Tami Neilson, Dynamite From Down Under! (Interview)

tami-neilson

(photo: Jacko Andrews)

Tami Neilson, Dynamite From Down Under!

by Carla Briggs

(Editor’s Note: Carla Briggs is a big country and roots music supporter from New Zealand. She is also the person responsible for turning Saving Country Music onto Tami Nelison, whose 2014 album Dynamite! was runner up for the 2014 Album of the Year {listen below})

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“Moving to New Zealand is career suicide!” was one of the responses country music singer/songwriter Tami Neilson received when she announced she was leaving her native Canada to live in a place where country music was generally synonymous with two words: achy and breaky.  But after 5 years of being in a long-distance relationship with her Kiwi boyfriend (now husband) it was time for them to finally live in the same hemisphere.

So nine years ago, Tami left behind her beloved family who were a touring country band, and moved to Auckland. Why New Zealand and not Canada?

“My career was more easily transportable than his,” says Tami. Her husband is a senior member of the New Zealand Police Force and moving to Canada would have meant him having to essentially start over. What’s Mr. Tami Neilson like? “He’s just the best. He’s my rock. He’s just pretty much opposite to everything the music industry is. My artist/creative personality can be all over the place whereas he is that real steady, strong, solid guy.”

How did she deal with the culture shock of moving to a country famous for sheep outnumbering the human population? “When I first had to strike out on my own it was really daunting, because I hadn’t found out who I was as a solo artist. I arrived in New Zealand having only been in that little nest, that family nest so I didn’t play guitar. I just took for granted that I’d always have my family of musicians with me. I played enough to hack out cords and write a song if I had to, but for the most part my brother Jay composed the music and I did the lion’s share of the lyrics, so that’s how we would co-write. Now, I do both. It was out of necessity I had to learn and start playing to accompany myself, because I didn’t know any musicians here. I didn’t know anyone!”

She took to her adopted homeland like Dolly to a can of Aqua Net and telling people she was a musician was always met with interest. However, “The minute you say ‘country music’ they just shut down. It’s very dismissive or immediately they’re just like ‘Urgh, I don’t like country music.’ It’s pretty much the general attitude in New Zealand.”

Thankfully, she says it’s changing and thinks the success she’s had would never have happened if she was still living in Canada. Seriously? “Within 2 years of being here I won a Tui Award, which is like the equivalent of a Grammy in the states or a Juno in Canada. I won (three times) ‘Best Country Album’ for my first three albums …. you could not accomplish that in the States unless it was some freakishly weird phenomenon. It takes years at the grindstone and there are a lot of people doing similar things to what you’re doing. I’ve had the privilege of opening for Emmylou Harris and Pokey LaFarge since being here. I mean, it could have happened, but the likelihood is that there are thousands of other artists just as talented or in that same genre that would be suitable to open for them, so the competition would be insane.”

Tami’s unearthed an unexpected difference between the two places. “In North America audiences are very appreciative, wonderful and warm. There’s a lot of hype there as well, a lot of buzz, and that can take over sometimes with an artist. Whereas in New Zealand I find Kiwis can be … they hold you at arm’s length, they’re more conservative and reserved but then once they take you in, they’re very loyal as well. They’re a harder sell, you know? It’s that real British influence I think. At the same time, it’s really, really rewarding when you get kiwi audiences who are hooting and hollering and appreciative of your music. You know that it’s hard won!”

She laughs a lot, a big boisterous laugh. It’s infectious. She’s articulate and warm and gracious. She possesses a killer sense of humor. I mention that she’s been referred to as the love child of Roy Orbison and Patsy Cline. “Roy Orbison did hold me in his arms when I was a baby, not that I am his lovechild, I am not confirming these rumors.  But my dad was doing a gig and they were at the same venue. There were not one, but two or three photos that dad just snapped. It was the ’70s, they were those little square photos, I can still see them in my baby book. Roy Orbison cuddling me and looking down at me adoringly, which would have been the ultimate album cover. When I was in elementary school I brought the photos of me and Roy Orbison for show-and-tell, and obviously did not value them as much as I should have and lost them, as you do, at school. Every time I talk about it, I die a little more inside.”

