While the sound of Honest Woman, her vocals in particular, might be consciously American, the music video incorporates multiple home video snippets of her farm-based early childhood that resonate as quintessentially Kiwi. The NZ On Air-funded video also includes the song’s lyrics plus recent photo shoot footage of Tabak, making it a composite symbolic of the creative interference caused by Covid-19 lockdown. (And so it is that Sam Linstrom takes the primary production credit for his role as video editor.)
“We were actually planning just a lyric video, but then we got half the footage we had so I decided to aim for a video and leave the lyrics in. Because I sing with a bit of Southern draaawwl [she exaggerates with matching smile] it gives people the chance to read what I am singing about – and it’s a good way to draw people into the meaning of the words.”
Not that the lyrics are obscure, indeed Tabak admits they are some of the most simple she’s ever written, but like many a good song Honest Woman can certainly be interpreted in ways other than the harsh reality that led to it.
“I’m glad the lyrics are there. I struggle with videos, in terms of their value, but it does help give people an insight into who you are, and that video ended up being quite special in so many different ways, yeah.”
As a single it’s clearly special as the first from a (hopefully July) record release, and also the song that the album will take its name from. As a video it’s the family’s recently digitised VHS clips that she’s referring to, in a large part because her dad, the person mostly holding the camera back then, passed away when Tabak was just 18. By then she had become well aware of his long term addiction to alcohol, but had little opportunity to process what that had meant to her own personal development.
“I wrote Honest Woman more as an ode to myself. My dad was a pretty heavy alcoholic as I grew up and before he died from a heart attack my mum had become a heavy alcoholic too. For years and years I really struggled with living with my dad, he was really a lost soul I think, and took it out on us even though he really loved us.
“It was actually beautiful for me because I could see just how much my dad adored me, he was such a beautiful man and it was nice to have that included in the video. For me it has actually helped heal me a little bit. There’s a part where Dad is holding me as a baby, and that scene is my naming day when Dad was making a speech about what he hoped for my future.”
In another scene, date-stamped 1999, she’s wearing dress up butterfly wings. Tabak laughs at that recollection, pointing out she’s half-Dutch, with awkwardly long limbs when a 5 or 6-year old learning jazz ballet.
Twenty years on she admits she’s just now finding (and being honest with) herself. The smart, often jazzy Americana act called The Miltones of which she is the singer and chief songwriter has recently been rebranded as Milly Tabak & The Miltones, another aspect in which Honest Woman is an important release.
“Yeah, I think so. The thing that was hard was trying to decide where the song content was coming from. All the words are my stories and now for me it feels like quite a new start. And if I have to go out and play on my own people will know that the songs are mine, even though they’re normally played with the band!
“I think people get quite confused about our music, in terms of genre because we are sort of like a Southern ‘70s-sounding band and the music that came out of Muscle Shoals [the famed 1970s Alabama recording studio where the likes of Wilson Pickett, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Levon Helm recorded] is very much like what I wanted to produce for this record.
Recorded at Roundhead Studios in Auckland, with Paddy Hill engineering and co- producing alongside Tabak, the overriding goal for the whole album was to capture the magic of the band playing together, letting the music move naturally with the collective tempos.
“As the first single Honest Woman just felt like the most natural to release. For one because it feels quite hopeful, you can actually sense the movement of us all playing, which I really love. It just felt like a very uplifting song and I think for these times it felt like the right piece.”
These times are Covid-19 pandemic times of course, but again there’s a personal layering to that thought. Tabak candidly talks about spending much of 2019 re-surfacing from “a huge melt down”, deflation and depression that necessitated a lot of counselling, medication and working out a lot of stuff about herself and what makes her tick.
“I think that I had never had time to figure out who I really was, what made me happy, I didn’t really know anything. I was trying to do music, and music was my saviour but I was just really tired.
“Lyrically Honest Woman was more a message telling myself that I needed to start being true to myself, to find what made me happy. I’d spent so much time trying to keep other people happy and I couldn’t keep it up. I couldn’t deal with saying ‘no’ to people, I felt I had to keep giving of myself to everyone. I just burnt out and Honest Woman is about me getting back up on my feet.
“‘I’ll give you better peace of mind, I’ll take care of you.’ They’re simple words but they mean so much to me. That was a really intense period of my life and you still process these things as time goes.”
In the process of regaining mental health through openness she says she’s discovered that family-hidden alcoholism and other addictions are all-too commonplace in NZ.
“It’s hard growing up. No one ever talked about it and it was a silent issue in my family and I was going through hell as a young kid. I couldn’t understand it because I didn’t know it was something that existed in the world and I think it’s really important to start to talk about it.”
Made with the support of NZ On Air.