You might have to hold the folded cardboard CD cover up close to notice that it actually reads, ‘Tami Neilson is Dynamite!’ – the ‘is’ presented almost invisibly in 2pt font. In similarly tiny writing near the bottom, runs the legend, ’10 explosive new songs from the hot rockin’ lady of country, soul and rockabilly’. That Tami Neilson certainly is, also a multiple Tui winner and mother of one – with another well on the way. As she tells Hannah Brewer, it was a big decision to go ahead with recording and promoting her fourth album whilst pregnant, but holding it back a few years could have meant a different album. Hallelujah then, because ‘Dynamite!’ is a real cracker.
Dynamite is as good a euphemism as any – six months pregnant and touring her brand new album, Tami Neilson is a force to be reckoned with. She admits wondering whether a pregnant woman strutting her stuff on stage might be a little off-putting.
“The fact is that’s life,” she says with blunt good humour. “You should embrace it and celebrate it. The morning after a show I’ll look down at my feet and think, ‘Why am I still wearing heels at six months pregnant?’ I know they aren’t going to make me look slimmer at this point, but a girl’s gotta try!” she explodes with laughter.
And Tami knows plenty about trying. She spent a lot of her youth touring Canada with her family band The Neilsons, (opening for numerous international acts, including Johnny Cash), gaining extensive experience in the rollercoaster world of stage entertainment from a very young age.
“I’ve been in the music business my entire life, but in some ways being a solo artist is all very new to me,” she explains. “Coming to NZ has meant I’ve had to start from the beginning, not only in my personal life but in my career.”
You’d have to say that she has done pretty well on both counts. Certainly her music career here has brought some rewards, not least the three NZ Music Awards’ Best Country Album Tuis she won in 2009, 2010 and 2012 for ‘Red Dirt Angel’ (her solo debut album), ‘The Kitchen Table Sessions’ and ‘The Kitchen Table Sessions Vol II’, or being judged Best Female Artist at the NZ Country Music Awards in 2010 and 2011.
Based on that record she can certainly lay claim to her new album cover’s ‘hot rockin’ lady of country…’ claim, and might reasonably anticipate another Tui for ‘Dynamite!’
Despite her advancing pregnancy the vivacious country music star brightens up the room with her smile, humour and larger than life personality. Battling the nausea of early pregnancy, she managed to shoot three music videos in one day (a feat few would undertake,) and knock out a breathtakingly good album.
“It was a big decision to go ahead with the album whilst pregnant,” Tami admits. “It meant things would be harder, but waiting another 18 months or so could mean a different album. I didn’t want to lose my country foundation but I wanted the flavours of rockabilly and soul to be very dominant.”
Producers Delaney Davidson and Ben Edwards (who also mixed the album at his Sitting Room studio in Lyttelton), seem to have captured this perfectly.
“Delaney is well acquainted with the music from the ’50s and ’60s that I wanted to pay homage to – those Sun Records’ sounds that spanned from gospel to country to rockabilly, rock’n’roll and blues. I always feel as though I was born in the wrong era,” she adds.
Despite her three previous albums all winning various awards, ‘Dynamite!’ is the first album on which Tami feels she has really embraced her style, and been able to produce that vintage sound.
“It has always been important for me to produce on an album what I am able to recreate live,” she says, explaining as to why up until now her recordings have been rather more acoustic.
“It’s taken me a few years to find my NZ musical family… the people who understand the direction I want to go in and what I want to achieve.”
Fellow singer and country musician Delaney Davidson is a big part of that musical family, sharing the stage on nationwide touring line-ups, vocal performances, co-writing songs and now as producer.
“He helped make it [‘Dynamite!’] fresh and a little bit more gritty – not so produced-sounding. For the first single of the album, Walk, I sent Delaney a link of Big Mamma Thornton performing Hound Dog live on television – that was the swagger that I wanted, the great groove that she has.
The result is a soul and attitude-filled showstopper, a mid-20th century sounding soul epic, written by Tami and her brother Jay Neilson.
Sharing the credit around, Tami says musicians Dave Khan, Ben Woolley, Joe McCallum, Red McKelvie and Marlon Williams also added to the sound and feel of ‘Dynamite!’ through their creativity and musicianship.
“We recorded all the songs live off the floor, all of us in the same room, take after take. We really wanted that live, raw, edge-of-your-seat-feeling in the recordings. Dave in particular has had a huge influence on my arrangements. I really trust his ear and his judgement on what’s going to work… he’s almost like my musical director.
Songwriting has always come pretty naturally to Tami, the first song she co-wrote with her dad making the Canadian Top 40. These days, finding spare time to write is pretty hard for the busy mother of one and a bit. By necessity she finds ‘snippets’ of songs while in the shower, when driving, or whilst her two-year old is having a nap.
“It’s all done in these little stolen moments, she puts it nicely.
Most of the songs on ‘Dynamite!’ were written in this time-snatched way, bar three co-written in one afternoon with Davidson, over cups of tea and gingernuts. Running To You, Honey Girl and the album’s title track were crafted instinctively in just a few hours, after they’d agreed some of her prepared songs weren’t suited to the album.
“It was like this instant gratification which you rarely get with songwriting. It was a rewarding yet quite unusual experience, she reflects honestly.
In a time where record deals are almost fairytale, Tami has been both the creative and business minds of her musical ventures. Organising everything from gigs, tours to recordings and more, she works hard for her craft and achievements.
“You can’t be afraid of the hard work. Nobody is going to care as much about your music as you do. There’s always this part of you that dreams of the day that there’s going to be someone who has that same commitment and passion and gets your music and what you’re trying to achieve, but so far I haven’t met that perfect match… it’s very much like a relationship, it’s not something to be taken lightly.”