Soulful newcomer Teeks is a real show stopper, with a surprisingly classic soul voice and a magnetic stage presence that belies the natural shyness of the young man. If you’re unfamiliar with his music that’ll because he only released his first single If Only in May, following it up with ‘The Grapefruit Skies EP’ – a record about love and loss – which debuted at number 1 on the NZ Soul/R&B chart. NZM’s Felix Mpunga caught up with Te Karehana Gardiner-Toi to unravel the mystique of Teeks and discuss his debut.
In person Te Karehana Gardiner-Toi is reserved and humble, preferring to let his music, as Teeks, to speak for itself. With the advantage of having seen him entrance a knowing audience at a recent ‘NZM Presents’ Wine Cellar gig, I know that it does indeed speak volumes; simple and familiar, yet evidently exceptional.
Teeks had a nomadic childhood, constantly on the move and surrounded by music.
“My family moved around quite a lot, both my parents are teachers so we kind of moved from town to town. My mum’s from Tauranga and I lived in Tauranga as kid, moved to Rotorua for a while and finally moved up north and spent the majority of my teen years growing up around Dallas Bay, Manganui, Coopers Beach – not far from Kaitaia. I’ve never been to a school without one of my parents [working] there, it was either with my mum or with my dad who is a principle.”
Today the 23-year-old works part-time and teaches Te Reo Māori night classes, three nights a week.
“I enjoy doing that and it’s not a draining job. I grew up speaking Te Reo. Since the start my parents always said, ‘Do what you want to do,’ and that’s big for parents to say that. I have two younger brothers and three older sisters. We’re all scattered.
“It was cool growing up in a bigger family, I’m not sure how it would’ve turned out if I was an only child – being in a big family you learn to share. I pretty much listened to whatever my parents listened to. My dad played music in the house like Bob Marley, Elvis Presley and my mum also listened to Norah Jones. I wasn’t active in listening and playing music because I didn’t really discover my passion for it until I was in my older teen years.”
Back in 2011 Teeks won the award for Best Vocalist at Smokefree Pacifica Beats, igniting the need to take music seriously.
“I was a part of this Māori mentorship programme in 2014 called Pao Pao Pao over three weekends. We were kind of just mentored by people in the Māori music industry and the people I met through that kind of just took me under their wing after the programme finished. Helped me get applications in and sort out a schedule, because I had no clue what I was doing.
“I feel like I found what I wanted to do and the type of sound there. The Māori mentorship was big for me because I listened to a lot of them growing up, like Rob Ruha, Maisey Rika, and Seth Haapu. I’m managed by Cilla Ruha, Rob Ruha’s wife and manager. I’m working with Paula Yeoman who’s great at sorting out interviews and promo for me, so she just tells me where to be and I show up.”
Teeks’ musical career has been one of patience, preparation and development.
In February this year he participated in the APRA Songhubs initiative that involves collaboration between international songwriters and producers with local artists.
“I really enjoyed it. It was massive, a lot of learning and I’m not used to writing with other people. The first day we wrote a song for me and I was like, ‘Shit, can we just do a song for someone else to ease into it?!’” he laughs. “It was me Anna Coddington, Estère and Djiesan Suskov.
“Another session I was working with Emily Warren, Dave Baxter and Josh Fountain. I was wanting to do stuff that was a bit more modern and being able to do that with him and other people I felt like I definitely wanted to more of it. I worked with Mike Elizondo [produced for Dr. Dre, Eminem and 50 Cent], writing for Chelsea Jade. That was an experience for me because I didn’t know how I could help and it was pop, which isn’t what I’m used to writing. I also did a session with and P-Money and Raiza Biza – it was sick. I’ve never worked with a rapper and he could just spit out lyrics so quick, I just jumped on the chorus. Going into that opened up my eyes and I saw how powerful co-writing can be.”
He’s been working on ‘The Grapefruit Skies’ EP for two years. In 2015, by way of connections made at Pao Pao Pao, Teeks was introduced to American producer Jeremy Most who invited him to record tracks with his partner Emily King in New York at the Bunker Studio. If Only and Change, the flavoured filling of the EP’s six-track sandwich, were produced by Most.
“We went back and forth over emails while I sent him demos and when I got there [New York] he had already produced If Only, so I just had to jump in and sing. I wrote it on my guitar and recorded it on my phone and he took it and made it what it is today.
Other tracks were completed at The Lab in Auckland. Oliver Harmer was the engineer, while Seth Haapu and Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper (The Black Quartet) co-produced. Teeks’ influences on the EP included Sam Cook, Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder and he let none of them down. Hearing the intro track (titled Intro) you are transported back to Stevie Wonder’s Love Is In The Need of Love Today.
“The Intro and Outro kind of gave the name. It’s like being in a dream state,” he explains of ‘The Grapefruit Skies EP’ title. “The message is about love on If Only and Change but the other songs are about loss, people that my family and I lost, a few people. It’s kind of like a somber, bittersweet state.”
Teeks says he now wants to do more co-writing, and is keen to head to the UK since he listens to a lot of music from there – the likes Kwabs, NAO, Jacob Banks and Adele. (“I went to her concert and she was amazing. Just her and a band and no dancing, production was so dope too, probably one of the best shows I’ve been to in my lifetime.’)
“The stuff I’m working on now is kind of a progression, old school meets modern. I want to get back into the studio and record my new next project.”