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Interview: Tami Neilson Speaks Out About Her New Album 'Sassafrass!'

Interview: Tami Neilson Speaks Out About Her New Album 'Sassafrass!'

Lydia Jenkin / Wednesday 13th June, 2018 9:37AM

With her new album Sassafrass! Tami Neilson turns out to be the musical feminist superhero we didn’t know we were waiting for. Not only is it jam-packed full of exceptional, memorable songs, it manages to confront misogyny and sexism with a cheeky grin and a sense of triumph, while also giving us searing stories of female oppression and pain, full of humanity and heart.

Neilson’s career has gone from strength to strength in recent years, with sold out tours and accolades both international and local. She’s had a run of fantastic albums that have tackled everything from heartbreak and grief, to motherhood and flirtation, all presented in a style that sophisticatedly blends country with soul, rockabilly, jazz, and swing, and we should all be feeling very excited that this peerless Canadian powerhouse has chosen to call New Zealand home for more than ten years.

When you first started writing these songs, were you surprised at this theme that emerged of female equality and wanting to call out this sexism on so many different levels, or did you have that in mind from the beginning?

I hadn’t even noticed the direction it was going in actually, until my Mom asked about it. That’s when I realised that I just have no tolerance for people’s bullshit anymore! It’s just gone, and I don’t know if it’s since losing Dad, or becoming a mother, or turning 40, or all those things, but my perspective changed and my priorities shifted, and I just suddenly have no tolerance for bullshit. Usually my Mom is like “Tami don’t swear!,” but when I told her that, she didn’t, she just laughed, and said, “I can see that.”

But I think apart from my own perspective, there’s also the social climate right now, and this groundswell of activity around women and our fight for equality, there’s a real wave of power that’s emboldening a lot of people, and it was kind of like the perfect storm. All those things happened in my personal life, and there’s all these things going on in the world, and it made me feel like this was the moment, and like I’d really found my confidence, and not putting so much value on others opinions. And that’s a really freeing thing. It’s amazing when you decide that you’re actually going to say what you want to say.

There’s really interesting stories behind each of the songs on this record, but I’m going to start with ‘Stay Outta My Business’, because it’s right at the top. Obviously the sentiment in the song is born from many things that have happened to you, but isn’t it fascinating that some of the worst things that have been said to you have actually come from fans, because they don’t even realise that they’re being insulting – these ideas are just so ingrained and pervasive.

It is funny because I think even the most open-minded of people, and I can even see it in myself, we have these expectations of our gender roles, and these engrained ideas, and some people find it hard to reconcile these ideas of me being a touring musician and a mother. I’d experienced sexism in the music industry before but it wasn’t until I became a mother that I really experienced the full force of it. It was quite a shock too, having grown up in a family where my parents had truly equal roles in our care and upbringing. Even the most open minded male colleagues that I work with sometimes don’t realise the implications of what are very well-intentioned comments.

I remember one of my friends saying me when I was away on tour for a weekend, “Oh so what are the boys up to?” and I said, “Oh they’re with their Dad, they’ll be having a great time” and he said “You’re really lucky eh. It’s amazing that he’s such a hands-on Dad.” And I said, “Well, he is amazing, and I am lucky, but not for those reasons.” I said “Can you imagine if Grant walked into his work on Monday, and the guys in the office said “Where are your kids? Who’s looking after them today?” and he would say “They’re with Tami having a great time,” and they would respond “Oh wow, she’s so amazing, you’re so lucky, it’s so wonderful that she’s such a hands-on Mum.”

It actually sounds ridiculous. You know you flip the conversation and you laugh because it actually sounds crazy. My friend just went ‘Oh! Wow. I hadn’t thought about that.’ It just shows how deeply ingrained it is.

Has it been interesting talking to male journalists about this album?

Some of them definitely get it. Obviously this album is meant for everyone, not just women, so it’s great to talk to men about it too. But there have been a few interesting moments. I was talking to a New York journalist, and he goes “I have to say I really love the last song, ‘A Good Man’, because you know, we’re not all bad!”

Of course I don’t hate any men! What I hate is misogyny and sexism, but in my experience that has come equally from men and women. It’s an attitude that’s not limited to a sex or a gender, it’s just an attitude I don’t like. Some of the hardest things I’ve heard have come from women.

