Soul Singer Tami Neilson On Carving Her Own Career Path & New Album
The sassy star of Viva's upcoming Long Lunch talks to Sarah Downs about standing tall
When Tami Neilson tells me she tracked down a drag queen from California, notably of RuPaul's Drag Race fame, to make her a custom wig, we both can't help but laugh a little with relief — hers a deep belly cackle and one of the best you'll ever hear.
Because although her trademark beehive may be larger than life (expect higher heights to come), we had been discussing the fact that the multi-award-winning Canadian New Zealand musician stands for something much bigger than her 'do.
Tami, who previously performed with her family band, The Neilsons, in Canada, is a double winner in the country/soul genre she's slotted into; a female musician and mother, who also speaks her mind, tours globally, or better put by the vocal powerhouse herself, who "still gets up on the stage and shakes her ass in rhinestones".
"When I perform it's sometimes not even about the words I'm singing," says Tami. "It's letting other women and mums see that they can follow their passion or do whatever it is that makes them feel alive. You don’t have to lose that in a society that still very much expects you to."
There's still a long way to go with female representation in the music industry, especially in the male-dominated country genre, she says.
"In country music, the spots are still so limited — it’s like 'we already have a female so we don't need another one'. That breeds a real culture of competition."
Tami has also done away with the usual touring schedule this year to allow more time at home with her two young boys and husband. "Touring is built for a single young male and I am none of those things," she says. "I wanted to figure out how touring looks ideally for a mum in her 40s who lives on the other side of the world and doesn't want to be apart from her children all the time."
She's been flying overseas on a weekly basis, rather than a solid five-week slot, and booking mostly festivals rather than smaller club sets. "I'd rather hit 1000 people in one show than hit 200 people over a month," she says. "I've found a way that works and it's like a weight has lifted off me."
Tami’s never been short of confidence but a turning point was her 2018 album release Sassafrass! — a bright, fun collection of retro-inspired tunes exploring ideas of gender inequality, with a strong feminine attitude. "At first, I wasn't used to being vocal about challenging things," she says. "I still get a bit of eyelid sometimes from men in the audience but I don't take it as people being offended — it's just that they might be hearing this stuff for the first time."
Her latest single, Big Boss Mama, released on International Women's Day this year, struts and swings with a depiction of strong women across history. The track was written with Kaylee Bell, Seth Haapu and Jol Mulholland at an Apra Songhubs workshop and was the result of a conversation Tami had with a girlfriend."She's in the world of hip-hop and said, 'in hip-hop they have this swagger and a bad-ass confidence about who they are. You should write a song with that attitude for your genre. You don’t hear women talking unapologetically about themselves like that'," she says.
The video pays homage to influential women, Buffy Sainte-Marie, native Canadian singer-songwriter, social activist and member of the Cree First Nation, and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern — a big fan of Tami's, as it turns out. "I was at a music awards gathering and Jacinda sought me out," says Tami, "and she said to me 'you know, you could have just asked me to be in it'. She was literally on maternity leave when we shot the video — so I thought she might have been a little bit busy. She said 'okay, well, next time', so I'll hold her to it."
Tami erupts into another room-shaking laugh. It's a reminder of her approach to delivering any of her more political messaging. "I believe a little bit tongue-in-cheek should always go hand in hand with fun and joy," she says. "When you’ve got kids, you know you got to give them their medicine with something sweet."
She’s been having a riot of a time over the past few months, touring the States with her brother Jay. The close siblings have shared the stage for more than 30 years. Jay will join Tami on her seven-date New Zealand tour in October, in a rare acoustic show, and at the Southern Fork Americana Fest at The Tuning Fork.
"It's really the first time that New Zealand gets to meet my brother," she says. "You guys have seen me with a big band but never on stage acoustically with Jay and telling the stories of growing up."
The stripped-back show will give a hint of what's to come from Tami's new album, co-written with Jay and featuring duets, that is due for release early next year. "It's very much about the songs and the harmonies on this one," says Tami. A new single Hey Bus Driver is an ode to their life on the road together and will premiere on September 6 on Rolling Stone. "It's about what makes you happy on tour and how to sustain that for long periods of time," she says. "It's becoming more important to have my brother with me for my mental health."
Another new track makes mention of the fact they won't play women on country women — Tami wants it to become a work of fiction. "That what I wanted with the Sassafrass! album — that I'll have to explain what it’s about," she says. "Honestly, that's my total hope — to make irrelevant music."
And back to the (still important) ‘do, Tami assures me the wig will be debuted on the upcoming tour. "I've been rocking a blunt cut recently but I really miss my big hair mojo," she says. "You take on this kind of persona with it. It’s wondrous."
Before her tour, of course, there's Tami's exclusive appearance at the Viva Long Lunch and from our short time together, I know it’s going to be a blast — wig and all.
• Tami Neilson performs at the Viva Long Lunch with Dilmah on Thursday, September 26. The afternoon includes a Dilmah tea-inspired three-course lunch with beautiful wines, plus a gift bag worth over $400. Tickets $135 with bundle deals available. Limited tickets remaining - book now to avoid disappointment. Book at Iticket.co.nz
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