In 2023, Mike Chunn’s Play It Strange Trust celebrated 20 years of encouraging and celebrating young songwriters to find their voices. In that time, over 7000 original songs were written and entered into songwriting competitions, and over 1100 finalists have had their songs professionally produced. This article is not about the winners in each category, it is just a collection of songs from the finalists that caught my ears. There are many more great songs, and the Play It Strange alumni who have gone on to make a career out of music is long and strong.

Aho – Nova Taukomo & Paolo Vallero Reid 

Nova Taukomo and Paulo Vallero Reid

This entry from Year 13 School of Music students Paolo Vallero Reid and Nova Taukamo (Hagley Community College, Ōtautahi) was a finalist in the (deep breath) 2023 Play It Strange Lion Foundation National Secondary School’s Songwriting Competition. The song starts with the sound of footsteps walking towards a piano. Warm piano chords and strings introduce the verse; the song is in te reo and has me so wishing I was fluent. I looked up the translation of “aho” and saw that it means “to shine” or “radiant light”. If this is the inspiration behind the song, it very much lives this title. The intimacy and warmth of the shared vocals, the strings and the languid atmosphere, and the space around the instruments remind me in parts of Heijira-era Joni Mitchell – with jazz-guitar musings giving movement and adding to the song’s ambience. ‘Aho’, along with Nanako Sato’s production, is sophisticated and impressive.


Rainbow Skies – Guntaas Oberoi

Guntaas Oberoi

The Play It Strange Peace Songwriting Competition is one of its annual competitions focusing on waiata about peace in its many forms: from inner to world peace. Guntaas Oberoi was a Year 13 student at Macleans College  (Bucklands Beach, Tāmaki Makaurau) in 2023, and her song was one of 45 finalists selected from 300 entries. 

Guntaas has a stunning singing voice. On first listening, the deep reverb wraps around the voice and piano. The song’s opening could be a track from Lana Del Ray’s 2019 album Norman F***ing Rockwell!!. The song starts with a piano and vocal intro for the first verse and chorus, with bass and drums picking up in the second verse, giving the overall song a beautiful dynamic and flow. As one of the finalists of the Peace Songwriting competition, Guntaas was paired with producer Jacob Brown, and the song was recorded at Parachute Studios. 

Favourite lyric: 

I watched the light through the cracks
make patterns on the floor
the darkness is brighter if you’re with
me through it all 


Medicine – Mads Harrop

Mads Harrop

‘Medicine’ was a finalist in the 2017 Lion Foundation Songwriting Competition. At that time, Madeline Harrop was a student at St Kevins College Ōamaru. The track could easily be an early song from fellow Otago songwriter Martin Phillipps, and yes, that is high praise and well deserved. Recorded with analogue warmth and vintage instruments at Sublime Studio in Waitaki Valley, the song is such a catchy charmer. Madeline is currently a student at University of Otago and releases music under the name Mads Harrop. The lyrics are wonderful – this may be my favourite part:

Blank chase
Facing golden
Nobody’s telling me, yeah 
Bright lights
Braided faces
That is my puzzle piece


When the Weather Changes – Grace Lawrence

Grace Lawrence with The Rock Shop's Damien Riddell

‘When the Weather Changes’ is another Peace Song finalist—this one from 2020, when Grace Lawrence was a Year 11 student from St Andrews College in Ōtautahi. The song was one of four finalists selected from 162 entries, and produced by Tom Rainey.

Fergusonhas worked magic on this track, written by Grace Lawrence. The recording is beautiful: the string arrangement and vocal harmony add an air of sophistication to this very appealing song. Grace is a talented singer. Her vocal is pretty, heartfelt and convincing, as she credits different members of her whānau throughout the song for lifting her from her mood each morning, waiting for the weather to change within herself, and outside in the elements. The song finishes, revealing that she knows she really has everything she needs, and “wishes for nothing”. Beautiful.


