From playing a central role in the rise of South Auckland’s Dawn Raid Entertainment to speaking truth to power at the 2016 Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards, Aaradhna’s talent and accomplishments have firmly etched her name within our history books. And having received a Grammy nomination for best reggae album in 2017 for her songwriting work on Samoan singer J Boog’s Wash House Ting album, she continues to move ever closer to doing the same within the annals of popular music worldwide.
Born in December 1983, Aaradhna grew up in Porirua near Wellington. Raised by a Samoan mother and an Indian father who both loved to sing and wrote music, she took inspiration from not just a childhood filled with gospel songs, soul records, and traditional Indian music, but her love of the contemporary mainstream US R&B that was becoming increasingly popular in New Zealand at the time.
At age 11 she wrote her first song, an R&B ballad titled ‘Do You Love Me or Do You Love Her’. Two years later, she entered her first local talent quest, before forming a short-lived five-piece girl-group, Lovera. They had lunchtime jams and skipped classes to write songs and sing together.
She wrote her first songs recording ideas into an answerphone
During her teens, Aaradhna developed her songcraft in an unconventional manner. Instead of accompanying herself with guitar or piano, her process revolved around beatboxing (a vocal percussion style) and layering recordings of her voice. Her family home had a phone line with three-way calling and an answering machine. In an act of No.8 wire style ingenuity, she would record her beatboxing on the answering machine, call herself, play the beatboxing on one line, sing over it on the second, and record both tracks on the third. After that, she’d repeat the process to layer up harmonies. As she told Sunday magazine in 2015, “That’s how I wrote my music, on an answering machine ... If you have nothing, you have to make do with whatever you’ve got ... Shot, Telecom!”
Aaradhna eventually replaced the answerphone/three-way combo with a tape recorder and the family stereo and began sending hissy cassette tape demos and handwritten letters to local record labels. Although the demos didn’t lead anywhere, a chance encounter gave her what she needed. In the early 2000s, Dawn Raid co-founder Brotha D stopped off at her grandmother’s house to get his hair braided while visiting on tour in Wellington. “My Auntie called me to go to Grandma’s house,” Aaradhna told Back2Basics in 2006. “I was put on the spot to sing to Brotha D.”
Brotha D was blown away. He flew her to Auckland to record with two brothers who would become known as the much-loved R&B duo Adeaze. Aaradhna then relocated to Auckland and began working towards her debut album I Love You, released in 2006 through Dawn Raid.
Before I Love You came out though, the stage had to be set. In 2004, Aaradhna appeared on ‘Getting Stronger’, a single from Adeaze’s debut album. An infectious, platinum-certified slow jam, it peaked at No.2 in August of that year. The song would eventually spend four months in the Top 40 and was the second most played song on New Zealand radio that year. In 2005, a feature on ‘They Don’t Know’ by fellow Dawn Raid artist Savage took her to No.3. ‘They Don’t Know’ was eventually certified gold and featured in the soundtrack to New Zealand movie Sione’s Wedding. During this period, she was lucky enough to open for US hip-hop stars such as Missy Elliott, Snoop Dogg, and Kanye West.
In 2005, she also appeared on ‘Love Declaration’ by Australian dance producer Paul Mac. She told NZ Girl (2006) “I’d have to say that’s my favourite so far because it was something so different. I never thought I’d be doing something like this, but I’m not afraid to branch out and try different things.” In a sense, ‘Love Declaration’ foreshadowed some of the dance-tempo collaborations she would create with producers P-Money and Isaac Aesili in the years to come.
In May 2006, Aaradhna’s debut album I Love You was released to positive reviews, before being certified gold later that year. It peaked at No.13. Her singles ‘Down Time’ (No.3) and ‘I Love You Too’ (No. 5) continued her unbroken run of Top 10 singles. That same year, she also featured on ‘Spin1’ off Che Fu’s Hi-Score: The Best of Che Fu compilation album. As well as ‘They Don’t Know’ on the Sione’s Wedding soundtrack, Aaradhna co-wrote ‘Forever’ with Kevin Soul for the soundtrack, and contributed another song titled ‘Knowing You.’ Again, the co-writing work was an early foreshadowing for a passion she would return to a decade later: songwriting for other artists.
