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Interview: Tami Neilson Talks Family, Touring & Her New Album 'CHICKABOOM!'

Interview: Tami Neilson Talks Family, Touring & Her New Album 'CHICKABOOM!'

Chris Cudby / Wednesday 18th September, 2019 2:05PM

Never one to sit still, Tami Neilson is gearing up for busy months ahead with a top-to-toe Aotearoa tour kicking off this October including a headline appearance at The Southern Fork Americana Fest 2019, and a brand new album named CHICKABOOM! ready to explode in early 2020. The indefatigable Canadian-born, Tāmaki Makaurau-based artist will be joined by brother and regular collaborator Jay Neilson for the spring run of shows, stripping the lineup right back for an intimate showcase of material from throughout the 2014 Silver Scroll winner's extensive songbook. Neilson generously spared time for a lively chat with Chris Cudby about the upcoming events, her contribution to the recent Waiata / Anthems collection of songs sung in Te Reo, balancing family and musical life, the follow-up to her Taite Music Prize nominated long player Sassafrass! and lots more...

Undertheradar proudly presents... 
The Southern Fork Americana Fest 2019 - The Tuning Fork, Auckland 
Sunday 20th October - Tami Neilson w/ Jenny Mitchell 
(for the full festival lineup see here)

This Is Tami Neilson!

Thursday 17th October - Mayfair Theatre, Dunedin
Friday 18th October - Meow, Wellington
Saturday 19th October - The Piano, Christchurch
Sunday 20th October - The Tuning Fork, Auckland
Monday 21st October - Nelson Arts Festival, Nelson
Saturday 26th October - Leigh Sawmill Cafe, Leigh
Monday 28th October - Tauranga Arts Festival, Tauranga

Chris Cudby: A thing I loved about Sassafrass! is that it directly addresses serious contemporary issues like sexism and female equality, but at the same time is really fun to listen to. My head will be bobbing along to that album as I listen to your words. How do you feel about the record a year after its release?

Tami Neilson: I think it's really great to hear that’s how you feel about it, because I’ve never been someone to stand on a soapbox and shake my finger and get out some kind of serious message. I always feel like... I’m a mom, when you give your kids medicine, you gotta give them something sweet, package it in something fun and joyful. That was definitely the intention with Sassafrass!, showing a point of view of “this is how it is for me as a woman in the industry,” but delivering it in a really fun and accessible way.

One of my role models, my heroes is Mavis Staples and I’ve gotten to open for her a couple of times. The first time when I met her, what really struck me was here’s a woman who’s an integral part of the civil rights movement, she marched with Martin Luther King, we’re talking some serious weighty issues in the music she’s put out. But your first impression of Mavis Staples is she just radiates joy and complete generosity of spirit and she has time to talk to anyone. When I saw her, I thought, “that’s it, that’s the key”. If you want anyone to listen to you about anything that's important to you, you need to make sure that it’s delivered with joy and love. That was my biggest takeaway.

You recorded 'Cry Myself To Sleep’ for the Waiata / Anthems collection. What was the experience like re-recording your song in Te Reo?

Oh wow, first and foremost it was such a huge honour to be asked. I was like “how did I get s lucky? I'm just this white chick from Canada”. Although, my heritage, like Hine [Hinewehi Mohi, who worked with artists in reinterpreting their songs on Waiata / Anthems] was saying “well, but your First Nations”. I am Ojibwe Canadian and I think First Nations around the world, we all kind of have the kinship. That aside it was firstly a huge honour, followed very quickly by complete terrified intimidation at singing Te Reo and singing in a language that I, as a Canadian, did not grow up around. I find that most New Zealanders can count to ten in Te Reo, everyone can sing the vowel song. You grow up with it subconsciously permeating your psyche and most cities in New Zealand are Te Reo or Maori words and it's such an integral part of the New Zealand culture. Whereas I didn’t grow up around that, my kids speak far more Te Reo then I do. They come home from school every day with a new song and knowing more words.

