John Campbell has a secret Spotify playlist
I talk to my friend John about one of the best playlists I've ever heard: his
When I was studying journalism at university, I had a job in a newsroom delivering scripts and running the autocue machine. I had no idea what I wanted to do in journalism, and was horribly confused about a number of things at the time — from journalism, to my own weird personality.
Back then, journalist John Campbell (follow him on Twitter, he’s great) was co-hosting the 6pm news with Carol Hirschfeld. They were a dream team — and I’d deliver their scripts at 5.30pm, then sit in a little dark corner in the studio running the autocue, making sure the words were in the right place for them to read.
It was a busy lil’ newsroom, and I barely knew who anyone was when I arrived. I was shit scared. And John was the first broadcaster to ask who I was, what I was up to, and how I was going. And that kinda just kept going for the following decade that I worked in that newsroom.
Lots of things stood out to me about John, right from the start: For one thing, despite fronting news and current affairs programmes — he was all about being out in the field, meeting people. He cared deeply about things — and he still does. Right now he’s on Breakfast TV in New Zealand highlighting issues that actually matter, and holding power to account. Whether he’s reporting on New Zealand’s homelessness crisis, or seeking justice for those left picking up the pieces after the Christchurch quakes — John cares, and he gets of his arse to actually do something about it.
During my stint at TV3, John became a mentor and a friend, and his door was always open for chats and life advice. We’ve both left that newsroom now, to do different things. But I still see plenty of him, and he still gives me life advice.
And one thing that has become very clear to me about John over the years is that he loves music.
Like, he loves it.
He goes to gigs, he obsesses over songs and artists, and he fully gives himself to finding new artists and songs that bring him joy. Which brings us here.
Because John J Campbell has a secret Spotify playlist. It’s called “JC tryna be alive”, and it’s really fucking good. To be fair, it’s not actually secret — but I don’t think enough people know about it. Which is why we are here.
His description sums it up:
“150 (give or take) very fine tunes (from Aotearoa and the big old world), gratefully, lovingly and obsessively picked (and re-picked) and revised (and re-revised) and endlessly tinkered with. (No way shuffle!) Big aroha to everyone here - and anyone who listens.”
There are currently 153 songs in John Campbell’s playlist, clocking in at 9 hours and 18 minutes. The drive from Kaiwaka to Wellington, give or take.
It currently opens on “Trip to Warsaw (intro)” from Surly’s Trip to Warsaw, and ends on “Not Alone” from Moana and the Tribe. Scattered throughout, the most wonderful and eclectic mix of music. Solange to David Dallas, Gil Scott-Heron to FKA Twigs.
And here’s the thing: it’s a near perfect playlist. I mean, you can’t fault it. This wasn’t a man feverishly dumping tracks he liked on a list — this was a finely tuned journey of emotion and art. Each track landed with pure intent. I ran it past New Zealand musician Fazerdaze, no novice herself when it comes to a good playlist.
“Thanks for sharing this secret playlist with me. It is excellent. I’m listening through and thinking how John could totally have a second career as a DJ or editor at Spotify; he obviously listens to music in an emotional way. I’m enjoying the flow between each song - this is such a mood. Feels effortless to listen to but you can feel the love and intention through out. I’m finding it quite hard to stop listening actually — like a good book or film!”
I’ve been listening to John’s playlist a lot myself over the last few weeks — and as well as sharing it with you, I wanted to ask the man himself what was behind it. And he answered.
Let me throw it over to John.
Thanks so much for liking my playlist. I know this is corny, but it really makes me happy.
Like about 87% of painfully shy teenagers (circa 1979), I started making mixtapes when I was at school. (On C60 and C90 cassettes. They were really terrible things. Full of angst.) I sometimes gave them to girls I adored. They almost never listened. My beautiful friend, Tim, told me they weren’t remotely interested in my music. But I wasn’t sure how else to tell them what mattered to me, and who I longed to be, and what made my heart race (other than them).
And I guess I just never stopped. I just got better at not giving them to people.
In the decades since I first began, they’ve become a kind of expedition for me — my curiosity, my wonder, the way I force myself, afresh, to not become the guy I swore I’d never be, only listening to the greatest hits, the classic hits, the should-have-been hits of my youth, or endlessly saying how much better music was back then. It was great, yes, and it saved me, and I am so grateful for it, but there’s no new joy in endlessly repeating it, is there? It’s the epiphany I’m after. The first love. The rush and gratitude and amazement of discovery.
So, I read and read and read, and search and search and search, and listen and listen and listen. Not every day. But most days. And when I find songs, I need to remember them, or return to them tomorrow to see if my elation was right, and so I put them aside, like found treasures. In playlists.
Sometimes I turn to sad music. Sometimes I do entire playlists of just one musician: Sharon Van Etten, Frank Ocean. Or a label: Flying Nun. Or two or three musicians together that I’ve somehow connected in my head: Aldous Harding, Tiny Ruins, Adrianne Lenker and Nadia Reid. Or indie pop, to make me smile like a goofball: The Beths, Chelsea Jade… And on it goes. Chasing butterflies.
But this one is my sweeping extravaganza of gratitude and wonder. It’s taken me two or three years of the most rewarding exploration. Hundreds of (happy) hours. And I change it, or update it, or move songs around it, maybe once or twice a week. Sometimes more.
It’s not expert. (I’m not expert — or even close.) And it may contains songs that are completely uncool, or aren’t anywhere near the best songs recorded by that musician. I don’t know.
But every one of them has made me feel something. And keeps doing so. Which is why they’re still here.
But more than that, many of them have told me things I didn’t already know. New ways of seeing. Or new ways of making music. Or an audacity. Or a brilliance. Or a sense of the world far beyond the limitations of my own understanding. And I listen to them, and I think “how did they know to do that (that sample, that segue, that line, that repetition, that beat)?” How did they know? And I learn new ways of seeing. And being. And telling.
The other thing I feel is pride. This playlist is full of music from Aotearoa. And that music sits here, equally, alongside some of the all-time greats, high.
Except for gratitude.
The musicians here have made me better, and saved me when the walls were falling in, and they’ve expanded my horizon, and helped me understand things, and made my eyes wander towards something not before seen. I am so grateful to them.
Thank you David.
I really urge you to listen. I think you might like it.
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David (and John)