The face and voice of Nesian Mystik, Te Awanui Reeder was also the band’s main songwriter – along with co-producer David Atai. Awa has been writing songs since he was 15 and sees his solo career as a simple progression of that process. With ‘Heartbeat’, his second solo EP released mid-May, he tells Richard Thorne that creating music has never been difficult for him, and in essence the only difference between a Nesian Mystik song and an Awa song is that he just completed it.
As if being rudely handsome as well as academically intelligent (he has a Masters in Business degree), a great musician, songwriter and performer, plus a smart radio and TV presenter isn’t enough, Te Awanui Reeder (Awa to all), was evidently also a bloody good rugby player in his youth, playing representative grade for years. Sheesh!
By the end of his time at central Auckland’s Kowhai Intermediate, rugby had become more of a six-day a week chore and he’d had enough. He wanted something else from high school. His mother hadn’t long finished a stint as DP at Western Springs College and at her suggestion Awa checked it out.
The rest is part of Kiwi music folklore, music class begetting an acoustic party jam band called Tropical Penguins (“…not a highlight of my career!), who first entered the Rockquest in the fifth form – and came nowhere.
“That was really embarrassing for us cos we thought we were okay. The following year we got our act together and went hard. We won the Auckland regional and qualified for the national final in Auckland and the Pacifica Beats final in Wellington.”
The closest to winning they came was a third, but Nesian Mystik was by now a force.
“What a brilliant way to come into the industry and really learn how to soundcheck and how to act when you lose, and stuff like that,” commends Awa with typically candid enthusiasm. “So some awesome lessons we took on and we just carried on from there, and we did alright.”
Yeah right! The Nesian legacy still lingers strongly and he still is doing alright. We’re together to talk about his second EP ‘Heartbeat’, which may just make him as popular in Hawaii as he is here.
Brought up on a healthy musical diet of reggae, soul, Motown and “… real good RnB and good singer/songwriters” – he name checks Michael Jackson, Luther Vandross, Tracy Chapman and Che Fu as examples – ‘Heartbeat’ is a neat blend of each, (with some strategic collaborations), though Awa says he doesn’t aim to write in any particular genre.
“I don’t believe in genre. I think you have to work with whatever you are channeling at that time, and that’s influenced by the people around you, and the music you listen to and have grown up with.”
Surprisingly he says he’d rather have other artists sing his songs, but at the same time enjoys the giving and sharing of live performance – with both audience and band members. Alongside working with local bands Soljah, Sons of Zion and Jupiter Project, he has written several songs for Japan-based artist/producer Robert de Boron who, he tells me, had a number one album there recently.
“They call it J-pop – and I love a great pop song (I love Backstreet Boys, New Kids On the Block and that kind of thing) – and I really like that challenge of writing stuff that I wouldn’t release in NZ. The cool thing is that they just give you a couple of beats and you can write what you want, just make sure it’s good – and they have budgets to work with, which is nice!”
Writing and releasing an album is one of the goals he had following Nesian Mystik, but heading into ‘Heartbeat’ the songs he was writing were “…here, there and everywhere,” and he felt he was forcing things. Besides, looking at the changing industry, an album wasn’t right.
“You kind of know what feels real and what you are forcing. I thought I just needed to trust the universe and let go of it. What felt good to me was to put out a body of work, but not something that was expansive ’cos people are busy, they don’t have time to listen to albums anymore. Neither do I. The last whole album I listened to from start to finish was JT’s ‘20/20 Experience’, and that was while I was cleaning my house on a Sunday!”
Pulling back, he chose songs that fit together, “…and they just happened to be most of the singles I’d released.”
‘Heartbeat’ is a happily upbeat nine songs, unabashedly pop-tastic and pre-proven, several tracks already with a video to back them.
“When I write albums, most people see 12 songs, but I’ve written 50, and in that time I will have also written 10 for other artists all around the world, in different languages. It just fit for me, so out of all those 100 songs or whatever I’d written, those ones hit the mark for me personally. They come from that time when I was going to and fro to Hawaii, having a brilliant time, and I am fortunate that they all link.”
While Awa and his co-producer mate David Atai between them made most of the music, the EP is again strong on collaborations with fellow vocalists. Back In My Life features House of Shem, Papatuanuku features Che Fu and includes Tiki Taane, hip hop track Love You Better features Hamilton rapper JB, and Perfect Day includes budding Hawaiian pop diva Anuhea.
Hawaii is shaping up as a home away from home for Awa. Both of the main radio stations embraced Never Never, his first release there, then made Perfect Day a radio hit. He has since performed at a couple of festivals to 10,000 or so people and started gigging around.
Another of his post-Nesian goals was to write bi-lingual music. For almost 10 years Awa has presented of the weekly, hour long, Te Putaki radio show that goes out to 35 Iwi and Access radio stations across the country. The NZ On Air-funded show is presented bi-lingually, and while Awa says he is “not fluent fluent” he works at using what Maori language skills he has. And so it is with his music.
“I wanted to really contemporise Maori language and culture through music, but not as world music because I believe it can compete internationally [on a mainstream level]. So I wanted to write an EP that was bi-lingual and was recognised for what it was – good music and beautiful language and that kind of thing.”
He achieved that in 2011 with the Top 40 success of his first solo EP ‘Native Intell’. It won him the Maioha (contemporary Maori music) Award (for Matahiapo) at the 2012 APRA Silver Scroll ceremony last September.
“That was an amazing week. Firstly just being nominated. I think me and Dave may be the only artists ever to be on both of those, so we are very lucky. Awesome to give Dave that experience as well you know, because he’s a Cook Islander! Then I won three Maori Music Awards the following weekend, so it was special.
“I was really stoked with it and it was a great stepping stone for me off Nesian. The collaboration with Maisey Rika (If Things Were Different) was amazing – I still get chills when I listen to that song. Also Maitreya – who is a Pakeha but speaks Maori [on Viper Room]. I think that is the future of NZ, right there, where everyone is bilingual – or tri-lingual and can do sign language. I thought that was an awesome example of where we can be as a country, it was bigger than the song itself.
“We didn’t have the big media hype of Nesian or the big label support, I only have Warner distributing, the rest was really just my money and our time on the line.
The situation is similar with his newly released 9-track EP, ‘Heartbeat’, which was released through Warner NZ in the middle of NZ Music Month. Surprisingly given the first EP’s success, he sings in Maori only on the one song, Perfect Day.
“You use it when you are meant to, you don’t force it. That song did really well in Hawaii, it went top radio song for all of their radio. Reggae is the main music in Hawaii, so I guess their mainstream is what I do. To hear their language on a mainstream hit was massive for them. I think people were drawn to it, it was different and they’ve taken me in as one of their own.
Hawaii, it’s America and does sound glamorous, but really it’s just another limited island market, not unlike our own. Can he make money there?
“I’m not sure really. I guess the reality of the industry is that you can’t do it for that. I just want to put out good tunes and jam, really – as simple as it sounds. If it does well it does well. When you love what you do and you do it with a good heart, I truly believe it will do well anyway. You can’t control anything but your music.”
It does sound (too) simple, but Awa is sincere. He believes that the universe will provide and that honesty in his art, like good deeds done for others, will be rewarded. Already a multi-platinum selling artist with more than a dozen NZ Top 10 singles to his credit, there is every reason to expect that Te Awanui Reeder’s star will continue to rise. And every reason why the universe might see fit to propel him forward.