I was first asked to perform it as a show at the Auckland Arts Festival, the Waiata show that Hinewehi Mohi was also a part of and it was curated by Tama Waipara. Tama started by saying "my favourite song of yours is ‘Cry Myself To Sleep’", which is a really old song, it’s not one of my well known songs. But he said “can you just learn the chorus in Te Reo?” And I'm like “okay, but you have to send me you singing it, I want the recording, I want the words, I want everything and I want it months before. I don't want to screw this up, it needs to be legit, it needs to be good.” So he did, he sent it through so I learnt it all and I performed it as part of a show at the Auckland Arts Festival, which was such an incredible feeling. I was shaking but so excited as well. The audience were predominantly Maori and as I sang the first chorus in Te Reo, they all just totally broke out cheering.

I think that was a real thing, getting past that fear and intimidation because I think even making an effort is the first step. I think a lot of people, that fear holds them back from even trying. Whereas I think that most Maori are like “yes, I can respect that you are making your first baby steps.” They’re not going to knock you over because you’re just wobbling a bit. They want you to make the effort and keep trying and get stronger at it. I definitely felt total support doing it so it really was an amazing experience.

You mentioned that the song you recorded with that project was one of your older songs. Would you be revisiting older material with your tour that’s coming up?

Yeah, the tour that I'm doing with Jay, is gonna be a real mix of the catalog of songs that people know and love, that they may not realise that I wrote with my brother Jay. Songs like ‘Walk Back To Your Arms’ which won the Silver Scroll, I co-wrote with Jay and a lot of those on Cry Myself To Sleep I wrote with Jay and he produced it as well. So it's going to be going into the back catalog a bit, talking about the stories behind the songs and writing them together. Also going way back to telling stories about growing up on the road together in our family band and sharing songs from that time as well. My new upcoming album is very much a project that Jay is heavily featured in, we wrote a lot of the songs together but he also performed with me on the album, it’s kind of getting to showcase those new songs to New Zealand for the first time. (The tour's) like a little sneak preview of the new album and the stories behind those songs, and getting to hear them in a way that New Zealanders haven't really heard me perform with just voices and a guitar for a very long time. It’s going to be very special.

Will it be just you on stage?

Just me and my brother Jay, and our guitars and our harmonies. Nothing beats blood harmonies. Jay’s performed with me for many years with my international band when I tour, but I haven’t bought him here because I have a New Zealand band [laughs]. It's obviously a very long way to come for touring. So that’s going to be the first time that we perform the songs together with just the two of us.

Did you find that you ended up rewriting any of the old material, or have you kept quite faithful to them?

It’ll be the songs as people know them but it’ll definitely be a different interpretation to what they’ve heard, because they’re gonna hear things the way that Jay and I sit down and write things. They’re gonna hear that real stripped back, just hearing that vocal and those harmonies. There’s nothing like being on stage with someone that you have such a vast musical history with and there’s nothing like performing with someone who you can communicate with a look. This is a person who’s been on stage with me for over 30 years and New Zealanders have never really got to see that. It’s like... bringing your best friend home to meet the parents. I have such a deep and established relationship with my New Zealand audiences now, it’s so strange to me that they’ve never seen that part of me. My brother's such an integral part of my music and the music that they listen to and love and they’ve never met him which is really strange to me. It’s going to be this really special joining of those two.

Has family life been providing you with any inspiration on the songs on your upcoming album?

Haha, definitely. Predominantly I write what I know. I had someone say to me recently “wow, all your albums have such a strong theme of family” and I guess, growing up in a family band, there’s a really deep and strong foundation of family there. Then of course, my family, my children, my husband, it just carries on. It’s the number one priority in my life and it’s everything isn’t it? Your family is your heart and that’s kind of what I always felt growing up in a family band. People were like “oh, don't you miss having a place to call home when you’re touring all the time” and I’m like, "no!" To me, maybe because of the way I grew up, touring all the time with my family, to me home is wherever my family is. Home isn’t a place, home is a people. The best way you can say it, is your family is your heart and I always write songs from that place. I guess that’s why most of my songs are predominantly about family and those relationships.

Are you allowed to reveal what your album is called?

The album is called CHICKABOOM! (It) definitely conjures up an era of music and a certain sound. Predominantly, that sound is like Johnny Cash or Wanda Jackson or the songs that were basically stripped back to a trio. That real kind of rockabilly, country flavour where it was percussion, guitar, harmonies and maybe a bass if you were lucky. That's definitely the direction that I wanted to go with that next album.

Tami Neilson's upcoming album 'CHICKABOOM!' is out Friday 14th February on Outside Music/Neilson Records.


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