December/January 2020

by Nefertiti Teare

Olivia Foa’i: Expressions of Candour

by Nefertiti Teare

Olivia Foa’i: Expressions of Candour

Olivia Foa’i possesses an angelic voice that has featured on many of Te Vaka’s nearly a dozen albums, and altogether more famously on the soundtrack of Disney’s Moana. With the release of ‘Candid’, her debut solo album, she has managed to manifest her ideas, culture, thoughts and feelings into a project that’s equal parts diversity and cohesion. Already with two decades of stage-side and performing experience she holds many key qualities required to succeed in the music industry; ambition, talent and authenticity. Olivia talks candidly with Nefertiti Teare.

‘Candid’ by Olivia Foa’i mixes pop, RnB and her own infused South Pacific influences in a way that melds the genres together somehow seamlessly, providing a great example of how to combine raw, tribal rhythms with contemporary production techniques.

Surely we have all heard of Olivia Foa’i? She’s the beautiful Tokelau / NZ daughter of Julie and Opetaia Foa’i, of NZ’s award-winning contemporary Polynesian music group Te Vaka – who’ve been recording and performing internationally as long as 24-year old Olivia can remember.

“We were all touring from when I was two years old,” she laughs.

As a Te Vaka member, she has personally clocked performances in over 40 different countries. Her voice still echoes in the ears of entranced young girls worldwide as it’s her that listeners hear first at the beginning of the Disney’s blockbusting Moana film, which dominated the whole planet just three years ago.

With promotion flurry over, 2019 sees the release of Olivia’s debut album as a solo artist. ‘Candid’ is a mix of acoustic singer/songwriter styled songs and pulsating pop tunes, the kind that get stuck in your head all day long.

Soaked with integrity the album showcases her ability to write in English and Tokelauan, delivering the integration of Polynesian sounds and culture into the Western pop and RnB realms in perfect harmony.

Thoroughly accustomed to being part of a family-focused production, the majority of her album was engineered and produced by Olivia’s brother Matatia Foa’i, with the one exception produced by older brother Nase. Tropical, a certified banger, is an addictive track that tastes like electronic dancehall but with a modern twist and a splash wildness. The entire album was recorded in their family home studio.

“My brother inherited a lot of gear from dad and his stuff is like top-notch!”

The sounds of log drum, guitar, and Tokelauan language are woven throughout, delicately documenting the journey to the discovery of her artistic identity.

“I really had a problem caring what people thought. I’d been writing for ages and hadn’t put anything out. Then I was like, ‘Wait a minute, let’s just listen to the inside for a second, block out the noise.’ As long as I’m happy with it then that’s the main thing. That matters first, and then you worry about the rest later.

“I think it’s pretty well summarised in the song My Way. I remember not wanting to finish it! I wrote the verses and was like, ‘Okay that was fun, bye.’ But then Matatia was like, ‘Get in the studio and record it.’ So we recorded it and he started putting these log drums on it and these sounds and I started thinking, ‘This is very different from how it started. Okay, we gotta start putting some Tokelauan language in there now.’ I took the longest on that one.”

She called the album ‘Candid’, she explains, because she felt the collection of so many different styles across the eight tracks maybe wouldn’t make sense to other people.

“I don’t really have a consistent brand on the inside, you know what I mean? So I have put out something that just literally what it looks like inside my head, what it feels like inside there! Again, it’s one of those things that you’d think I would’ve thought through, but I didn’t really. It’s just candid, just what comes out. Some days I’m feeling Tokelauan and all my culture is coming out, and some days, nope, it’s RnB guys! It’s just what it is, and I think it will always be a mix. Hopefully, it will make sense to other people!”

Grounded, the first track, is Olivia’s personal favourite. When asked about it a smile settles on her face. She points to her heart and it’s clear that honesty is a value she holds strongly.

“Yeah, it’s the journey, man,” she explains. “I started writing when I was nine and was like, cool, yep, write write write and it’s good. I’m not too harsh on myself. If I don’t like it, I’m like, ‘Okay, we’ll let that one go and we’ll try again.’ So the writing part has always kind of been, I guess, easy. It’s just when it comes to the instrumentation and the production of it. So I rely a lot on my brother Matatia for that and trying to have input and trying to articulate things that I didn’t know how to do. I think that is the hardest part because he is the one that knows how to do production.”

There were a number of songs written for the album that didn’t make the cut, which process she clearly found challenging. Listening through it’s notable that each song presents as its own chapter. Despite inconsistencies of style, somehow the whole is cohesive and balanced.

Grey is simply vocals and keys. Fai Pea, however, contains vocals, acoustic guitar and the use of Polynesian style rhythm. Tropical and Hau La are centrepieces that directly fuse her cultural identity with those RnB / pop qualities. Her tranquil voice and authenticity are captivating, while instrumentally it switches from acoustic to electronic, and at times a fusion. So what’s next for Olivia Foa’i?

“I’m a very everywhere kind of person,” she answers, though ‘multi-talented’ might have been the more accurate description. “So I’m actually trying to wrap up a short film and a documentary because I also direct as well. I’m just all over the place creating stuff!

“So this is like, ‘Cool, I have got one thing out of the way, my album.’ Now there’s a short film starring my brother who also wrote the script, so we work together on like, everything. And then a documentary that I have been working on for a while, but that’s going to take a long time, and then maybe I’ll get round to some more music! You gotta keep making stuff, gotta keep doing it!”