An Interview With The New Zealand-Based Musician, TAMI NEILSON!
Posted On 06 Jun 2018
Tami Neilson won’t be staying New Zealand’s secret for much longer. For the past decade, the Canadian-born, New Zealand-based singer-songwriter has been the queen of her adopted homeland’s country and roots music scenes. She picked up handful of Best Country Album awards at the New Zealand Music Awards and won the prestigious APRA Silver Scroll for excellence in songwriting.
With her new album, SASSAFRASS!, released on June 1st on Outside Music, Neilson takes a giant step that should only bring her more widespread acclaim. On this 11-track effort, she places a heavier emphasis on soul music while not abandoning her country and rockabilly roots. Neilson conjures up a wonderfully retro style that sounds like it could be a lost gem from the late ’50s or early ’60s; however, beneath the classic veneer are frank, highly relevant lyrics.
Sassafrass, a slang word for a sassy person who isn’t afraid to speak her mind, serves as a perfect title for this album. The songs, Neilson admits, reflect her developing a “low tolerance for bullsh*t” after years of encountering sexism in her life. They were also influenced by her being a mother of two young boys as well as by the death of her father, who led the family’s band, the Neilsons, which was popular in Canada during the ’90s.
Neilson characterizes her new album as a “mouthy lovechild of the current social climate and my own experiences as a woman, mother and daughter.” The songs address the obstacles she has faced simply because she is a female. “It’s also my attempt,” she shares, “at challenging a society that doesn’t yet treat women equally in order to shape a better future for my children.”
On SASSAFRASS! Neilson infuses just enough honey into her tunes to make her messages sound sweet in the listeners’ ears. She certainly comes out smoking — in several senses of the word — on the disc’s lead-off track, “Stay Outta My Business.” The sassy, brassy soul number finds her fighting back at trash-talkers in splendidly defiant, hip-shaking fashion. The tune “Bananas” might initially sound like an amusing slice of tropical exotica, but its message pokes fun at gender inequality. Similarly, “Kitty Cat” comes off as a rollicking rockabilly rave-up on first listen, but its moral is a reminder that men can’t own a woman’s “kitty cat.” Neilson also tackles bad girl/good girl stereotypes and Hollywood sexual harassment, respectively, on the slinky, smoky tracks “Devil in a Dress” and “Smoking Gun.”
Neilson offers several poignant tributes as well on SASSAFRASS! The Rosanne Cash-esque country ballad “Manitoba Sunrise at Motel 6” was written in homage to Glen Campbell on the day he died. She salutes the late, great Sharon Jones on the high-spirited soul number “Miss Jones.” “A Woman’s Pain,” a twangy tale told in a style that recalls Bobbie Gentry, tells the story of Neilson’s first-nation grandmother. She delivers a lovely reading of the ’50s-style romantic ballad “One Thought of You,” which was written by her father.
Tying all these songs together is Neilson’s sensational singing. New Zealand critics have it right when they have declared that her voice “is magic,” “explodes from the speakers,” and “will stop you in your tracks, so powerful and full of color is it.” Even rock great Randy Bachman (Guess Who, Bachman-Turner Overdrive) declared she has “the voice to get any song across to any audience.”
Neilson’s confident vocals are undoubtedly abetted by her being surrounded by familiar collaborators. She co-produced SASSAFRASS! with Ben Edwards, the co-producer of her last two critically acclaimed albums, Dynamite! and Don’t Be Afraid. Backing her up in the studio was her talented band, the Hot Rockin’ Band of Rhythm: Joe McCallum (drums), Mike Hall (bass), Brett Adams (guitar) and Neil Watson (guitar and pedal steel), who have toured with her around the globe over the past three years. A brass section and strings enhance the album’s classic qualities.
With its timeless sound and timely lyrics, SASSAFRASS! provides a fantastic introduction to Tami Neilson, whose vibrant musical style blurs the lines of genre and eras, like a soundtrack curated for a Quentin Tarantino film. Discover this for yourself when the album arrives June 1, and make it your musical tonic this summer.
Learn more about Tami Neilson in the following All Access interview:
Where does this interview find you now? What’s on tap for the rest of your day?
It’s Sunday morning and I am curled up in front of the fire with a cup tea on a chilly New Zealand winter’s day, looking out at the rolling green hills. It’s only 5 more sleeps until release day, so, today and the rest of the week are back to back interviews.
Overall, how do you think 2018 has been treating you and your music career? What has been one goal that you have had this year and how close are you to reaching it?
2018 has been incredibly busy with creating the new album- the music, the imagery, the music videos, the upcoming tours…but, that means I’ve been home for 8 solid months, which is very unusual. I’ve loved getting to be home with my little ones and not have to do as much touring as I’ve done over the last 2 years. However, that’s all about to change next month when it all kicks off again, but I feel refreshed and excited and ready to hit the road. The goal was to create and release new music, so, I’m so excited for it to be unleashed this week!
Growing up, was music always a big part of your life? Can you recall your first ever musical experience?
I grew up touring for over a decade in my family band “The Neilsons” with my parents and two brothers, so, it’s quite hard to pinpoint my first musical experience. I was a few months old when my Dad was playing at the same venue as Roy Orbison. Roy held me in his arms and Dad took a photo. So, I guess that might be the earliest!
How do you think you and your music have been influenced by your hometown and where you live today? If you don’t think that it has affected you at all, why is that?
