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August/September 2015

by Richard Thorne

Tami Neilson: New Soul Staple

by Richard Thorne

Tami Neilson: New Soul Staple

With the perfect strike rate of four from four, Tami Neilson rates as this country’s top album-for-Tui country artist. Arriving here from her native Canada in 2005, she has picked up the NZ Music Awards Best Country Album trophies in 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2014, and is also the current holder of APRA’s coveted Silver Scroll trophy –– for her soulful surprise track Walk (Back To Your Arms). Little more than a year since the release of her last Tui-winning album Tami is back with a new one, an album borne from the grief of a loving daughter losing her equally loving father, that finds the soul taking precedence over the country, as Richard Thorne discovers.

Our hour long conversation over, Tami Neilson allows herself the luxury of a quick wipe under those huge brown eyes, and an admission of relief that she managed to get through the first interview for her soon-to-be released album without breaking into tears.

Don’t Be Afraid’ is an emotion-laden album, written, as it was, almost entirely in the immediate aftermath of her beloved father’s death earlier this year. Both songwriters and performing musicians, their father/daughter bond was an unusually strong one, perhaps strengthened –– certainly not lessened –– by the geographical distance between the Neilson family seat in Ontario, and her own growing family’s Auckland, New Zealand home.

Inside the last 12 months Tami has given birth to a second child, watched her dad Ron pass away in a Canadian hospital, written, recorded and now (in September) released a profoundly personal album of loss and grief – and hope. Within that period she also picked up NZ’s highest songwriting honour, the APRA Silver Scroll, for Walk (Back To Your Arms) off her 2014 album ‘Dynamite!’, which also won her (yet another) Best Country Album Tui in May this year.

“Last year was an insane year, I had the highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows all in one year –– and I guess that is what the album is, it reflects that constant cycle of life.””

The reflection is strong; lit overhead by gospel, from behind with country music, and from both sides with classic soul.

“There are a lot of reasons I chose ‘Don’t Be Afraid’ as the title, and one of them is that musically as an artist it’s a departure for me. There are definite moments where I have had to go, ‘Don’t be afraid of this, this is who you are.’ This album is the guts of me.””

‘Dynamite!’ showed Tami dipping her toes in the waters of soul music, its Silver Scroll-winning single and Dynamite! flagging a move away from the various country styles of her previous three albums. But it was still very firmly a country foundation as she says, whereas this album has almost flipped that –– it’s solidly a soul foundation, flavoured with elements of country music.

“I guess ‘departure’ is the wrong word because it’s all the same palette and same family, but whereas ‘Dynamite!’ was a lot of light, bright colours, ‘Don’t Be Afraid’ is deeper, richer colours –– still in that same family but a different level.””

Fans of the country-Tami will still find her on songs like Lonely, Heavy Heart, Only Tears and Laugh, Laugh, Laugh –– but even so, her collection of Country Album Tuis may be already complete at four –– as she herself admits with uproarious laughter.

Holy Moses was the one, it’s kind of like a Tina Turner throwback! I sat in the studio after we played it back and went, ‘Well, I guess I won’t be winning the Tui for Best Country Album this time!””

Although three of her previous albums had won Tuis in 2009, 2010 and 2012, it’s last year’s ‘Dynamite!’ that will be remembered as Tami Neilson’s breakthrough release. Apart from the Silver Scroll win and all that has meant for her audience, profile and status as an artist domestically, it’s the first of her albums to attract any international label interest, at last giving her a release back in Canada and the States (early September), as well as distribution in the UK.

In planning a follow up she sought to replicate the ‘Dynamite!’ experience as much as possible –– same studio, same production team, same musicians. Securing this winning combo dictated recording in Lyttelton in mid-April 2015 –– less than a year after the NZ release of ‘Dynamite!’.

“I’ve always been prolific with my albums, my past three before ‘Dynamite!’ were all put out a year or two apart as well,”” she explains of this fast turnaround. “The birth of an album is a long process and you don’t know what’s going to be happening when it comes to life. I didn’t realise the life that ‘Dynamite!’ would have, and so it’s quite funny that the new album’s release in NZ will be the same month as the old one gets released overseas for the first time! I hope that doesn’t confuse people [on social media] too much.

