Born in Samoa, TJ Taotua grew up in Porirua, and it was in the church that he learnt to play instruments and sing. He was good enough to get into the Wellington covers scene as a teenager, and two full decades later continues to perform a mix of (mostly RnB) covers and originals, as well as running a band agency and holding down a 9-5 role. In 2014 TJ released a gospel EP that won him two trophies at the 2015 Pacific Music Awards – Best Pacific Gospel Artist and Best Pacific Male Artist. His single output has been occasional since, but the end of September brought the release of charm-laden ‘Poly soul’ single You and I, accompanied by an evocative video that gently references aspects of Pacific colonialism. Richard Thorne talked with him about both. Made with the support of NZ On Air.
These days living in Auckland, TJ Taotua is a very busy family man who has reached a point at which he’s ready to take a punt on his own music. His recent NZ On Air-funded single, You and I, is contemporaneously 12 years old and a first taste from an EP planned for later 2021. And no, it won’t be another church-focused outing.
“The gospel EP that I released in 2014 was my first offering as a body of work, and a reflection of my faith background,” he efficiently explains. “But I’ve always had a passion for RnB, and I think this is really that re-introduction to my journey ahead.
“I was in an originals band in Wellington around 2010/2011, and we threw a lot of ideas into the mix, and unfortunately this song didn’t quite make the cut for the band,” he giggles at the memory. “So I thought that I would pick it up again for a project that I’m working on this year, a little EP I’m hoping to try to get out before Christmas.”
You and I features TJ on electric guitar, along with Aaron Strickland playing keys, Tim Samau (a regular bandmate in covers act Ministry of Tone) on drums, and Matt Sadgrove (Sons of Zion) playing bass and Rhodes.
“When I asked Matt Sadgrove if he could help me produce the track we went over the lyrics and structure of the song, and being the hit maker he advised me on some verse changes to make it more relevant to today!
“When it was originally recorded it was a lot faster and a lot funkier, it had a bit of a Stevie Superstition-type vibe to it, with an acoustic guitar as well. It’s always good reflecting on some of the earlier recordings, you remember that was what we all had to work with, in terms of studio recordings with at that time. I just felt it was a little too quick, and it didn’t really reflect the vibe and feel we were trying to go for.
“The song was really based around lost love. When you are in a relationship and that doesn’t work, there’s always that period of reflection. For me, growing up listening to Prince with that funk background, then moving in to the late ‘90s with D’Angelo and the resurgence of that new soul era with Maxwell and Lauren Hill, that really influenced the presentation. Strong vocals, but still with that sort of funk approach.
“I tried to take that sort of neo soul approach to the production and feel of it, but lost love was the theme that started the whole thought process. It’s just really good when you take an inspiration and are able to share it with people, your fans and those who love RnB.”
You and I received NZ On Air New Music Pasifika in May/June 2020, and TJ explains the subsequent year-plus delay by saying he doesn’t have any kind of recording set up at home, so had to rely on getting time in a studio with professionals.
“Funnily enough this track went through two or three different studios – just simply because the producers and engineers would start with me, then when they got busy wouldn’t be able to finish it off, so we’d transfer it to the next studio and start again!
“We were able to use the files as it progressed. We started with a concept from Astro Productions, a friend of mine here in South Auckland, and ended up using that raw material with Matt Sadgrove, but then Sons of Zion got busy. Did a bit of vocal work with Chris Chetland at Kog Studios, and ended up sending it to a friend of mine in Sydney for the mix and mastering.
“This is the first-ever funding I’ve received. I think it’s been great to have the Pasifika rounds added to the mix because I think the open, mainstream funding rounds are quite competitive – especially when you are going up against the big names of NZ music,” he laughs.
Having already crossed that threshold into his 40s, TJ is philosophical, saying he thinks there’s a market among the older, more mature generation that he can fit into.
“This EP is really just a compilation of six or seven songs that have been in the vault for quite a long time. I spent a bit of time trying to get it to this point, and a lot of umming and ahhing if I should even do it. But I’ve put enough resources into it that I might as well put it out, and just get whatever reaction it gets.
“I suppose for me that when it’s a passion there are no rules about age. It’s not like rugby where you’ve got a small window of time to make things happen. I just thought that if I keep putting music out, and there is a listening audience, then why not?”
Despite the success of his gospel EP, TJ admits averaging only about one single a year since, but he has nonetheless continued to be very active in the music industry.
“The main thing is I run a music entertainment company, and I have a number of bands I manage. We provide a lot of those bands into the wedding market, private functions, corporates, birthdays – and that probably takes up 80 or 90% of our efforts and time.
“I got into the music scene as a covers singer about 20-odd years ago, and there was one saying our band leader had: part-time musician, part-time results. The whole idea was that if you are putting just a limited amount of your time into being an artist, then that’s the return you’re going to get on the output. I think this EP is about giving a bit more focus on putting my music out, but not worrying too much about just where it sits or what happens with it.”
That said, the imagery-rich video for You and I, directed by Corey Fleming and Swap Gomez, demonstrates a desire to present his own culture as a Samoan male within the music industry, and also to subtly portray the subject of colonialism.
“When we sat down with the video company, Umbrella Creative, we knew the song’s theme was in that traditional lost love direction, and it’s easy to come up with say a bar setting for that, but we wanted to look at a different approach.
“I particularly enjoyed the look of Che Fu’s Fade Away video, that old NZ Army look and sense of history, so we went down a similar avenue. Our take was framed in pre-Samoa independence, more the 1920s, and that gave the colour grading look.
“It didn’t really connect with the song per se, but including the ula fala [red necklace], which represents chiefly Samoan culture, the whole idea was almost to say that even within the impact of colonialism you can still hold true to who you are as a Samoan, within that context.
“People probably didn’t see that as a message, most likely they just saw a high-quality video and felt it was great to have a bit of culture in there, y’know?” he laughs at himself.
“More so now that I’m a little bit older, this concept of what is your voice, what is your message becomes more important than just the feel-good factor of the music itself. I have come to appreciate those amazing songwriters, like Lennon, who were able to articulate political messages of that time in song.
“I just think, what might I be remembered for, in terms of my musical content, and direction? Partly the reason why I haven’t got to that point of being clear about what that looks like for TJ Taotua, the artist, is that I just haven’t been able to put in enough time to think through some of those questions – most of the time it’s been about creating for consumption. But I feel I’m slowly moving into an area where I feel I know what I like and don’t like.”