In that time, the Upper Hutt-based stage singer, studio recording artist, mentor, and vocal coach has fronted the Wellington disco-house-dub trio Ebb and sung with a who’s who of Aotearoa New Zealand bands, including Fat Freddy’s Drop, TrinityRoots, Little Bushman, The Recloose Live Band, Lord Echo, and L.A.B. “When you hire me, what you get is reliability,” she says. It’s a humble statement from an enduring talent with far, far more to offer to the world.
Lisa was born in Whanganui in 1971. The youngest of two daughters with a substantial age gap between them, she grew up in a music-loving military family who moved to Waiouru before settling in Trentham, Upper Hutt, when she was three years old. “Dad was a jazz pianist,” she explains. “He taught himself all the 1930s and 1940s tunes and played in dance halls across Hawke’s Bay when he was sixteen. Mum and her family always sang and played the piano.”
While Lisa was growing up, there was always a piano in the house and a collection of records, cassettes and, later on, CDs. Between these influences in the home, family outings to attend jazz concerts, and Christian bands playing at her high school, it was somewhat inevitable that she’d forge her own relationship with music. Soon enough, musical theatre was calling and, with it, a chance to get on stage and finally sing. “I was a terrible actor, but that was where I got my performance chops up,” she remembers.
Thinking back, Lisa remembers two early pivotal turning points: discovering Top 40 pop music and attending the U2 and BB King concert at Wellington’s Athletic Park in 1989. “That was the first time my brain went, oh actually, this is a contemporary music thing I can go to with my friends,” she says. That year, Lisa finished high school and took on an entry-level job in a diagnostic lab in Lower Hutt. She worked there for the next five years. “I was going to be a scientist,” she recalls. “I was really into chemistry at the time.”
Participating in musical theatre programmes during high school gave her musical foundation. Still, the arrival of video karaoke machines in New Zealand in the early 1990s was what really broke Lisa out as a singer. After hanging her lab coat up for the day, she would spend her evening singing at local karaoke bars around Hutt Valley. “I started meeting all these amazing singers,” she says.
Around the same time, Lisa started coming into inner-city Wellington during the evenings and weekends to go clubbing at well-known haunts of the era, such as Clares, Naked Angels, Exchequers, and Frankie Stevens’ Chips nightclub. In the process, she was introduced to the emerging sounds of hip-hop, modern R&B, house, and techno, laying the foundations for her musical future.
Eventually, Lisa’s interest in karaoke culminated in placing fourth in a local contest sponsored by local businessman Grant Quinn. The prize for the top three contestants was the opportunity to go on the road singing karaoke for audiences across the North Island. When the woman who came first could not participate in the tour, Lisa got the call-up. “We took a karaoke machine with the big laserdiscs with us, and we’d sing songs in multi-part harmony,” she remembers.
Lisa answered a “singer wanted” advert posted by musicians working at a musical instrument store
Afterwards, Lisa answered a “singer wanted” advert posted by a band of musicians who worked at a Wellington musical instrument store. After she’d been singing with them for a while, they introduced her to a couple named Rob and Kerry, who were the founders of Hatmandu – a Top 40 covers group from Auckland. “It was a wild time,” she says. “It was all sequenced backing tracks with three live vocalists, dance moves, and costumes. We did that for years.” Through playing in Hatmandu, Lisa got to know the musicians Wiremu Barriball (who went on to play guitar with Katchafire) and Tyna Keelan, a well-known New Zealand hip-hop, reggae, funk, and soul vocalist and guitarist.
Hatmandu was part of an explosion of dance music cover bands who performed in bars and nightclubs around Aotearoa during the early to mid-1990s. At the time, future Fat Freddy’s Drop keyboard player Iain Gordon, aka Doobie Blaze, was playing in two cover bands that played at the same venues as Hatmandu – Groove Fusion and Wiggle Factor. “We all used to hang out together,” Lisa says. “That was how I met Iain, [the singer] Cherie Mathieson, George Nepia III [from Flax Wax Digital], and Aaron Tokona.”
In 1996, Lisa fulfilled a long-held childhood dream: spending nine months living in China. While there, she fronted a rock covers band with regular gigs in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. “We’d play on the Hard Rock cafe circuit,” she explains. “I remember seeing the Sesame Street Big Bird in China special when I was a kid and wanting to go there.”