She grew up recording and touring North America with her family, the Neilson Family Band and when she was 18, Tami had a publishing agreement in Nashville. “I co-wrote with Dennis Morgan (Aretha Franklin, Faith Hill, Barbara Mandrell) who’s in the Songwriting Hall of Fame. Some of the songs we co-wrote were on my first album Red Dirt Angel. It was very much that formulaic pop-country which he does very very well, that was what I had been writing and was my influence at the time. I mean, I was always a Loretta fan, always a Patsy fan but the influence with writing and performing that kind of music original, not just covers of old songs, wasn’t there yet. I always knew what I wanted to do, but I didn’t quite know how. And that’s just part of growing as an artist.”

When recording her fourth album Dynamite! in 2014, she wanted the album to be a snapshot of, not a genre, but an era. Like it sounded like it came off the Sun Records roster. “All of those artists like Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash, at the time it was not so important to slap a genre on something or pigeon hole it. They all sang rockabilly, country, soul, gospel and put it all on their albums. That’s kind of what I’m wanting to do with my albums, kind of depict that ‘family’ of music.”

Three songs off Dynamite were written and recorded in the same day. “Running to you,” “Honey Girl” and “Dynamite” were all written in the morning in the studio. “Some of the musicians had to go to their day jobs, so we didn’t have them. We thought ‘Let’s not waste this time, let’s write some more songs and see what comes out of it.’ So Delaney (co-writer & co-producer) and I sat down with a cup of tea and some Gingernuts and wrote those three songs. The musicians learned and recorded them that night.”

She wrote “Texas” for her two year old son, Charlie and “Whiskey and Kisses” on the back of an airline vomit bag during a domestic flight. I ask her how the writing is going for the new album, which she’s recording at the end of April.

“When you have small children you are forced to write very differently, you write in these little snippets of stolen moments. It’s like “Oh, I’m actually getting to shower without an audience today” so you’re quickly writing things in your head. And you’re driving the car and my phone’s on the seat next to me and I’m singing into it – writing!  But I also love it, because I think I work well under pressure. I have to chuck away the rubbish really quickly, try to just go for what’s strong. As a songwriter you want to just chip away and chip away and have all this time to distill it to the strongest, purest stuff. But when you’re a new mom and you have no time at all to yourself – I don’t even have the luxury of having a guitar in my hands when I write – it’s melody and beat and rhythm. You may not have time to get it to its purest form but there’s something to be said about something in it’s freshest form as well. There’s arguments from both sides but having something that has gone straight from your head to the microphone, it doesn’t get any fresher than that. That can be really raw and appealing as well.”

Does she listen to any modern country artists? “I was introduced to Sturgill by Saving Country Music. I got his album and love his stuff. Modern country artists I listen to are not your run of the mill, mainstream stuff: Eilen Jewell, I loved her Butcher Holler Tribute to Loretta album. Alison Krauss I love, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Kasey Chambers from Australia, I really love her.”

She listens to Mavis Staples and Patsy Cline obsessively. Her guilty pleasure is The Carpenters and ’90s country like The Judds, Dwight Yoakam and “even Garth Brook’s early stuff.” She’s a good sport and doesn’t find it weird when I ask her what song she’d like played at her funeral. Without hesitation, she nominates Emmylou Harris’ “Not Enough.” She even finds it on her phone and plays it for me.

She’s just found out that Outside Music in Canada is planning on releasing Dynamite! in the USA and Canada on June 2nd and she’s hoping to tour North America in 2016. 

When I get home, I google “Roy Orbison + bald baby + 1970s” hoping somebody may have uploaded Tami’s lost photos to the internet. I can’t find any. However, I ask Tami if it’s okay to share a photo of her as a baby with her dad. I tell her I think it too, would make the ultimate album cover.

This interview is dedicated to the memory of Tami’s father Ron Neilson (1949 – 2015)

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Purchase Tami Neilson’s Dynamite!