“Another element that played a big role in the decision was wanting to have Delaney [Davidson] and all the boys that were on ‘Dynamite!’ involved again. That meant planning it for a specific time, it was going to be tricky to find an intersect when everybody was available.

Delaney [guitarist, co-songwriter and producer] has his own full-fledged international career, Dave [Khan –– anything at all with strings] is in numerous bands, Ben [Woolley –– bassist] was moving overseas to be in Marlon’s band full time, so all of the boys were in a state of transit. It was a matter of locking in the studio time when everyone was available, and that window was April of this year. So that was my deadline, I had to have everything written and ready to record in April.””

Along with Davidson, Marlon Williams has been another major contributor to Tami’s live and recorded music in recent years.

Marlon was heavily involved on the last one, but he is on such a trajectory at the moment himself that he only popped in for one day. We managed to get a little cameo on Lonely. I am singing about this character –– which is loneliness really –– and he embodies the voice of loneliness! Plus he adds all the beautiful harmonies, the ooos in the background, which nobody can do like Marlon.””

She laughs about the natural male awkwardness in knowing how to handle and respond to her jangled emotions just a few months after her dad’s death, but clearly felt their love.

“There were definitely a lot of tears shed, but the energy was powerful and special. I felt very surrounded and supported by the boys.””

In January last year the Neilson family (mum, dad and Tami) had toured the country, playing 10 dates from Gore to Leigh. In that time most of her studio musician friends had met her father and played with him. Delaney, she says, had only emailed and skyped with Ron, but had evidently impressed him.

 “The night before he died, Dad said, ‘When I get my new lungs I’m gonna fly to NZ and I’m gonna get Delaney and the boys to record this new song with me.’ I guess that was also a big part of making it the title track, and that was the first song we recorded.””

No new songs were written in the studio this time, and there’s only one co-write with Davidson. Tears talks about the recipe for tears, so fits neatly with the album’s theme –– though it’s much more of a perky, swinging country number. Davidson provided Tami with another complete song in So Far Away, while she was in Canada.

“It’s about that awful feeling of being away from family and the time lapse you find on your return from touring. He wrote it from his own experience, but captured very much that feeling of constant pull and struggle created by the musicians’ touring lifestyle. It definitely fitted into the family of songs.””

Back in the familiar surrounds of Ben EdwardsSitting Room studio, the songs were again recorded live, the musicians all in the room playing together, with overdubs needed only for some of the layered harmonies and some Red McKelvie steel guitar.

“We tracked it all in three days, then added the overdubs and mixing, so it was 10 days in total. ‘Dynamite!’ was five days in total, so I’ve gone rockstar haven’t I? Doubling it, really extravagant!””, she laughs.

Being heavily pregnant in the middle of last year didn’t seem to slow Tami in promoting the release of ‘Dynamite!’, but by the time of recording, with new baby Sam and toddler Charlie, she had her hands more than full. As any parent of youngsters would guess, getting an album of tracks ready by the end of March was always going to be a tall order. And Tami is very much a hands-on mother.

“Because I am a full time mum, and a full time musician, unfortunately gone are the days of writing an album when I feel inspired! I was writing all the seeds of the songs near the end of last year, and getting some shapes and ideas.

“Most of them were done very percussively ’cos I had a baby in one arm and couldn’t even pick up a guitar –– so it would be a melody and rhythm that drove it. I’d be feeding him while recording it on my phone. [Cue that hearty laugh again.] I have so many demos of me singing and hitting something, like my leg, or doing this hideous beatboxing, to get the rhythm and tempo. That was just borne of necessity.””

In the middle of February things changed dramatically, with the news that her dad Ron had been unexpectedly hospitalised with pulmonary fibrosis.

“I had completed two songs, and had booked in my mother in-law and husband [as babysitters] to clear two or three days a week, for six weeks of dedicated writing days when I could sit down with a guitar and fully focus. Everyone was pitching in to help. I’d had one session, when I finished Loco Mama, and the following week I got the call about Dad being really sick.””

The decision was made for Tami to leave immediately for Canada, taking the new baby to her father, who had yet to meet him.

