This iconic musical trio are back and better than ever

These three fab vocalists are a powerful sister act from way back
Emily Chalk

They were once young singers who popped in and out of recording studios to perform vocals for the iconic band Strawpeople in the 1990s.

Now, 30 years later, Fiona McDonald, Stephanie Tauevihi and Leza Corban are swapping the studio for the stage as they come together to perform the songs that Strawpeople created across eight albums. The band is booked to play at two upcoming music festivals – Splore (February 23-25) and WOMAD (March 15-17).

“For a long time, it has always been in the back of my mind that the three of us should get up on stage and sing those songs again,” says Fiona, 58. “I’ve always wanted Strawpeople to play live, but I met with resistance from one of the founders of the band, Paul Casserly.

“I’ve been on at him for two decades and I finally said to him when we released the latest album Knucklebones in August, ‘We either do it now or we die not doing it,'” she laughs. “And he said ‘Yes, let’s go for it.’ Finally!”

It was Fiona’s job to contact Stephanie and Leza, and put the idea to them.

Leza recalls, “When I sat down with Fiona and heard her vision and I realised she had it all planned out, I got so excited!”

Strawpeople legends (from left) Leza, Fiona and Stephanie are about to strut their stuff again.

Leza first came across Strawpeople as a backing singer in the ’90s working on advertising jingles with Paul and Mark Tierney, who together started the band.

“They asked me to sing on their album Broadcast, so we finished a jingle session for World Vision and then literally on the back of that, we recorded the single Sweet Disorder,” she says. She went on to sing on the songs Scared of Flying, Love My Way and City Lights. At the time, Leza says, she was a nerdy girl who just loved to sing.

“I would turn up at the studio and Mark would say things like, ‘Sing like you’ve just woken up’ or, ‘Sex on toast!’ And I would just sing my heart out and loved every bit of it.”

The three women also appeared on the Strawpeople videos, although Leza says with a laugh, “They shot me for more, but in the end, I only made it into one of them.”

Stephanie, 50, was eight months pregnant when she featured in one of the videos, and decided to jump up and down on a trampoline. “Then we all had a moment when we thought perhaps that wasn’t such a great idea!” she laughs.

Leza went on from her Strawpeople days to form her own band, the Love Jones, performing regularly at corporate events and at Auckland inner-city bars, plus she also teaches singing at several high schools in Auckland and works with them on their musical productions.

“Leza is the real singer,” says Fiona. “We’re really hoping we get some lessons from her in rehearsal because she’s kept her voice warm for 30 years using it most days, whereas Stephanie and I have not.”

Bring it on! The vivacious creatives are calling themselves the Strawsisters.

Stephanie is best known to TV viewers as feisty paramedic Donna Heka on Shortland Street, a role she played for seven years. However, before that, aged just 15, she strongly suggested to Mark that she sing on their album.

“Their song One Good Reason came out and I thought, ‘I could do that!'” recalls Stephanie. “I was at a De La Soul concert at the Auckland Town Hall, when I saw Mark and rocked up to him and said something show-offy. I wish I still had that kind of confidence – I don’t have it any more.

“I told him that I could sing for him and I was much better than whoever was singing for them at the time. I was that cocky.”

So a young Stephanie found her way to the Strawpeople studio in Karangahape Road, went upstairs and sang on the song Beautiful Skin.

“After that, they said, ‘Okay, we’ll give you a go,’ and so I ended up singing on the John Hiatt song Have a Little Faith, then Love Explodes, I Believe, Under the Milky Way and Turn of the Century.”

Prior to that, Stephanie had been talent-spotted at 14 performing in Little Shop of Horrors at Auckland’s Northcote College. She went on to work on two children’s shows on TV3 while still at school.

“I would be picked up from school and taken to the studios, and I loved every minute of it,” she tells.

Shortland Street followed, but these days, Stephanie has a different career.

“I’m a health coach and a sustaining tenancies navigator for Turuki Health Care in South Auckland,” she says. “My primary job is to keep people in tenancies, working with whanau who live in Kāinga Ora homes, helping people who are going through shared driveway issues or no engagement from the landlord. I become their advocate, speaking on their behalf, and keeping things on track so they don’t become homeless. It’s an incredibly rewarding job and Turuki is a great Māori kaupapa organisation. It’s great being a pavlova on stage and singing an INXS song, but this job gives a different feeling of achievement and purpose, because it’s doing things for the whanau and making their day, even if it is small things.”

Fiona first came across Strawpeople when she worked with Paul and Mark at the University of Auckland’s radio station 95bFM. She explains, “I went to live in Australia for a couple of years and while I was over there, they released the single One Good Reason. I remember feeling very envious that I wasn’t a part of the project. Similar to Steph’s story, I worked with them to write the jingle for Primo milk and sang on that, then we stayed in the studio and wrote Blue. That was the first song I sang for them, in 1988.”

Fiona went on to sing on the cover of the Chris Knox song Slide, then Trick with a Knife, the whole of the album Vicarious, then Crying, Running Away and Dream Child.

“At the time, I was part of a couple of bands, but Strawpeople was the first real involvement with a group that was making music that I was really into and that I loved,” she says. “And it was the first time that I was a songwriter.”

Fiona went on to join the very popular Headless Chickens and has continued being involved with music.

“I am doing some casting work for television and some commercial work,” she says. “I’ve also started teaching ukulele again to adults, which I adore. I love getting people in touch with the creative musical side of themselves, which most of the time has been stomped on during primary school and they’ve been steered away from it.

“The other thing is creating that space in people’s lives as adults where they get to come and spend time with me. Half is the music and the other half is mental health stuff. I take them away from their work and their family, and obviously it’s very serious music lessons, but we also laugh a lot.”

Fiona says that from the very start in 1985, Strawpeople was always about collaboration with many musicians, including herself, Leza and Stephanie.

“But at the core has been Paul and I only, because we’ve worked together more often and our partnership is the longest within Strawpeople,” she explains. “It’s nice that Paul is now so enthusiastic about playing live and he wants to do more music, and the three of us women should do some new recording to get that happening.”

However, when the Weekly caught up with them towards the end of last year, there was just one problem – the trio had yet to meet in the same room and start rehearsing. They were eager to squeeze in some practices as soon as possible, though.

“We’re going to start with the three of us just singing together, separate from the band, so that we can work out what we can do.”

Stephanie says she’s always felt like the women were like ships passing in the night.

“We’d pop into studio sessions, see each other and say hi, but we’ve never sat in a circle and seen what that looks like, so that’s a real treat for me.”

She believes the three of them will produce magic. They are informally calling themselves the Strawsisters and are determined that the live performances will cover all eight albums.

“The beauty of it is that we all get to sing our own songs again, but this time we will have each other backing us up,” says Fiona. “I didn’t know that I was ever going to get back on stage. And now it’s actually happening! Leza has been on stage for the past 30 years – she never stopped – but for Steph and I to get back up there, that is so beautiful.”

Adds Stephanie, “I think there was a reason that Paul and Mark got us three to sing on the albums. It will be so lovely to go on that journey with Fiona and Leza, and find that magic for ourselves. It’s very exciting.”

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