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NewTracks New Artist: Rongomai

NewTracks New Artist: Rongomai

Originally from Gisborne and now living in Christchurch, newcomer Rongomai Callaghan has actually already participated in more music competitions and TV shows than many artists with decades on her young age. “Dabbling” in most instruments, it’s her impressive singing that stands to the fore on her debut RnB track released at the end of 2019. Resonant with compassion and humanity that belies her years, Houses Of Gold saw Rongomai get a spot on NZ On Air‘s NewTracks compilation this March.

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

I started in the classical scene at the age of nine with a great classical teacher, Gavin McClean, who gave me the basis of my training knowledge with music.

Any previous projects we might know you from?

I’ve been involved with Rockquest and Tangata Beats throughout my high school years, culminating in winning the overall solo/duo Tangata Beats section in 2018. I’ve also starred in a couple of TV shows, Homai Te Pakipaki semi-finals and What Now’s The One.

What else is in your musical background? 

I’ve been performing since I was four years of age. I was fortunate to grow up around my home marae Te Rakato, in Mahia. My Nanny was the marae matriarch, so every occasion, dinner nights, weddings and 21sts I was always surrounded by amazing musical talent. All the whanau had great vocal pipes or could play an instrument, so music was rich as was my cultural upbringing. Two of my aunties were also part of the band The Reflections back in the early ’70s and my grandfather, Perenu Kaingakau Callaghan was part of the late ’60s NZ band, The Shazmophones, so I guess musically I also had it in my genes.

How has your writing evolved from your songwriting beginnings?

My parents were both school teachers and my mum was brought up in the faith, so they always made myself and my siblings aware of the need to have a socially conscious – that people weren’t always equal and that we needed to do our part in society to highlight issues of inequality. My dad was a Whakairo teacher and my mum also made us proud to be Māori and indigenous. I was also very aware of issues like anxiety and depression that had affected many of my friends and whānau, so in terms of writing, it became a really rich ground for harvesting ideas and collectivising those ideas to impact people’s lives with my music.

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

Winning the Tangata Beats solo/duo category in 2018 was definitely one of the highlights of my music career. It was a great year for talent and to be amongst such creative young people who were all driven for their passion was an amazing experience.

What makes Houses Of Gold stand out for you as a single?

For me it’s not just about producing a track, it’s about the message it brings and the off-stage presence I can highlight as an artist. Through music, we can travel the world, we can highlight issues of disparity, depression, bring a voice to Māori and indigenous and help the world strive for equality. I believe in purpose and helping the world to be a better place.

Depression is a huge issue across all walks of life in our society today. Many young people suffer from anxiety, I’m aware of their stories, and when I get out and talk to homeless people, I sense their brokenness and that disconnect from the world, not always from their own doing, but the world often doesn’t have a place for them anymore. Many turn to God to give them a step back up to life and many just find comfort in their loyal companion; a dog, a walk through Hagley Park or simply a stroll alongside the ocean.

I guess we all have that moment in life, no matter how big our problems, where we can find a house of gold, that moment where we feel free, non-victimised, loved or just simply be able to be who we are without judgment or condemnation. In my music video, the character longs to have his house of gold, but he knows in reality, he’ll never have a mansion, but maybe a cardboard cut-out of his house of gold completes him, gives him that moment of being a king and owning his cardboard palace in his own world, free of condemnation and judgement.

What is the story behind Houses Of Gold?

My mum and dad always push me to drive a message in my lyrics and have always challenged me to see the bigger vision and purpose in what I do. Our belief in God and being Māori/indigenous has always been a big part of growing up in our household.

Coming from a beautiful place like Mahia and Gisborne has also enabled me to appreciate beauty in landscapes and that we should always have a social conscious for our environment. Littered in Houses of Gold are elements of our taiao (environment), which helps to create a sense of tranquillity and that even though you go through struggles, that walk in the valley or dip in the ocean can make a bad day seem good. 

What’s your favourite moment of the single?

I think it has to be the lyric “No king’s palace”. It becomes the defining moment in the song when you realise that peoples’ riches and gold are in other things, especially when the physical things like a king’s palace or mansion are unattainable.

