Tami Neilson on her new album and being a mother on the road

Tami Neilson’s new album Sassafrass! is all for the women. She talks to Bridie Chetwin-Kelly about its themes and life on the road as a musician and a mother.

The last two years have been about patience for Tami Neilson. With her new album all wrapped up by November last year, she’s been playing the waiting game as its release date has slowly approaches. Sassafrass!, the Canadian-born, New Zealand-based singer-songwriter’s sixth album, is her first on Canadian label Outside Music (with support from NZ on Air), and the first to get a worldwide simultaneous release.

‘Sassafrass is slang for someone who isn’t afraid to speak her mind or go her own way, much like Neilson herself. The day before the release of the album’s first single, she proudly tells me that all visual elements for the album were the work of women – including the stunning pink dress she wears on the cover, made by Wellington artist Xoe Hall of Fever Hotel, who hand painted the patches and sewed on around 3000 rhinestones.

Your new single is out today and it’s been a while in the making. How excited are you?

So excited. It’s like buying someone a Christmas present in July and you’ve found them the perfect gift and you can’t share it with them and you’re waiting and waiting. It’s been about a year since the songs were written.

And you’re touring this album?

We are. The first leg is in Canada, then New Zealand in August and the UK at the end of September.

What do you want people to get out of your new album?

For the women, songs that will fill them with confidence and really embolden them. For men, I guess I want it to be an album that they will share with the women in their lives. This is the music they want all the women in their lives to listen to. It’s from a different point of view. Songs like ‘Stay Outta My Business’ are relatable to everyone.

What is it like juggling children with life on the road and in the studio?

I have toured in New Zealand heaps and it’s easy because you get to go and come back but it was my first trip overseas for three weeks that really tipped me over the edge. This was the first time being away [for that long], but what really tipped me over the edge was the judgement of people and the comments after I would get off stage and talk to people at the merch table. Every single night, every night of those three weeks away I would have people coming up being like “Who’s looking after your children?” and “How can you be away from your kids?” and it was just crushing.

I would be crying myself to sleep in my hotel room every night and talking to my husband about it and he would say it’s insulting to you and it’s insulting to me. The thing that really struck me is that the guys in my band, one has three kids and one has four kids – and nobody, not a single person, would judge them or ask them about their kids. They were just bringing home the bacon.

Just like you were?

Exactly like I was. This musician blogged about touring with her baby and said that the hardest thing was going to the merch table after the show! And I was like, ‘What?! This woman is doing exactly the same thing as me!’ People would say to her “Why is your child up so late?” and “Why isn’t your child in school?” So I had this epiphany: if you are a female parent, you’re screwed no matter what choice you make. You need to make the choice that is best for your children and your family. I remember having a chat with Ladi6 because her and Parks are on the road and they go together and they leave their son with family. I asked her how to get through the first year and she said, “You have to remember you are providing and you are modelling your work ethic for them, that is doing more to shape their view of women and equality and that’s important.”

The new single is called ‘Stay Outta My Business’. Is this about people questioning you as a parent and your lifestyle as a musician?

It’s exactly about that. The third verse in particular is word for word the conversation I was having every day.

“A woman stays home to raise the babies, must be nice to do nothing, to be lazy and so she go out to make the money, how can you leave your babies, you’re a bad bad mummy.”

The more that I see my children are so happy and loved, the more emboldened I become. This is who I am, [being a touring musician] influences them for better, and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. This song is about coming into my confidence as a woman and what I’ve come up against in the last few years.

What else has influenced your new sound?

I think that there’s a couple of things: my confidence, having the fear of people’s opinions stripped away allows you to step into the artist you are. Sassafrass! totally encapsulates that I think: becoming a parent, losing my father, turning 40.

Musically, I have had the influences of rockabilly, soul and gospel, all of those things. It’s the same palette but some of the colours are brighter then others. Maybe this album is being more generous with the colours that are rockabilly and gospel. Last year I toured a bootleg album where I told the story of how gospel became rock n roll, and performing that show for the last year changed things. Those were big songs, you know, Ray Charles and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. It really influenced this album, thinking ‘this is how I want to perform all the time’.

I really enjoyed the song ‘Diamond Ring’. Whats that one about?

It’s funny, that song nearly didn’t make the album. It’s about my mum; after losing my dad all these dudes came out of the woodwork. This dude in her apartment building was hitting on her and it was super uncomfortable in the elevator rides with him, and there was this man at church who wouldn’t leave her alone. It got to the point where my brother had to go talk to them and be like, ‘Leave her alone!’ She is so disinterested in anybody else and she is happy being that way and doesn’t want to go there. We went into the studio and it wasn’t working and the guys in the band said don’t scrap it, there’s potential. We had a break between dinner and the recording and then we fixed it.

Sassafrass! is out June 2nd and her new single ‘Stay Outta My Business’ is out today on Spotify.


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