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My Life in TV: Anika Moa on Songs From the Inside, Impersonating Lorde and Not Judging X Factor

My Life in TV is a weekly feature interview with a member of the television industry. This week, Alex Casey talked to Anika Moa about tutoring on Maori TV’s Songs From the Inside, Ed Sheeran’s looks and why she likes to impersonate famous New Zealanders.

Anika Moa is obviously chiefly known as an accomplished musician, but she has also spent her fair share of time on our television screens. In fact, just last week I sat bolt upright like this Wake Up Daddy board game when I remembered that she was going to be on Paul Henry with Paul Henry. Her charisma and self-described “funniness” is always breath of fresh air on television – she openly says what she thinks about everyone, without the “start a group” style venom. On Paul Henry, she talked about how she rings up Vodafone and name drops herself, and how she takes her fast-food-free kids through the McDonald’s drive-thru so she can get a cheeseburger and they can have the toy. She was charming, and blew her fellow panelist out of the water – I’ve since forgotten who he was.

Paul Henry aside, Anika’s most recent television appearance was on Maori Television’s incredible documentary series Songs From the Inside. Anika and several other notable musicians went inside New Zealand correctional facilities to work with selected inmates. Together they worked to write songs from their life experiences, with the series culminating in a trip out to the recording studio. The documentary captured all the frustrations and triumphs along the way, and has run for two successful seasons. I wanted to talk to Anika about her experience making the show, and how that informed her music.

She arrived in a huge silver family-sized wagon full of dangly kids’ mobiles and soft toys. She was cheerful despite clearly being very busy, and sat down after ordering a soy flat white. It was a matter of seconds until someone recognised her. The woman at the table next to us leaned over to say that she had just seen her perform the week before. Anika had just come from a country-wide winery tour, and happily had a brief chat. Time was against us, she had to head into the studio later that morning. The coffees arrived (I got a terrible little biscuit that she teased me for ordering) and we got down to it.

With Songs from the Inside, where did the concept come from and how did you get involved?

I was involved from the very start. Julian Arahanga came up with the idea and basically ran it past me. We had no idea what to expect because, in the prison system, they don’t generally let cameras in there. Not because they’re trying to cover anything up of course, but because it’s such an intense world inside there and no one knows what it’s really like. No one knows how hard it is for these prisoners. Also the concern always is that if the press gets one whiff of a bad story they like to really rough shit up with the prisons. 

Basically what it is about is, we go into the prisons and we teach them as students. We don’t call them prisoners, we call them students out of respect. These are the people who were just about to be released into society, so they’re not hard-core crims. Some of them were hard-core in their day but it’s petered out. They’re basically just really cool, lovely people. Some of them are a little bit cray-cray. I got a bit of shit from a couple of the girls, but mostly off camera.

What was it like going into the prisons as an outsider?

We all got police checked. It’s real hard out. I know I have one naughty thing that I did when I was a teenager, which I will never tell anyone. Luckily that was totally off my record. Then we went in there and met them all. They guys are like total pussy cats and the girls are full biatches. They’re fierce man.

We went to Arohata Prison in Wellington. It’s like all concrete, with actual bars on the windows. It’s paru as. These women did a big powhiri. It must have been all of them, so 173 prisoners. They all looked very, very staunch, and very worn down and… well-fed. I think the general consensus was ‘scary bunch of bitches’.

I felt quite emotional, especially in the men’s prison, because it’s a little closer to home. My dad’s been in jail, a couple of my brothers have been in jail – so it hit quite close to home for me. But like, as if I’d show my emotion in front of the camera.

Did the show have any lasting impressions on you?

It changed the way I perceived the prison system and that’s neither good nor bad. It’s changed the way I perceive people in general. Because anyone that’s been in prison, they are generally there because their whole life has been tormented with drugs and alcohol and abuse. It’s all been carried on to them. You’ve got to learn to not judge people that are in prison. Look in your own backyard before you start judging other people.


Click here to watch both full seasons of Songs From the Inside on Maori TV here.


Were you also finding time to write as you were doing Songs from the Inside?

I did Songs From the Inside in 2013. I had quite a hard year in 2013 because me and my wife broke up. I was in a break-up while I was filming it, so I was actually struggling a little bit. But I wrote my baby album in that time as well, which turned out awesome.

Is this Songs for Bubbas? I’ve heard really great things.

Yeah, that album really ended up turning things around for me. It was little bit of a breath of fresh air. It was a great idea too, because there’s always going to be people having babies. In a sense, it’s even more popular than my albums. When you’re a musician, your fan base moves on. They look for the next better thing, or big thing. You have to really stay strong with your fan base. 

With Bubbas I’ve got a whole new fan base. It’s generally little kids and mothers who are tired and very grateful that I’ve written this album doesn’t do their head in. That was my aim. With my twins, all they wanted to listen to was The Wiggles, and that was my fault. That’s my bad. Mama don’t want to listen to the f****** Wiggles all day. I just started writing and singing to them every night, seeing what they liked with words and colours and animals. I tested everything out on them and then wrote the album. 

So if you were writing and recording your current album during Songs From the Inside, do you feel like it informed your music at all?

Not at all, it was very separate yeah. Oh, are we talking about my album now?

Yeah, let’s go for it.

