21 June 2023

A 'crazy life' lived around the world but calming Kiama will be forever home

| Kellie O'Brien
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Shelley in a studio with guitars on the walls

Shelley Harland has written songs for TV shows like Wentworth and toured with the likes of Elvis Costello and The Fray. Photos: Supplied.

English-born couple Shelley Harland and James Harland-Wright have worked from New York to Sydney creating songs for major TV shows and films, from Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Wentworth to She’s All That.

However, it’s the small seaside town of Kiama that has become their musical base – and the place that’s felt most like home.

It’s a far cry from Shelley’s work as a private investigator for New York’s real-life Soprano family or performing in a Venice palace for Omega’s worldwide ad campaign with Nicole Kidman.

“The move to Kiama was based on the rat race of being in the city and trying to juggle everything with the kids,” Shelley said.

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After holidaying in Kiama a few times, their son asked, “Why can’t we move here?” and that’s how the seed was planted.

“You turn to face the mountains and it feels like you’re in The Sound of Music,” Shelley said. “I didn’t realise I was missing anything until I was here.

“Something about it is just so calming and grounding for me that I didn’t know what the missing element to my life was.”

Shelley now works from home, while James commutes to Sydney.

“We got to build a home and we built a music studio in the garden,” she said. “I’d never leave it. You couldn’t pay me to leave it. I just love it so much.”

Shelley Harland singing

Shelley singing during the Omega watches worldwide ad campaign launch in Vienna.

Originally, the couple moved from the UK to New York when James’ band Stretch Princess was signed to Wind-Up Records in the late 1990s.

James toured across the US and wrote songs for TV shows like Smallville and The West Wing, MTV and VH1, and films like She’s All That.

Through a connection with James’ record company, Shelley started as a secretary and then a private investigator for legendary PI Joe Mullen. Mullen is famous for locating Fidel Castro’s daughter and the missing Andy Warhol painting incident.

“They became our absolute New York family – like old school, hardcore New Yorkers. Think sort of Sopranos vibe,” she said.

“My boss was in his 70s and so old school. He’d put matchsticks on top of the door to see if someone had gone in.

“Really quickly, James and I became part of the family and, whenever we weren’t on tour, we would work there for extra cash.

“Because we were the least suspecting private eyes, they started to send us on surveillance to different jobs because no one would think for a second we were private eyes.

“We’ve definitely lived a bit of a crazy life.”

While in Brooklyn, Shelley started writing songs, even though she didn’t have any prior music experience.

“It was perfect timing. I was in my early 20s and my brain was just being fed incredible sights, sounds, people and experiences,” she said.

She picked up a guitar and recorded songs on a little four-track recorder, and later sampled sounds in the subway and chopped up beats on an old-school sampler. Soon after, she was introduced to a music industry woman through a friend.

“I happened to bump into her on the subway one day and I had a CD on me,” she said.

Shelley posing next to a piano

Shelley worked for legendary PI Joe Mullen before making a start in the music industry.

Shelley was on her way to see a film producer who had expressed interest in her songs when the chance meeting happened. Less than 24 hours after handing over the CD, the phone rang.

“I didn’t realise she was a music manager,” she said. “She just said I want to manage you straight away.”

The music manager worked for Nettwerk Management, the company responsible for managing Coldplay.

“I was suddenly managed by this top management company and then I really quickly got a publishing deal with Chrysalis, which is now BMG,” she said.

“So suddenly I have this publishing deal and was able to be full-time writing and working with different producers.”

While the couple enjoyed the US, they wanted to “lay roots somewhere”. They were drawn to Australia as James grew up in Perth, and they “literally got a map and went, let’s move there. Click. Hit Bondi”.

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Shelley got a combined record deal with Sony Australia and Alberts, the company responsible for launching AC/DC and The Easybeats.

“That was a really amazing experience, and I created a really different sounding album when I came here,” she said of her fourth, more traditional album, Red Leaf.

From there, she toured with Elvis Costello and The Fray, and appeared on ABC TV’s music quiz show Spicks and Specks.

The couple then started a family and welcomed their two sons. While they were still toddlers, Shelley started being invited to songwriters’ camps.

“Up until that point, I’d mostly written songs for myself, so I hadn’t been in an environment where there were a bunch of people getting together to write songs for specific reasons, like artists or for TV shows.

“But I absolutely loved it so much. I actually realised it fitted me so much more than being the artist.”

She wrote music for TV shows such as Wentworth, Who Killed Sara? and Winners and Losers. Getting to write for different TV and film projects allowed Shelley a diversity in her songwriting that solo artists aren’t always able to have.

Shelley Harland with Nicole Kidman during her performance for Omega watches worldwide ad campaign inside the Liechtenstein Garden Palace in Vienna.

Shelley Harland with Nicole Kidman during her performance for Omega watches worldwide ad campaign inside the Liechtenstein Garden Palace in Vienna.

However, it was the song In The Dark from her album Red Leaf that Omega watches picked up for its worldwide campaign with Nicole Kidman 10 years ago.

An electronic version of the song was created prior to the album version. It’s a track that has been remixed innumerable times by countless artists after being entered into an ACIDplanet competition.

“It’s really led its own life, that song,” she said. “So much so, my husband has written a short film script for it that we’re going to be filming this year.”

When Omega contacted Shelley, she had a two-year-old and a four-month-old.

“They found my song online – like a needle in a haystack – and asked if they could use it for the worldwide campaign with Nicole Kidman,” she said.

“Of course, I was like, yes but then a week later they called and said, ‘Can we fly you to Vienna for the launch so you can sing it in the palace?’”

The palace was the Liechtenstein Garden Palais in Vienna.

“James usually played guitar for me, but he was like ‘You go, I’ll hold the fort with the kids’.

“I said ‘No, there’s no way I’m going to do this without you. I know it’s going to be nuts, but I think we should all go and just throw ourselves in and do it.’”

They enlisted the help of James’ mum and aunt, who met them in Vienna.

“We flew over with the kids who screamed the whole way,” she said. “Then when we got to Vienna, James and I had a schnitzel that gave us the worst food poisoning we’ve ever had.

“For 24 hours, we were absolutely destroyed.

“But then we have this incredible memory that we’ve got forever.

“James and I rocked up at this incredible palace. I sang to the natural acoustics of the palace.

“It was absolutely mind-boggling the visuals in this place – they had gold edible leaves hanging from trees.

“We were on the red carpet and it was like, what is happening to our life right now?”

Shelley will now perform in Zürich, Switzerland for the project Feldboat, and is organising a UK and US tour.

As for longer-term goals, the couple have a vision to play together in Kiama.

“We want to basically be 99 and still playing together.”

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