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Pop CultureJuly 4, 2017

Is Theia the next in line for New Zealand’s pop crown?


Last week, after seeing her first four singles rack up a combined 9 million plays on Spotify, Christchurch’s Theia released her first EP. She spoke to Henry Oliver on the eve of her first New Zealand tour.

New Zealand pop acts just seem to appear out of nowhere these days. It’s not uncommon for someone you’ve never heard of to, after toiling away in private or performing under another name, to suddenly appear with a fully-formed aesthetic and an EP of stream-ready songs. The newest of such pop stars-to-be is Theia, a Christchurch-born singer who gained blog attention as Plum, but who hit the Spotify lottery with her second single ‘Roam’ which has been played over 8 million times, in large part to it’s inclusion on popular playlists like ‘Good Vibes’ and ‘New Pop Sounds’.

I wanted to know how she did it – appear out of nowhere with a Spotify hit – and how she’s preparing for what might come next.

So is this more of a full-time job than you expected? You’re gearing up for a lot of activity and you’ve got your EP coming out soon. I imagine you’ve had that finished for a while?

Oh, I want it to be a fulltime job, so totally yeah, it’s what I signed up for. I feel like it’s the right time and I’m ready to release the EP and I just want people to hear it. It’s like my baby, so it’s definitely right and ready.

Some of these songs go back a while…

I think since January or February 2015 for ‘Silver Second’, so it’s been a beautiful growing process to craft every song.

Have you been making a lot of songs in that time? Are these the pick of a big litter?

Yeah, there’s quite a few. The EP is like a diary, so each song is a little experience or feeling and it’s a mix of heartbreak and love and trying to find yourself and nostalgia and so they all compliment each other. That was the coolest thing. Putting them together and choosing which ones fit and then holding others. I’m really happy with the way it flows, it’s like a story and it has an opening and an ending, but the ending isn’t like ‘we’re done’, it’s more of a pause until the next one.

How did you get here? You’ve been working on this for a long time.

It’s destiny, to be cliche. I wanted to do music for a while, since I was little. Looking back it blows my mind though because I never really thought about how I got here or where my roots began or any of that until obviously this time where my work is about to be released and then I have to go back. It’s kind of remarkable how I actually began because I look back and at lunchtimes I remember where I was at school, and I remember the bench I was sitting on or the class I was sitting outside when I was like seven or eight and writing. But I never thought ‘I’m going to write a song’, it was just something that I did and sometimes it was poetry and sometimes I’d put a tune to it. Like I still remember the songs.

So it’s really beautiful when I think about the fact that I’ve been doing it since I was little. I spoke to my mum about it and she said she’d always know when I was happy because she’d walk past my room or hear me at the other end of the house singing. Then it just came down to music always being my constant companion, and just deciding that that is totally what I really want to do full time with my life. Now it’s happening.

Photo by James Lowe

When did you decide that this is what you wanted to do?

At school certainly. All my influences and everyone who I looked up to was combining my love for fashion and music. I wanted to do music since school and I’ve always been writing and so I sort of did my own bootcamp-slash-prep. I know nothing prepares you obviously for this but I feel like it’s always been there and once I was ready and wanted to fully throw myself into it and pursue it, then I did.

So how do you throw yourself into making pop music? It’s quite different from, say, rock music where you just start a band and play shitty gigs…

I suppose, but I don’t know if there’s a linear, ‘how to pop-music’ thing. I just finished my degree. I studied te reo Māori and indigenous culture and language revitalisation. Then I went to film school and then afterwards I just felt it was the right time for me. I graduated from film school in Auckland and I flew back to Christchurch for the holidays, and then I ended up breaking my foot and I was on bed rest for six weeks so all I could do was think and process and reflect on what’s going on. I was like ‘As soon as I can get up and walk again, I’m doing music, and I’m going to just do it’, because I knew that I needed to. Everything was adding up and so then I did. I got myself into a studio, recorded it, sent the songs off, they started playing on George FM and it went from there. It was simple, I just knew it was the right time and it just happened.

At the start was that you as Plum?

I released ‘Silver Second’ as Plum, then I took more time and I knew that this was totally what I wanted to do with my life so I just spent time, which would have been maybe a year or so, just experimenting and writing and making music and ended up thinking about everything as a whole – the visual aesthetic, the sonics, everything I enjoyed – and that’s how I knew I wanted a name that would embody everything in myself and hopefully carry me until I’m Madonna and still doing that.