After she returned to Wellington, Iain Gordon and Aaron Tokona, who were playing in the pre-Fat Freddy’s Drop jam band Bongmaster, recruited her into their Supremes covers group, Brown Sugar. During their performances, she shared the stage with Cherie Mathieson and Shalleen Afamasaga-Hern. At the time, Mathieson also fronted the jazz band Shaken Not Stirred. When she moved up to Auckland to pursue further opportunities in music, Lisa took over for her.
During these years, Iain Gordon and his partner Ema rented an inner-city warehouse space on Haining Street. As Lisa tells it, it was “the birthplace of many jams,” including the emergence of Bongmaster. Interestingly though, the next phase in Lisa’s music career began in another DIY space across the city, the producer Dr Lee Prebble’s old Surgery audio studio space in Mt Cook.
One night after a Brown Sugar show, Iain and electronic musician/music video director Reuben Sutherland invited the band to an underground party they were DJing at the Surgery. While Iain was playing house and techno records, Lisa jumped on the microphone. “I loved it,” she says. “I was like, oh yeah, improvisation in a live setting.”
That unplanned jam session was the foundation for Ebb, the sophisticated dance music trio Lisa formed with Iain and Reuben. In the following years, they began performing alongside other rising local bands of the era, such as The Hairy Lollies, Bongmaster, and later on, Fat Freddy’s Drop and TrinityRoots. With opulent stage sets, costumes, and audio-visual elements, Ebb’s house-tempo blend of disco, funk, and dub quickly brought them to audiences around the country.
Around the same time, Lisa started performing intermittently with Mina Ripia and Maaka McGregor’s Māori electronica roots band WAI. In 1998, she took part in the Wellington International Festival Of The Arts event LAGO (live ambient graphic opera) under Iain’s artistic direction. The following year, she sang in New Zealand choreographer Michael Parmenter’s dance opera Jerusalem.
Ebb’s house-tempo blend of disco, funk, and dub quickly brought them to audiences around the country
In 2001, Ebb released their debut EP, Plush Bomb, through their own Dental Records and LOOP Recordings. They arranged a high-class evening of entertainment in the legendary Embassy Theatre at the end of Courtenay Place to celebrate. That night, Ebb performed under and on the theatre’s main cinema screen, with support from Fat Freddy’s Drop and DJs Cian, Missing Link, and Dulcie Hammond.
As Fat Freddy’s Drop, Trinity Roots, and Ebb’s profiles rose, they started playing shows together in Wellington and Auckland under the brand Three-Piece-Suit. By 2002, they were all heading to the UK and Europe to perform at events like the legendary New Zealand music showcase Return Of The Aotearoanz, held at London’s Fabric nightclub, and Pacific Gateways in Amsterdam.
It was an exciting time for a new generation of New Zealand musicians. Change was in the air, and for some, a short trip to Europe and the UK just wasn’t enough. “Iain [Gordon] and [his partner] Ema moved over to the UK for a bit because they had dual citizenship,” Lisa remembers. “Reuben [Sutherland] moved over later. He had citizenship as well. I would commute to the UK and go and do a few [Ebb] gigs with them. This went on for a couple of years.”
By 2006, Iain and Ema were living back in New Zealand, and Iain was playing with Fat Freddy’s Drop. With Reuben still based in the UK, Ebb went on an unofficial hiatus. Luckily for Lisa, by this point, she was singing with several different Wellington bands and solo acts, including Warren Maxwell’s Little Bushman group and for soul singer Deva Mahal. That year, Fat Freddy’s Drop headed on a full European tour to promote their breakout debut album, Based On A True Story. Lisa came along for the ride as one of the backing vocalists.
In 2007, she started singing regularly with Rhombus, the Wellington dub’n’bass band founded by Thomas Voyce and Simon Rycroft. In Rhombus, Lisa was free to continue to explore improvised live singing by jamming on stage with a roster of vocalists that included MC Mana, Anton Carter aka MC Antsman, and Raashi Malik. Outside of New Zealand, Rhombus gave her the opportunity to perform in Australia and Japan. She also had studio time with them, recording vocals for their self-titled third album.
“Lisa Tomlins was awesome to perform with,” remembers Anton Carter. “she was always so on point with her lyrics and timing. It was a joy just being on stage with her and watching her up close, being able to hold a crowd with her vocals. It was energising and mesmerising at the same time. Always humble and down to earth.”