I’m a Canadian that has made New Zealand home for the past 12 years and it has definitely shaped me as a songwriter and artist. I am no longer close by to the big musical hubs like Nashville and New York and therefore, am not really influenced by what the industry is looking for as much as just creating what makes me happy. Isolation can really spur creativity. I think my music is more unique largely due to that.
I find it interesting that sometimes musicians choose to go by something other than their own name so why did you decide to go by your full name?
I can’t afford to rebrand after working so hard for even a handful of people to know me by my own name, let alone another one! haha
Let’s talk about your forthcoming new album, “Sassafrass.” What was it like putting this collection together? Did you approach making it any differently than your previous ones? What exactly made you decide to put together a more soul album? What was the inspiration for the album? Would you say there is an overall theme found throughout the collection?
SASSAFRASS! is a the mouthy love-child of a series of events that led to it’s conception. Becoming a parent, losing a parent, turning 40…all these things drastically change your perspective and priorities. I suddenly realised that life is too short to take the judgements of others who don’t have your best interest at heart and decided to stop trying to please those people. It happened to coincide with a
huge movement for the equality of women around the world and all those ingredients really emboldened me. I guess it’s all about coming into my confidence and the goal was to share that with other women, celebrate that freedom and hope it emboldens them to do the same!
As for it leaning more heavily into the soul genre, I tend to paint with the same palette on all my albums, the colours being soul, country, rockabilly, gospel and blues- which are all related and were born in the same place of the deep South- but, on some songs or albums, I tend to use more of one colour than the other and so it changes the overall flavour, but, it’s still all those same colours throughout.
While it’s difficult, can you put out a couple of your favorite songs on “Sassafrass” and talk about how they came to be on this album?
A Woman’s Pain is a special song to me, as it’s the story of my paternal Grandmother, who was raised on a reservation, had to leave everything and everyone she knew when her First Nations mother died in childbirth, got pregnant at 13, married the father before the birth of their baby and was then abandoned by him to raise her daughter alone while still child herself. “Partake of pleasure and reap the shame/ the hand that holds the power assigns the blame/ this old world turns on a woman’s pain”.
With a voice that has been described as magic, I am curious to know what kind of vocal training you have had and how do you maintain it year after year?
When I was younger, my Dad taught me everything about vocal technique and I never gave it too much thought. But, recently, with a few factors like touring more extensively, getting less sleep with young children, turning 40, I’ve needed to start treating it with more care. Last year, I started to go to a vocal coach. Just like an athlete, you need to know how to work those muscles to the best of their ability, but also protect them so they can recover and perform at their best. I do boot camp and strength training when I’m not on the road for overall fitness. Then when I travel, it’s everything from limiting my talking in the tour van, staying hydrated, increasing my vitamin intake, using a “Humidiflyer” mask when I fly (looks ridiculous, but, means I never get jet lag and don’t catch any of the bugs going around on planes) and going to bed straight after the show instead of socialising- which is a big party pooper, but, means I don’t lose my voice and have to cancel shows.
What do you think makes for an ideal show for you? What has been a favorite performance of yours so far? Do you have any upcoming shows this summer?
An ideal show is one where the audience is completely connected with you, whether it’s small or huge, those are the best shows. My fave
performance was opening for Mavis Staples last year. She is my idol and the air was just crackling with electricity. I got halfway through my set and looked over and she was side stage, dancing and singing along. I don’t know if I can ever beat that. I’m on tour from June- Sept in China, Canada, New Zealand, Europe and UK.
We are currently living through a very trying and politically charged time right now so I am curious to know how your own music is reflecting this time period? If you don’t think it is, why is that? Would you say that other musicians are making music that has been influenced by this climate?
This album is a direct result of the social and political climate we are living in. I think most artists are very sensitive to what is happening around them and it can’t help but come out through their music if they are in tune. The fact that “Tomato-Gate” (where a radio consultant recently advised country music radio programmers across the USA that if they wanted a successful radio station, “take the women out.” and that “…men are the lettuce in our salad, women are the tomatoes.”) can still occur baffles the mind and it needs to change. The fight for equality for all people is when the political becomes incredibly personal.
What has it been like keeping up with your social media accounts and all the different platforms? Is it hard to stay up to date on it all?
It’s a full time job and can be quite an exhausting one. But I think it’s important to connect with my fans directly and not hand that job over to somebody else for as long as I can manage it.
Who are some of your favorite artists or rather, what musicians have continued to inspire you and your music? Who would you absolutely still love to work with in the future?
Mavis Staples, again. This woman walked alongside Martin Luther King and was an integral part of the Civil Rights movement- one she is still fighting today. She is incredibly inspiring. It would be a dream to tour with her, just soak in all her stories and watch her work. Not to mention listen to her sing every night!
If you were going to be stranded on a deserted island forever, what musical item would you take with you?
My guitar….damn, I’d get good with all that practice..but, then nobody would ever know.
If your music was going to be featured on any TV show that is currently on right now, which would you love it to be on? Or if you prefer, what is a movie that you love that you wish your music was featured in?
Anything by Tarantino. Or, on the opposite end of the cool spectrum, some massive animated Pixar film that my kids would be so excited to hear Mummy’s song played in.
At the end of the day, what do you hope your fans take away from your music?
I hope they are uplifted and encouraged. I hope it emboldens them and empowers them. I hope it moves them and touches them and inspires them.
Where can our readers connect with you?
All those social media platforms I’m constantly updating! haha. Instagram, FB, Twitter, the whole shebang. Also, come have a listen to Spotify and Apple Music 😊