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by Amanda Mills

Tami Neilson: Mama’s Talkin’ (To The APO)

by Amanda Mills

Tami Neilson: Mama’s Talkin’ (To The APO)

It would be a bold and brassy move to engage the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra as a backing band for your album release gig, but then no Kiwi artist does bold and brassy quite like Tami Neilson does. As it happened  though the APO had contracted the multi award-winning singer to perform with them in July, and that timing proved a neat fit with the release schedule for her self-produced ‘Kingmaker’ album. Amanda Mills caught up with Neilson in Canada to talk about the songwriting charge of her new album. 

It’s the mid-July, and Tami Neilson is back in her land of birth, Canada, touring her just-released album ‘Kingmaker’. So far it’s been an adventure, albeit a frustrating one. Her luggage (including guitar) was lost in transit, finally making its way back to her a week and a half into her shows, some of which (at least the indoor club gigs) have been cancelled due to Ontario’s summer spike in Covid cases. It’s disappointing, but Neilson is happy to be playing live again, and is excited by her upcoming orchestral shows in New Zealand.

“I hope Covid behaves its damn self!” she laughs. “It’s just so hard to tour right now as a musician… but every finger crossed, every toe crossed!”

It’s a busy time for Neilson, as alongside her new album she will also be on TV as a guest panellist judge on the NZ version of The Masked Singer, alongside friends Sharyn Casey and Anika Moa, a public-facing adventure she calls “…a little bit of a departure from my usual scheduled programming!”

Neilson’s new ‘Kingmaker’ album is extraordinary, a finely observed collection of songs on female empowerment, feminism, equality, and the patriarchal, toxic structure of the music industry.

“When I was writing the album it was in the midst of lockdowns, having two little ones at home, home-learning, watching your entire career unravel before your eyes,” she reflects.

Her partner is an essential worker so the lion’s share of household and parenting demands fell on her, leaving precious little time for her own career or creative outlets.

“I’m in a relationship I feel is so equal and so balanced,” she reflects. “We view each other’s careers as equally valuable. We are still existing within the framework of that society, so it… felt like you were having to give up everything you’ve worked for… I think that feeling definitely informed my songwriting.”

During this time Neilson was developing her show The F-Word: Songs of Feminism in Country Music, working via Zoom on with Jada Watson, Professor of Musicology at the University of Ottawa. Their work on The F-Word also fed into Neilson’s writing for ‘Kingmaker,’ and Watson wrote the album’s liner notes as the two projects felt connected.

“This was our creative outlet, and our moments of solidarity working on this show… I think all of those things added to my state of mind while I was creating the album.”

Neilson is also no stranger to these themes. She describes her ‘feminist snap,’ the “realisation of what we have to deal with in this world as women,” when she became a mother and continued her career as a touring musician.

“I was hit full force with judgement, from both men and women with internalised misogyny. I had to do a lot of work to get over that hurdle, but definitely came out the other end stronger for it.”

Empowerment, misogyny, feminism, and the toxic nature of the industry are powerful, intense, topics. ‘Kingmaker’ walks the line between delivering these with a punch, while having memorable melodies and catchy rhythms. It’s a potent mix, and one that works to ensure the message remains. For Neilson, this was important.

“People tend to think of fighting for equality and feminism and all those things as very heavy serious things, but… I want to empower and uplift at the same time,” she laughs, noting the analogy that sugar and honey help the medicine go down.

“You can still be taking in a message that’s important, but enjoying it at the same time.”

She makes a good point on how we receive the messages too.

“Music is a mirror, it reflects back what’s inside of you. With Careless Woman, for instance, or any of the songs on ‘Kingmaker,’ I wanted women to see themselves. I wanted them to… feel empowered, feel emboldened, feel uplifted. For people listening to the album who immediately feel defensive or angered by it… it’s their own reflection they’re looking at. It actually has very little to do with me” she muses.

Lived experiences underpin her songs and songwriting. It’s worth noting that Jenny Mitchell’s outstanding track Trouble Finds A Girl, which was named winner of the 2022 Best Country Music Song award in June, both featured and was co-written with Tami Neilson, the song’s subject matter fairly self-explanatory.

“You think the thing is political, or there’s an agenda behind it, [but] I write about my family, I write about my experiences in my life, and I happen to be an indigenous woman in the music industry… these are the stories that come out of that experience.”

Neilson has of course won multiple NZ music Tui and Best Song awards herself, yet this album’s songs are consistently among her best. Green Peaches, a slinky Bobbie Gentry-esque song about toxic masculinity and sexual predators in the music industry tells a devastating story that’s more fact than fiction, while King Of Country Music recalls her Canadian family origins as a musician, and ponders the question ‘Could the King of country music be the daughter not the son?’ The title track, Kingmaker, is reminiscent of the best Bond-themes. While taking aim at the kingmakers of the industry it asserts her place, noting that she has been the king the whole time.

The first taste of ‘Kingmaker’ came with the release of single Beyond the Stars in April 2022. By now everyone knows this beautiful, melancholic countrypolitan waltz is a duet with American country music icon Willie Nelson. His part had been recorded remotely, but they performed the song live at Nelson’s Luck TX Ranch in March. The song, co-written by Neilson and frequent collaborator Delaney Davidson after the loss of their fathers, struck a chord with Nelson, whose sister recently passed away. Having Willie Nelson singing on her record was something she has described as “beyond my wildest dreams,” and Beyond the Stars is not surprisingly on the longlist of nominations for the 2022 Silver Scroll Award.

Dolly Parton is another American country icon to majorly influence Neilson, and she inspired the album’s second single Baby, You’re a Gun, a song about the expectations of women’s roles, and about underestimating women – at your own peril. Neilson grins at the suggestion Baby, You’re a Gun is a fully formed classic, right out of the box.

