Troy Kingi is systematically establishing himself as a national treasure. Over the last few years, the Kerikeri resident singer/songwriter has risen in prominence thanks to some creative recordings, a 10/10/10 (10 albums across 10 genres in 10 years) release mandate, and a very likeable persona that has kept him grounded as both a family man and musician. Sam Smith caught up with him just ahead of the 2019 NZ Music Awards, where he was in the running for two awards.
Troy Kingi was born in Rotorua in 1984 and has Te Arawa and Ngāpuhi ancestry. As someone who was born and raised in the Māori community his love of music began at a young age.
“I always had an interest in music through kapa haka and growing up performing, but it wasn’t until my last year of high school when I thought I could probably do something in music.”
He went on to study at MAINZ in Auckland, but any potential subsequent music career was necessarily put aside as he focused on raising his children through his twenties. Almost by chance Kingi got into acting and has featured in films that notably include Mt Zion, and the role of selfie-dad TK in Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
Fans of the Māori Television series Songs From The Inside will possibly also remember Kingi from that inspirational show’s third series, in which, along with Scribe, Ladi6 and Anika Moa, he mentored prisoners to write and record their own music.
Despite the fun acting experiences, music has always remained Kingi’s first passion. In 2015 he first came to the attention of the nation’s music public, at least, by winning (along with Stan Walker and Vince Harder) the Maioha Award for their te reo Māori anthem Aotearoa. Kingi and Walker had become lifelong friends during the filming of Mt Zion.
It was about that time that he announced that he was embarking on a more than ambitious project to record 10 albums in 10 years – in 10 different styles. So far he has released three albums. 2016’s ‘Guitar Party At Uncles Bach’, 2017’s ‘Shake That Skinny Ass All the Way to Zygertron’, and in 2019 we got to hear ‘Holy Colony Burning Acres’.
The 10-album series is a unique undertaking, one Kingi himself is not entirely clear quite how it came about.
“I honestly don’t know how I came up with this idea. I am slowly figuring out probably why, and that is that I am a big Quentin Tarantino fan, and he has this 10 films thing going on. So that is a big part of it, I think!”
The second album in his series was pure psychedelic funk and soul, however for his latest, ‘Holy Colony Burning Acres’, Kingi explored roots-reggae and themes of colonialism – something he says was a conscious decision.
“I have a lot of friends that are deep on reggae and they got a bit sceptical of me doing it. But I said I was trying to do a true roots-reggae album, meaning it had to either be about love or politics, so I chose that political avenue.
“The climate at the moment with what is going on at Ihumātao and Mauna Kea was also quite timely. I didn’t even think about that when I started writing, but then when it came out all of these things seemed to happen within months of each other, so it was really timely.”
‘Holy Colony Burning Acres’ delves into the dark corners of global indigenous politics, namely colonisation and its effects on today’s social climate. The album’s title is itself challenging, to expressing that condemnation. While no doubt confrontational it is also very well considered.
Admitting that he’s not particularly politically-minded, Kingi has even said that he doesn’t know if it should be him saying these things, but feels someone has to.
“I find it crazy how people can say that they’re better than others just because they’re born in a certain country, or born of a certain colour. So that’s the basis of the album and its name.
“I’m just using my platform to be a voice. I don’t know how big that platform is, but there are things that need to be said.”
Moving between different genres from album to album seems like a tough ask for anybody, and Kingi doesn’t deny it’s already proven difficult. However (and despite his calling the first three albums a fluke), he is a meticulous planner and researcher into the different music styles he hopes to capture on his records.
“If you look at my ‘Zygertron’ album, I only really listened to The Isley Brothers, Shuggie Otis, and Al Green – just a handful of musicians. So when I was writing the songs, it was subconsciously there. I actually wrote that album in two weeks. That method seemed to work, which is why the last album was a bit of a struggle because I didn’t have the time period to get really deep on the style that I was trying to do. For the other ones I gave myself a good year to research and get into the vibe of it. For the latest one I really only had three or four months.”
Despite the fresh challenges that will be presented by each album, Kingi seems to have worked out his songwriting formula, a methodology transferable across the many styles of music he is exploring.
