Interview: Tami Neilson the Canadian born New Zealand country soul star and Kingmaker

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Playing Patsy Cline to Willie Nelson’s Marty Robbins.

Country soul artist Tami Neilson is recognised as a leading New Zealand country music, country soul, and rockabilly artist, and she has also helped develop the genre and garnered an impressive array of music awards to clutter up her mantlepiece along the way. To be fair, she had a bit of a headstart in her New Zealand country music journey because she was a member of the Canadian family country band The Neilsons with her parents and two brothers. They regularly opened for acts of the calibre of Johnny Cash, before Tami Neilson moved to New Zealand and established her country soul solo career. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Tami Neilson over Zoom to discuss her new album ‘Kingmaker’ which was recorded at Crowded House’s Neil Finn’s studio and how recording a duet with Willie Nelson on ‘Kingmaker’ is an all-time career high. She also explains how the death of her father was a major influence on her songwriting, why she believes her lyrics supporting women’s rights can actually bring about a change in society, and how Mavis Staples has been a major influence on her own approach to music.  

How are you?

I’m good, and I’m all bundled up because we are in the opposite season to you and it is a cold winter’s night in New Zealand, haha. I’ve grown very soft, and I’m a bit of a disgrace to Canadians because this is like Canadian summer weather.

What was it like being a member of The Neilsons, who were a very respected family band in Canada?

However you grow up is what is normal to you, so I grew up getting to perform with my family band, and opening for people like Johnny Cash, and that was just completely normal to me. You don’t really realise how special it is until you become an adult yourself, and when you look back you realise that it was not normal at all, haha. I can remember thinking that people who grew up living in the same town, and not leaving their home town and having the same friends all their lives, and going to the same school through all the grades, had such an exotic lifestyle. To me, that was exciting, you know, because the grass is always greener, haha.

You had an interesting childhood and got a degree in country music while you were growing up.

It was a school of life degree, haha.

So why emigrate to New Zealand which doesn’t seem an obvious choice?

The only reasons you move across the world are for either love or money, and unfortunately, mine was love, haha. So I got roped in by the cute accents and it was definitely not on my bingo card when I crossed over to New Zealand because being in a family band, I always thought I would be in a family band for the foreseeable future. When love strikes, you’ve just got to follow it.

It must have been a significant change for you, how did you deal with it from a musical perspective?

It was quite daunting when I first arrived because coming from North America where country music is one of the most successful genres in Canada and the US, and then coming to New Zealand where there isn’t even a country music radio station over here and it is considered very niche. So I was starting from scratch, and everyone in the music business knows it is all about who you know, the connections you make, and the community you are part of, so to start after decades in the music business to go right back and don’t pass Go, and don’t collect $200, was very daunting at first to start all over again with a clean slate.

You are on a Canadian record label and you still have connections with the Canadian music scene, do you split your time between New Zealand and Canada?

Normally, when we are not in the midst of a pandemic, I used to be there every couple of months, and I used to spend time in the United States and Europe and looked to get there about two times a year to tour, and also to see my family but obviously, that has all completely changed. I haven’t been home now for nearly three years, and this week I fly home for my first Canadian tour and I will get to see my family. Even though it is a week away, I still just can’t believe it and it is feeling very surrealistic because so many of us, and musicians in particular, have had so many setbacks that we are afraid to get excited anymore. People are going you must be so excited and I’m like, yes, but so much can still go wrong and you are watching all your friends touring, and you see them kicking off a tour all excited, and then, two or three shows in, boom a person gets COVID and it takes out all the shows. It is still a very precarious time, but despite that, I still can’t help feeling excited to see my family, I always have the hope of that.

I assume you recorded ‘Kingmaker’ in New Zealand.

I did. It was a time when we were all home, the music community who normally spend most of our time touring overseas were home because we couldn’t tour and our borders were closed, so what else can you do but make an album, haha. We recorded the album at Roundhead Studios, which is Neil Finn of Crowded House’s studio, and he’s now also of Fleetwood Mac. I suspected something was in the water when a few years ago I was at the studio doing something else, and Neil and Mick Fleetwood walked down the stairs, haha, and I was like, oh what can this be all about. Recording was really, really special because Neil would normally be touring as well, and to have him there when we went through the recording process for a week was just great. He would pop in every day to have a listen and have a bit of a chat and offer words of encouragement and comment on the songs. That was really, really special because while I’ve co-produced all of my albums this was the first time I was taking the reigns as producer. It can be a bit of a daunting thing, stepping into your own confidence and so it was really special having Neil offer those words of encouragement.

Who appears on it, is it your road band?

