Singer-songwriter Maisey Rika. Photo / Supplied

Maisey Rika On The Stars, The State Of Music & Finding Creativity In Solitude

A conversation with a singer whose music brings with it a joyous sense of community

Singer and composer Maisey Rika started her career from a familiar place: singing with her mother and her aunties. At the age of 13, she stepped out professionally, a young but assured voice whose first recording, E Hine, recorded with her school choir, went double platinum. Her interest in drawing out stories anchored in te ao Maori has become a defining aspect of her work, encased in folk and soul and acoustics.

Last year, she released Nga Mata o te Ariki Tawhirimatea, an album inspired by the stars of Matariki, written over lockdown, and was recently named an Arts Foundation Laureate for 2021. Here, Maisey offers some advice on how to find creativity in isolation and navigate the churning tides of music.

You’ve had such success from a very early age, being nominated for Best Female Vocalist at the New Zealand Music Awards at just the age of 15. How has your relationship with fame and your perspective as an artist changed over time?

Reflecting back on those early days going to the awards, I remember seeing my first ever celebrity. Excitedly, with bright eyes and a big smile, I beelined it straight to her to say hello and ask for a photo. She saw me coming and hid behind a large pot plant. It was confusing so I stopped, thinking I’d better wait until she came back out, but she didn’t. So, it was an awkward exchange of looks and stares, it wasn’t until my mother came up beside me and said ‘just go inside, bub’ that I realised cool people on TV and magazines aren’t always cool people in real life.

I vowed in that moment that if ever I became ‘famous’ I’d be open, especially towards our kids. Also, when I was just starting out, we performed at the first big festival here in my own hometown and the organiser told us to come to the afterparty. I’d never been to an afterparty, so of course I was excited. After the gig my brother JJ (guitarist), Bossy (my husband) and I shot home got changed, then went to the afterparty. We got no further than the steps to the front door when the bouncer stopped us and said we weren’t allowed in because we had no tickets. The other bands eyeballed us and carried on in, the organiser was nowhere to be seen, so we went back home.

I think what bummed me out was that we worked hard, it was in my own home town and these guys from Auckland wouldn’t let us in. That’s why I don’t go to afterparties! They are just little things but have left a lasting impression on me.

So, my relationship with fame and perspective as an artist in that way has not changed. What you see is what you get. How I am on stage is how I am off stage. Actually, how you interact with people off stage is just as important, if not more than the actual performance, and it requires even more energy. People will remember how you make them feel, as a person and through your art. 

How do you practise mindfulness, or healthy habits for your mental health, in the music industry and the kinds of pressures that come with it?

It's true, sometimes I really feel the pressure and my poor husband and kids catch the brunt of it. But, when I feel things are getting a bit OTT, I feel heavy, exhausted and tired, like I need a big sleep, that’s how I know it's time to go to The Heads (the beach), go to Te Wairere (the waterfall), go to the coast (Omaio), go up to Kaputerangi (the lookout), sing something, write something, cook something, bake something, create something, or go to see whanau (family). That’s how I know I need time out with my kids, time out to talk to God and to our tipuna.

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Lately, I have also been looking at the Maramataka (Lunar calendar) to see if there is any correlation with the phases of the moon and mindset. I also like looking at the stars or going for walks in amongst the elements and taking special note of nga tohu o te whenua me te moana (the signs of the land and ocean). It’s a whole other form of literacy that I’ve always been interested in. Sometimes I find answers and sometimes I don’t and just have to live and feel it for what it is  be vulnerable and come back or grow and move forward. We call this wananga; I go into deep wananga when things get heavy.

What’s your take on the music industry today, in New Zealand and beyond?

It’s so different from when I first started. Do people still hang posters up, or sell actual tickets to shows at stores and radio stations? That whole community-based thing of supportive face-to-face networking has all changed to email, texts, a call and maybe a meet-and-greet. That’s how many introductions are made these days, so first impressions are on email or online, not actually in person  it is quite different.

