his grandson’s aspirations. “He thought music was something little girls did.  I finally won his respect when I won the 1986 Asia-Pacific song writing contest.”

Moving on from piano to piano-accordion, McDonald became interested in synthesizers in the 60’s, when his teacher, George Miller, who owned the Shand Miller music shop, took delivery of what is believed to be the first synthesizer in New Zealand.

McDonald’s radio knowledge helped him understand some of the workings of the instrument, which was an item of curiosity and debate in the shop. He progressed on with the Mellotron in 1968 (think Knights in White Satin). “It cost $3600 and took me two years to pay off. I later sold it to [British Rock Band] Status Quo, who I don’t think ever used it,” he says.

McDonald spent much of the ‘80s touring Australia and New Zealand with his solo keyboard act. He remains committed to performing: “When you stop playing live, you lose touch and lose your musicality.”

Settling back home, he worked with TVNZ’s musical director Bernie Allen  to write and produce over 200 soundtracks for documentaries and televised events, including the America’s Cup Challenge and Miss New Zealand pageant.

Allen had a significant influence on his music. “Bernie really helped me to learn what goes together orchestrally”-- a shill he employs in putting together cored for his Celtic albums, which are almost entirely the efforts of his songwriting, vocals and virtuoso keyboards. Step daughter Hollie Smith adds her voice to a few tracks.

McDonald is working on a new album to be released later in the year in the United States where he has his strongest album sales. Despite his popularity there, McDonald has never wanted to leave New Zealand. “This is home. I like the pace of life here. I can be who I have always been--walking around in my jandals and singlet,” he says. He lives in Paraparaumu, with his wife of 10 years, Jos, a tri-athlete who manages the local swimming pool.

Despite selling more than a million CDs, McDonald doesn’t have a million in the bank. He remains philosophical. “Though I am owed a considerable amount in past royalties, my new project may see a resurgence in sales and royalties.”

    The big time may be just around the corner-again.