I  have a band here in New Zealand who do my New Zealand and Australia shows, and when I tour internationally it is with my brother Jay who is in Canada, and we normally tour as a trio with a drummer, depending on which drummer is available, haha. So Jay is kind of my solid kind of international guy, and I’ve only been able to play on and off with my band here because we have been in and out of lockdowns. In the first year of COVID, we could still do shows between lockdowns, and this year we played our first show for a year as a band just last week. During the time we weren’t able to tour it was my New Zealand band and they have been my guys for between five and ten years, working with me. We have a level of trust and they know what music I’m trying to create and they help to create that so beautifully.

Were all the songs pre-written before you went into the studio?

I started writing at the beginning of 2021 for this album because in 2020, just a few weeks before everything fell apart, I had just released an album, and I remember people were saying to me when we went into our first lockdown, well you will now have plenty of time to write a new album, and I just wanted to respond with some very select words, haha. I had just put the last year and a half of my life into an album and it is now just sitting there, dead in the water, and I think for the first year of the pandemic the last thing I wanted to do was pick up a guitar and write some more songs because I think it is very hard to be creative in the midst of a lot of trauma. Also, being a parent of young children during the pandemic and I’m married to an essential worker so it was still business as usual in so far as having to go to work. All that has also been a huge part of the pandemic for a lot of women and mothers who are the default for caring, trying to juggle around child and home 24 x 7. It was a really hard first year, and once 2021 hit and that creativity  started flowing again, and the inspiration started, it was a wonderful cathartic feeling to start writing an album again. I guess it must have been over the span of about six months, writing the album, and starting to write songs for it. When you are in a pandemic, and in and out of lockdowns, you don’t get a lot of the luxury of time, and so a lot of the album was written when my hands were busy and my head could write, haha. So I was writing a lot of songs, while multi-tasking, haha.

You have been quite vocal about women’s rights and women’s role in society, why is this important to you?

It is because I am a woman in the music industry, it is my personal lived experience. So when I write about these things I think you write best about what you know, and I can only really write from my own personal experiences. Some people might think it is political to sing about equality or challenge misogyny or sexism in society, but I think the only people who say that are those where it is not their lived experience, so to them it becomes a political statement, but when you look at it as being from a woman in the music industry and society in general, it becomes very personal.

How are your views seen in New Zealand?

We live in the society that we do the world over, and of course, I can come up against a very different mindset and if my views were accepted I wouldn’t have to sing the songs I sing, haha. I think when it makes people uncomfortable, and normally it is men who feel uncomfortable, and just as there was discomfort for a lot of us when George Floyd was murdered, the racism and this underbelly that has always been there were all dragged into the light when people weren’t distracted running on their hamster wheels, and if they just listened it would make people who experience white privilege uncomfortable to hear about racism. We had a choice at that time, do we lash out and get angry at people who make us uncomfortable, or do we take it on board and reflect on why this person is making us uncomfortable, it is our choice. OK, hold on, it is because we are enjoying this privilege and I can’t relate to it because to me it sounds political because it is not my own lived experience. I think it gives everyone time to reflect, I think that if me singing about my personal experiences in the music business makes somebody uncomfortable then rather than lashing out they may think about why it is making them uncomfortable.

‘Beyond The Stars’ is a feature track with Willie Nelson, but it has a very personal resonance with you. How easy was it to write and what would your dad think of the duet version?

It is possibly my favourite song I have ever recorded, haha, and that is because of the amazing company I’m keeping on that song. I co-wrote it with a friend of mine who has lost his father, and I’d lost my father six years earlier. We were talking about our dads, about missing the tangible, missing them being there, and we were sitting around saying that when people give you these platitudes like “He is looking down from above” and “I know he is proud of you” it is coming from a well-meaning place, but it is like I don’t want that, I want the real deal. I want to be able to talk to him and to be able to touch him, and wanting them to be tangibly here, and we talked about that longing and that that there is never a day when you don’t miss them, so we wrote this song ‘Beyond The Stars’. We wrote it as a duet with him singing it back to me, and when it came time to record the album I had my kind of dream list of who could possibly be the voice of my dad, and it ended up being somebody beyond my wildest dreams, the one and only Willie Nelson.

It all started because I was supposed to play his festival Luck Reunion on his ranch in Texas and I was scheduled to play in March 2020, and about one week out from going to Texas everything fell apart everywhere. We were days away from going into lockdown and everything was unravelling and they were one of the very first festivals to move it online and they asked me to do a little three-song acoustic set and I beamed in from New Zealand. There were about 100,000 people watching, and unbeknownst to me Willie and his family were watching, and after my set I had an influx of new fans on social media, which was amazing, and one of them was this woman called Annie who was on Twitter and she started commenting on everything I tweeted and we chatted back and forth. This went on for a couple of months and she was just really funny and really cool and we interacted a lot. She started following my brother as well, and then my brother said one day about two or three months later, “I’ve just realised who Annie is, she is Willie Nelson’s wife.”, haha. I am just so glad I didn’t know because I wouldn’t have been sending her memes that’s for sure, I was just my usual uber self, haha. So this friendship between us had started and it blossomed with her sending me her number so we could talk off of Twitter.

