Tami Neilson just won Best NZ Country Album with her album the Kitchen Table Sessions Vol. 2. Gary Steel interviewed her at the time of the album’s release.
Tami – You live in Helensville? I love it out there! We live in Mt Eden but we’ve just bought a section in Greenhithe, and everyone’s like “that’s so far” but it’s actually not, you just start scheduling your life differently and it’s so worth being out of everything, just to have a section. Right now our section’s the size of a postage stamp and the neighbour’s kids sound like they’re in our bedroom with us in the mornings, whereas in Greenhithe it’s a huge section, and for the price you can get so much more. It’s not that far, it’s really not.
Witchdoctor – There’s not nearly as much traveling as many major cities of the world.
Tami – Like Toronto. Growing up there you’ve got to schedule in everything. It’s all spread out. But Greenhithe the other day, in rush hour, took us a half hour to get to the city. Dominion Rd takes more time!
Witchdoctor – It’s a perceptual thing. In reality Greenhithe is going to be really well placed, with the new shopping centre at Westgate.
Tami – It’s close to Westgate, it’s close to Albany, it’s got both motorways, you can go on one if the other one is clogged. In my brain I’ve just always thought [makes horrid face] North Shore, probably because I’m married to an Aucklander who has lived on the other side of the bridge his whole life. But he says Greenhithe, that’s West. The North Shore is not edgy, and I kind of like edgy, and it’s not arty, and the city is arty; the West has that thing too.
Witchdoctor – How long have you lived in New Zealand for?
Tami – Going on five years now. Four years for sure. It’s gone so fast. Crazy.
Witchdoctor – Are you glad you made your decision to move here?
Tami – You have your moments in marriage – it doesn’t matter, there are “I want to go home” and moments where “I just love it”. [Puts on funny voice]. The only drawback to me is not having my family close, but otherwise I find Kiwi culture is very similar, like the sense of humour is very self-depreciating (sic), so we’re used to poking fun at ourselves before they can poke fun at us, so we have that in common. Even though Canada is a far larger landmass, we have that same attitude.
Witchdoctor – It’s got the clean green image and a reputation for being a bit boring. Americans are always poking fun at Canada, aren’t they?
Tami – That’s right, it’s the same thing with the whole Aussie Kiwi thing, all their skits are ‘they’re just slightly dumb and very square’. But it’s all in good fun.
Witchdoctor – So you’ve got a deal that you get to go back regularly?
Tami – Yeah, well what I’ve done is hatched a very cunning plan with my music, I want to always chase summer. Being Canadian of course it goes against the whole snow image, but basically I’ve been going home every year during the Canadian summer, and hopefully eventually I can skip winter altogether, so it’s been a yearly thing that I head back, and mix business with pleasure, so that it is a working holiday so that I’m recording or doing a tour or as I did in June, both, which I’ll never do again because you have to pick one or the other. Because we were recording all week and gigging all weekend and it was just a bit too hectic.
Witchdoctor – And that’s the material that’s going to end up on Volume 2?
Tami – Yeah.
Witchdoctor – Is it literally a followup to the previous album?
Tami – Yeah. Every album you grow and change a bit. The first album was strictly my family, my brother producing it… my brother produces all my albums, but the idea for the Kitchen Table series, I wanted to be able to collaborate every time with a different artist around the kitchen table, and any time I want to do a Tami Neilson solo album that’s fine, with full studio production. The kitchen table session is very – no drums, no slickness happening, very organic, mostly one take from beginning to end. Of course my brother does all the editing and all the hard work. The second one I wanted to… because I had become more immersed in the Kiwi music industry, Kiwi culture, obviously my whole lifestyle has changed quite a bit. This one is almost two years later, and I wanted some really Kiwi elements in it, so fellow Kiwi musician Lauren Thomson came over with me and she’s kind of my Kiwi flavor, my featured musician this time. And we’ve also recorded sister albums, she recorded an album with me on it. It’s cool, because we’re releasing them both at the same time. After the Topps tour we’re going to do our own tour; the whole tour is these sister albums, and they’re both produced by my brother. She’s very alt country, whereas I’m more I guess you’d say bluegrass and being North American and loud. I’m loud, footstomping, harmonica, blues country, whereas Lauren is more folk, soft singer-songwriter mellow country, more Gillian Welch, whereas I’m more Casey Chambers/Dolly Parton (laughs). It’s a good balance, because she brings the mellow, soft… so it’s a neat mix. On the album it just so happens that my guitar player Mark Mazengarb, he was doing a big OE and was doing Europe and the states and playing in Nashville, so he just happened to be across the border from my brother’s place the week we started recording, so he popped in and did a couple of tracks with us and hung out with my family and we all got on like a house on fire. So it was kind of cool to have a melding of my two worlds on an album. The aim is to bring in different artists every time, like you’re having a big backyard barbecue and each time you invite different guests.
Witchdoctor – Is it all original material?