Undeniably of its time, I Love You positioned Aaradhna as a New Zealand-based analog to a burgeoning generation of US and UK-based R&B and neo-soul vocalists who dominated the commercial music landscape over the first half of the 2000s. Alongside the success of labelmates Mareko, Savage (both of Deceptikonz), and Adeaze, her chart hits and relatable persona helped take Dawn Raid entertainment into the heart of New Zealand’s mainstream. Despite everything moving quickly, Aaradhna did face some challenges, one of which was translating the intimacy of her recordings into a live experience. As she told Sunday, “At my first gig I stood in the middle and didn’t move at all … [Brotha D said] ‘You look like a tree when you perform. You need to move around, engage, look at the audience, sing like you mean it. You gotta entertain. You’re an entertainer.’ So I had to learn from there.” And learn she did.
The next major phase in Aaradhna’s career came in 2007 when Dawn Raid, as a result of financial challenges, went into liquidation for a few months. As she told the NZ Herald in 2013, “When Dawn Raid kind of fell to pieces for a while I just thought, ‘Man, what should I do?’”
As fate would have it, Aaradhna received an offer from Ma’kae Kemoeatu to sign to his fledgling MK Entertainment Record label; he was a Tongan player of American football. As part of the signing, Aaradhna and her partner Leon Henry – a professional basketball player from Auckland – relocated to Los Angeles to try and make it in the US. As she told New Zealand Musician in 2012, “I grew up taping all these 90s R&B video clips off the TV ... I wanted to go to America so bad. I wanted to be a singer there so bad. They had all this good music coming out, and I just wanted to get there and do what they were doing. I didn’t realise how hard it was until I got there.”
Ma’ake had financial resources and really believed in Aaradhna, but he was still finding his feet in the music industry and couldn’t quite make anything land for her. Things began to stagnate, and Aaradhna slipped into a deep depression, before returning to New Zealand with Leon. “Ma’ake is a really good dude,” she said. “He had good intentions but didn’t know how the music industry worked.”
On Valentine’s Day 2008, Aaradhna released her second album through a newly reinvigorated Dawn Raid. Titled, Sweet Soul Music, it was a collection of covers of classic soul songs by the likes of Marvin Gaye, The Stylistics, and Stevie Wonder, and one original titled ‘Warrior’. Viewed retrospectively, Sweet Soul Music’s vintage soul styling pointed the way toward when Aaradhna was headed next musically, but at the time, it was a stylistic leap too far for the audience, in particular, online critics. “I’m a really sensitive person, and at that time I was at my softest,” she told me. “Anytime anyone said anything negative I would take it to heart like a punch to the stomach.”
Despite the critiques, the album reached No.17 on the local charts, but under the clouds of depression, the negative feedback was too much. Aaradhna drew the curtains tight, and spent her time drinking, hiding at home watching TV, and lying in bed. “I didn’t want to leave the house unless it was night time and I was drunk,” she said. “When I think about those times now, I think, what an idiot. I’m so glad Leon stuck around.”
Eventually, she pulled herself out of depression, through an act of two parts. The first part played out in Auckland, where Aaradhna downloaded a basic recording program called Mixcraft, and with some help from her brothers, drafted up a swinging 50s/60s style soul song called ‘Wake Up’. Built around the refrain “Wake up, wake up. Get up, get up. Get out of bed, stop wasting time” – and countless allusions to a messy bedroom scattered with empty bottles – Aaradhna heard something in ‘Wake Up’ that well, made her wake up.
While living in rural Romania she had time to reflect
Leon bought Aaradhna a Pro Tools recording rig, and not long afterward, the couple relocated to Romania, where he’d been offered a 10-month basketball contract. While living there in a small rural town, she had the space to think and reflect. Although she had always loved 90s R&B, classic soul artists from the 60s such as Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and The Temptations had been huge for her as well. Musically speaking, their influence inspired her work to head in a soul direction, but it was hearing English singer and songwriter Amy Winehouse’s 2006 album Back To Black that really sealed the deal.
Aaradhna told the NZ Herald in 2012, “I’d have it on repeat every day, and it made me want to dig around and find out about these older artists that influenced her. I began discovering all these old doo-wop groups like Rosie & The Originals, Little Anthony and the Imperials. So I was listening to a lot of that type of thing, doing lots of research.” Her confidence returned when she opened a YouTube channel and started posting song snippets. The positive response encouraged Aaradhna to try again.