First impressions mean a lot to me. You can tell a lot about a person when you first meet them. Everything is so high-tech these days, everything is sell sell sell. I just like hanging out with people that are on the same wavelength musically and artistically. I love listening and sharing with them, having wananga with them and experiencing their cultures; it feeds my wairua (spirit). There’s the who’s who in the music industry then there is learning about who is who, where they come from and what they are all about. Those are the people I like to meet and make music with within the music industry.

What is something that you think is important for people to learn in your industry?

The first thing that comes to mind is definitely learning about the business side of things. It’s really important to learn about taxes, invoicing. It’s important to read through all contracts and have trusted others with skills to look it over as well, just to simplify things for you because it can get a bit over your head sometimes. You need to understand everything you are getting yourself into. It’s good to go see the accountant regularly, too. Sit with someone to learn how to fill out applications for grants because there are resources out there to help support artists across the board. All that nitty-gritty 'dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s' stuff is important.

What has the reception to your album Nga Mata o te Ariki Tawhirimatea been like, and what has it meant to you?

When I first heard the korero (story) of Matariki from Rangi Matamua I felt it in my wairua, I felt it deep in my bones. I knew I had to write a waiata for each star of Matariki — about who they are, what they pertain to, why their story is so important. I wanted the full story which includes Tawhirimatea and the significant part he plays in the overall story of Matariki. Tawhirimatea, the god of the winds and storms — he became the metaphor for the whole album.

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Covid/lockdown can be seen as a storm or dark times. During that time I found time to delve deep into wananga. At such an unknown, vulnerable time here were these stars or bright specs of light up against a dark sky waiting to rise during Matariki to bring in the new year and with it, like any other new year, the hopes, dreams and aspirations of a nation for the future. Matariki was just around the corner, we just needed to get through lockdown (2020). It was a great wero (challenge) as a person and as an artist, it gave me something positive to focus on.

It was such a joy and pleasure to write and record this album and I am so humbled and grateful that it has been reciprocated with aroha, that the stories are sinking in, that there is something of a resource from a puoro/music perspective to add into the kete of matauranga (kit of knowledge). This ancient sacred knowledge is a taonga tuku iho (a gift handed down); it has survived the ages, it has survived the Tohunga Suppression Act, like our te reo Maori (Maori language), like kapahaka (traditional Maori performing arts), like moko (traditional Maori tattoo). The stories of Matariki have come back to us.

I was born into the Kohanga Reo (total immersion Maori preschool) movement and went to Kura Kaupapa (total immersion Maori school) and we were not taught this korero. I’m learning it as an adult, so I’m extremely excited for our kids and country to learn and live by the Matariki Kaupapa.

Tell me about the process of bringing each waiata to life with 10 different producers. How do you navigate collaborations?

Once I became a solo artist, Mahuia Bridgeman-Cooper was the only producer I’d ever record albums with. As you can probably tell, I’m a bit like that  meet, trust and stick with the one.

Nga Mata o te Ariki Tawhirimatea means ‘the eyes of the god Tawhirimatea’; in the stories I’ve heard it's shortened to Matariki. Each star in the Matariki cluster is an eye of Tawhirimatea, each star is different and comes with such a great story pertaining to our elements, so I needed different individuals or ‘eyes and stars’ to bring out the stars and gods in these songs. When I was singing the songs I could see in my mind the person to hand the waiata over to. I don’t know what I would’ve done had they said no, but thankfully they all said yes.

For instance, the song Matariki Tpuapua is about the weather stars ururangi (winds) and waipunarangi (rain). It also acknowledges the god of the weather/storms Tawhirimatea. The amazingly talented brother Tiki Taane had brought the voice of Tangaroa forward in his waiata Tangaroa so I knew he’d be the one to ask to bring fourth the voice of (his brother) Tawhirimatea.

Waiti Waita is about the stars pertaining to fresh and saltwater, it's more of a cleansing, calming waiata. Seth Haapu was the first person that came to mind whilst writing this particular waiata, he has such a strong affinity to water. He’s from the Awa (Wanganui). We’re alike in that we go to the water a lot to replenish and refresh.