“I jumped on a plane and got there, and within a week Dad passed away, which none of us was expecting at all. He was only 65. He died on the 26th of February and had done his last gig on New Years Eve, rockin’ out –– so it was a very, very fast spiral.

“So we were at the end of February and I had just lost my father, and mum asked me what I was going to do about [recording] the album in six weeks time? I had only written two songs and said that I would just have to cancel it. She immediately started crying and telling me that my dad would be so disappointed if this stopped the momentum of what’s been happening. She said that she felt it was really important and this could be my way of honouring him.””

Having her two young boys in Canada denied Tami time to wallow as she might have.

“I had to process my grief in some other way than lying in bed and crying for weeks on end. So I decided to give it a go.””

She would be staying in Canada until the end of March and set that as the cut off date for possible studio and musician cancellation. Her father had always been her sounding board, pretty much the first person she would play anything to. By now sniffling back tears, Tami averts her eyes as she tries to keep her emotions in check.

“I actually inadvertently wrote the title track (without realising it would be for the album) the week Dad died. Don’t Be Afraid was the last song Dad wrote, while in the hospital. He had written the melody, lyrics and everything, but he was on oxygen and could barely breathe to speak. He told me that it was driving him crazy that he had this new song stuck in his head, but had no way of offloading it.

“It’s an awful feeling, I know, so I said I would bring him in his guitar so he could play it and I’d record it on my phone. He did a verse, so I got the melody, but then his levels dropped dramatically (that’s the hidden track on the album, Dad’s Demo), but we didn’t get the chorus, or the melody for the chorus.

“He was just real adamant about this song, and Mum even wanted my brother Jay and I to sing it at the funeral. No pressure!”” she laughs at the family craziness.

The siblings (Jay co-wrote her Silver Scroll-winner) decided to finish the song and see if they could get past the tears to perform it as per their mother’s wish.

“So that’s how that song was born and it immediately felt natural for it to be the title track.””

Don’t Be Afraid also opens the album. Five minutes long and dripping with emotion, it’s an epic song that, as she says, really feels like an album closer. But it perfectly sets the tone for the remainder of the album.

“From there I just started writing and actually it became such a wonderful way to process my grief. I felt that I could do something physical to work through it, you know? In that time span, I don’t know how, but I did manage to write an album. I guess once those floodgates were opened everything came out so naturally.”

“There’s some really uplifting songs as well. At first I was worried this album was going to be all doom and gloom, very heavy. I don’t know that it’s heavy, I think it’s deep, but in this funny way it becomes uplifting. It’s this weird kind of irony, but that’s what this album definitely has been for me, singing out my grief in order to process that grief.””

Covering different phases of grief the songs are far from all sad. Like the rowdy Holy Moses which covers the frustrated angry part, and the cynical Laugh, Laugh, Laugh, a performer’s take on having to smile and entertain people when you are in the process of grieving. The upbeat, theatrical Loco Mama was one of two tracks she’d finished in Auckland before dad Ron’s hospitalisation. As the name suggests it’s about the craziness of parenthood.

“I’ve got two children, so if I can keep slobber off the keyboard that’s a good day! I’ve already had to replace a laptop because of spilt milk –– multi-tasking, writing and feeding the baby and the cereal bowl just went all over it!””

Bury My Body was the other.

“I had written that as an uplifting Staples Singers-kind of feeling, to encourage Dad when he was feeling so sick. I sent it over to him from NZ and he absolutely loved it. It was special to have that on the album because it was the last song he heard as well.

“I have never ever written a note in my life that has not been heard by my dad, so that was really hard part of recording and making this album. There was a part of me that really wanted him to hear these songs that were written about him, but he wasn’t here to hear them. Not that I always took his advice, but I always valued his opinion.””

On her prior album it was the swagger of Big Mamma Thornton that Tami sought for Walk (Back To Your Arms), this time it was the Staples family providing a broad template.

“I was listening to a ton of gospel music when he passed away. I’ve always been a massive Staples’ fan and loved Mavis’ work especially with Jeff Tweedy on the last couple of albums, and I had ordered the new Pops album. It was released days before Dad died, and I ordered it in Canada so I could take it into the hospital for him to listen to. It [‘Don’t Lose This’] arrived the day after he died, and of course I sobbed about that, but I will always be so grateful for that album helping me get through that grieving process.

