It was back in 2014 when Tami Neilson released ‘Dynamite!’, an album co-produced by musician, friend and sounding board Delaney Davidson that not only sounded explosive but came with an exclamation mark as proof. Six years on the same winning artist/producer combo has been reprised for ‘Chickaboom!’, an album of 10 instantly appealing tracks that the artist herself describes as ‘firecrackers of songs’. Richard Thorne talked with Tami on the eve of the new album’s February release.
Dating back to 2008’s ‘Red Dirt Angel’, Tami Neilson has delivered a new album pretty much every two years, albums that have with matching consistency charted her personal story and evolution into a big name artist.
That release was largely a collection of demo tracks that the Canadian-born singer (and brother Jay) compiled as an album in order to have something to show around in her newly adopted New Zealand home. The two ‘Kitchen Table Sessions’ albums that followed were recorded with the Neilson family back in Canada, before she had found her feet in the local music scene.
By the time of recording 2014’s ‘Dynamite!’ Tami had built friendships with the musicians she was performing and recording with, the likes of Dave Khan, Joe McCallum, Delaney Davidson, Marlon Williams and Ben Edwards – all clearly identifiable with the developing Lyttelton sound.
“I think of that one as the first time I came into my own and found my place,” Tami explains. “‘Dynamite!’ was the first time I went into a studio, as a solo artist, knowing exactly what I wanted, and the first time I did not work with my family on a project. I had drums for the first time – and people who aren’t related to me!”
Released in 2015, the uncharacteristically sombre ‘Don’t Be Afraid’ was about, and for, her dying dad.
“It’s very personal. Musically I think it’s processing grief, and to have something tangible to give to my children that represents their grandfather.”
Sombreness turned to sass on her next album, made explicit in the title, musical attitude and lyrics – Tami famously telling those with judging eyes to “…stay outta my business.”
With a full band all playing at the top of their game ‘Sassafrass!’ twice got our now ‘hot rockin’ lady of country, rockabilly and soul’ to within one place of the peak of the Top 20 NZ Albums chart in the middle of 2018. Big, bold and brash, it was a statement album and strong calling card for overseas markets, warranting investment in international tours. With worldwide label and management representation (excluding Australasia which she maintains personal control of) from Canada’s Outside Music alongside independent U.S. distributor Redeye, she says they’ve been building a great foundation in Canada and Europe particularly.
“‘Sassafrass!’ was coming out of that relief, but also feeling a major shift in myself as an artist and as a woman. It was about challenging the status quo I guess. I think when you go through those things like losing a parent, or becoming a parent, your perspective changes drastically and suddenly. People’s judgments or opinions that mattered before become less important, and you become a little less afraid to express your beliefs and to challenge…”
Which brings our discussion round to the February 20th, 2020 release of ‘Chickaboom!’ – Tami emphasising the ‘boom’ in a warm Canadian way so it sounds like it might have several more o’s.
“It’s almost like coming full circle. It’s a merging of my family and my NZ musical family. I wanted my brother involved in this project, and I wanted to create an album that was stripped right back to the voice and the songs. Sonically with ‘Sassafrass!’ I’d gone as big as I wanted to go – so then it’s always the way to strip it right back to the beginning again!
“I’m excited about it. I wanted the title to catch the energy of the songs, which I wanted to be punchy little firecrackers of songs! It’s funny because originally I was demoing some songs and talking to Delaney about co-producing again, cos it’d been five years since ‘Dynamite!’. So I guess that lent to the explosive adjectives,” she laughs.
As famous as she is here for that big belting voice (not to mention the big hair and bold designer dresses), Tami is almost as well known for being a successful self-managed, independent artist who is also a mum of two young boys. (Hard-working, forward-thinking, determined and astute should also be mentioned, but remember; stay outta her business.) Likely also inspiring her desire to strip things back musically, she’d realised in touring ‘Sassafrass!’ that that business model didn’t fit her family needs, and flat out wasn’t working financially.
“For the past three years (when I really started to tour internationally) I was flying my entire band over from NZ every time. After a few years it became apparent that wasn’t sustainable,” she laughs, a little self-deprecatingly.
“I couldn’t continue that way – financially, emotionally and so on – it just wasn’t sustainable. I like to be able to recreate what I record for an audience when I perform, so I went into this knowing I’d made big changes with the way I tour internationally. I wanted to strip it back to a trio of just drums, guitar and me – whether just my voice or rhythm guitar in some songs. And if I was going to tour that way I wanted an album that, when people heard the music then came to see us live, there was no disappointment.”
