Although he’s relatively unknown outside of Aotearoa New Zealand, Dunedin-based Avant-Pop artist Dudley Benson is one of the most distinctive, singular, and divisive musical figures to emerge within his home country since the dawn of the 21st century. Relatively unknown outside of Aotearoa New Zealand doesn’t mean completely unknown either. There have been moments, and they’re the kind of moments that add up to a cult reputation. He’s been remixed in a nu-rave style by Casiotone For The Painfully Alone, dueted with near-mythical English folk legend Vashti Bunyan, presented commissioned work at Berlin’s Wassermusik Festival, toured Japan and received the highly sought after obi strip reissue treatment from Tokyo’s HEADZ record label.

These moments have run alongside what now counts at twelve years of recording and releasing music, and staging performances, big and small. In that time, he’s released three full-length albums, a smattering of EPs, and the odd live recording, almost all of which has been awarded a high level of critical acclaim. 2008’s The Awakening saw Benson working with classical instruments, a small choir, and his idiosyncratic voice and lyric writing. It was about him coming to terms with his relationship with Aotearoa New Zealand’s colonial history as a Pākehā (the Māori word for New Zealander of European descent), as well as the seedy underbelly of his birth town of Christchurch, and pain and loss rooted in his mother’s untimely death when he was 15.

2010’s Forest: Songs by Hirini Melbourne was a counterpoint. Having looked through colonial history, Benson wanted to understand Te Ao Māori (the Māori world) and the perspectives held by Māori, Aotearoa New Zealand’s indigenous people. He enrolled in Māori studies at the University of Auckland, learned Te Reo Māori (the language), and engaged in dialogue. Inspired by a set of short and catchy waiata (songs) the late Māori composer, poet, educator and author, Hirini Melbourne wrote to help preserve Te Reo Māori, Benson sought approval from his widow, before gathering up a barbershop quartet, a close choir, a bird mimic, a beatboxer, and several other collaborators to rework seven of Melbourne’s pieces in an acapella style.

Ostensibly art music by description, both records ripple with strong pop sensibilities, a throwback to Benson’s childhood fascination with Australian-British pop star Kylie Minogue. This reference is crucial because at the heart of Benson’s relationship with music is a love affair with the drum machines and synthesisers that power electronic music. Earlier in the year, this was made explicit with the release of Zealandia, his first full-length album in eight years. Conceptually rooted in the geological discovery that Aotearoa New Zealand sits on the huge submerged continent of Zealandia, and the fresh possibilities for thinking this could afford the country, the album saw him bringing together the lessons he’d learned from his first two records, and placing them within a series of futuristic beatscapes.

This week, Benson released his fascinating self-directed music video for ‘Cook Beleaguered’ from Zealandia and a fresh set of remixes of it by Kolya, Death & The Maiden, Acls, Embedded Figures, and Cicada Ceremony. Created in collaboration with editor Phoebe Lysbeth Kay, directors of photography Ralph Brown and Phoebe Lysbeth Kay, and performance artists Cat Ruka and Pati Solomona Tyrell, and painter Nigel Brown, ‘Cook Beleaguered’ is a perfect entry point into who Benson is as an artist. In August, I interviewed him in the study room of the historic Dunedin mansion part of the video was filmed in.

What sort of sacrifices do you think you had to make to create Zealandia?

I could have made three records in the time that I made Zealandia. They would have had to be less challenging, and epic for me as an artist, but I think those records being more manageable in scale would have given me greater overseas opportunities and touring opportunities in New Zealand. As an artist, I was on a positive trajectory eight years ago. My audience was growing; people were getting my message in a way that I wanted them to. Apart from a few small side projects, I've lost a lot of that momentum, and I haven't done much more overseas. That’s what I’ve sacrificed.

I really admire my friends who are artists and have a business plan for how to make their work sustainable for them as a livelihood. I don't have that, I pretty much just subsist as an artist. I've come to understand and accept that my work is never going to give me an income. I'm never going to be able to rely on it as a way to keep me living the way that I am. But, [20th century New Zealand painter] Rita Angus also made that self-proclamation and became aware of it. She was one of the first women in Aotearoa to be recognised as an outstanding artist. She was staunchly socialist and left wing, and expressed these concerns through her paintings, often through a celebration of women, domesticity and nature. Rita Angus decided her focus should not be on creating a business plan, but in creating work. In doing so, she understood she would never have much money, but she would be leaving behind a legacy of the best possible expressions of her interests at the time. That's what I want to do. Rita Angus is a role model for me in that way.

