Henry Oliver talks to Anika Moa about humour, vulnerability, family and her new self-titled album.
Anika Moa is fucking funny. She’s fucking funny on her newest show Anika Moa Unleashed. She’s fucking funny on Seven Sharp. She was fucking funny on Maori TV and The Herald before that. She’s fucking funny performing for kids. And she’s fucking funny when, in a bar in Kingsland a couple of weeks ago, she plays a short set of new songs of love and disappointment and spite and self-hatred and death.
When she introduces ‘1993’, a highlight on her new self-titled album (her eighth), she tells the story of how she met her father. She was 13, walking down the street. A car pulled up, a window was wound down and Moa’s dad introduced himself and asked if she wanted to go to a party. She did. Two days later he dropped her back to her house. Her mother grounded her. “Now he’s dead,” she deadpans, like if there was a Māori character in The Office. “That’s what happens when you smoke. Lung cancer.”
“It’s such a good story and it’s a true story, that’s how fucked it is!” she tells me the next week while we drink smoothies in Ponsonby. “I wanted to alleviate how harrowing it was. Because when you get picked up by your dad at 13 and taken to a party and shown how to smoke marijuana, that’s fucked up. He was a nutcase, and I didn’t realise that until he died. He was crazy – bi-polar. He tried to get me home two days later and it was raining and in the car he’d stolen, he had to hot-wire the window wipers so we could get from Cashmere to Hornby. That’s how nuts he was. But I loved it. I loved every minute.”
Moa’s uniqueness as an entertainer is her ability to write and record a song with such biographical lyrics and, in this case, ’90s Americana anguish, yet still find the comedy in it, like some existential joke, just like the harrowing party that she loved every minute of. Her showcase was as funny as any local standup, as personal and heartfelt as any singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar. After brutally joking about her former manager (“he stole from me… he could talk the talk but couldn’t walk the walk”), her sponsors (“zoom zoom zoom” she sings a couple of times, satirising the Mazda ads from a decade ago), NZ on Air (“you guys have basically paid for my whole life since I was 16”), her friends (“fuck off” she tells them individually, repeatedly), she sings ‘Heavy Head’, a beautifully mournful song with lines like, “I wish I was born full of love”, “I wish I could get over my anger”, “I wish I didn’t hate myself so much”.
When she plays a love song – the album’s first single ‘Buttercup’ – she cut its earnestness to crack jokes at her own expense. “This is like a 90s song, like Dido,” she says before continuing the song in an over-the-top English accent.
“I use humour because that’s the real me, but also the real me is sadness and sorrow and vulnerability,” she says, back in Ponsonby. “It’s the same with any woman. But most people don’t show their full selves because they’re scared to be vulnerable. But when I play, I also get bored and I need to make it fun for myself so that’s why I tell jokes or just try to be funny. Because life’s funny! I find everything funny!”
Finding life funny, and making life funny, is how most people know Anika Moa now. Not that she wasn’t always funny – she was – but she used to be a singer-songwriter who was kinda funny on the side. She told jokes at shows and gave good interviews. Then, in 2015, coinciding with the release of her last “adult” album Queen at the Table, she launched a talk show Face-to-Face with Anika Moa on the New Zealand Herald’s website. It was a loose, boisterous one-on-one chat show with local musicians, all of whom seemed to be her best friends even if they weren’t. Face-to-Face segued into All Talk with Anika Moa a late-night-style talk show on Māori TV and a regular co-host spot of Seven Sharp as the show’s first-in sub when Hilary or Jeremy is out. Basically, she’s everywhere – cracking jokes, taking the piss, asking sharp questions. Basically being fucking funny. So why, in the middle of one of the great comedic career runs in recent New Zealand history, release an album of introspection and sorrow?
“I’m a musician and I can’t stop writing even if I want to,” she says. “If I work on Unleashed or Seven Sharp or anything, I’m still a writer. That’s what I love doing most. Writing music. I love the idea of organising a song from start to end, arranging it and being inspired heavily by other artists. And that’s how I get the feelings out. I’m still that girl. I write all my songs in the bedroom and my kids come in the room and I’m like, ‘You need to leave because I need to finish this line!’. And they get it. I’m just a little kid still and I’m just trying to figure out life. Still! To this fucking day!
“I’ll get home from picking kids up, dropping kids off, doing interviews, doing TV and I’m like ‘I need to write a song, I need to get this out, I’ve been feeling stressed lately or vulnerable lately. I think it’s had to do with trying to have a baby and trying to be the best mother I can be while trying to juggle my career and juggle my family. And fuck, there’s some hard times in there and I write about it.”
