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May/June 2022

by Jemilah Ross-Hayes

Steve Tofa: Bringing Leni To Life

by Jemilah Ross-Hayes

Steve Tofa: Bringing Leni To Life

Formerly frontman for Auckland indie rock/soul five-piece The Mercenaries, Steve Tofa is these days progressing along his own musical journey, making and recording as a singer-songwriter from the comforts of a backroom in his Tāmaki Makaurau home. With the release of his second solo album, ’Koko Stax (The Legend of Leni Mafu)’, he talked with Jemilah Ross-Hayes about the intriguing story behind it. 

Steve Tofa’s achievement of releasing his second album whilst studying for a masters degree, working part-time and raising a family, is an admirable one. Even more impressively, his slick new album ’Koko Stax (The Legend of Leni Mafu)’ was done completely independently.

“I did it myself. I had my 11 year old daughter play a little bit of cello on one of the tracks, but everything else is all cut up and done with Logic, and mostly acoustic guitars and bass.”

The overall gentleness of the nine tracks, along with some of the lyrical content (The Smiling Assassin for one example), might point to it being a personal recording project, but plentiful other aspects, such as the vocal layering in Pain Baby, indicate a deft professional touch. Tofa reflects on previous recordings and how he has grown from his first solo release, 2019’s ’The Barefooted Beast’.

“When I started out, I didn’t know anything about recording. I didn’t even know how to plug stuff in. I was always the singer/guitarist that would just wait there and have a cigarette (when I used to smoke) and think, ’When is it my turn?” Real diva-type trash!“

“When I wanted to record my own music, I was trying to find someone to record me and how much it would cost, and after a while, I was like, ’You know what? I’m gonna teach myself.’ And the more I learned, the more humbled I became.“

“When I listen to the earlier album, I cringe a bit. But nothing is perfect, and you just gotta be happy with stuff, and keep moving and keep creating because, after all, it’s what we are, I think. Otherwise, you start analysing yourself, and then you start doubting yourself, and that stuff sucks.”

Tofa’s writing process has shifted over time, from being personally based to telling stories about other people’s journeys, or things he has observed. ’Koko Stax (The Legend of Leni Mafu)’ is named after a character he created, and whose life features prominently across the 10 tracks.

“I started a music degree at Wintec in 2019, and I created this character for one of the assignments we had. Raising a family and making music and doing everything on my own meant that I was always doing warehousing, and freight and logistics kind of jobs. You can get some pretty awesome stories out of there, and that’s where the idea for that character came from! There are all these different personalities. You overhear people talking and gossiping and telling stories, and I remember bits and pieces and then write about them.

“It was originally a character that migrated to NZ in the mid-late ’70s, and I thought of all the things he had to go through. He was quite young, and he thought it would be easy. The legend of Leni Mafu works from that all the way up to today. He has kids, and he’s dying to go back home after he has been working here for so long. It’s just a story about him and his life and his love and his loss.”

Underground starts with, “I catch my buses in the morning…”, Leni off to work in the factory, where he spends the days waiting for home time to come around. In the delicate Dreaming In My Bubble his Leni is gently lamenting how the Covid lockdown restrictions are keeping him from his island home.

Tofa previously studied performing arts and opera singing, and back in the ’90s toured the US with Pacific Island performance group Pride Of The Pacific. Born in Samoa, he moved here when just a couple of years old, and later had some high school time in the States. He was living in Australia before moving “back home” in 2015.

His music pools together different aspects from artists he describes as being influential, including Split Enz, Herbs, Phillip Glass and American composer Thomas Newman. Alongside this, he has a general love for the ’60s/’70s classic rock and blues, and a soft spot for classical music. There are hints of English folk, offset with more local touches such as strum rhythms, whistling and log drum rhythms.

“I’ve come from a blues background, real old-school soul, and RnB blues stuff. I’m hoping to get back to that stuff for the next project.”

Although most of the songs of this album aren’t about himself, Tofa feels connected to many of their meanings, in particular to the story behind Underground, the factory worker tale.

“It’s a bit of me, but a bit of other people too. Years back, when I used to work at a supermarket and was paying my way through early uni, I used to see this one particular dude. His whole life was there. You know, underground. It could be mocking, but it isn’t. This guy, it’s all he lived for. We all used to work together, we were the same age, but I go see him now, and he runs a few of those supermarkets. He was so focused, and that was his whole life and even though It says ’No one will ever notice that I’m underground,’ he’s content. I think that speaks to me a lot because this was one of the old songs. At the time that I first wrote it, I was thinking, ’Is this all there is? Work, go home, rinse, repeat, and stuff.’”

Tofa has had his own struggles, and admits that as a young man he had big dreams that haven’t been met.

“I wanted to conquer this and travel here. But slowly, I started accepting that everyone has different ideas of success, and as artists, we are pretty hard on ourselves a lot of the time, but we have got to realise that what we do is tough. It’s not like we have a guaranteed wage this week, and we know what’s coming. I’ll put 20 hours over a couple of days into my work, and no one is gonna see it – but that’s the sacrifice because we really are passionate about what we do. You gotta be. Otherwise, why are we doing it?”