The album was done with Jol Mulholland – literally in his little crusted-as, smelled-like-lynx studio. Like smelly gross boys. We did it over a year. He produced it and he played every single instrument and everything. We call it an electronic album, but I think it’s more of an album with beats. It’s not like Lorde electronic. Or that Calvin guy. Not like all those young people. It’s still got lots of me in it, it’s actually got me spoofed all over it.

I assume the album is called Spoofed. Is the electronic thing a bit of a leap for you? Have you done it in the past?

No never. It’s good to do music without guitars, because my voice really gets through. When guitars and voice are together, they tend to cancel each other out a little bit. With no guitars on hardly any of the tracks, my vocals are [dropped bomb foley]. Like full Mariah Carey motherf*****, like boom boom! That’s what I modeled my album on. Mariah Carey, Celine Dion and Whitney Houston, and Lorde.

Wow, even Lorde?

I love Lorde, but when I do live shows I tell everyone I’m trying to be like her. I’m not, but I just take the piss out of it. I think she’s awesome but my music sounds nothing even remotely like hers. I just like dancing like her. 

This is actually another thing I wanted to talk about, how you in your performances between songs, you almost go into standup comedy. Is that something you’ve always done when performing? 

I try to. It’s like when I’m speaking to someone, I’m always trying to take the piss out of everything. I want to be who I truly am. Also I offend so many people in between songs. I offend kids, adults. Some lady came up to me the other night after a show and was like, “I really love your new stuff, but you swear too much.” Just because I told my guitarist Jol to “f*** up and stop talking!” as a joke, but she obviously didn’t get it.

The thing about my humor is I don’t actually mean any of it, and it is a bit like standup comedy. It’s not truly what I believe in, but it makes me laugh. I like talking about all different kinds of funny things – but mostly doing voice impersonations of people. I like doing Lorde, I’m really good at that. No I’m not actually, I just go “bur hur, I’m Lorde” it’s boring. I also do Helen Clarke, Brooke Fraser and Gin Wigmore. It entertains me and it entertains people, it gives me another outlet as well.

You mentioned X Factor before, it seemed like Twitter really had you pegged to be one of the new judges. 

I was approached, but I’m not allowed to talk about it.

What do you think of the show at the moment? 

I really, really support all these beautiful people, beautiful humans who are brave enough to get up on TV and sing. I think that’s beautiful, but I think the show itself is flawed.

How do you think the show is flawed?

What I really want to say is that sucks shit. In saying that, I still watch it and have a laugh and I tweet. Often when I have a drink. I tweet after everyone’s performance, like what I think of their performance. I do have a lot of respect for those singers that get up there and sing, because I know how hard it is.

In Christmas in the Park in 2002, I sang to 60,000 people and forgot the words. I just went, “oh shit! I forgot the words!” I actually said that out loud. Live singing in front of a big audience is just so hard to do. I’ve got total baggage about that. These kids are doing a great job, they’re just beautiful kids, and then you get the judges dismissing them like “oh, I wouldn’t want that on an album cover” or whatever.

Do you think the X Factor judging is too image-focused? Too much of a focus on finding markets and shifting units and all that?

All I’m going to say is look at Ed Sheeran motherf*****. Ed Sheeran is U.G.L.Y, but that bitch can sing. I think they’ve got it all wrong and they’re still living in the ’90s where it was all about the album cover. It was all about how you looked. It’s not about how you look anymore man, f***. Ed Sheeran! He’s f****** ugly!

[Note that this interview was done in March, long before Willie and Natalia had left the building and ugly old Ed Sheeran himself had graced the X Factor stage]

I guess that’s what shows like The Voice try to eliminate, are you a fan of that show?

I love The Voice. I think The Voice is the best singing TV show out there. I want there to be in New Zealand version. Seriously, if they bring it here I’d be on it. I’d love the chance to just be able to listen to voices. Then, even if there’s some huge fat bitch with cross-eyes and glasses on, she gets a real chance just like everyone else.

This is another problem with all these singing competitions – we’re a tiny country, do you think we have enough talent?

Yes, I think we do. I know, I’ve got 50 million Maori family members who can sing better than all of the X Factor contestants put together. I truly, truly believe that New Zealand has the talent pool. I wish I could tweet how I really feel about the show, but I don’t want to upset anyone really. Actually, that’s not true. I don’t want to upset anyone, I just want to take the piss out of everyone.

Is there anything else that you’re enjoying at the moment?

I love the Walking Dead. I’m actually rewatching it from the start now, so I’m just up to season four. Oh and Broadchurch. What else? I want to get into The Fall? I love Orange is the New Black and all those kind of silly genres. Oh, and Masterchef. I love Masterchef, it’s hard out man. I really like Jono and Ben too actually. I never thought I would, but it’s very good. It makes me L.O.L. all the time.

Are you a big VOD watcher?

I’m always on tour doing gigs so I pretty much always have to do On-Demand. Plus I’ve got 3 kids now. From 8:30pm until 10:30pm is our two hours of TV watching. Most of the time intercepted by, “Mama I pissed the bed,” or a screaming child or whatever. We just try and fit it in as much as we can.

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For even more Anika, check out her excellent new video interview series for The NZ Herald called ‘Face-to-Face With Anika Moa’.

Anika Moa’s latest album Queen at the Table [née Spoofed] is available now.

Lightbox subscribers, click here to enjoy one of Anika’s favourite TV shows Orange is the New Black

Everyone else, you are only Youthful once. Click here to start your free Lightbox trial today (12 months for Spark customers, 30 days for everyone else)