Currently a year 11 student at Rotorua Girls’ High School, 15-year-old Nikau Grace Chater is already a few years into her budding career as a musician. Her bilingual debut single Tōku Tuakiri is an introspective power ballad, recorded with a stellar team featuring some impressive behind-the-scenes names. That’s thanks to the track receiving Waiata Takitahi bilingual funding, as she tells Silke Hartung. Made with support from NZ On Air Music.
How did it all begin? Nikau Grace blames her guitar teacher, Rob Powley, for the start of her journey onto stages, plenty of which she has already performed on, many well beyond her Rotorua home.
“He saw something in me and wanted to give me opportunities in front of an audience, so he got a group of awesome adult musicians together for me to perform at the BOP Blues Club when I was 10!” Nikau beams.
At 12 she started singing lessons with Elisha Hulton after the blues rock songs she was singing began to strain her voice. It was then she discovered a love of classical singing, and continued moving into further lessons to specialise with Jayne Tankesley, something that, as Nikau describes it, added a whole lot more skill and opened doors to other music genres.
“I find that becoming classically trained is actually opening up more opportunities for me, not just in the classical world, but also pop, blues, jazz, RnB… It’s given me the knowledge of what I need to do to protect my voice and just made things easier. I think that this has given me the confidence and skills to use my voice as an instrument, rather than just singing a song, I have way more control now in my breath and in how I want the song to feel.”
As someone dealing with the learning disorder dyslexia, writing on her own also involved overcoming a few hurdles.
“When I was younger I would just hear, or play a tune, and the words would just flow. Having dyslexia and needing to literally write things down can often interrupt the flow big time, so I often go back to using voice memo recording on my phone so that all the ideas are captured, then I can go through them and write down the best ones at my own speed! Over time I have learnt that it’s okay to take time on a song and keep working until it is what I want. I used to reject it if it wasn’t what I liked straight away.”
No stranger to TV appearances, she has already been on some major stages in front of thousands of people, singing alongside Sol3 Mio at Tāmaki Makaurau venue Spark Arena in late 2022 for one.
As for many young Kiwis, the opportunities of Bandquest and later Rockquest were part of growing into a musician. Nikau has also been a finalist in the Play It Strange songwriting competition four times, which is where she met Hollie Smith, who recognised a young talent and quickly took her under her wings.
“Hollie became a mentor to me. She received an NZ On Air NewMusic Development grant and she produced four really good demos for me. I got to work with Chip Matthews, Tom Broome and Guy Harrison.”
Backing up the demos Nikau applied for and received NZOA’s Waiata Takitahi funding, grateful for the lower threshold needed to pass the application bar, she says.
“It’s the first song that I have written and recorded that I really love – I usually hate hearing my own voice. I was really excited to work with Leeda Webster, who was my kapa haka tutor, to translate half the song to make it bilingual. I am on my Te Reo Māori journey, so it felt really special singing this with te reo.”
Being blonde-haired and light-skinned when going to school in predominantly Māori communities, Nikau recalls receiving a lot of grief from classmates, from as young as five years old.
“I was given a hard time when some older boys kept telling me I wasn’t Māori and shouldn’t wear my taonga. But this started my journey in really knowing my whakapapa, and standing strong in who I am.”
It’s likely from there that Tōku Tuakiri, translating to My Identity, was formed.
“It started as a poem for a school poetry competition over the lockdowns in 2021 and then I added music to it and entered it into the Play it Strange competition. Nic [Manders], my producer, and I talked about how cool it would be in Te Reo Māori and with a kapa haka roopu or choir, the idea grew!”
Nic Manders actually happens to be her uncle, Nikau happily admits.
“Our families hadn’t really stayed in touch, but it was so awesome to have this time to work with him and to really build a relationship with his family as well!”
Their work started with tracking the band and some vocals at Roundhead Studios, with Manders on keys and percussion, Tom Broome on drums and Chip Matthews on bass. For the rest of the lead vocals and backing vocals by Bella Kalolo-Suraj they moved to Parachute, capturing the choir at St Faiths Ohinemutu in Rotorua two weeks later. “Such an awesome venue. I had so much fun conducting them,” she beams.
The plan is to record a full EP of the songs initially demoed with the help of Hollie Smith, but on a loose timeline at this stage. Nikau feels lucky.
“I have a village that surrounds and supports me, from my whanau to local musicians who give me opportunities to perform and help me grow.”