From Tami Neilson’s days as a young girl in Canada touring with the Neilson Family band, opening for the likes of Johnny Cash, to her full blossoming in New Zealand as a formidable talent in her own right, she has continued to sing her heart out along endless roads and stages. Having won New Zealand’s most prized music award, the Tui Award, for each of her past four albums, Neilson is now back with her latest album, “Sassafrass!” out today. Be sure to listen to the album, including “Stay Outta My Business” from the release embedded below.
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Sean Ritchie: Since, you’re currently in Auckland, what are some things that stand out and make it special to you? Where would you send a first-time visitor?
Tami Neilson: Auckland has definitely become my other home. I was born and raised in Toronto, Canada, but have been here for almost 14 years now. The main draw was that I fell in love with a New Zealander, and that pulled me across the world. I now have two little ones here, so that, for me, is the draw. But, Auckland itself, as a traveler, feels to me like a small town that is a big city. It’s got all the conveniences and the culture of a big city, but it’s quite compact. It’s the most narrow part of New Zealand, and of course the highest population, so that makes traffic a bit of a bugger. But, it is stunning.
We live in kind of the northwest of Auckland, a more rural area near Muriwai Beach called Waimauku. You’ll notice a lot of the places in NZ are in the original dialect, Māori. Right now, I’m looking out my window onto rolling green hills and pastures. I believe it’s said that no matter where you are in NZ you’re only 15-minutes away from a beach. It’s a pretty idyllic place to live in.
For first-time visitors coming to Auckland, I’d take them out to a beach, normally a west beach. There’s a lot of beautiful, white-sand beaches where you can swim, but I prefer the more wild, black-sand beaches, where you get this almost pre-historic landscape of really beautiful foliage and palm trees. It looks quite tropical, but wild and untouched. I’m lucky to live where I do near Muriwai, a surfers beach, because they get really wild waves. I went for a run there one morning, just 10-minutes down the road, it was a misty morning, and I stood out on the beach feeling like I was the only person on Earth. Way in the distance you could see people riding on horseback, just galloping on the beach. It was all quite magical.
SR: Coming from North America, and making the transition down there, was there anything about the culture that surprised you? Did you experience any culture shocks?
TN: Coming from Canada, which is one of the most vast land masses in the world, to one of the smallest was [a bit of a difference]. And, everyone speaks English here, just a different accent. It’s not like going to a place where they spoke a different language. Kiwis are very welcoming and down-to-earth people, there’s no pretentiousness, I find. But, once I kind of scratch below that surface, I started to notice very unique things to NZ and their culture, compared to Canada. I guess it took me by surprise. You don’t think, because we were both British Commonwealths, I guess you don’t expect big differences in culture.
One of the things I really treasure about NZ culture, is how deeply engrained their original Māori culture still is. A lot of countries, like Canada and the United States, struggle to have native people’s voices heard and to make sure that’s still a vital part of the country’s culture. I guess the difference, which I’ve always loved, is the Māori people were a warrior race and the English couldn’t defeat them. They had wars and fought and fought, but just couldn’t defeat them. They finally had to come to an agreement, which was the Treaty of Waitangi, where they had to cohabitate and live peacefully. There are still a lot of issues that arise from that, as there are with all colonialized countries, but because the Māori are so feisty and they couldn’t be defeated, it’s such a dominant part of the culture that I really love.
SR: Fascinating! To tie it into your music a bit, how did you first get introduced to music? Was it through friends or family?
TN: I grew up in a family band, so I was roped into it at a very early age. My parents were touring musicians long before I was born, and my dad continued as a solo act when my mom got pregnant. Then, as soon as we were old enough to hold a microphone, we were on the road as a family band, The Neilson’s. We toured around North America, Canada and the US, for the better part of a decade. So, we have traveled almost every road across the US and Canada in a 40-foot motor home. That was an amazing way to grow up. You don’t really realize [how great it was though] until you become and adult, because whatever way you were raised was normal to you.
SR: To fast-forward a bit your album “Sassafrass!” released today. Talk about the album a bit. What was your motivation behind it? How excited are you to share it with your fans?
TN: “Sassafrass!” has definitely been born of a few things that all came to a head at this time in my life. Obviously, we are all living in a social climate right now that has this groundswell for women and equality, which is really exciting. But, it kind of coincided with a time in my life where I’ve become a parent, I’ve lost a parent and I also turned 40 in the last few years. Those three things are really major milestones that start to reshape your life. They change your perspectives and priorities. You realize when you hit these milestones, that you’re actually not here forever, and you’re probably at least halfway through the time that you’re allowed on Earth, if not more.
I think a switch kind of turned on one day where opinions of people who don’t know or care about me shouldn’t have any effect on me. But, for the longest time I was facing that judgement and it was really effecting my happiness and the way I performed. It just filtered down into everything. This album is me coming into my confidence as a woman, mother and daughter. I kind of realized that no matter what you do you’re going to get criticized, so just do what is going to make you and your family the happiest. This album is that message wrapped up into really fun, great music.
SR: It’s always interesting to hear the motivation behind music, so thank you for sharing. A lot of Americans look at NZ as this exotic destination location in itself, but when you do have some downtime living there, where do you look to go? Do you look to be by a beach? Near a city? Or, remain secluded in a way?
TN: I’m definitely one that likes to retreat into seclusion. Because of what I do for a living, I’m constantly traveling and social. So, when I’m home I just love being at home in my own bed and being with my family. If we’re not having a “staycation” at our house, living out in the country, we tend to go two-hours up North to one of the most beautiful beaches in NZ called Matapouri Beach. My husband’s uncle has what Kiwis call a batch, we in NA call it a cottage. That’s the ideal Kiwi holiday. It’s just reading books, having barbecues, playing board games and just going to the beach every day. I love doing that as a family.
SR: I love to ask well-traveled people what some of their tips are when flying. What are some things you need on the plane?
TN: For me, I have a turtle travel pillow, I think it’s actually spelled “Trtl.” It’s this scarf that has a sown-in pocket with a mailable, plastic brace that holds your neck up. So, you wrap this scarf around your neck so your nice and warm on a cold plane, and you can fall asleep anywhere. That is something invaluable to a musician. That’s the number one invaluable thing. I bought one for all the guys in my band for Christmas last year. They love it. It makes such a difference.
The other thing, as a singer and vocalist, is dehydration is your biggest enemy. One of the number one culprits of flying is dehydration causing jet lag. One of the things I have to combat that is the HumidiFlyer. It was actually invented by an Air New Zealand flight attendant who was doing long-haul flight all over the world. He created this clear mask with a little filter that you strap on and it kind of recycles your own moisture when you breath out. It keeps you hydrated and it keeps the nasty germs out. I tend to wait until all the lights are out and then I crack open the mask. The All Blacks rugby team, the massive sport over here, all use the mask too.
SR: Lastly, I know we touched on a whole bunch of topics, but is there anything that we didn’t cover that you’d like to highlight?
TN: We were talking about first-time visitors to Auckland, but for first-time visitors to NZ, one of the most magical places to me that I discovered when I was new to NZ is a place deep in the South Island called Oamaru. It’s about 45-minues out of Dunedin, which is one of the island’s centers. It’s this old town that still has all its early settlements. It’s really historic. You go down the main street and you feel like you’re on a movie set, in fact I believe the do shoot movies there. It’s just stunning. It’s a magical place that you won’t really find anywhere else.