“I have always related to Mavis, being on stage with her father her whole life. I grew up in a gospel singing family –– we then switched to mainstream country, whereas the Staples were mainstream pop/soul. Growing up singing in a family band is a very unique thing, and can be a strange dynamic as an artist, because you are surrounded by all the secular trappings of the music industry, yet you are in this sheltered kind of family bubble.

“For her it ended when her father died, for me it ended more when I moved to NZ and had to find my own identity as a solo artist. So that album had so many layers for me to relate to.””

One readily apparent difference lies in the fact that despite her apparent domestic success (if we take her NZ Music Awards as a measure), Tami remains a self-managed artist. She says it would be great to have someone take on all the “unsavoury parts””, and leave her just to sing, write and be a mother, but fully knows that’s not the way it is in the industry these days.

“There’s always the fantasy of handing the reins over and letting someone else drive things when the daily grind gets real overwhelming and discouraging as a self-managed artist. You are the only one pushing and can feel like no one else is in your corner, you know? Now I am starting to have more of a team here, with Southbound Distribution, and within the local music industry there are some long time champions of my music.””

It was Southbound’s owner Jeffrey Stothers who seeded the interest from Canadian label Outside Music, who have recently licensed ‘Dynamite!’ and will release it in Canada and the U.S. mid-September. Similar approaches have been made to the Australian, UK and German markets, where Tami already has an established fan base following glowing reviews for ‘Dynamite!’ from influential sources like The Observer, The Guardian and plays on BBC.

She has enjoyed those accolades but isn’t concerned that things are moving only slowly on the international release front.

“All that was through fans and people loving the album –– and that’s the most rewarding way it can happen for an artist, I think. Fully on the merit of people loving the music. I don’t really have this urgency to ‘get big’ or whatever. That’s not where I’m at at this stage in my life. I’m not 20 anymore, and with two little ones I’m not able to tour endlessly –– I have a family to run as well!””

Asked if she feels she has gained spirituality from this experience of death, Tami says she has always been very spiritually aware, but there has been a change.

“It’s not an airy-fairy thing anymore, it’s something that is a part of life now. There are definitely a lot of elements of hope that I see him again, or even feeling his presence now.

“I’ve lost people before in my life, but never anyone this integral a part of who I am. I’ve never known a day in my life without him in it, so I felt really untethered. I think for anybody who loses somebody close it tinges the way you look at everything – not just spiritually – your perspective changes a lot I think. No matter what your beliefs are, I think everybody grasps at the hope that they will see their loved one again in some way.””

With a perfect record of four NZ Music Awards Tuis from four albums Tami is our most highly awarded current country artist, indeed the most so awarded artist of any genre category, yet it was the perfectly executed soulfulness of Walk (Back To Your Arms) that won her the APRA Silver Scroll in 2014. Although on tour with the Topp Twins at the time, she says she really got to enjoy the night because she had no inkling she would win, and so just relaxed and enjoyed it.

“Winning the Scroll is special because there is no genre attached, it is simply on the merit of the writing and the song, so to be the first country artists that ever won it in 40 years was a pretty amazing feeling. Walking up on stage to receive the award from Lorde was surreal.

“Even though my music had been recognised by the NZ music industry and awarded, which was thrilling for me as well, it was still very much restricted to country music –– I was very much aware of that glass ceiling which kind of goes with the territory of being a country musician in NZ and I had kind of gotten used to it.””

Billed on the cover her last album (by her friend Delaney Davidson), as ‘…the hot rockin’ lady of country, soul and rockabilly’, it seems her many fans will need to get used to Tami Neilson putting the soul first in the future.

“In the beginning of the recording process I wondered if this would totally alienate people? It’s the most personal album of songs I’ve ever written, and it is very daunting to put such a raw, exposed, vulnerable part of yourself out there, however, I find as a fan of other artists, when they really expose themselves like that I treasure that more. Also it’s that irony that the more personal you are the more relatable the songs are. I think everyone has experienced heartbreak, whether it’s loss of a person or something else, and I think the more intimate the songs the more relatable it is because you are tapping into something everyone has felt.””