By Andrew Frame
Music runs in the blood of many famous New Zealand families. Bic & Boh Runga, Evermore’s Jon, Peter and Dan Hume and Tim & Neil Finn.
Jools and Lynda Topp are no exception.
From an early age they were entertainers, performing for family and the animals on their parents’ Huntly farm. Busking to the stage, television to international movie screens, the Topp Twins have become more than just world famous in New Zealand. They are now world famous in, well, the world. Their recent documentary feature film “Untouchable Girls – The Movie” has made approximately $2 million in New Zealand theatres, making it the highest selling New Zealand-made documentary ever.
On Saturday night they perform at Black Barn Vineyard, Havelock North.
I spoke to Lynda Topp earlier this week in the lead up their performance about their career, characters, fame and the darker side of their performances. The side not all parts of the community are comfortable with. Because Lynda is smitten … with yodeling.
When did you realize you had been bitten by the yodeling bug (or should that be mountain goat)?
From an early age. When I was about nine, I heard “Tinto, Pony and I” sung by June Holmes and that was it.
How did your parents take the news, were they very supportive?
For the first year of practicing, Mum banished me to the paddocks whenever I wanted to yodel. Our neighbours had an old wind-up gramophone and some country music vinyl records. We’d ride our horses down to their place, listen to the music, memorize as much of it as possible and ride back home to grab the guitar (which we weren’t allowed to carry on the horses). We’d play it and write it down, forget a part of it, ride back to the neighbors and so it continued. Seven years later we were good singers and we were excellent horsewomen!
Were you a yodeling child prodigy, or was it something that required a lot of hard toil?
There was a fair bit of work went into it. I didn’t publicly yodel for about six years until I was confident enough to perform. There are three things musically you can perform either brilliantly or do so horribly people will be after your head – bagpipes, the banjo and yodeling. I wanted to make sure I did it well.
I guess “The Sound of Music” would feature as one of your favorite movies thanks to the “Lonely Goatherd”?
No, that was particularly bad yodeling. Too ‘folksy’. Not ‘true’. We do more of a Swiss traditional or Cowboy (which the Americans developed from the Swiss) yodel.
It’s one of those movies that get played every year around Christmas, so it gets a bit tiresome. So many of the big musical numbers are, or seem to be, done in one take, though. So from a performance perspective it was very good. In terms of costuming, not so much. Nowhere near enough lederhosen.
(When TV3 played the “Sound of Music” last Christmas, there was a transmission error and over half the movie was played without sound – ironic, eh?)
Speaking of “The Sound of Music” how do you solve a problem like Maria?
(Laughs) Send her out goat herding for seven or eight months.
What were some of your other musical and character/performance influences?
We grew up listening to country music. “The American Country Top 40” radio show was a highlight of the week. The music was our inspiration, so we started writing songs very early too. Our driving force is always the music. The Gingham Sisters (a pair of country singing, spoon-playing sisters) were the first characters we came up with; the rest came later for the TV shows to add a bit of depth and comedy.
Two of your characters, “Prue & Dilly” are socialites from Hawke’s Bay. Sort of “Ab’ Fab’” meets CWI. Are they based on anyone we might know?
Our father used to be involved in polo when we were kids and a large proportion of the players came from Hawke’s Bay. So those two are more of a send-up or tribute to the polo ladies we met.
They are larger than life party girls. You should really bring them along to an Art Deco Weekend some time. I’m concerned some of the event goers may not realize they’re fictitious alter egos, though.
We’ve yet to attend an Art Deco Weekend. Prue & Dilly would love to go. They have some art deco pieces in their house and would love to go for a drive in one of the fancy vintage cars.
I remember seeing you perform at an A&P Show here a few years ago. Any fond or standout memories form Hawke’s Bay performances?
The Hawke’s Bay A&P Show always has a great traditional feel about it. A few years ago I got to ride a giant, championship Hereford bull as “Camp Mother” with Jools as “Camp Leader” leading it. I spent the whole time thinking “if this thing so much as flinches, I’m gone!”
Our folks live in Hawke’s Bay now too, so we always have a good time when we’re up there.
A lot of people have grown up with you on the TV and in shows. The word “beloved” is often used with your names and you’ve grown quite a legion of fans here and overseas. Do you ever consider yourself ‘famous’?
No, not really. We have a lifestyle block, so we don’t see too many people other than when we’re doing shows or out shopping. If anything, we feel honored. If it weren’t for the fans, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do, so we always try to stop and have a chat, or sign an autograph etc. It’s quite funny; I’ve even had someone call out to me “Hey Ken!” (One of their characters) when I’m in the supermarket and not even in costume!
Is there a question you’ve always wanted to be asked, but never have? If so, what is it?
Yes, the question you just asked me. No one, until now, has asked, “How do you feel about your career?”
(Woohoo! An exclusive Baybuzz first!”)
What next for the Topp Twins? Politics, global Internet domination perhaps?
We’re going to play at the “Grand Ol’ Opry” in Nashville, Tennessee – that’s been a dream for many years. We’d like to do a ‘movie’ movie, now that the documentary has done so well. Otherwise just enjoying a good lifestyle and making people laugh!
And finally, Barry Manilow sang “I write the songs that make the whole world sing”. If you could write a song to make the whole world sing, what would it be about?
We already have one. It’s called “Untouchable Girls” and it’s become our trademark. We play it as the final song in our performances and for the last five shows we’ve done everyone has stood up at the end and sung it with us. That’s the sort of thing that makes it an honor for us.
The Summer Winery Tour — featuring The Topp Twins, Don McGlashan and the Seven Sisters — hits Black Barn Winery’s Amphitheatre this weekend –Saturday 16th January from 6PM.
Tickets available through Ticketmaster — Adults are $62, Children $32. Doug from Black Barn tells me gate sales may be available, but tickets are selling fast, so check the Black Barn website first.