Home – Annah Mac

Annah Mac

Over the past 20 years, many of the Play It Strange alumni have become familiar names within the music biz, and Annah Mac is one of these. She is now a star, but this incredible song ‘Home’ was written in 2007 when Annah was a student at St Hilda’s Collegiate School in Dunedin, and was a finalist in the Lion Foundation Song competition. Concise and perfectly formed, the song was produced by the brilliant Ed Cake. A gifted songwriter, Annah has recently been recognised for her work as a songwriting and music tutor with The Kōwhai Project, an immensely successful rehabilitative programme for inmates at Otago Correction Facility.


English Rose – Sam Charlesworth

Sam Charlesworth

‘English Rose’ by Westlake Boys High School student Sam Charlesworth stands out, the opening bars reminiscent of 80s-era Flying Nun bands with a touch of 90s slacker vibes. It culminates in a great guitar cacophony that collapses into the end of the song. I am a fan of Sam’s voice which, at the beginning, is soft and convincing, then ramps up to reveal a strong rock growl à la Kurt Cobain. Chordally and melodically interesting drones with harmonies adding lushness at just the right moments.

The song was a finalist in the 2020 Lion Foundation Songwriting competition. I’m pleased to see that Sam has gone on to release more solid material and is now a member of the band The Beatniks, based in Ōtepoti. The track was produced by Harry Charles at Parachute Studios.


Buddy Holly’s Mild High – Bailey Larkin

Bailey Larkin

‘Buddy Holly’s Mild High’ was a finalist in the Lion Foundation 2020 Song Competition. In 2020, Bailey Larkin was a student at Hobsonville Point High School in Tāmaki Makaurau; he wrote this energetic EDM-based track, a tale of teenage partying and excess – “Cos this ain’t my party, but I’ll still get high, this ain’t my girlfriend but we’ll still go wild”. An excerpt from Bailey’s explanation of the lyrics on the Play It Strange website perhaps sums up the meaning behind the track better than I can: “ ‘Buddy Holly’s Mild High’ was my admission to myself that I can’t live out each night as though I’ll be dead before dawn – I need to find some other way, anyway at all to feel alright again.”


We Gotta Move – The Essence 

The Essence

‘We Gotta Move’ by Papatoetoe High School’s The Essence has such fresh ska-flavoured summer vibes, with a madly stickable melody. The harmonies are strong and completely solidify the sunny feeling of a hot summer in Aotearoa. The song features shared vocals; breakdowns and stops help to shape the song dynamically. The song made it through to the 2008 National Secondary School Songwriting Competition. The band members were: Leroy Mulitalo, Timo Morisa, Fale Malase, Daryl Toiaivao, Daniel Morisa, Sam Tulemoe, Sam Allen, and Toti Toma.


Routine – Ash Graham

Ash Graham

Ash Graham has an appealingly expressive singing voice, and the song ‘Routine’ is acoustic-driven with a hefty chorus. The production and composition are well constructed and have an adept and commercial feel. In 2010, Ash was a student at Wellington High School; he received third place in the Lion Foundation Songwriting Competition for ‘Routine’. The track is so strong I had to do a little sleuthing to find that Ash is also the soulful artist Ashley Alexander, and has gone on to release music successfully under that name.


Greer Castle – Thinking

Greer Castle

Wellington Girls’ College student Greer Castle was a finalist in the  2023 Peace Songwriting Competition. Troy Kelly at The Armoury Studios  produced this track so elegantly: the piano and strings support Greer’s vocals perfectly, and the result is a song that sounds cinematic and sophisticated. The lyric is strong, and in the Play It Strange liner notes, Greer says ‘Thinking’ is “about the inner peace found when you slow down and accept the unpredictability of life. The chorus depicts the small joys of my life, like watching the rain, seeing people smile and being with people who make me feel good.” 

Favourite lyric: “My stomach churns; the feelings paint my walls again”


Play It Strange website