Tami – The last one, we basically threw on everything we’d been doing, I’d been doing with my brother, from covers we’d been doing since we were kids from songs we’d written when we were 16 together to songs we wrote the day we recorded it, to Kiwi songs which of course my brother had never heard. He didn’t have any sacred attachment to them while I was a bit, I’m a bit scared to do this, I could get lynched, and he was going ‘it’s cool, it’s fun’, and I was thinking ‘you don’t have to live in New Zealand after doing this’ to Scribe. That’s while there were so many tracks on the album, 17 tracks, whereas this one is comprised of mostly new tracks, either written by myself or my brother. On the whole album there are 10 tracks and two covers, and there are some new elements, because over the past year I have been learning blues harmonica, and I also play a percussive stomp box, and that brings different elements to what I’m writing. One track is basically dueling harmonicas, with my Dad, who is an amazing player. He said ‘I can teach you how to play harmonica’. [Her laugh is a big hearty hyuck, hyuck’] I kind of get my lung capacity from my Dad, he’s got a really huge, powerful voice. So he said because we have such similar vocal styles, he said ‘Tami you’d be a great harp player’ and I’d be like ‘Dad it’ll wreck my lipstick’. I was just way too cool for that when I was a teenager, I’m not going to wreck my lipstick for a stupid harmonica. Now my thinking has changed and it’s like stuff the lipstick, pass me a harmonica, it’s way cooler.
Witchdoctor – What I find interesting is that it’s country but you’re talking about blues harmonica. It’s not straight down the line. And going by YouTube clips I’ve seen of you and the family – even Broadway!
Tami – Well that’s the thing, all musicians have a varied history that makes you who you are today, and growing up singing variety shows and everything from Judy Garland to the Beatles to Dolly Parton – all those elements come into your singing, and that makes it not straight down the line country. And that’s one of the biggest challenges coming to New Zealand, the perception of country is very different to what it is in America. It’s like saying ‘I don’t like pop music’. Well pop music is an umbrella and you get everything from Coldplay to Beyonce, and country is the same. You get everything from bluegrass, folk, blues, pop, rock, old time stripped back acoustic stuff – you can’t just say I don’t like country music, that’s like saying I don’t like rock or pop.
Witchdoctor – There’s quite a prejudice here. It’s like we’ve picked up on country music being something from Deliverance, dueling banjoes, inbred Appalachian.
Tami – I know. The only way you can change it is by getting out there and interacting and showing people what it is. There’s this whole culture of that’s country and everything that was on the ‘80s when it was at its height, and it just kind of skipped a whole generation for like 20 years. They’ve only been exposed to the old school, like Kenny Rogers, just that ‘80s stuff, which I personally love. I think people view it as the music that my parents, or grandparents, listen to, so it’s definitely not cool, and it’s not urban. Whereas now when I go out and play and people see what I do, you don’t need to put the label, a lot of people say don’t say that you’re a country artist, it’s the kiss of death in New Zealand. But all the things that people cite as a negative, I see as a positive. People say it’s so small here, but that means less competition. Country music isn’t mainstream, well, maybe that’s why I’ve won two Tui awards in the space of four years. So it’s a genre that needs to be pioneered and started from scratch again, and it’s a hard road but I’m happy to do that, because it’s what I love and am passionate about. and there are all these fantastic bands that have been going for years and just starting to get recognition. I was at the Apra Silver Scrolls, and one of them was the Unfaithful Ways, they got up there, the guy was in an oldschool Hank Williams suit with the hat, everything, and they got the biggest applause of the night, because it was so fresh and different. Because people are seeing it for what it is. Once people get past that prejudice, if they go without even realizing it, and… there’s nowhere else that you’ll see people from 90 to nine years old being able to interact and enjoy the music together, you’re not pigeon-holed, and record companies and mainstream media aren’t taking that into consideration, they’re concentrating on what they think is cool. They don’t realise the massive fanbase for country music in New Zealand. The Highway Legends was one of the biggest grossing concerts in New Zealand of all time. What does that say? They’re not young guys in black jeans with tattoos. I think that Kiwis love country music but they don’t realise they do. If you’re a lover of music, you’re not a lover of genres; if it’s music that you love, it doesn’t matter what it is.
Witchdoctor – In the States it’s always been divided along racial bounds in a way, if you’re into that hick type of country you’re poor, uneducated, white, and your grandparents lynched those black guys. When in reality if you listen to that old country music it’s so close to blues.
Tami – It’s the same thing, poor uneducated white and black music, they’re both singing the blues. It’s the same thing that the blues is saying. It’s not original me saying this, but country is the white man’s blues.
Witchdoctor – Was that one of the reasons you covered the Scribe song; that you wanted to cross the racial boundaries?
Tami – [Laughs] I’d like to say that I was really intelligently seeking out some statement to make, but it was because I love that song, it’s so much fun, and I thought what song is going to be completely leftfield, and no-one would expect it. But what you’re really saying is that it’s the farthest thing from country that a person would probably think of, hip-hop and country being so different, but then hip-hop was also birthed from the blues. Music is music, and the more personal you make a song, the more universal it is. And whether you play it on a banjo, a harmonica, a slide guitar, or speak the words to a drum loop, it’s human. The only thing I ask from my audience is to give it a chance and not be genre-biased. Give the music a listen, and if you hate it you hate it, but don’t judge it before you even try it. It’s like growing up and my Dad was trying to get me to try capers and I was going it doesn’t look normal, it doesn’t smell normal – now I love capers, I put them on everything. It’s different, it’s suspect because you’ve never tried it before, I don’t know about this, there’s a banjo, there’s a fiddle. Why not embrace something different, give it a try.
