Amid the current crop of introspective, folksy singer-songwriters, Tami Neilson stands apart, relaxed, confident and sassy, and wholly in charge of a tune – whether belted out at full tonsil power or laid back a little. The camera loves her, too. It’s no wonder that she attracted attention when she hit these shores; her natural dynamism pulls focus.
From the start of her solo recording career Tami has attracted national and international acclaim for her voice and her songwriting. Radio New Zealand reviewer Nick Bollinger called her a “red-hot honky-tonker”; US music mag DownBeat applauded her “great big canyon of a voice”.
The way she aces the classic North American country sound – clear and driving or soaring in the Patsy Cline or kd lang manner – was what attracted her New Zealand audiences initially and had her pigeonholed as a country artist, but the contents of each successive album since Red Dirt Angel (2008) have changed that perception and widened her audience appeal.
MOJO loved the ‘DYNAMITE!’ album and The Guardian named it in the top 10 country music albums of the year.
Her 2014 album Dynamite! took her right into the mainstream with its rockabilly Americana sounds courtesy of both the individuals in her New Zealand band and creative inspiration from Lyttelton collaborators Delaney Davidson, Marlon Williams and Ben Edwards of the portside town’s Sitting Room recording studio.
‘Walk (Back to Your Arms)’, the album’s lead track, co-written with her brother Jay (Joshua) Neilson, won that year’s APRA Silver Scroll songwriting award. ‘Whiskey and Kisses’, also off Dynamite! and co-written with Delaney Davidson, won APRA’s best country song for 2014 at the national country music awards at which Tami was also named best female singer. MOJO loved the album and The Guardian named it in the top 10 country music albums of the year.
The accolades keep accruing.
While it appears Tami Neilson sprang into prominence out of nowhere, in this country at least, the truth is a different story. It belies the years of footwork that went before in Canada: namely, the stagecraft Tami, Jay and younger brother Todd learnt from childhood in the Neilson Family band under the dynamic musical leadership of their father, Ron, and gentle tutelage of their mother, Betty.
Tamara Lee Neilson was born in May 1977 in Toronto, Ontario, near the Great Lakes that separate Canada and the USA. She was schooled in and around Toronto’s neighbouring city of Missisauga, also on Lake Ontario, until the family moved to Sudbury, Northern Ontario, when she was 13. Her dark beauty echoes that of her paternal grandmother, who was both Pottawatomi and Ojibwe from the Wasauksing First Nation of the Parry Sound area of Georgian Bay on Lake Huron.
Ron Neilson, who worked originally as a comedian, was paramount as charismatic and entertaining frontman in the family band, which formed properly when Tami was about 11 years old, although she and her brothers would watch their parents perform from the wings from when they were toddlers. It wasn’t long before they were all in the spotlight together.
“I can’t remember a time when we weren’t singing,” Tami says.
The Neilson Family repertoire was primarily devotional material, underlining their strong Christian faith, with a smattering of feel-good popular songs thrown in.
“We started in gospel music and used to tour and sing in churches on the weekend. We performed in every kind of church, every denomination. I remember we even performed in a synagogue. As a ‘white’ family it was a very different culture to African-American gospel, but we performed a mix of the Carter Family’s country gospel with the Staple Singers’ soul gospel. For me, country and soul were always so intertwined, because they come from the same place – the southern states.
“My mum was very much the country influence and my dad the soul and gospel. My dad was First Nations, a different background to being African-American, obviously, but there is that same thread of oppression and overcoming hardship that is shared.”
Family life for the Neilsons took a sweeping turn when Tami turned 13. Their increasing engagements and popularity opened them up to praise, but it also exposed them – particularly brother Jay – to ridicule and torment. There was jealously and backlash from classmate bullies whenever the band appeared on television or sang in public.
“They’d beat Jay up to the point where he’d need stitches, so he was very keen to leave school. After weekends when we sang and he had to go back to school, he’d cry and say, ‘Why can’t we just sing all the time?’”
They sold their home, bought a large motorhome for living and touring in, and lit on out.
It finally came to a head and after a family meeting they decided they would go on the road full time, so they sold their home, bought a large motorhome for living and touring in, and lit on out. “We packed up everything and went on the road.”
Betty, their mother, who had trained as a schoolteacher, home-schooled them and advised them on costume and presentation, and Ron taught them any instruments they wanted to play. For Tami it was acoustic rhythm guitar. Littlest brother Todd chose the drums and Jay, bass. “From when Jay was nine my father taught him and at first he had to play everything with a capo because his arms weren’t long enough to reach the headstock.”
They played stage concerts, country fairs and festivals, and all manner of gigs in between, across Canada and into the US, opening for such major acts as Johnny Cash.
The concentrated touring was a perfect grounding for life in the music profession, providing them with vocal agility and muscle strength, honing of tuning and tone, the subtleties of harmony singing, stage presentation skills, and qualities of endurance, diligence and punctuation. Most of all they learned a basic hard-work ethic.
“Just the reality of the music business,” Tami says. “At a very young age I realised it was not glamorous and I didn’t really have big stars in my eyes. It was just a lot of hard work. I guess it was like being in a family business, really.”
Married to a New Zealander since 2007 and with two young sons now, Tami is based permanently in Auckland, touring from there, flying south to record in Lyttelton, and visiting Canada frequently to see her family and work on songs with brother Jay.
Tami met Grant, a police inspector, when she visited New Zealand for the first time to see a friend in 2001, a month after 9/11 (“I was terrified to go on a plane”). They married six years later after the emotional rigours of a long-distance, cross-Pacific relationship, and had ceremonies in both countries for all their friends and family to enjoy.