She says having a family has changed her, though, and the way she works. She’s more sensitive, she says, less likely to offend people on purpose. “Having a family is really hard. You work on your career, but most people don’t work on being a really good parent or being in a relationship and I feel like we all need to work on ourselves. And part of songwriting for me is working on myself and working on my moods. I always say to my wife, ‘but I’m an artist’ and she’s like, ‘fuck off with that lame shit’. She doesn’t actually say that because she doesn’t swear much, but she does say ‘that’s no excuse for you to be a dick’. So I’ve got to check myself a lot as a human.”
The kids help too. One of her sons calls her ‘Anika Moa’, taking the piss out of her fame. “I always say fame means nothing and it’s all about kindness but don’t get it but kids come to school and say ‘we saw your mum on TV and she said vagetarian’ and they think that’s hilarious!”
Soon, a woman interrupts our interview to say hi. She’s wearing an outfit full of late-life eccentricity and holding a woven flax rose. Moa chats with her like she’s a family friend she hasn’t seen in a while.
“I love you when you’re on Seven Sharp,” the woman says as she walks away. “You look cool!”
“I am cool!” Moa replies.
I ask if it’s hard to open up a different side of yourself, an often painful and vulnerable side of yourself, to people like that, who know her from the TV, not from her music.
“I believe everyone should take risks and do the best they can,” she says. “I used to read those pick-a-path books and I’d always try not go down the scary path. But, as adults, you need to go down the scary path because you’ll never learn if you don’t. That’s why I do it. If I’m scared of something or I feel vulnerable, I will fucking run into it. I won’t shy away from it. Like doing Seven Sharp – the scariest job in the world but I will do it because it’s a challenge to me.”
She says she has a rule when taking jobs, including the corporate gigs she does for her loyal sponsors (which include a car company and a phone company): she can do and say anything she wants. “Because if I can’t, I will burst,” she says. “Except for Seven Sharp. I will not swear on Seven Sharp because my nana watches it – I don’t want her to hear me swearing. And my mother-in-law – I respect her too much to swear. Isn’t that fucked up?”
Swearing flows out of Anika Moa like a river of fucks. At the showcase, I try to tally how many times she swears in a single interlude, but lose count. It’s so natural to her, it doesn’t feel forced or extraneous. It’s inherent in her language. So, why doesn’t she swear in her songs?
“Cos I’m not a fucking rap artist. I’m not fucking Eminem. I don’t think swearing makes a good song. I’m smart enough to know that it’s not actually going to help the lyrics. Someone said to me once, ‘The reason why you swear is cos you don’t know enough words’. And I was like, ‘You’re really fucking right. Thanks, cunt.’ ”
Anika Moa, the new album, was recorded in New Orleans over eight days in a Presbyterian church, decommissioned after Katrina. Her manager, Rodney Hewson, pushed her to make the album in America. “I was more than happy to record it with my bros at The Lab,” she says. “But fuck, he said, ‘If you want to move forward, you got to be the change’.”
Co-producer (with Moa) Brady Blade compiled a “fucking expensive” band with Doug Pettibone (John Mayer, Lucinda Williams, Marianne Faithfull, Tracy Chapman) on guitar and pedal steel, Tony Hall (The Neville Brothers, Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Dave Mathews) on bass. “I’ve never come across musicians like that before,” she says. “Music is so ingrained in them. They just get it done. They’re in and out. At the start I thought they’d be musicians who don’t care, they’ll just come in and do their thing but they put their heart and soul into this music. They loved it and they were kind to me and they took me under their wing.”
“You know that Americana feel? You can’t get that anywhere else. You can’t get that in New Zealand, you can’t get it in Australia. The only place you’re going to get it is in Tennessee, New Orleans, Austin… and you’re going to get it with these American musicians, these musicians who’ve worked with Lucinda Williams and Bob Dylan. So you go there, you pay them fuckloads, you have a few drinks with them and you’re bonded over music then you do it. It’s fun!
The album combines ‘that Americana sound’ with a ’90s rock edge and, at times, classic singer-songwriter guitar pop. It sounds full and direct. There’s nowhere for the songs to hide, nowhere for Anika Moa to hide. The best songs are saddest songs, the ones where the guitars sound like they’re crying to the story they’re accompanying, the ones that make you feel like you’re in the same room as the band, hearing something maybe you shouldn’t.
But it’s not like Anika Moa hasn’t made such personal albums before – she always has. But we expect different things from her now. She hasn’t changed as much as we have. Does she feel that, I ask, the expectation of her new, wider, audience?
“No,” she says definitively. “Becuase I don’t care what people expect of me. All I care about it making myself happy and being a good parent and being on time. I don’t care what people expect because the moment I start caring is the moment I start losing myself. And I’ll never lose myself.”
This piece (as well as Anika Moa’s Anika Moa) was made possible by NZ On Air. Anika Moa!