Shifting from the thrust of hip hop to lush soundscapes, spoken word to soulful waiata, Ria Hall’s debut album also moves across battle lines, languages and centuries. Including input from numerous contemporaries, the conceptual album is rich in vocals and deep in meaning. Briar Lawry talked with Ria about the background to ‘Rules Of Engagement’ and her own five-year journey that has seen it come to fruition.
“Normally I’ll come up with a concept, and I’ll have a tune in my head already,” Ria Hall says, explaining her creative process. “I’ll hash it out on the guitar, and then I’ll write some words around it and see how things go from there. It’s a really organic process. If it comes it comes, if it doesn’t, oh well, never mind!”
Sixteen tracks made it through to make up Ria’s debut album, ‘Rules Of Engagement’.
The genesis of the recording can be traced back to Wellington, circa 2012. Triggered by a conversation with Riki Gooch of Trinity Roots, who had produced her EP a year prior, Ria’s new album draws deep on historical contexts close to her heart.
“Since that conversation I’ve been making small, incremental steps towards the final product. It’s been a labour of love and it’s something that I’m really, really proud of. I mean, I should be – it took five years!”
Her pride is certainly well-founded. When you listen to the record, paying attention to the ebb and flow without just letting it wash over you (although that’s also a totally legitimate way to experience Ria’s music), you can quite quickly grasp her conceptual veins. In the foreword to ‘Rules of Engagement’, she lays out her intentions for the record plainly.
The text opens with the te reo words of a tauparapara from Tauranga Moana, referencing the arrival of the Tainui waka, followed by a simple one-line statement:
“This album draws on themes of love and war, revolution and change.”
Songs leap between te reo Māori and English. Reggae-infused tunes rub shoulders with excerpts from mid-century interview recordings. In 1864 Henare Taratoa of Tauranga Moana iwi Ngāi Te Rangi wrote a letter to Governor Sir George Grey, outlining, as Ria describes it in the foreword, ‘…the way in which both Māori and British should conduct themselves during war, namely the battle of Pukehinahina (Gate Pa).’
So “love and war, revolution and change” makes perfect sense when brought into that context – as does the decision to switch between languages. Taratoa’s letter was written in English, rather than his own tongue, in order to articulate to the colonial forces the appropriate conduct – or rules of engagement – for the war he and his people found themselves in.
“I used English and Māori to play off against each other, for want of a better word, in a ‘battle’ kind of way,” she confirms.
“Everything that’s on the album has a relationship to the concept, whether it’s talking about love and your battles within your own relationships, or your own internal battles as a person, through to the literal meaning of war.
“It covers all of those varying points. I wanted to ensure that having a central theme came out really strong when the record was put together. And I think that having people like Tiki [Taane] on board really helped me to shape the overall sonic feel of the album, which was really, really helpful. I think that we achieved the goals that I had set at the beginning.”
Ria has also managed to strike the tricky balance for a concept album of unification in vision vs. same-ness in sound. In part, this can probably be chalked up to working with a variety of folks on the production side of things.
“I’m glad that Tiki was my main port of call for putting the whole record together and creating the shape of it.
But I also had Electric Wire Hustle out of Wellington, and I had Laughton Kora, and I had Kings working the record and Sam de Jong as well. So it’s pretty eclectic, which I really like, but it works at the same time.”
The album’s bi-cultural and bilingual juxtaposition also speaks to Ria’s own return from Wellington to her homeland of the Bay of Plenty.
“Tauranga is at the forefront for me, it’s the foundation of my work. Having been brought up amongst my tribal area in that cultural context helped me, with all aspects of work I do. Whether it’s creating music, or teaching a group of people how to sing in a choral setting, or hosting and MCing – being brought up where I come from, amongst my own people has set me up with a really good foundation. It’s not something that I take for granted. I’m very lucky to have had the upbringing that I’ve had.”
Despite a childhood that steeped her in her cultural heritage, Ria admits honestly that she fell into music by accident.
“Music wasn’t really pushed – nothing was really very pushed. I was kind of a free-range chicken really, doing whatever I wanted to! But I was always drawn to group singing, and I was involved in choirs and stuff growing up… never really realising that I had something to say within my own musicality.
“I haven’t had any formal training in singing. It’s something that comes predominantly from my cultural background really, and my kapa haka background. That’s really the forerunner for my singing, that’s the reason I can vocalise like I do, I suppose. You know, it’s just really a different game when you’re standing on a stage with 39 other people versus when you’re standing on stage by yourself. It’s quite a shift.”
Connection to her culture, to her iwi and rohe (region) was part of the decision behind bringing in the archival recording of her koro.
“It helped to tie the record together, to have someone of his stature speaking to the battles that literally took place in Tauranga.”
Bringing in the connecting thread of her koro’s interview was a carefully made choice – as were all aspects of the record.
“I was very considered with all the decision-making. Even the track listing. For about a month I was swapping songs. I was swapping when my koro would be involved, I was changing the names of the tracks. It was an ever-evolving work that I kept changing and was never satisfied with it.”
It was a battle she won in the end, eventually coming to a point where she thought, “… it feels good and sounds good.”
As well as the sounds of the album, Ria is stoked with the end result of the physical record itself – featuring a 12-page booklet of artwork by Jaime Robertson.
“I had laid out what I wanted to achieve. I wanted it to be a crossing of modern meeting the traditional – where we’ve come from. I wanted it to be really striking and strong. Because the album has the tone that it has I didn’t want to underplay anything – I didn’t want it to be ‘nice’. There’s varying photographs in the booklet. There’s photographs of Henare Taratoa who wrote the rules of engagement, there’s photographs of Gate Pa.
“And it’s great to actually have a physical album out there, because there’s still people like myself who want the CD, who want the vinyl. I like to have something tangible.”
If you’re after something tangible yourself, pick up a copy of Ria Hall’s gorgeous ‘Rules Of Engagement’. Or if you’re happy to make do with more ephemeral moments of musical magic, get amongst the summer festival circuit – as well as touring the record, she’s playing some major dates including Rhythm & Vines, Splore and One Love.