Witchdoctor – If you liked a jazz song and wanted to perform it, would you turn it into a country song?
Tami – Well, a perfect example is Patsy Cline, I try to do a Patsy song on all of my albums because I adore her. Patsy was the perfect hybrid of jazz and country, you know, from ‘Crazy’, ‘I Fall To Pieces’, ‘Sweet Dreams’… it’s all very much… I wouldn’t be doing anything new because there’s western swing. As you said earlier I grew up singing every genre, and that all comes into my music. On this new album I finish the album with an accappella version of Patsy Cline’s ‘Sweet Dreams’, which is a big ballad and quite jazz country. My first single from my last album was an original song, but my brother and I wrote it specifically to embody that Roy Orbison Patsy Cline big torch 1950s ballad, and that song was nominated for best country song of the year. You can’t define, or say one song or style is country; I don’t think there are boundaries. Creative people are always going to try to push the boundaries.
Witchdoctor – I guess KD Lang did that too.
Tami – She’s the perfect example. Rockabilly, swing. If I can follow in another good Canadian’s footsteps.
Witchdoctor – But you’re not a vegan lesbian.
Tami – I am touring with the Topp Twins, so half of it I’m not sure yet. I don’t know how persuasive those girls are! [hyuck hyuck] I can’t wait. I’m worried because I’m doing two tours back to back, I’m worried I’m going to completely lose my voice for my own tour, because of all the laughing that’s going to go on. They’re totally crazy. But at the same time such down to earth real genuine people. What you see is what you get. They’re who they are, and so comfortable in their own skin, and it’s really cool to be around people like that. When I first came here people said you’ve got to see the Topp Twins, everyone was saying how funny they are, so I went to the show at the Power Station when they were filming the documentary, and of course it wasn’t funny they weren’t doing their characters, they were telling their story and singing the songs and I thought ‘this is the comedy act everyone was telling me about?’, but it was fantastic that was my introduction to them, because it’s amazing that these two girls against all odds being completely different. No-one can pigeon hole them in having that whole country flavor. I can really relate to that, and I love that they’ve done it all on their own, no-one has funded them, every creative step they take is their own decision, and that’s really admirable. As a female solo artist you’re always striving to have your own unique stamp because the music industry says chick singers are like goldfish, they’re a dime a dozen, so you need to do your own thing, and love it or hate it, at least I’m unique, I’m different. I’m really looking forward to going on tour with the Topp Twins, and hoping they’ll teach me how to yodel. I do yodel a little bit but I think I’m just a faker, an imposter. One of my songs live I do this yodel solo as a joke, so people think I can yodel, but I think there’s actually a real art to it. Linda Topp is an incredible yodeler, when she does a slow ballad yodel it’s incredible what she does with her voice. As a vocalist it’s really cool to learn a technique that’s different for your voice, so I’m hoping to score a few lessons on the road.
Witchdoctor – Your name, Tami, it almost sounds like a Maori name.
Tami – I get that a lot.
Witchdoctor – Did your parents name you after Tammy Wynette and then change the spelling?
Tami – No, my name is actually Tamara, which is my full name, but my parents told me Tami – it’s actually quite a common name in America. The Tami’s In Love, 1950s? At home I never liked my name because it’s so common. I think my parents thought a redeeming quality would be the TAMI, but it just confuses things. But it is a good country name! I get people, before I open my mouth obviously and my accent pops out – my colouring and everything. I remember going in to get my permanent residency and bringing my passport into the offices, and walked into immigration, and there was a Maori man in behind the reception, and I handed the form in, and slid my passport across the desk, and he said ‘what the heck is a Maori doing applying for citizenship?” I’ve had people come up to me at gigs and ask ‘what tribe are you?’ I’m actually part North American Indian. My grandmother grew up on a native reserve in Canada. So it must be that whole native vibe. Go the high cheekbones.
Witchdoctor – Who are your favourite singers?
Tami – My goodness. There are just too many. My Dad is my number one. Judy Garland. Patsy Cline. Dolly Parton. Bryan Adams. There’s a wildcard. I’m an oldschool Canadian girl. Roy Orbison. I could go on but that’s probably long enough. Oh, Paul McCartney. My Dad has got a big bluesy raspy, powerful voice, so…
Witchdoctor – Well your voice isn’t exactly a shrinking lily, is it?
Tami – [laughs] I get my lungs from Dad, that’s for sure.
Witchdoctor – I meant shrinking lilac. You’re more like a lily! After the tour, you’ve got your launch. When?
Tami – The big launch will be the Auckland show in February.
[A farty smell wafts past]
Witchdoctor – They really should do something about the plumbing in here.
Tami – Sorry that was me. [hyuck hyuck]
Witchdoctor – You have got the Kiwi humour down pat.