“I find that I have to be alone. I can’t have anyone else around me because otherwise, I cannot focus. So I just lock myself away, and I will have an idea for a song and I will just keep honing it until it reaches a point that it doesn’t make me cringe! That is basically my songwriting process.”
It works. Aztechknowledgey, which opened the ‘Zygertron’ album, earned him a place among the last five finalists for the 2018 APRA Silver Scroll award. ‘Holy Colony Burning Acres’ has just recently won him a 2019 NZ Music Awards Tui for Best Roots Artist (beating out Lost Tribe Aotearoa and L.A.B), and Kingi also claimed the Tui for Māori Artist of the Year.
Despite that considerable accolade being his for the second year in a row, Kingi says he doesn’t really see himself as a Māori musician making Māori music as such.
“I don’t think my Māori identity is consciously part of my musical identity. I am not consciously like, ‘I need to write this in a Māori way’. For me personally, I feel you have to be writing Māori music to be considered a Māori artist. You have to be pushing down that road. My last album didn’t really have any Reo in it, but the topics and the kaupapa had a Māori way of thinking.”
Kingi’s comments come at a time when Māori music and musicians are growing in stature despite continuing questions around diversity in the NZ music industry. This was an issue strongly raised by Ria Hall at the recent Silver Scroll Awards where she questioned how the local industry was protecting, rewarding and nurturing Māori music. While agreeing with Hall, Kingi also argues Māori musicians need to be pushing their own diversity envelope more.
“I think Māori artists need to push the boundaries a little bit more in order to stand out. It is not enough just to be singing in te reo Māori, you still have to have something unique to be offering. I think it is slowly changing, though, and we do have a lot of young Māori artists coming through now. But for a long time there it was like Māori music had to sound a certain way.”
Both in his charismatic performance of Mighty Invader and his 2019 Tui acceptance speeches, Kingi showed strongly that he is very much an artist who practises what he preaches.
Initially at a loss for words after receiving the trophy for Best Māori Artist, his acceptance speech started with gracious thanks to fellow finalists Louis Baker and Rei, then to his band The Upperclass.
“I dedicate this award to our indigenous brothers and sisters. [They’re] going through a lot of shit at the moment. I’m just really happy that this generation is… they’re conscious thinkers. They’re seeking the truth, they’re looking for the histories. I just put it to us to find out your history – find out our history, and you’ll find that our country will change a lot for the better.”
Getting back to his self-imposed hectic production schedule, albums four and five are due out in 2020 – with hopes at this stage to release them both on the same day.
“I am going into the studio in December to do the fourth album. I am still working on the songs, so I am a little bit behind the eight ball on this one, but we will get there! The next album is just going to be straight funk. I would say it is a mix of The Meters ‘Rejuvenation’ album and Frank Ocean, that’s where it is at the moment!”
Alongside the funky fourth project, Kingi is also working towards a folk fifth, though he’s still undecided whether that will be an all-acoustic project or not.
“I’m in the process of getting my resources together and just listening and researching. The reason for the decision to release two albums in one day is that I didn’t actually bring anything out in 2018, so I missed a year and am trying to make.
Despite that apparent break, in 2018 he also took home two Tui awards, the one for Best Māori Artist as mentioned and a second for Best Soul/RnB Artist, in which category he was a finalist alongside Israel Starr and Vince Harder. Now with two more Tuis in 2019 his overall mantlepiece tally is four.
While admitting to finding the recognition flattering, Kingi maintains he doesn’t make music for accolades. As important as music clearly is, it’s family that always comes first for this humble man who’s been a Kerikeri resident for two decades now.
“To be honest, living in such a small community you don’t even realise how far your music is reaching. I do my music; I put it out there and I come home to my kids. My main job is a stay at home father to my youngest. My music is doing what it is doing, but I am here doing the washing or whatever. It’s not until I go back to Auckland, or do gigs when I realise people actually listen to me!”
It’s this laidback level-headedness and realism that helps explain Troy Kingi’s remarkable recent triumphs, and why he remains one of the more popular musicians in NZ. He’s gone three-for-three so far in terms of quality in his planned 10-album venture, and you wouldn’t sensibly bet against him releasing more future NZ classics before his five kids grow up and the series comes to an end. That said, it’s not something that the man himself is too fussed about.
“To be honest, I don’t need to be remembered. If the music is good enough, it can speak for itself.”