Lamkum first realised she had a strong singing voice right from age nine, when a teacher told her she had a gift. By 12 years old, she was toying around on guitar and experimenting with singing along with it.
At the same time, she found herself rebelling against her strict Samoan Methodist upbringing – breaking her curfew and arguing with her mother about having to wear a dress to church when she was more comfortable in jeans (her mother would end up being her biggest fan and regularly attended her gigs).
Her family were more interested in sports than music, but she continued to pursue it during her teenage years by getting lessons in drums and guitar. After school ended, she enrolled in a business course, but also did a short course in composition and started performing solo gigs around Wellington as a way to generate some useful side income.
One evening after a set Lamkum met bassist Caleb Robinson, who encouraged her to start writing her own music. By this point she was 22 years old and after years of seeing music as a side job, she decided to put more effort into songwriting.
The result was her 2008 self-titled EP, with Lamkum’s songs produced and arranged by Caleb Robinson, then recorded by a band of talented, jazz-trained musicians: keyboard player Miles Crayford, drummer Mike Jensen, guitarist Andy Mauafua, and singer Lisa Tomlins. This band also had a mid-week residency at the Southern Cross, where they were able to further hone their ability together as a unit.
The EP had surprising reach, given that it was released on their own label, Base Promotions (with distribution by Rhythmethod). In particular, the song ‘Kung Fu Grip’ became an instant favourite among live audiences and via her myspace page, while receiving radio play throughout the country. The track was a response to people judging her by how she looked: her Samoan-Chinese heritage meant she stood out, especially with her tattoos and retro-inspired clothing/haircut, but she pushed back against people wanting to pigeonhole her.
Lamkum had a busy life at this point, working during the day and playing gigs at night, even fitting the odd interview into her lunchbreak. However, she managed to record vocals for a track by Sola Rosa, ‘Turn Around’, sending him the tracks digitally and only meeting him in person after the song was completed. This attracted attention internationally, and she performed the song with Sola Rosa at the 2009 Vodafone Music Awards. Her own single, ‘No’, came out that same year. With funk vocals placed over a heavy guitar riff, it showed another side to her music.
Lamkum’s successes up to this point brought her to the attentions of industry veteran Teresa Patterson, who signed her to CRS Management. It was a relief for Caleb Robinson, who up to that point had been acting as manager, producer, and band member. The backing helped Lamkum sign a deal with Sony NZ for an album, recorded between Robinson’s own home studio and more established studios: York Street, Trident, and The Surgery. Recording began in 2010 with Lamkum laying down vocals and guitar, and Robinson adding other parts over with the band.
The song ‘Black Eagle’ was inspired by Psalm 55 from the Bible.
The album was put aside for almost two years. The intervening period wasn’t always easy for Lamkum and it was reflected in the title track of the album: Black Eagle. She later explained in an interview with NZ Musician magazine that the imagery of the song was inspired by Psalm 55 from the Bible:
“It was just talking about the eagle, saying that it is the only bird that can fly above the storm, and it helps strengthen their wings. It’s the same thing with life, when you’re struggling it can make you stronger. For the last three years, I’ve been trying to figure that out. So I’ve come from this dark place, that’s where the black comes from, but you somehow survive it and that’s where the eagle comes in. All the songs on the album tally up what I’m about. It’s basically a symbol.”
Released in 2012, Black Eagle showcased her soulful vocals across a range of styles: ‘Bankrupt Visa’ has a reggae skank to it, ‘Black Eagle’ is an acoustic ballad, and ‘Raise Your Glass’ is a punchy funk number. Hip hop also had a clear influence, especially through her collaboration with P-Money. He first approached her about doing a song just after her EP came out and, after many delays, this led to the album closer, ‘Doo Bop’, one of Lamkum’s more infectious funk bangers. The album also included other well-known musicians such as Mara TK, Bella Kalolo, Rio Hemopo, Ed Zuccollo, and Aaradhna.
The album received great critical reception and Lamkum was shortlisted for four categories at the Pacific Music Awards (she also received a nomination in 2009). However she unfortunately found herself up against rising soul superstar Aaradhna, so missed out in each case. More surprisingly, the website Iggy, run by MTV in the USA, named her in a list of 13 top divas, a hint at her potential for an international career.
During the first half of 2013, she toured across Europe and the UK, including slots at music festivals: Glastonbury in England, Riddu Riddu in Norway and Sziget in Hungary.
Back in the Southern Hemisphere, she performed widely over the next couple of years, doing gigs in Australia and Rarotonga, plus festival appearances: Ulsan and Jarocin Festivals in Korea, Formula One in Singapore, and the Samoana Jazz Arts Festival in Samoa.
She was also active at home with sets at Big Day Out, Homegrown (alongside Louis Baker), an Australasian Tour with Six60, plus another performance at the Vodafone Music Awards (part of an all-star line-up tribute to Supergroove).
Over this time too, her only releases were collaborations with other artists. She appeared on the charity single for the ‘For Everyone’ foundation, alongside Annie Crummer, Boh Runga, and Stan Walker. She also appeared on tracks by Isaac Aesili, Oakley Grenell and The Sweetmix Kids. Yet her most impressive hook-up was in 2014 on ‘Favourite Mistakes’ by London-based Russian producer, DJ Vadim – a track which has more than half-a-million plays across the major streaming services. More recently, in 2017, she did a track, ‘Few Steps Back’ with US producer Ace Cosgrove which was featured on the HBO show, Power.
“I became a big fish in a small pond; I was craving for more spice in my personal life and in my music career.”
In the background, Lamkum was also working on her own music. “After the last international festival circuit touring the last album, I travelled back and forth to the States, mostly to New York, LA and Miami, in the last five years to work with different producers on the next album. However things took a pause because I still didn't have the right songs to release, it also affected my ability to write again because I wasn't inspired anymore when I came back to New Zealand. It was to the point where I became a big fish in a small pond and I was craving for more spice in my personal life and in my music career. Therefore I decided to move to Melbourne in January 2018 to try a different scene and see if it would make a difference of being inspired and motivated to be a musician again. I've settled in Melbourne now while continuing with my passion.”
Lamkum spent time in the studio with Mike Elizondo, who co-produced 50 Cent’s track, ‘In Da Club’ (Elizondo has also worked with Jay Z, Dr. Dre, Busta Rhymes, Fiona Apple, and many others). Meanwhile, ‘Kung Fu Grip’ racked up half-a-million streams in its own right, showing once again the timeless quality to Iva Lamkum’s work and the ability of even her early tracks to garner new fans into the future. Looking back over her career and in particular her achievements overseas, Lamkum is proud and inspired for her future.
“The feeling [of touring overseas] is another level – a different culture, new experience each time and it’s all so exciting especially knowing there are fans around the world that know your name and your music. I feel blessed and humble that I was able to experience a lot many people in my position never get to achieve. I feel like the more you experience, the more you want to work hard at it. I‘ve experienced rejection many times, but my determination was on another level. I’ve always looked at it [as] the door needs to close in order for a better one to open and sometimes that door won’t open because it’s not the right door. The right door is just around the corner. Just need patience.”
Base Promotions Ltd