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August/September 2016

by Poppy Tohill

Abbie: Giving It Back

by Poppy Tohill

Abbie: Giving It Back

Launched in September last year, about the same time Maori Television’s fun music competition show Homai Te Pakipaki nine year run ended, Waatea Music was established to provide a platform to release and support Māori music. The two intersect in the person and developing talent of 28-year old singer Abbie Harker-Ferguson. Abbie talked with Poppy Tohill about her debut album ‘Lost / Found’, released at the end of July.

From singing over the family TV at a young age, to singing her way into our homes as a teenager on Maori Television’s hit show Homai Te Pakipaki, Abbie Harker-Ferguson had already come a long way.

The past four years have provided a steep learning curve for the young songstress as she moved away from her family home in Tokoroa to live in Auckland, signed on to the city’s music industry and alongside that, stepped out of her musical comfort zone to dive into the unknown world of pop.

“I’ve been a die hard fan of soul and blues music my entire life, but I think it was time for me to grow. So when I moved to Auckland it was an evolution of sorts.

“I ended up working alongside Woodcut Studios and William Henderson, a great producer that helped me evolve my style into this coming together of blues, soul, pop and my love for storytelling.”

Woodcut are the production part of the not long-established Maori label Waatea Music, and her seven-track release is the first album from the label. Abbie was 19 years old, a practising songwriter and working as a property manager for Ray White in Tokoroa when she picked up enough courage to go to Auckland and sing on Homai Te Pakipaki.

“When I managed to get through to the finals and came third that impacted my life hugely. I moved to Auckland, signed a management deal and the rest is history, so that show was definitely a big catalyst for change and impacted me enormously.”

Although influenced by the greats such as Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Etta James, Ella Fitzgerald, Sam Cooke and Lauryn Hill, she puts her early love of singing down to none other than Disney’s, The Little Mermaid.

“I’ve always loved sounds and mimicking what others are doing with their voices,” she confesses. “I used to spend hours watching that movie and singing in front of the fan to recreate the sound when she’s singing and swimming through the tunnel.”

After four years spent living in Auckland and working on material for her debut, Abbie describes herself as “…a songwriter, first and foremost.”

“I don’t play an instrument, but I’ve been writing songs since I was a very young as I’ve always loved the way words fit together and create a connection with people. The way I write songs has always been quite backwards, but as a part of the evolution, I also wanted to diversify my songwriting. So instead of writing a song from scratch with the idea for a tune already in my head, I listened to some beats for inspiration and then went from there, which opened up a whole other level of writing for me.”

Experimenting with new genres and ways of writing isn’t all that’s new on her album. Led out by the single Million, it showcases her naturally soulful voice over electronic-pop beats.

“I love a challenge, so if there’s something I really want to do, I won’t back down until I’ve done it, no matter how much it scares me.”

“The reason I think I’m half decent at singing is because I love listening to the way people make sounds. I’ve always listened closely to Maori speakers because it’s such a beautiful language that has always fascinated me, so I decided I would challenge myself to write a song in Te Reo for the album.”

Not at all fluent in the language she needed help to check what she’d written made sense, but did much of the research and writing for the beautiful song Rerehua herself.

“I really wanted to be respectful of the language and do the very best I could to paint a picture, rather than just throwing a whole bunch of words together that don’t mean anything.”

“It’s a love song about that someone special and what they mean to you. It’s supposed to be a heartfelt call to one another, so in the bridge you can hear us (Maaka Fiso, who collaborated with me on the track) almost singing out to one another.

“Music transcends language barriers so it doesn’t matter if people don’t understand, because you can still connect with one another and that connection and bond over the music and making or just allowing others to feel something by inviting them in is what it’s all about for me. People always know you mean well if you sing to them.”

With the release of  ‘Lost / Found’ scheduled for the end of the month, mid-July found Abbie in England, where she performed at the charming Deebs Day Festival in Hertfordshire. It’s a farm-based festival of hammocks and hay bales, glitter and good vibes.

‘My first festival and I am hooked,’ she blogged on her website. ‘Happy people wearing the most amazing outfits and getting along. Sandy-beaches with hammocks, talking music, bars, chilling-tents, two different areas for various types of music and a random inflatable banana… the list of awesomeness goes on.’

“Festivals are a whole other level!” she chuckles. “Being on stage and singing my own original music, in front on an international audience who don’t know who I am, and having them respond in such a positive way was absolutely amazing.

“I feel like I’ve just started this evolution which is all about being open to different sounds and styles and it’s made me realise there’s so much more to learn. I’ve always been so focused on my blues, jazz and soul that all of the other different genres and ways there are to create music were totally escaping me, so I look forward to evolving and learning so much more about songwriting. I’m still very new to collaboration also, so I want to work out the rhythm of writing with and maybe even for other people.”

“I have very big dreams, because I don’t feel like people should ever limit themselves.”