How did creating Zealandia differ from The Awakening and Forest?

With The Awakening and Forest, I worked with an audio engineer, Adrian Hollay of Radio New Zealand. He did everything technical for me; I did nothing. It was a luxury, and I wouldn't change any of that. That was only ever going to develop my ability so far. That relationship broke down eventually, and I moved from Auckland to Dunedin. For a while there, I was quite intimidated about how I was going to make the next record. Of course, when we’re forced out of something, a door opens into something new. I had to learn to be a beatmaker, a hands-on producer, and how to mix audio. I learned an incredible amount, and it took time. The beats you hear on Zealandia are not me as a natural beatmaker splurging it out. I've had to spend countless aeons fine-tuning them in micro detail.

The beats and electronica elements of the record were very interesting to me. You’ve clearly done your listening and practice there.

I’ve loved electronic music and artists like Björk since I was a teenager. My fifth birthday present was a Kylie Minogue album on cassette, so the sound of drum machines and keyboards was fully in my DNA by the time I was eight. It's always been my intention to use rhythms and create beats. That's what I love, and what I love listening to. When I was making The Awakening and Forest, I was very limited with resources I had access to. I think on some level, not letting myself head too much in a beatmaking direction with those records was a survival technique. I focused on melody and arrangements. On Forest, I started bringing beats in, but it was through a beatboxer, so I didn't have to do much to those beat patterns.

Zealandia is the first record where I felt resourced enough to make beats and felt I could do them the best of my ability. Andre Upston from Radio New Zealand, who recorded a few chunks of Zealandia, listened back to a performance of mine he recorded 2007 at St Matthew’s Church in Auckland with a choir and a string quartet recently. Now he has heard Zealandia, he said he realises it is the same vision I had then, but it's been fully realised.

You made your own sample kit for Zealandia, right? Tell us about that.

Rock music: a new definition of rock music. I learned so much about sampling and sound manipulation when we did that. I think we recorded 22 different rocks and minerals from the Zealandia continent. Each one was played twice. It was played with the rib of a seal, and I think it was also played with some granite. 22 rocks played twice each makes 44 samples, but the sound variance within those 44 samples was not huge. I spent maybe two years crafting each sample into something quite different. I like that on the record; it's not clear as to what could be a sample from the Earth and what could be a tinned kick.

I know that the influence of Rita Angus and Björk hangs heavy over your work, but who or what else were you thinking about around this project?

I'm generally attracted to filmmakers, authors and visual artists. I guess it’s because I can bounce off those people. My starting point was this nerdy geological writing by Hamish Campbell and Nick Mortimer, the two of the scientists at GNS Science who were responsible for the Zealandia continent research. For me, this isn't a science album though. It had to use that as its foundation and then expand it into something completely different around identity, and a celebration of, and advocacy for, nature. I think something the press around this record, particularly reviews, haven't fully acknowledged is that this is a nature album. The immediate thing people jump into or observe about it is the political nature of it. For me, it's 50% political, which means personal and wider, but also it's a staunch arms around nature record. That's where the influence of other artists who are advocates for nature comes in.

Do you want to talk about the political aspects of the record?

The kaupapa (principles) of this album, and what the songs are about, are not new, but I feel like in an Aotearoa New Zealand context, having a Pākehā artist singing about decolonisation, for example, as one of the issues on the record, is a new thing. Obviously, Māori activist musicians have been staunchly singing about the effects of colonisation and racism for as long as Pākehā has been here. I acknowledge that I'm not writing for Māori, as much as I’m writing to educate Pākehā. I don't have the arrogance to think I could ever preach about Aotearoa New Zealand's cross-cultural history to our indigenous people. It's the Pākehā people I meet that often aren't aware of our true history.

If you don't have a full understanding of it and how you came to be here, the thought that there may be indigenous people who have more rights than you can terrify people. For me personally, it doesn't terrify me at all. Learning about how and why I'm here, has just solidified how I feel about being a New Zealander. These things don't have to be scary if you’re willing to engage and fully understand them.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The ‘Cook Beleaguered’ music video and Remix EP are now out.