When Leon’s contract ended, they returned to New Zealand. With plenty of demos on her hard drive, Aaradhna reached back out to Dawn Raid. They were keen to work with her again. Over the next few years, they set out developing her demos into a finished product. Initially, the plan was to have her record with an established American soul band like The Dap-Kings.
After a discussion with longstanding New Zealand hip-hop producer P-Money, they decided to give him a shot at producing a song and offer him the whole album if it made sense. Aaradhna and P-Money had worked together in the past, crafting songs like ‘Say Yeah’, their dance-tempo collaboration with Auckland rapper David Dallas. They already had a rapport, and the first song came out right.
From there, Aaradhna set about recording with P-Money, his engineer Evan Short (of Mercury Audio, and formerly one half of Concord Dawn), and some session musicians. Together, they completed what would become Treble & Reverb, her third full-length album. P-Money told New Zealand Musician in 2012, “Recording Aaradhna is a dream. I would sit there smiling, getting goosebumps while she sang.” Distanced from the 90s R&B influence that characterised her debut, the songs on Treble & Reverb revealed an impressive degree of development as a lyricist. Placing life under the microscope, she presented detailed studies of infatuation, jealousy, love, resentment, insecurity, anxiety, relationship struggles and passion, and even a homage to the infamous Lorena Bobbitt, an American woman who castrated her husband.
Aaradhna’s stories were wrapped up in top-shelf melodies and hooks with hit potential, and when she performed live at a showcase in Auckland that year, she had all the stage confidence that had been missing earlier in her career.
In the years between Sweet Soul Music and Treble & Reverb – aside from P-Money’s ‘Say Yeah’ – Aaradhna also featured as a vocalist on singles by David Dallas, Isaac Aesili, and Frisko (from Deceptikonz). Her collaboration with Frisko, ‘Music Makes The World Go Round’, peaked at No.15 in New Zealand.
‘Wake Up’ was released as a single in 2012, off Treble & Reverb; it came out through Dawn Raid and Frequency Media Group. Peaking at No.12 on the singles chart, the song was certified gold in New Zealand, and began to appear on radio play and sales charts in Australia and America. (It reached No.15 on the US R&B/Soul iTunes chart.) The NZ Herald said of Treble & Reverb, “After a four-year break, she finds a sound and confidence that truly announces her as an artist in her own right.”
After the success of ‘Wake Up’, its follow up singles ‘Lorena Bobbit’ and ‘Great Man’, and the album, in February 2013 Aaradhna signed to Universal’s Republic Records in the US for a spell. Also that year, she collaborated with P-Money again on his single ‘Celebration Flow’ also featuring well-regarded New York rapper Talib Kweli. She also released a remix of ‘Wake Up’ with a guest verse from another American legend, Chicago rapper Common.
Later in 2013, at the Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards Aaradhna won Album of the year, best female solo artist, and best urban/hip-hop Album. At the Vodafone Pacific Music Awards that year, she won the NZ On Air radio airplay award, NZ On Air best Pacific music video, best Pacific music album, APRA best Pacific song, Niu FM best Pacific urban artist, and best Pacific female artist award. It was an incredible run.
Verbal abuse soured the night of her 2013 music awards triumph
Ironically though, through verbal abuse from an audience member at the Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards, those Tuis came tempered with the same racism she’d experienced growing up as an Indian-Samoan New Zealander. She told The Spinoff in 2016, “It was a good moment to win all the awards but that moment really ruined it for me you know? That one little thing is actually not little, it’s big, and that’s the moment that made me feel like writing about it.” Which is exactly what she did on her next album.
To support ‘Wake Up’ and Treble & Reverb, Aaradhna and Leon returned to Los Angeles. She played numerous seasons and spot dates around the US, and even toured alongside now-deceased heavyweight American soul vocalist Charles Bradley.
While in the States, Aaradhna teamed up with an American musician, songwriter and producer named Jeffrey Scott Silverman aka Jeff Dynamite. Silverman was the co-owner of Truth & Soul Records, at that time home to soul revivalists such as Lee Fields & The Expressions and El Michels Affair. Aside from the Truth & Soul artists, Scott had also worked with Adele and Amy Winehouse and could deliver that Dap Kings-style sound she had started looking for years earlier. Over a series of sessions in Los Angeles and New York, they recorded Brown Girl, her fourth album. The album was released in 2016 through Frequency Media Group, Golden Era Records, and Dawn Raid Entertainment. Preceded by a single of the same name, it went to No.1 in New Zealand and No.73 in Australia.