While marriage was the primary lure for Tami’s life-changing decision to relocate down under, the move has been a major step forward for her career. She struck paydirt in Lyttelton when she linked up with the cohort of simpatico professionals there who have helped elevate her ever-widening oeuvre to the next level. Chief among them are singer-songwriters Delaney Davidson and Marlon Williams, and producer-engineer Ben Edwards of The Sitting Room recording studio where the extra magic is created.
This portside connection is fruitful and ongoing, and thanks must be given to a certain catastrophic rumble – the massive Canterbury earthquake of February 22, 2011. The quake was centred beneath Lyttelton and while it brought down much of that township, it also somehow released a concentration of creative magma, and the nationwide music scene has been the unexpected beneficiary.
Tami and her band, who were touring the South Island at the time, had been booked to play Lyttelton’s historic venue, the Harbour Light, a week after the quake. But the well-used theatre, a popular venue for local as well as touring musicians, was among the ruins, and the band found themselves at a loose end. When Adam McGrath (The Eastern) and a bunch of other Lyttelton musicians began doing free pop-up gigs over the Port Hills and around the city to lift people’s spirits, Tami and her crew stepped in to be part of it.
“Adam was there, Marlon Williams, Delaney Davidson, myself and all The Eastern. It was the first time I met Delaney. I had met Marlon briefly the week before, when we played a festival, but this was where we all connected. I think when you meet someone in the midst of such a traumatic thing, there’s a really special bond. You connect really quickly and quite closely.
“When you meet someone in the midst of such a traumatic thing, there’s a really special bond.”
“After we all finished singing, we went back through the tunnel with them. The public wasn’t allowed to go through the tunnel, but they were allowed because they lived there. I remember driving through that tunnel with Marlon and Delaney and kind of holding my breath, but we got through to the other side and had a big barbecue. There’s already a sense of community in Lyttelton, but there was even more so with everybody sharing everything,” she says.
“I remember getting out of the car, walking down London Street and crying and crying. I was walking with Marlon and thinking, imagine these people who’ve lived here their whole life. It was probably a year after that that we connected musically and started to do the Grand Old Hayride Tour.”
Tami’s star has been on the rapid rise since, with appearances at events such as Womad NZ, Auckland City Limits and the Vodafone Music Awards, sold-out shows in Canada, gigs in the US, international airplay for her songs and albums, and national tours with Delaney Davidson, Marlon Williams and her band.
In 2017 she toured Canada, the UK and Europe, Australia and nationally, and memorable among her outings was the Last Waltz 40th anniversary tour of New Zealand that year under the original concert producer and musical director John Simon. There was Garth Hudson, The Band’s own keyboard maestro, and Sister Maude Hudson with Delaney Davidson, Reb Fountain, Barry Saunders, Adam McGrath, Paul Ubana Jones and The Bads band – Kevin Borich, Wayne Bell, Mike Hall and Brett Adams – plus a five-piece horn section.
Tami’s connection to her Canadian family and the music they created together remains as strong as ever. Brother Todd, her “graphic artist guru”, does some artwork and design for her albums, and she flies home periodically to write and record with Jay, who has contributed many co-writes across the albums.
Don’t Be Afraid in 2015, a paean in many ways to love and loss, was both a high and low point for them. Their beloved father Ron had died that year and among the songs on the album are two he wrote and which they finished, with atmospheric arrangements contributed by the Prodigal Sons Choir – Dave Khan, Will Wood, Ben Woolley, Joe McCallum, and Delaney Davidson – and special appearances by Marlon Williams on harmonies and Red McKelvie on pedal steel. The songs are a mix of rockabilly, 1940s torch song, country and there’s a classic gospel, ‘Bury My Body’, with its smooth, woo-hoooo, male-voice harmonies.
The Sitting Room recording studio is a touchstone of creativity for Tami as well as a recording retreat where she can focus on the music. Her latest album, Sassasfrass!, has been honed within those walls.
“My top three albums, including Sassafrass!, were all recorded there and co-produced by Ben Edwards,” she says.
“All of the songs on Sassafrass! are written by me, some with Jay and one is my dad’s. For arrangements, I work with the amazing musicians I do, because I want them all to bring their own ideas to the table. I don’t want to dictate to them ‘I want you to play this, I want you to do that’, because they’re all talented, amazing musicians, so they’re going to come up with something a lot more colourful that I haven’t thought of myself. Obviously, Ben and I guide them and say, ‘Oh, less of that, more of that’, but they contribute to the creation of the arrangement.
“For Sassafrass!, with its subject matter being kind of a celebration of the strength of women, and challenging sexism and misogyny, I felt that I needed to be in the driver’s seat, so I have co-produced it with Ben.”
This album is her first to have a concurrent worldwide release.
“I released the past albums in New Zealand. Six months later various people overseas in Europe or Canada would discover them and they would be released there 18 months later. This time Outside Music, my label in Canada and my international management, is releasing in Canada and the UK. I still self-manage within New Zealand, with help from my team at Southbound, and I’ve got ABC Music in Australia and Redeye through Europe.”
Both Dynamite! and Don’t Be Afraid were vinyl pressings, and Sassafrass! is on emerald vinyl (“exciting!”). All her albums are also on various digital platforms as well as CDs to suit those among the wide-ranging demographic of her audiences who prefer to buy physical formats.
Tami Neilson’s recording regime is self-funded and her timetable self-regulatory, and that’s the way she likes it. Music grants go only so far and you need to front up with the money first in most cases in order to recoup it later.
“It’s hard to always be self-funding,” she says, “but I really love that it allows me to be the boss-lady. I’m fully in creative control of everything that I put out. Every image, every music video, every song is chosen by me, and that means if it flops it comes back to me, but if it’s successful it also comes back to me.”
Tami Neilson appeared on the TVNZ version of talent show Stars In Their Eyes (2008) as Amy Winehouse - and tied for first place with a Cher impersonator.