NewTracks New Artist: Aunty Rae

NewTracks New Artist: Aunty Rae

With a 2017 EP featuring herself as vocalist with Auckland hip hop-jazz fusionists Round Buddah, and another (‘Sister’) in 2020 under her own name, you might well have pegged Holly Afoa as an RnB artist in the soulful quality mould of the likes of Erykah Badu. Covid brought a myriad of changes and one was Holly’s embrace of a more liberating rap performance style that she felt warranted the adoption of a new artistic persona. Enter Aunty Rae and her new single Sound On, which is included on NZ On Air Music‘s September NewTracks compilation.

What’s your given name, where are you from and what instruments do you play?

I’m Holly Afoa, aka Aunty Rae, and I play keys, guitar, and vocal cords.

Was any high school or other music training especially important to you?

When I was seven my mum sent me to private piano lessons and for 10 years I would spend most of my time training in classical piano performance. After years of training and passing Trinity College exams (mostly with distinction) I sat my Diploma in piano performance and failed by two points because I didn’t bow at the end of my recital. This was the first time I felt severely defeated by something I had put my heart into. This would be the first time I experience a returning struggle as a creative – no matter how hard you work on something you love, there will be moments where your work is undermined and you want to give it all up. But music is built into my genetic code and to give up on music would be to give up on myself. (And a piece of paper means nothing, I nailed that recital!)

Any other previous projects we might know you from?

My first gig was as lead songwriter and vocalist in jazz hip hop collective Round Buddah. We toured, released a few EPs and then I dived into my first solo project as Holly Afoa releasing a soul RnB EP in 2018. I now reside in the RnB alt hip hop world of Aunty Rae.

What’s the background of how Aunty Rae came to be? 

As a primarily RnB vocalist, I felt a little restricted on the words and melodies I could use to tell my story. I was done focusing on sounding ‘good’. I started experimenting with rap and enjoyed having a wider vocabulary to work with, not worrying too much about if the words fitted well in melodies. I decided to end the Holly Afoa era and take a break… not long after did Aunty Rae appear. I would be remiss not to shout out Nahsafe and Akshay Raju for helping me welcome her.

When people started calling Jacinda Ardern ‘aunty’ in the wake of Covid, I started to think about how endearing the term aunty is. I thought about how an aunty can be a broken, afflicted person but still remain a powerful respected figure in your life. Someone you go to when you need to vent. That’s who Aunty Rae is.

How has your music evolved from your beginnings in songwriting to now?

I’ve had my hands at the desk for years now, and alongside paying more attention to the music that influences me most, I’ve settled into a more produced alt hip hop sound.

Aside from this release, what’s been the big highlight to date? 

Performances and releases aside the biggest highlight is always when someone you aren’t connected with reaches out to you to praise your craft. That has happened a few times with the release of Sound On, and I’m excited to share more.

What makes Sound On stand out for you as a single choice?

Sound On is my moment of announcing I’m here to be real, raw and honest. It will be many people’s first time hearing me rap, and although some people want to call it spoken word Sound On is me making an unapologetic mark on the rap game as a woman.

What is the story behind Sound On?

I’m often talking about how men fall short in my music but Sound On touches on how we all suck in relationships. When I say “You should listen more” I’m also speaking to myself. After LB‘s tongue-in-cheek response, it’s clear I’m not listening either and so the call is for everyone to question their accountability in trivial arguments with their loved ones.

What’s your favourite moment, musical or lyrical, of the single?

Nothing beats the moody ominous keys at the beginning. It’s hard to choose one lyric, as a whole I think this song is a masterpiece in terms of relatable relationship ailments.

Who did you record/produce the song with? 

My friend Cam Cranston created a private folder of his beats for his mates to write to, and I took this one and quickly recorded demo ideas for us to choose from. We went up north one weekend for a songwriting getaway with Akshay Raju, set up in the middle of the bush with only 10 hours of solar power on our hands. We started with a little listening session and Cam played his first mix of Sound On with all my demo vocals. I was so amazed at 1) how quickly and smoothly he produced the track including all my ideas, and 2) how good my demo vocals sounded… Obviously being in the middle of nowhere under the stars and listening to my friends’ music was magical in itself.

What would you like listeners to take away from this song?

Even though the message is that we all have responsibilities in relationships and arguments, despite who is right and wrong I want people, women in particular, to feel encouraged to be unfiltered in their emotions in a very intellectual and powerful way.

How do you generally work out what song would make a good single?

Live shows is my way of testing the next single. Not necessarily by how the audience reacts but how I feel performing it.

Who else is in your team?

Aunty Rae would not be possible without Nahsafe, Akshay and my good friend LB but the team continues to grow and I welcome anyone who would like to join Aunty Rae’s timeline.

Can you please name three other local tunes that would fit well on a playlist alongside your song.

Have any previous NZOA applications not gained funding or been included on NewTracks? Got any advice for others out there?

Getting funding is not a sign of your value to the music community. Keep applying but don’t rely on the funding to continue your craft. We have funding privilege in New Zealand and it slows some creatives from pursuing their music. Obviously, without money the things we want to achieve are restricted, but it’s still possible and the reward is way bigger when you crack it yourself. You are the art. Not NZOA.

Was there any NZOA criterion you struggled with in the application? 

Social media followers. I just made sure my name was in as many places as I could… not encouraging this but Tinder helped… not a sustainable or legit way to gain followers but it helped me tick the box! Keep hustling, lol.

Are there any musical blogs, Youtube channels or podcasts you’re super into?

Are We Live podcast featuring Alfa Mist, Barney Artist, Tom Misch, and Jordan Rakei!

Who did you make the video with?

My first time translating a song to video with the help of director Harvey Hayes!

Any last words?

Thank you if you read to here 🙏