She was just so kind, and when I was getting ready to make the album about a year or so later I guess it took me months to get up the courage to even broach the subject because I thought I am aiming way too high here but then I was thinking he can only say no, haha. I guess the thing I was more worried about was that he gets this all the time, and I didn’t want to ruin our friendship. We were having a conversation one day and it kind of opened up naturally and I was like this is my chance, this is my window, and so I asked her and she told me to send it through and that they will have a listening and see what he thinks. I was then soiling myself because I had to send a rough demo to Willie Nelson, haha, and I was thinking what have I just done. He obviously said yes and said he loved the song, and he said it reminded him of Patsy Cline and Marty Robbins, and that is a huge compliment in itself when you think about the fact he knew Patsy Cline and he wrote her biggest hits, it is a lot for my tiny brain to process. So on so many levels it is such a special song for me, and when he sent through his vocals I just wept and wept and wept, and for about three days I wasn’t putting makeup on because I was just like crying. It was for all the things like my dad and how he would have reacted to me singing this song about him with Willie, and how it honoured him and he is the foundation and the legacy of this journey. That is my dad’s legacy, this song. Leaving all that aside, just hearing Willie Nelson’s voice blending with mine, and singing words that I wrote. It was all just too much, too much, haha.

Who are your own musical heroes and long-lasting influences?

Willie is and always has been one of those artists, and Dolly Parton is another one for me. She is kind of true north musically, I think if we all asked “What would Dolly do?” more often the world would be a better place. Another really influential artist for me is Mavis Staples. I’ve had the honour of opening for her, and they always say don’t meet your heroes, but she was just everything and more. She just exudes joy and generosity, and when you think of the animosity and adversity she has faced in her life, being an integral part of the Civil Rights movements and marching with Martin Luther King. She has seen all there is to see yet she still just fills a room with joy, generosity, and love, and that is a huge takeaway as an artist. I related so much to her on the level of growing up in a family band and having such a close relationship with her father, that is something that really resonates with me because I grew up in a family band and I was really close to my dad, and then losing him and feeling like the whole world has fallen off its axis. To be in the music business as long as she has from the time she was a child, and she is now in her eighties and she still brings so much joy, and that is such a huge thing in our industry, and I can’t fathom the adversities she has faced that I will never face. To bring joy everywhere you go, you have to be really intentional about it because in this business it is really easy to get beaten down and jaded. She is such an inspiration to me.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums, or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?

At the moment I can’t stop listening to the new ‘Raise The Roof’ album by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant. I was a huge fan of the ‘Raising Sand’ album, and I feel like this is the seamless continuation of that album. I’ve been listening to the new Allison Russell album, ‘Outside Child’, and it is not an easy listen and not something you put on lightly, it is something you listen to. It is heavy subject matter but there is so much grace and I feel that Allison is regal, she is royalty and she has risen out of the ashes of her experiences. Again, she is very like Mavis and she also just exudes joy and is such a bringer and giver of joy with her music. So she has been on high rotation as well.  I have to say the new Willie album, ‘A Beautiful Time’, has been on high rotation as well, haha. There is a song on it that I just tear up when I hear it called ‘Energy Follows Thought’. The first line is “Imagine what you want and then get out of the way energy follows thought so be careful what you say”. It is just so powerful, I listened to that song on loop, and when he released it our duet wasn’t out, and knowing I had this jewel in my hand and that line is exactly what happened with him.  I really, really love the new album, I love the way he does the Leonard Cohen cover. He is 89 and he is so not just dialling it in at all, he is still at the top of his game.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our UK readers?

I miss you guys, haha, and I have a new album out, haha. It has been baby steps with touring and I’m hoping to just creep out of the cave again and dip my toes in the water, and I really hope ‘Kingmaker’ is going to take me back to the UK’s fair shores because I absolutely love it there. My fans over there are so beautiful, and I got to chat with so many of them when I did the Livestreams, and all that fun stuff during lockdown, and I’m hoping we are going to get back to face-to-face pretty soon.

I noticed your new album got a 4-star review in Mojo.

That is pretty fancy, haha. I woke up to that one morning because that is the thing because we are a day ahead but also a bit behind, we are sleeping when things are happening. I woke up and I had an email with a clipping of the article and I’ve never woke up with such a fast heart rate before. It was such a beautifully written review and it was the first review I got for the album, and I felt like I had peaked, a duet with Willie and a 4-star Mojo review. You’ve got the scoop, I’m announcing my retirement now because things are never going to get better than this, haha.

Tami Neilson’s Kingmaker is out now on Outside Music.

About Martin Johnson 414 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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