I just felt like Theia was the thing – she’s the goddess of the sun and the moon and she’s ethereal and it’s quirky and it’s strong and everything I was gravitating towards and the way my music was sounding and what I was doing visually and it all just worked. That was the right thing to do.

When you were like ‘I’m going to do this’, how were you making music? On your laptop? With producers?

There’s been no rules. Some of my tracks, ‘Champagne Supernova’ for instance, I came up with when I was on holiday in Kaiteri down south and then I went into the studio with Josh [Fountain] and put music to it. With ‘Roam’ I had just came off ‘Silver Second’ and got into the studio with Josh for my first studio session with him. I had just come back from Sydney and I was feeling so anxious and I had no idea what I was going to do. So I literally went into that session like ‘What am I going to write a song about? I need to write a song about how I’m feeling to settle myself’, so ‘Roam’ came from that. A lot of my songs are on voice memo on my phone and I’m thinking about the kind of sounds I want before I go in and so they’re all very different.

Do you play an instrument?

I don’t. I play guitar very, very badly. Very poorly. I can play like two songs on guitar. Some people write to a guitar but I don’t have that, I just come up with melodies and play around or I might use my hand as a beat. Other times I’ll just know the vibe, or want something to be minor, and so I’ll go in and work with the producer and we’ll write the track to that. Other times I’ll go in with the melody and the hook and we’ll build it around that. It’s all very different and that’s what’s so exciting. The thrill of just having no idea how each song is going to come to be.

So you’ve got these different collaborators, what differences do they bring out in you?

I’ve got Josh and Alex [Hope], they’re the two producers and writers on the record. The pre-req for anyone I work with, and I’m sure it’s the same for other songwriters, is that I really trust them and there’s a safe, chill, good vibe there. Both of those guys are amazing, you have to be able to be vulnerable and bare your soul in order to get the best out of each other and out of the music. If you’re freaking out and withdrawing and putting up walls then there’s no way you can be as vulnerable as you need to be. It’s a cathartic thing so you need to be able to trust each other and know that when you throw out ideas that you’re not going to be shut down. It’s just really open. Both producers are amazing.

Alex, working with her is crazy, I think there’s a different dimension or vibe because she’s female and she’s the only female producer I’ve worked with so that’s beautiful connecting on that level. Also she’s an amazing lyricist and she’s really great with melodies but she’s also very chill. We started off ‘Silver Second’ having talked about the vibe that I wanted and she was just sitting at her computer making the beats while I was writing the melody. I was like ‘Hey what do you think about this?’ and she was like ‘Great,’ and we just recorded it.

Sometimes with Josh we’re bouncing and other times it’s kind of similar. If you were to look through the walls you might think ‘What’s happening?’ because I’ll be sitting on the couch and he’ll just be off…and he chimes in when it’s needed or when he feels like he can push it. I think that’s the important things to me for someone you’re collaborating with. You need to really trust them and for them to get you and they’ll input when necessary and push you. They’re both fab.

You had this first exposure on radio with George FM, but then you’ve had this crazy Spotify success. How does that happen? Are you aware of when it’s happening?

Spotify is interesting. I don’t know if I understand Spotify. I don’t think anyone does, it’s all algorithms and stuff, but it’s amazing. I can’t believe the success that ‘Roam’ has had, that’s just phenomenal, and it’s still ticking away, going hard in America and it’s really dope. I think the cool thing is that it’s an open platform where anyone who has music can put it up there. It means it’s like an even playing field. Anyone can find you and seek you out.

But there isn’t a formula, and it doesn’t mean that just because you’re song isn’t getting played a lot doesn’t mean that it’s not good. You just can’t control it. You never know how anything is going to do and it’s just up to the universe. What I would say is that you just don’t know and you can’t, as an artist, base your worth on those streams or compare yourself to others because everyone is different and there’s phenomenal music that’s low in Spotify plays. I don’t think it necessarily dictates your worth as an artist. But it’s certainly amazing and a really great platform to make your music available to anyone over the globe. There are people in Iceland! You can see the breakdown and there are people in Iceland and Indonesia and Mexico and everywhere.

So your Spotify profile says that most of the people that listen to you, other than in Auckland,  are in LA and New York. Does that tell you that that is where your career is heading?

I certainly love LA. I also have a thing for East Asia, and Korea, and so that’s been really exciting. There’s been a lot of followers from Korea and obviously I get a lot of influence from them as well so anyone that loves my music is so exciting. I’d love to be everywhere. Just as far as I can go is where I’m at – I really do want to go everywhere. I’ve done some writing in LA which was exciting and I’ve performed there so I’d very much love to go back and do America eventually.