Who did you record/produce the track with and where?

I’m always arguing with Mum about issues in the world and of course, she always wants to take over everything, but it’s always a good starting point. My dad had suffered from depression for many years, even though on the outside, he seemed to have it all together. So I got writing, harassed my brother-in-law, who is an amazing singer/musician to lay the first track, and then a cousin of mine in Perth suggested we contact the Banton Brothers in Australia to help produce the track. Mum and Dad are always supportive of everything we do, so they became the bank, and my siblings and I crossed the ditch to record the debut album. I think my brother and sisters came for the free trip! I still don’t know if they were actually a help or a hindrance, but we got it done!

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

I would like them to get a sense of hope and that no matter what you’re going through, hang onto the “house of gold” moment to keep you in the game of life. For some it might be whānau, for some, it might be God, or screaming at the top of your lungs in a valley, it might be a cardboard cut-out of your dream house or a walk beside the ocean. I would love people to say, “Hey, I’m broken, but it’s OK, I still have hope and I’m still in this game of life and there are others just like me with a story.”

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

Mum said if you would have visited our house in Christchurch, all you could hear from daylight to dark is Rongomai on that bloody guitar. I think that in order to make a good single you have to live it breathe it, eat it, sleep it. Dad always used to say, that in order to be an All Black, you have to be a freak – I think that about making music, writing tracks and then coming up with tunes – you have to be a freak.

You have to allow it to be your best friend, you have to prioritise it and then that gives you the schema, the confidence, I guess, to cull certain lyrics that don’t work, to be able to think of what resonates with audiences and blend it into the songwriting process. Then crafting the overall sound and bringing it together is like a fine wine. Creating a good track is a methodical process that takes time. My advice is don’t rush the process and get people to constantly critique your music.

Who else is in your music team?

Mum and Dad have always been a good compass in terms of the overall holistic team members. I don’t have a full-time producer, but I’ve had two amazing music mentors, Nanako Sato and Kevin Roberts from the Hagley School of Music that help to mentor me and keep me on the right track. My brother-in-law, Dylan Ngatoro is a hidden secret, he went through MAINZ and has an amazing ability to record and produce my ideas, we have a great working relationship. In terms of publicity my mum takes care of all that stuff, along with her amazing work colleague, graphic artist, Dave Watson and then in terms of management and a label, hopefully, the release of my single debut will create those opportunities and gain traction. My cousin Shannon Leef has been instrumental in the production of the Houses of Gold music video.

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

Yes, I’m currently working on my album, ‘Broken’, which hopes to resonate a bit more with acoustic and soul in the new tracks. I’m back in Gisborne at our farm, surrounded by some amazing landscapes, so that’s helping me immensely with the writing process.

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

Karma by Robinson
Stay by Jarna

Were there any NZOA criteria you struggled with in the application? 

Absolutely not. It was a pretty straight forward process and I appreciated the opportunity to submit.

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

I really enjoy watching the NPR music Tiny Desk concerts.

Who did you make the video with?

I made the video with one of my mum and dad’s former students, who is part of our whanau and had previously worked on some of our 48-hour films as a homeless guy. Lynden Manuel has a great look for what I wanted to achieve for the video and he is a Gisborne local, we always want to try and promote and give our local talent opportunities. My cousin Shannon Leef, who is a professional video editor, did all the filming and editing for the music video. He allowed me to direct the video, which was quite scary at first, but I learnt a lot. I got to articulate my key ideas in a lot of the scenes, and my mum got to carry all the equipment bags! It was a great day of filming, the weather was still a bit cold, so it was quite funny when Lynden had to take a small walk in the ocean.

Any last words?

Just keep singing, keep writing and writing. Don’t let anyone crush your dreams and don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and if you can attach a purpose or a bigger vision to your music, then even better.


New Tracks is a compilation of new music from New Zealand artists which is distributed to broadcast and online platforms on the first of each month. Previously the Kiwi Hit Disc, New Tracks is one of the ways that New Zealand on Air promotes kiwi music to the industry, radio, streaming services, and media. To apply for New Tracks you must have a completed, airplay-ready song, and a promotional plan.