As well as performing with Rhombus, Lisa got on the stage or in the studio with Hollie Smith, The Nomad, The Eggs, The Hairy Lollies, Shapeshifter, Pacific Heights, Fly My Pretties, Eru Dangerspiel, Opensouls, Solaa, the then-Titahi Bay-based Detroit techno producer Matthew “Recloose” Chicoine’s live band project, and countless others. Within this milieu of endless collaborations and live shows, she also found time to perform weekly with The Pleasures at Wellington’s now-defunct Hope Bros bar. “I’ve forgotten a lot,” Lisa says. “There was so much happening at the time. I’ve realised that I just really enjoy working with different people and being challenged. I’ve always been open to creating.”
When John Kingston from The Hairy Lollies looks back on performing with Lisa, he recalls a particularly memorable gig they played one summer in the Wellington Botanic Gardens. “We decided to walk onto the stage one by one, with Lisa coming on last,” he says “She came on, sang a single note, and held it for so long it absolutely mesmerised the crowd.”
Tomlins “has a beautiful, distinctive voice and the best blend in the business” –Vanessa Stacey
Later, she teamed up with the vocalist and New Zealand Fringe Festival director Vanessa Stacey and later on the soul, funk, hip-hop, R&B, and jazz DJ Ayesha Kee to form the singer/DJ group Chocolate Box Deluxe. As Vanessa sees it, Lisa being this in demand was a no-brainer. “She has a beautiful, distinctive voice and the best blend in the business,” Vanessa says. “It’s no wonder she’s sung backing vocals for almost every musician of note in Aotearoa.”
While she was singing with the Recloose Live Band, Lisa reconnected with the musician and producer Michael August, aka Mike Fabulous, who was on the verge of launching his acclaimed Latin reggae disco dub techno project, Lord Echo. When it came time for him to record the first Lord Echo album, Melodies, in 2010, he asked Lisa to sing a disco-reggae cover of ‘Thinking Of You’ by the Philadelphian disco soul family band Sister Sledge. “I was like, great! I’ve always loved this song,” she says. Since then, she’s continued to record and play with Lord Echo, appearing on all three of his albums and taking part in several tours to Japan.
In 2014, Lisa arrived at what she describes as the pinnacle of her career to date through two pivotal events. Bret McKenzie of Flight of The Conchords called her into the studio while he was writing music for the soundtrack of Disney’s Muppets Most Wanted film. The task was simple and discreet. He wanted her to record a guide vocal for Celine Dion for her ensemble piece with Miss Piggy, Kermit The Frog, ‘Something So Right.’ And while she was in Sydney to see the legendary American funk, disco, and R&B vocalist Chaka Khan play a show, Lisa received an email from Neil Finn. Neil, who was putting together a band for his 2014 Dizzy Heights World Tour, hoped she might let him fly her to Auckland for an audition. Lisa, of course, obliged before proceeding to spend the next few months performing across Australia, North America, Europe, and the UK with Neil and co. “That was one of the best-organised tours,” she says. “It was a highlight.”
In 2017, Lisa went into Dr Lee Prebble’s Surgery Studios with L.A.B. to record backing vocals for their debut album. Over the last five years, she’s continued to join them in the studio for their four follow-up albums. Since 2020, she has also been singing with them live at the huge arena shows they regularly play across New Zealand. “They play huge shows, but we’ve been really well looked after from the beginning,” she enthuses.
“I DON’T MIND BEING IN THE BACKGROUND,” SAYS TOMLINS. “I GET THAT ENERGY EXCHANGE WITHOUT BEING IN THE FOREFRONT.”
In addition to her studio and stage singer work, Lisa has been a music mentor with the NZ Music Commission. Over the last decade, she’s also worked as a vocal tutor, helping to prepare many up-and-coming New Zealand singers for the stage. If you ask her for names, however, she’s circumspect. “I don’t feel like I can lay claim to anyone,” she says. “I love nurturing artists, but let’s face it, they were talented before even they walked in the door.”
Although she’s been performing to huge audiences around the world for decades, Lisa has never released a solo album or even a solo EP. She hasn’t closed the door on the idea, but if it never happens, it never happens. “I don’t mind being in the background,” she says. “I get that energy exchange without being in the forefront. I can just whack my glasses on and put my hair up after performing, and no one would even know I was just on stage.”
To further illustrate her point, Lisa shares a story from over 20 years ago. “When we were doing the Three-Piece-Suit shows in Europe, I had a full white suit with my hair done. Straight after one of our shows, I changed into a T-shirt and lavalava and put my glasses on, and no one knew who I was. There was this one woman who saw me at a TrinityRoots gig later on and said, ‘I loved you with Fat Freddy’s, and that woman who was on before you, she was great as well.’” Lisa pauses for a moment before continuing with a laugh. “I was like, ‘that was me as well, I just have costume changes.’”