Stylistically, Brown Girl was a logical progression from the throwback soul of Treble & Reverb. However, following the thought process triggered by her experiences at the 2013 Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards, that aesthetic came packaged with some of the most astute social commentary of her career.
Aaradhna announced the release of Brown Girl with an open letter to her fans in which she addressed the structural racism she had faced growing up in New Zealand, and elaborated on her statements in interviews. As she told The Fader, “It started with name calling at school when I was a kid. I’d be called a ‘curry muncher’ or a ‘dumb coconut.’ I also saw people being ignorant towards my mum or dad and judging them for the way they spoke, how they looked, and how they dressed. As I got older, I noticed it would come from my own backyard too, with me being seen as not Indian enough, or not Samoan enough. I was being judged for what I looked like, and I came from two different cultures, which made it hard for small-minded folks. But I always knew who I was and continued embracing my roots.”
‘Brown Girl’ was acclaimed as “a stunning album” by the guardian
US hip-hop and R&B magazine The Source described Brown Girl as “Breathtaking,” and the Guardian called it “a stunning album about racism, pride and heartbreak.” The heartbreak part referred to another key theme throughout the album: a temporary breakup with Leon, eventually followed by reconciliation.
In 2016, Aaradhna also contributed to the songwriting and made a guest appearance on ‘I Got You’, a song off US-based Samoan reggae singer J Boog’s Wash House Ting album. ‘I Got You’ echoed the songwriting work she had done at the start of her career. In November 2017, her work on Wash House Ting saw her nominated alongside J Boog for best reggae album at the 60th annual Grammy Awards, a remarkable accomplishment. “It gave me more fuel to keep focused and try to get Grammy-nominated like J Boog [but for myself],” she told Sniffers (2018).
At the Vodafone Music Awards in November 2016, Aaradhna was called to the stage to receive the award for best urban/hip-hop album and best female solo artist. Her fellow nominees for the award were Auckland hip-hop artists SWIDT and PNC, and a singer competing against two rappers for the same award only served to reinforce the reality of the issues she had been discussing on and around Brown Girl.
Aaradhna declined to accept a 2016 music award
Aaradhna declined to accept the award. From the podium, reported the New Zealand Herald, she said, “This song is ‘Brown Girl’, it speaks so many things, it speaks racism, and being placed in a box. For me, I feel like if I was to accept this, I’m not being truthful [to my] song. I feel like if you’re putting a singer next to a hip-hop artist, it’s not fair. I’m a singer, I’m not a rapper. I’m not a hip-hop artist. It feels like I’ve been placed in a category for brown people, that’s what it feels like.”
She gave the award to SWIDT instead. It was a remarkable moment, one that would have ramifications.
On 21 June 2017 the Vodafone NZ Music Awards announced a number of changes to the categories for the awards, including splitting the best urban/hip-hop album prize into two separate categories. At the Vodafone Pacific Music Awards that year, Aaradhna won Virgin Australia best Pacific female artist award, APRA best Pacific Song, Recorded Music NZ best Pacific music album, and the NZ On Air best Pacific music video for her efforts on Brown Girl.
Now based back in Wellington with Leon, Aaradhna has been busy writing and demoing new material. She hasn’t just been recording for herself, however. Entering the next stage of her career, she would love to start writing and producing more for other artists, and passing on what she’s learnt over her lifelong journey through music and the entertainment industry. “I’m just waiting for someone to approach me and ask me to write for them,” she told Sniffers in 2018. “I can write the music, you’ve got to give me the go signal.” Given her experience, accomplishments, and accolades, you would be foolish to not.
In late 2007 and early 2008, Aaradhna lived in Los Angeles, where she was recording for Tongan professional American football player Ma'ake Kemoeatu's record label MK Entertainment.
Aaradhna can beatbox. She also creates the demo versions of her songs in her home studio.
Aaradhna 's Wake Up single peaked at No.15 on the USA R&B/Soul chart on iTunes.