“Sonically I was really aiming for a Bobbie Gentry, Dusty Springfield, and Ennio Morricone [sound]… my musicians, Victoria [Kelly], Simon Gooding engineering, I feel like they helped create a song that sounds like a classic already! When you’re aiming for something cinematic, it sounds timeless, because… those pieces of music I have been influenced by are timeless pieces… if you are operating in the hope that you cannot sound out of place on one of those albums that’s a pretty good compass!”

Neilson’s recording band (guitarist Brett Adams, bassist Chip Matthews, drummer and percussionist Tom Broome, and Neil Watson on pedal steel and banjo) bring her songs to life beautifully. Having worked live and in the studio with these musicians over a long time she knows their instinctive approach will deliver.

“It’s assembling a team that you trust… their job is to take what’s in your brain, which you’re trying to convey, and bring it to life,” she considers. “I fully trust those boys… they just did an amazing job.”

This extends not only to the nine-piece string section, and saxophonist Nick Atkinson, but also Neilson’s backing vocalists, her classy ‘Careless Women Choir’ – Julia Deans, Bella Kalolo, Anna Coddington and Vanessa Abernathy.

“Working with your friends, it doesn’t happen often enough because… you’re always touring, and have conflicting schedules. They’re all amazing artists in their own right,” she laughs.

“When I’m on tour, and I’m missing my kids, or I’ve lost my voice, these are the women I call on, and who lift me and encourage me and support me, so to have their voices supporting me and lifting me on the album was just really really special.

“So, Covid giveth, and Covid taketh away, and this is one of those moments where Covid gave! We were all home and all available at the same time, which I can tell you is like an eclipse – a very rare occurence!”

Among many striking elements of ‘Kingmaker’ are the orchestral arrangements by Victoria Kelly, another of Neilson’s close friends who also understands what she wants to achieve musicially, and recognises the purpose behind the music.

To get in the headspace, and the feel of the album, Neilson ordered them both necklaces with the word ‘feral’.

“Just existing as a woman in the music industry is almost a form of protest,” she laughs. “The word feral to me, it means to walk outside the lines of civilisation, and to be… free from domestication,” she smiles. “I bought one for me, and one for her, and we each wore our feral necklaces, and that was our way of staying on track. It was that reminder of making sure we were staying true to walking outside those lines of the expected behaviour.”

Kelly’s cinematic, sweeping orchestral arrangements were recorded with an 11-piece string section on ‘Kingmaker’, but for the upcoming live tour supporting the album release, Neilson and her band will be performing with the Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra (APO), The Christchurch Symphony Orchestra (CSO), and Chamber Music NZ.

The Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra (APO) had previously approached Neilson’s team about collaborating and had been in discussions for a while. After recording ‘Kingmaker’, Neilson started thinking about live performances, and her thoughts turned to the APO. She thought it would be special to use them for the album tour “…with it being such a cinematic album that has string arrangements,” and re-recruited Kelly to write extended arrangements for the 80-piece orchestra. She clearly loves the outcome, and is excited to share it with audiences.

“The APO have been very patient while we developed the idea and the album, and got everything ready, and Victoria’s been making these arrangements on steroids,” she enthuses.

“Obviously people are not familiar with the songs yet, because the album’s just come out, but they’ll get to hear the songs in a way they will never ever hear them again… it’s very exciting. Working with the APO, it’s a dream for any musician to have the power of an orchestra behind you.”

Of course, orchestras are hard to justify as a touring band, even for an album release, and her performance with the APO is for one Aotea Centre, Auckland show only. Elsewhere Neilson and her band will perform with the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra and a four-to-six piece string section from Chamber Music NZ for the remaining shows.

In a complete reversal of past album release routines, she has been warming up by performing in Canada as a trio with her brother on electric guitar, and a drummer.

“To go from these very stripped back arrangements to doing the album with like an 80-piece orchestra, I think my tiny mind is going to be blown,” she laughs.

‘Kingmaker’ is special for other reasons too – it’s the the first album Neilson has self-produced and her first album to be recorded at Roundhead Studios. While her previous recordings were dictated by finances and budgets, this time she decided to not cut corners.

“To me it’s our best studio in NZ, and I felt like choosing to record at Roundhead a bit of an indulgent luxury,” she grins. “I made a real, intentional decision that if I can’t tour overseas, I am going to invest in this album, and that is hopefully when it will take my music around the world – when I can’t take my music around the world.

“It was a big risk, but it was such an amazing experience.”

The studio decision fed into her self-production. While she knew how she wanted ‘Kingmaker’ to sound, Neilson was also keen to inspire other female musicians to produce their music.

“My other albums I’ve co-produced, because I enjoy that collaborative back-and-forth, and having a sounding board, but I know exactly what I wanted for this album,” she explains. Watching friends Anna Coddington and Dianne Swann produce their own work had inspired her to produce her album alone.

“Their… holding their space instilled me with the belief that if they can do that I can do that! That was a big part of me putting on my brave girl pants… If seeing my friends and women that I love and respect self-produce emboldened me and empowered me, then I think that it’s important that I do that for any artist who wants to. And that’s the only way we’re going to grow this tiny percentage into something bigger.”

‘Kingmaker’ is also visually stunning, through design and styling to photography and video direction. Her team of visual artists are all female – photographer Sophia Bayly, director Alex Duncan, artist Xoë Hall, clothing designer Judy Moughton, artist and designer Evie Kemp, and cover artist Francesca Maria Melis – with the exception of Abe Mora, the director of the Careless Woman video, and her brother Todd, who directed the video for Beyond the Stars.

“Everything that the album’s about, it brings it to life, and it’s a reality because this whole project is one that’s been created and uplifted by powerful women, creative women.”