The Wonky Donkey has been an amazing success both as a song and as a book. But who is Craig Smith?
I first saw Craig Smith perform about 3 years ago at the Riccarton Rotary Market where he used to busk every Sunday. On this particular day I had gone along with a few friends on the hunt for old teacups and saucers and whilst grabbing some lunch, I was vaguely aware of a guy with mad curly hair and a friendly face, singing away pleasantly in the background. I soon tuned in to him when he started singing a song about a donkey! The song, not only had the kids, but also most of the adults including myself, in stitches of laughter as the animal in question was referred to as a spunky, hanky panky, cranky, stinky dinky, lanky, honky-tonky, winky, wonky donkey! Now as I meet this 39 year old again to interview him, he’s an award winning children’s songwriter and award winning children’s book author who has just bought his first house in Lyttelton and has plans to build another one later this year.
It hasn’t always been an easy ride for Craig Smith however. Born in Clyde in Otago, his father left when he was two after the family moved to Queenstown. His mother then worked in the laundry of the Travel Lodge, to support Craig and his 5 brothers and sisters. After being politely asked to leave several high schools in Queenstown and then Invercargill, Craig left school during his last year to return to Queenstown to work as a dishwasher. He then had a string of jobs including a ski instructor, and vendor at a fruit and vegetable market before heading off to the bright lights of Auckland to pursue a career in sales and marketing. Craig had a natural talent for this and it took him from New Zealand to Australia before owning his own importing business in Vietnam for 6 years.
However, living in 3rd world country in a capitalist situation really brought to the surface to Craig that this was not what life was about. He found the place increasingly soul destroying, and made the decision to go with his heart and concentrate on his music.
Craig has had a passion for the guitar since first playing one at age 12, and so he returned to New Zealand in 2003 to give the musician life a try for a year. Things were slow to begin with, busking and picking up gigs here and there where he could. By the end of the year however, he had managed to save up enough to buy some decent gear and was to his surprise, earning about $1000 a week from his music and then came the realisation that he could make living from it. He then set about saving to produce his first album. ‘13 Originals’ was released in 2005 and at the same time Craig was commissioned to write a song for the Hokitika Wild Foods Festival. The organisers loved the song and invited him to play it in front of 19,000 people at the festival.
He had already started to write children’s songs for his nieces and nephews whilst stuck inside babysitting on rainy days, and when he heard the joke “What do you call a donkey with 3 legs? – A wonky donkey”, the Wonky Donkey song was born. Craig first played it to keep the kids entertained but then he started playing it at gigs or parties to amuse adults too. The song was a hit with everyone and after people kept asking for the song on CD, Craig recorded the album ‘Not Just For Kids’.
The song and CD sold really well and in 2008, Craig entered the ‘Wonky Donkey’ song in the APRA Children’s Song of the Year awards and to his surprise, it won. Craig puts the success of ‘Wonky Donkey’ down to the fact that it’s not just a kids’ song, but appeals to adults too, if they allow themselves just to laugh at it.
Craig soon realised that there was potential for the song to be turned into a book. On the high of winning Children’s Song of the Year, he approached the publishers Scholastic, but was turned down, as they didn’t accept any unsolicited material. Craig knew he had to find another way to get the song into their hands. He found out that Scholastic was attending a meeting about books at a charity event in Christchurch. Craig had already offered to play background music for this evening as a donation to the charity, but realised there would be some influential people there who may take a liking to his song.
Just before the break that evening, he played ‘The Wonky Donkey’ and everyone had a laugh. He then introduced himself to the editor- in- chief of Scholastic and managed to get the song into her hands, and 3 weeks later, received a phone call saying that they wanted to turn it into a book.
Craig got local Christchurch artist Katz Cowley on board as the illustrator. He’d met her some years before at a guitar clinic as she’s also a talented musician as well as an artist, and got on well with her. She had already illustrated some of his album covers so he knew just how talented she was. Scholastic were no keen at first to use an unknown illustrator but Craig went in to bat for her and after they saw her work, they instantly agreed to use her on the ‘Wonky Donkey’ book.
The rest is history. Between Craig, Katz and the publishers Scholastic, ‘The Wonky Donkey’, the children’s book, was created. Craig attributes its success, not only to Katz’s amazing illustrations and the huge network and good reputation that the publishers have, but also to the fact that he was on the road with the song and performed at schools and pre-schools around New Zealand and Australia.
In 2009, the book was published and sold out of the first run in less than 2 weeks, and then proceeded to sell out of the second run as well. In order to get the books in the shops again in time for Christmas, Scholastic made the decision to get more printed in New Zealand, rather than their usual Singapore location. Whitcoulls customers even voted it as the second best children’s book of all time behind ‘Harry Potter’. It was only knocked off its top spot by ‘Willbee, The Bumblebee’, Craig’s 2nd book, which he co-wrote with his mother, Maureen Thomson. She recently received her first royalty cheque in the mail, and he says, as much as a 73 year old can, she was doing back flips!
Craig was lucky enough to work with some amazing musicians and technicians on ‘45 South’. Kevin Allsion, Stevie Wonder’s technician, approached him after he had heard him play at one of his gigs. He wanted to help Craig record his next album, which coincidentally Craig was about to do only a few weeks later. Kevin invited Craig to fly to LA to work with Stevie Wonder’s backing band on 5 of the album’s tracks, and he jumped at the chance. Here Craig got to work with amazing artists Errol Cooney (lead guitar), Nate Watts (bass), Roman Johnson (Keyboard), Chris Johnson (Drums) and Fasto Cuavus (Percussion). The Christchurch Symphony Orchestra also features on the title track of the album.
The song ‘Least We Forget’ was featured on the ANZAC day special of The Good Morning Show, as well as in the documentary of ‘The Battle of Passchendaele, Our Bloodiest Day’. Craig was asked to perform the song for the RSA at the official ANZAC Day ceremonies in the Christchurch Cathedral.
Although Craig’s main musical influence stems from folk music, this album features hints of soft rock and blues and the songs tackle a range of political, environmental and social subjects. The Otago Daily Times said “It’s an album for those who like John Hanlon, Lyle Lovett and Bob Dylan”. Craig enjoyed working with a backing band on ‘45 South’ and is keen to do it again. For over 20 years Craig has been jamming with a group of friends in Auckland and it’s his intention to get together with them to record more of his songs.
It’s not hard to see that the last year has come as a surprise to Craig. As I sit talking to him, he frequently gets a look of astonishment on his face. As he himself says, he was just happy to get published, and the rest was a total shock.
The success of ‘The Wonky Donkey’ has totally changed Craig’s life, and although you can see that he is a very talented man, he is still very humble and thanks great timing for a lot of his success. He also donates 20% of the net profits from the sale of his ‘Not Just For Kids’ album to various children’s charities.
Within a year, Craig has gone from busking at Riccarton Market to APRA award winning songwriter & NZ Post award winning author. He says he sometimes catches himself saying it to people and thinks, “Oh God – if only they knew! It’s crazy.”
Craig is currently on tour in the North Island and is donating all of his fees from his performances to the Christchurch Earthquake Appeal.
from NZ Today Magazine – March/April 2011 – Issue 39