What’s writing in LA like?

Well, I guess it depends on who you’re making music with. I went over there and I had a really cool session with a really cool up-and-coming producer and that was dope. The city is very electric and crazy so I did some writing, I actually wrote that song in Canter’s Deli one morning just trying to soak up all of the Guns’n’Roses vibe. But I don’t know, if you put me in a box and put me anywhere, I don’t know if it would necessarily change. But just the fact that I wanted to go to LA since I was a little girl, being there was certainly inspirational and really exciting. But I think it depends who you work with as to what the vibe is.

You weren’t stuck in a writing room with eight people yelling ideas?

No, no, it was just me and a producer and we came up with stuff there and then I went away and wrote and then went back, laid down all the vocals and things. Another really cool experience I had was I went to Mike Elizondo’s studio and we played the EP and just vibed out on that, and then just looked around and it was really amazing to know the history that was in that room and in those studios, because that’s like Death Row records and Eminem and the Jackson 5, so it’s those moments when you’re like ‘Wow!’ I’d grown up with these songs and obviously I related to them growing up but it’s a whole nother thing being there where those tracks were made, and the fact that you’re in New Zealand and now you’re in LA – on many dimensions it’s a very interesting and surreal experience.

Did you get the sense that the success of certain New Zealanders in pop music recently was impacted how you were received over there?

There’s certainly Broods and Lorde, they’ve made such a big mark and there were so many people talking about them and singing their praises which is really amazing and really brings it home how successful they’ve been and they’ve came from New Zealand which is so encouraging. That was really cool. Being in Bloomingdales and Broods is on. That’s certainly encouraging and a comfort to me I guess because it’s obviously a goal to succeed in your homeland but to be able to go international and to go further, push your music as far as you can.

You’ve got your EP coming out, and then this tour. Tell me about this tour.

It’s my first headline tour so I’m very excited. I performed in LA and then I did a tour in Australia but this is my first ever headline tour here. I’m doing Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch on the 6th, 7th and 8th of July, and I’ve got a really cool group of female DJs and a rapper joining me and opening which is really cool. All the tracks off the EP will be played, there’s a few little surprises in there with those tracks which is cool, and then some others which have not been played in front of the public before which is also exciting because it’s really fun to have the tracks that you’ve heard but then to bring it into a live setting because it really does bring another dimension to the song. That’s cool. And playing with my band, it’s going to be very fun.

What’s next? Are you looking towards your album?

I have some really cool things that I’ve been working on and I’m just so eager to enjoy what’s coming with the EP and then the tour and also working on more new things. I’m just really keen. I’m just really trying to enjoy everything instead of standing there feeling like I’m being swamped by waves and waves, just trying to enjoy these things that I’ve worked hard for. So yes I’m really looking forward to embarking on more travel and making more music, but I’m really trying so hard to savour everything that’s happening right now and to enjoy it all. Especially the EP because that’s my first ever EP and all this music that I’m so happy with and love and the tour is my first headline tour which is a huge deal, it’s very cool, and so I want to enjoy the moment, make the most of now, because I’m not going to have another debut EP tour. And that’s also why I called it Theia so that I could only do it once.

Tell me about the aesthetic side of Theia. You went to film school, it must be present in your mind?

I don’t know if that affected anything, because at film school it was more about documentary and doco is all about the unexpected. But certainly I just love visuals and being able to combine my love of fashion and aesthetic and everything together. The art for instance was very exciting because I got to work with James [Lowe], and working with him was cool. I really admire his work. He’s a perfectionist and so meticulous and so am I – I’m so pedantic about everything.

Shooting is a new thing for me as well, having a camera and lighting and everything can be overwhelming but James is a very calming presence. He shot the single art which has my face and a rose, and so beforehand I’d sent him so many references and talked about it and it was really cool, almost the role of a producer, when you can totally trust that person because you don’t know exactly what they’ll do but they’ll add their vibe and that was really cool. I was just so happy with how it went. I loved all of it.

I carefully worked out my makeup look and made sure that was all sent away and every part of it, the clothes, looking through so many lookbooks until I found the right pieces and even once we’d shot it, getting the right tone, and then with the videos as well, that was cool, it was something different and new and exciting. I just want to try and make something really cool that I’m stoked with and that’s different. I’m pushing myself visually as much as I am with my music too, always seeking new vibes and wanting to experiment, and I hope that I can do that visually too.

Feature photo by Steve Dykes.

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