Who better to help write and produce a more bare-bones album than her almost definitive musical-minimalist mate Delaney Davidson? Brother Jay who has always been close collaborator in Tami’s songwriting provided guitar and bass, while Joe McCallum once again handled all things percussion-related. (Jay and a fellow Canadian-based drummer will be her 2020 touring band.) Jol Mulholland engineered and mixed ‘Chickaboom!’ at The Lab in Auckland.
With 10 songs running over just 26 minutes it’s immediate and punchy, only two tracks broaching the three-minute barrier. Rhythms are catchily simple, lyrical references noticeably North American, and at a pinch, it can be performed as a family duo – as they illustrated at the Folk Alliance International in the States late January. It’s a peculiar kind of showcase event that’s run out of rooms over several floors of a New Orleans hotel.
That is the latest in a series of “investment” performances she’s been making in order to secure a foothold as a festival artist, rather than a touring act. Describing the Folk Alliance experience Tami laughingly likens it to being a food processor on a display stand at a home products show.
“You have unofficial showcases throughout the week and then you get an official showcase. My brother Jay and I played acoustically, with about 20 others crammed into this hotel room, and for the official showcase I flew my drummer in from Canada, so he was only there for one day.
“You just don’t know who’s in the audience, so you just give it 100%, and that’s what you’re there for. My hair was bigger than the room! You get everything from 20 minutes to possibly 40 minutes, so you’ve just gotta make it count.
“The first gig we did was crammed, and two of those people were Ann Powers from NPR (previously she was a New York Times music critic), and Melissa Block from NPR. Ann stayed and chatted with me after, and I felt like I could just shut it down and go home happy! These things are normally really hard to quantify – but again, if you don’t go nothing happens! I found it really valuable.”
While firmly an album artist as befits her retro-based musicality, Tami is of course well alert to the valuable statistics of streaming plays. Despite having never toured in the States she notes the U.S. is always at the top of her analytics.
“I get messages asking when I will be playing the States and obviously my music in the broadest sense is Americana, and so that’s where my audience is. So I’ve been working on investing in that area, and that’s only happened in the last six months. I started doing festivals there, showcased at an Americana fest in Nashville and have just come back from the Folk Alliance, so we are really pursuing it now.”
World-famous in NZ she may be, but Tami accepts she isn’t going to be a draw on an international festival bill as yet.
“But the reality is festival curators also need the third, fourth, fifth tier acts – so that’s’ what I go after! Some people aren’t happy aiming, you know, ‘low’, but for me, it’s an opportunity. The pay is shitty, but it’s getting a foot in the door.
“Probably the first festival that opened it up for me was a small folk festival in Denmark called Tønder. They had seen me in Nashville and asked me to go play – and literally there were about 12 people at that showcase and they were one of them! It had cost a shit tonne of money to fly the band over to Nashville and do that showcase!”
Over the course of the Danish festival she was moved up from a tiny stage, to a packed out bigger stage, then a bigger one again – getting on the front page of a national newspaper. Backstage she met the booker of the small but highly respected Philadelphia Folk Festival. Although it meant another big expense for Tami, she accepted the offer.
“Every musician wants to perform less and just play the more impactful gigs. For me, there are a lot of variables in choosing what festival to play at. It does cost me, so what will this do for me in the long run? I have offers that I turn down because it won’t give those evident returns. I’m happy to invest, but I need to feel that there’s gonna be a return from it. What will give the greatest outcome for the shortest amount of time possible away from my kids?
“It’s definitely not easy,” she laughs heartily. “I’ve been doing this my whole life so it’s been a lot of paying dues playing shitty little clubs to 20 people, but so much of this business is not even talent sometimes – it’s not giving up. Much of this business is resilience, and the resilient people get to the finish line – not that there’s ever one of those!
“It’s a road, and what I’ve really learned over the last couple of years is first of all the comparison game is a dangerous one that will rob you of your joy – so you need to just focus on your path, your journey. You always keep that mountain top in your view, but if you’re not enjoying the journey to that place you’re not in the right business. If you can love the journey of going toward it then it is the lifestyle for you. It’s so much in finding joy in the pursuit along the way and my purpose, I feel, is to deliver joy to people. If I don’t have that joy bubbling inside me then I certainly can’t impart it others.”
Made with the support of NZ On Air.