Singer, entertainer, supporter and more recently curator, Tama Waipara’s journey is already a well-documented staple of our music scene. A type of rebirth and evolution has wound its way through his past album endeavours, resulting in often strikingly different approaches to the presentation of his craft. Emerging from the chrysalis this time is something of holistic and encompassing scope. Seemingly the sum of a life leading to its conception, as he tells Abraham Kunin, ‘Fill Up The Silence’ is both a continuum and a stake in the ground.
As a recording artist Tama Waipara has never been drawn to the safety of reproducing the past, and his latest album offering ‘Fill Up The Silence’ is his most adventurous, exposed and forward-thinking work to date.
“I don’t feel particularly mainstream, I never really have. Often felt like a bit of an outsider with it. When you’re immersed in a place, you’re picky about how much you reveal. Going to New York gave me a freedom of statement. Bravery to just say what I think and believe. There’s nothing safe about it.”
Credit for this adventurousness is also owed, in large doses, to his creative partnership with longtime friend and collaborator Aaron Nevezie – the Brooklyn-based Kiwi producer who himself features in this issue’s Ex-Pat Files column. Their relationship spans back to over a decade ago when Waipara was studying in New York. The two immediately connected and a palpable artistic chemistry was born. Nevezie played guitar for Waipara’s first NYC gig as a solo artist and shortly after produced his debut EP ‘Leaving Paradise’.
“I think we did it in two days. The photo for the EP is actually on the roof of the studio, before it became the first Bunker Studio. There’s this weird circular connection.”
Circular enough that in Waipara chose to fly all the way to New York in order to record his third album at the new Bunker Studio. As he told Radio NZ National, he had written and demoed the album tracks in Auckland and took the opportunity of the flight to listen to them once again.
“I was literally sitting down, pre-departure, the plane was still here in NZ, put my headphones on and played these demos – and instantly hated them… All the vocal performances felt prescriptive, it felt like emotion by numbers, it felt like there was no room for anyone to respond.”
The upshot is that he arrived in New York essentially needing to start the album again almost from scratch. His Kiwi mate proved a perfect foil.
Alongside his obvious vocal contributions, Waipara played guitar and piano on most tracks, while Nevezie took on guitar and bass for the majority, as well as being both recording and mix engineer. Asked just how much of a joint work ‘Fill Up The Silence’ is, he doesn’t hesitate.
“Definitely a collaboration. He co-wrote Medicine Man, Fill Up The Silence, The Hunter… At no point was I a tacit passenger, it’s not in my nature to be so,” he adds with a wry grin.
Nevezie is among the more idiosyncratic and desirable producers involved (albeit long-distance) with the NZ music scene. His production hand has featured on recent releases from one of Waipara’s protégées, Esther Stephens, and production supergroup The Means. His work features recurring elements that could be described as warm, gritty, analogue, lush and wet. Another trademark is his dynamic treatment of vocal tracks. For example, check Medicine Man, the first single from the album.
Other musicians to lend their talents to the work include drummer Dave Mason. The drums on the album are very interesting, both in that they are often layered rather than a ‘kit’ sound, and in the Pacific origins strongly informing many of the parts. Samoan, Tahitian, Hawaiian and Papua New Guinean rhythms are referenced. Waipara describes the writing process as “starting with a basic provocation and building from there…” crediting Mason with channeling the initial influences.
He says the actual tracking process was easy, but only because there was an abundance of songs to choose from and some inspired songwriting/arranging moves. Mirror, for instance was created from two songs that already existed. Global touchstones that come to mind listening to the album stretch as far as tUnE-yArDs to Harry Belafonte.
“The catalyst was an idea of just going there, wherever ‘there’ is and staying the course whenever there were intrinsic references.”
The songs on ‘Fill Up The Silence’ run a gamut but have binding threads beyond his songwriting and voice. The organic/synthetic dichotomy is blurred across the album, sometimes pulling more in one direction, sometimes more another. They often feel like the fossils of simple guitar songs, smashed up and split through a prism, transmuted into something new, but endlessly referential.
Despite their daring studio process and Nevezie’s distinct touch, the album’s enduring strength lies in the songs. This is what allows for such, at times skeletal structures, still implying a shadow of lush harmonic colour.
“For the first time, every song is a favourite, for totally different reasons. Without meaning to, everything found its own space.”
When Waipara says this, it’s without smugness or doubt.
“For me this is a stake in the ground. It’s all of it. From a Maori perspective, the continuum walks with you. Where you’ve been is absolutely a part of where you are and where you’re going. As much past as it is present and future. All those things get to co-exist in a place and have a conversation. That’s all you ever want, to be at home with who you are.
“The idea that our ancestors are with us, biologically is true. We are the descendants of this long line of coincidence and planning. We get to be the receptacle of all that. We are the sum total of our ancestors. They are all statements.”