Has this album been inspired by some of the women you highlighted in your Songs of the Sinners shows last year? I feel like I can hear a little stylistic nod to those ladies on Sassafrass!

Absolutely. I don’t think I could’ve performed that show for a year and not absorbed a lot of their spirit. That show was such a great growing experience. It stretched me and challenged me in my performing, in my vocals especially, you know they’re massive songs. Going into this album I really felt like, I want my own shows to be like those shows were, you know, I want my own original material to be as big and bold and exciting and electric. That’s how I felt performing those songs, and it really brought out another side of me as a performer, because I was channelling these amazing characters and personas and so I felt like I could go a little further than I had gone before as a performer. And then I realised that was who I wanted to be all the time.

This album was definitely written with the idea of performing these songs live in mind. I definitely credit the influence of those artists and those songs, like Sister Rosetta, and Big Mama Thornton, and Mavis Staples.

And meeting Mavis when you opened for her last year?

Oh my god. Meeting Mavis! I got to chat with her for maybe only 15 or 20 minutes, but talking to her in that short amount of time I was so struck by her personality. Even though she’s four foot nothing, she carries this regal, quiet power, and she radiates joy and generosity of spirit, and love. I really loved that dichotomy, that she’s always stood for something, and that’s a very serious and important message of equality, so there’s weight and there’s depth there, but it’s packaged in this joy.

I thought, that’s what I want to do, to deliver something that’s really joyful and fun and bright and colourful, while still being a deep well, and really having something to say. I think that’s much more disarming than trying to stand on a soap box and point fingers.

I had no idea that your grandmother was First Nation, that’s an amazing story. Tell me about incorporating your own family history into this album.

With ‘A Woman’s Pain’ I had the title and the idea that I wanted to tell a story about the women in my family. My first idea was to tell the story of all the women that shaped me, so my mother, my grandmothers, and my aunts, and maybe do a verse for each of them. As soon as I scratched the surface of even one of them, I realised that would be a song with twenty verses. I needed to distil it and decide on one story. And then it struck me that every woman that I’m surrounded by has been through some unimaginable pain really. The resilience is just mind-blowing.

My great grandmother was of the First Nation, and she married a white man, so she juggled the dynamics of living on a reservation and having a white husband, while also having four children, the last of which, she died giving birth to. So then there was the pain of my grandmother having lost her mother that young, and having to leave everything she knew because when her mother died, her father was in a very complex situation of being a white man who could no longer stay on the reservation.

My grandmother grew up without her mother, without that side of her family. She got pregnant at 13, got married at 14, to a man from England who then abandoned her and went back to England, so she had to look after herself and a baby. That’s just one part of one story.

But the last verse of 'A Woman’s Pain', I kinda wanted it to become about the commentary that has surrounded women right from the beginning. Thinking about the biblical story, and not only the fact that god is always described as male, but when Adam and Eve both partake of the forbidden fruit, when god confronts them about it, the man immediately throws the woman under the bus: “It’s her fault. It’s this woman you gave me. She’s the problem.” So the woman gets blamed, and they’re both punished, but their punishments are very different. The curse for the man is that “you will toil and work hard,” but the curse for the woman is “you will have pain, and you will be under the rule of man.” For me that kind of lays the foundation of the mindset that has been ingrained in society since the dawn of time.


It really struck me that although this isn’t an album of heartbreak per say, and it’s a pretty upbeat album too, it really highlights the things that can make your heart ache that have nothing to do romantic love, but are equally painful.

Exactly. I guess with those milestones that I’ve hit lately, I feel like things are bigger than me. Obviously I touch on my personal relationships, but I don’t know, I guess I feel a little bit like time is a’wasting, and there are other important things for me to say at this point in my life.

Is that kind of what being a 'Sassafrass!' is about?

The title is interesting actually, because even though it’s not well-known slang, it does fit exactly the tone of the album. I just love the word, and what it immediately conjures up, but also, when I was looking into the meanings behind it, I looked up the plant sassafras, and it’s perfect because it’s really useful. It’s a spice, but it also means in Latin ‘to break rock’. I just loved all those layers.

A plant that has the ability to break rocks while also being fragrant and practical and spicy, that’s perfect.

Undertheradar are thrilled to present Tami Neilson touring New Zealand in July and August, head along over here for more info.

'Sassafrass!' is out now via Outside Music.


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