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Pohutukawa is the star pertaining to our mate/dead and needed a special type of treatment of sound to take us on the journey to the afterlife beyond and back again. The only people I could trust with this waiata were the incredible Horo Horomona, as he holds the first voice, our taonga puoro (traditional Maori instruments) and Jeremy Mayall, as he comes from an orchestral background.

Both music styles are ancient and so sacred. Just like Pohutukawa the star, she is the oldest of Matariki and Rehua children and carries the heaviest of burdens, our mate. Hiwaiterangi is the youngest of the stars of Matariki and Rehua, she pertains to our wishes, we send our wishes up to Hiwa.

I wanted her to be inclusive of everyone. Looking back now, I think that is why her song is written in both English and Maori. There are three wishes in this song and you have a clue to the first wish in the written lyric  the wish of unity between the nations. Rei is the youngest of the producers, so he was chosen for the youngest of the stars of Matariki  Hiwa.

That was my process, I let them go for gold and just trusted they were the right people to bring out the gods and stars in the music.

Why was it important to create this album at this particular time?

There was a lot of mamae (pain), fear and darkness at the start of lockdown for so many here and abroad. A lot of tohu (omens) came through leading up to lockdown, something needed to be done and said to help uplift the masses and bring hope and light. I noticed people looking to artists and felt the heavy weight of responsibility of that mahi (job), so was all too happy to point them in the direction of the stars. That's how our tipuna (ancestors) navigated their way here to Aotearoa and it seemed like a good place to restart. So the story of Matariki for me was the obvious wananga to delve into.

We had Whakaari erupt, there was the measles outbreak in Samoa, there were the fires in Australia, the red sun and grey haze during the New Year then boom, Covid hit the world. No more hongi (Maori greeting/pressing of noses), our marae closed its doors, airports were closed and road borders were put up in some parts of the country.

As well as us here in Aotearoa, I felt for our whanau overseas, their first thoughts would’ve been to come home but it was closed to them. I felt so aroha for them knowing things were closing down around them in their great time of need. No one can take away the sky and the stars, we need only lift our heads to look up and there they are, shining down on us in wonder and promise with their stories and lessons pertaining to the environment, elements, kai and weather.

When Ranginui (sky father) and Papatuanuku (Earth mother) were joined their children were in darkness, one day the children decided to split their parents apart so that they may stand upright and see the light. All agreed, but Tawhirimatea. He loved his father and wanted his parents to stay together. His parents were split and in his grief he ripped out his eyes and threw them to the chest of his father.

You cannot predict the weather because Tawhirimatea is a blind, vengeful god  he is the god of the storm, but storms pass and the sun rises again. That is the metaphor the whole album was based on. ‘I roto i te pouri te maramatanga e whiti ana a kihai i mau i te pouri’ means in darkness there is always light for without darkness there can be no light. 

What’s something you didn’t know when you started in your industry that you wish you had known?

I didn’t realise how much money, recognition or ego could change people for the good and for the bad. I didn’t realise there were people out there that will take what is yours to advance themselves. You learn through experience and observation.

What piece of advice would you give to someone new to your industry?

Make sure you have someone trustworthy and who isn't afraid to tell you hard truths in your corner. Follow your heart, but listen to your gut. Dream big and get as much of that dream into real life as possible. Don’t kill a seed before it's even sprouted; go with it. Let the kaupapa drive you. Stay loyal to those who treat you and your whanau well. 

What does it mean to you to be an Arts Foundation Laureate?

I’ve always taken my cue from people and the environment, no matter where (the supermarket, the laundromat, the shows, the airport, on Facebook). You stop and say hello, have a korero, a photo, a hug, a smile  I truly feel the aroha. This award is a whole different world. It’s such a beautiful surprise of recognition, truly the overwhelming feeling of aroha is there. The fact that there are people out there who see what you are doing, think it’s a good thing and want to support and acknowledge you  it is very humbling. I want to be a philanthropist too, isn’t that what it's all about? Doing what we love, taking the people we love on the journey with us and then supporting people that love similar things to achieve their dreams and aspirations.

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