by Silke Hartung

NewTracks New Artist: Imani-J

by Silke Hartung

NewTracks New Artist: Imani-J

The drive and prolific output of Whakatū high school student Alyahna Sanson-Rejouis, featured with her band Jola Burns in NZM’s December/January 2024 print issue, is rather remarkable. Aged 15 and now also going solo as Imani-J, NZ On Air Music feature her single North Star on their NewTracks compilation this March. 

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

Alyahna Sanson-Rejouis, from Whakatū / Nelson. I play guitar, keys, drum pads and sing.

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

I am 15 years old and in Year 11 at Nelson College for Girls. Music training important to me includes:

  • Kapa Haka – I’ve been in a competitive kapa haka group called Tamariki Toa on stage at three consecutive Te Mana Kuratahi competitions for primary schools across Aotearoa.
  • Bandquest
  • Smokefree Rockquest and Smokefree Tangata Beats
  • Play It Strange

Having lessons with music teachers for piano, singing, and guitar that understood my creativity, and my preference for writing and playing my own music rather than learning other peoples, encouraged that.

Any other projects that we might know you from?

I am half of the electronic pop cousin duo Jola Burns. We placed 2nd nationally for solo/duo of Smokefree Rockquest 2023. 

What’s the background story of how your solo project Imani-J came to be? 

I’ve always been very musical, made up songs, danced and entertained my family and friends from the moment I could walk and talk. I took music lessons and started writing complete songs around the age of 8.

I was educated in a bilingual Te Reo Maori/English programme and was heavily involved in competitive kapa haka for five years of my primary schooling. This was a formative experience in learning to sing and perform in Te Reo Maori, to be highly disciplined, work in a team, and be comfortable on stage in front of thousands of people.

I also joined our primary school choir, and rock band in 2019 and we won the regional Bandquest competition, as well as best original song, and I got Best Singer. It was a really fun and motivating experience.

During lockdown in 2020 my singing teacher Dayna Sanerivi suggested I write a song for Smokefree Tangata Beats. It was my first time writing a waiata reo. I entered it and ended up winning the competition nationwide when aged 12, I was the youngest ever winner! Excited and doe-eyed I was given the opportunity to record my song at Parachute Studios. From there I released my first ever track and as they say… the rest is history. I fell in love with recording my music and being able to share it with the world. I am constantly songwriting, entering Play It Strange and Smokefree Rockquest annually, and I perform regularly here in Whakatū / Nelson.

How and when did you come up with the name?

The stage name Imani-J stems from my middle names Jola and Imani.

How has your songwriting evolved from your beginnings to now?

The first song I ever remember writing didn’t even have a name. Mum has a video of me at 3 years old making stuff up. It went something like, “Have a lovely day, I don’t care what we do, just have a lovely day” and so on. I like to say that my songwriting has come a long way from then! I write about my emotions, everyday experiences, things in my life that affect me and whatever I feel like honestly.

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

Opening for Hollie Smith, when she performed at Le Cafe, Picton as part of her The Bones Tour in October 2023. Also, opening for performing to a crowd of 7000+ for Nelson’s Opera In The Park in 2023, headlined by Stan Walker. As well as meeting Stan, I got to meet Annie Crummer and she was so bubbly, smiley and encouraging to me about my music.

What makes North Star stand out for you as a single?

With catchy melodies and captivating heartfelt lyrics, North Star is a song for everyone. The song can relate to so many people and connect us by something we all share. There is nothing more special than love and I feel like North Star has captured that essence perfectly.

What is the story behind North Star?

I wrote the song for my grandad’s 80th birthday. He has always been a huge part of my life, and I couldn’t think of anything more fitting than writing him a song. The song details some memories of all the time we have spent together and the love we share.

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

The bridge – “Never take my sunshine away,” references the song You Are My Sunshine. My granddad used to always sing me that song when I was growing up. He even gave me a book of the song and recorded his voice singing it. It has always been our special thing, so I decided to include a little tribute to that in the bridge of North Star. The line goes, “I will make a promise to you to never take your sunshine away.”

Who did you write/record the song with and where?

I recorded the song in Parachute Studios with Christian Tjandrawinata as producer and Tali as vocal producer. My mum (Emily Sanson) and cousin (Kahu Sanson-Burnett) were in the studio too, and I managed to convince them to sing on the track! Neither of them are confident singers, so we had so much fun trying to get the words and notes right. This turned North Star into a symbol of the love we all share for my grandad (my mum’s dad).

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

Always show the ones you love how much they are appreciated and loved. When you listen to North Star, I want it to make you think of someone you love and how grateful you are for them.

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

North Star is my debut independent single release, and it’s a song I think that is easily able to resonate with other people. I didn’t think about whether or not it would be good to release, I just knew I had to get it out in the world. Recently, when I was interviewed by Blair Kiddey for The Breeze in Nelson about the release of North Star, he told me how he listened to it after someone very special in his life had passed away and how it really resonated with him and moved him to tears.

Who else is in your team?

  • Christian Tjandrawinata, producer and sound engineer for North Star and three of my other singles
  • Tali [MC Tali] – my mentor
  • Sarah Larnach – artist (and my aunty) who does my single covers.
  • DRM
  • Dayna Sanerivi – my singing teacher
  • Sarah Lewis – my piano teacher
  • Brett Holland – my guitar teacher
  • Emily Sanson, my mum and ‘Mumager’ 🙂

Are there any other musical endeavours you’re working on that we should keep an eye out for?

My next song releasing soon for NZ Music Month is called See Thru Time. This is a song I co-wrote with Tali, my amazing music mentor, over a two-day songwriting/recording session in January this year, and mixed by Tom Lee from Lee Mvtthews.

As Jola Burns with my musician/producer cousin Kahu Sanson-Burnett, our goal this year is to write 10 new songs so we can release our first EP, tour it over the coming summer and get booked for gigs and festivals all around Aotearoa. I’m keen to perform both as Imani-J and Jola Burns.

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

The Letter by Georgia Lines and Liability by Lorde.

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

I’ve currently got an application in, my first, for NewMusic Development through my mentor Tali, the award-winning vocalist, MC, producer, composer, music mentor and author, and all round very cool person. I’m really hoping we get it. I am kind’a young (!) but it’s so encouraging to have these opportunities, they can literally be life changing when someone gives you a chance.

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

I love the Georgia Lines’ series Intros and I’d love to be interviewed by her one day! Hint hint, Georgia! I also think it would be great to start something like that for younger artists just in our region, Nelson/Whakatū to get something going that is inspiring to other aspiring artists in our region. Maybe that’s a TikTok Imani-J music project for me there!

Who did you make the video with?

The music video is yet to be finalised and released. I filmed it while I was in Paris visiting family for Christmas. My uncle, an artist and photographer/videographer filmed it and my aunty who works for L’Oreal, styled me. With the help of my 3 year-old cousin Luca, his stroller, and my 10 year-old brother Oscar, we successfully filmed the music video on the Metro and through the streets of Paris!.

Any last words?

I would be so so so grateful if everyone can listen to North Star, share it, add it to your favourite playlist and follow me on my socials! And, I can’t wait to release my next tune for you all!

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