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(Image: Tina Tiller)
(Image: Tina Tiller)

Summer 2022January 3, 2023

Ngāpuhi songwriter Erny Belle on going home, talking to ghosts, and her debut album

(Image: Tina Tiller)
(Image: Tina Tiller)

Summer read: Under her moniker Erny Belle, Aimee Renata released her first album, Venus is Home, last year. She spoke to Charlotte Muru-Lanning about how she’s using her poetic, country- and folk-tinged music to go home.

First published March 26, 2022

If you’re lucky, you’ve already seen local musician Erny Belle’s music video for her song Venus is Home. Wearing a dyed wedding dress with her head adorned with a gossamer of black lace, Erny Belle, real name Aimee Renata (Ngāpuhi), gently shifts poses in the monochrome video. It’s the final track on Renata’s debut album of the same name that was released last month. 

In the song, she sings of going down to the local Four Square to buy milk and the cheapest loaf of bread and of picking watercress from the creek. Otherwise sparse, the wind animates her stillness against the landscapes that fill the shots: forests, waterfalls and beaches around Northland town Maungatūroto. More than anything, the song is a lament to recent memories that are inextricably tied to the topography of her kāinga. “I’m so lucky, my Nana Venus lives up the road,” she sings.

The country and folk-tinged songs of the album are brimming with poetic lyrics, sometimes challengingly absurd (“I’m gonna go and smoke some P/ And put my baby in a washing machine”), sometimes comedic (“Drinking my wine from the teet of a sippy cup”) and oftentimes heartbreaking (“Cast my line into the last of the rivers/ But there’s no place for dinners”). Sonically, her music is an invocation of the land and waterways of home. And to Renata, home is vital.

When I meet Renata at Point Chevalier beach in central Auckland, she’s sitting on a bench looking out to the Waitematā Harbour, puffing on a cigarette and sipping a glass of rosé. Her presence, in dark cat-eye sunglasses rimmed with rhinestones, with a vintage wicker basket and slides, casts an ever-so-slightly other-worldly contrast to a beach that’s filled with chirpy couples in togs and dog walkers bustling past each other.

Despite living in a flat near this beach, Maungatūroto, an hour-and-a-half drive north of Auckland, is where the 28-year-old musician considers home. Her grandparents Erny and Venus bought a house in the tiny settlement in the 1950s and it’s where her dad, cinematographer Fred Renata, and much of her whānau live today. The name Maungatūroto means mountain standing up in lagoons – the town is on the Otamatea River, an estuarial arm of the Kaipara Harbour, and is made up of the three small-town requisites: a pub, an RSA and a Four Square. 

Renata was born on Sussex Street in Auckland city-fringe suburb Grey Lynn – in fact, her placenta is still buried in the back garden. She grew up all over the city. Her dad’s involvement in the creative world meant as a child she was around artists like Ralph Hotere, John Pule and Pauly Fuemana of OMC. Fuemana, whom Renata emails me about a week after we talk as he “just came screaming to mind”, was a major musician influence, with his uniquely Pasifika blend of pop, lap steel and spoken word poetry.

As a high-schooler, Renata was expelled for smoking weed on the school field. “Did you though?,” I ask. “Oh, yeah, I definitely did,” she says while tipping a generous pour into another of the plastic wine glasses her mum bought her for Christmas. “I was a really naughty teenager.”

Her general distaste for school and authority in general began at an early age. She’d started her education in kōhanga reo and, for a while at least, was fluent in te reo Māori. When she was seven she moved into the English-speaking system. “That transition is when I started hating school,” she says.

Now, she’s lost that fluency – and clearly remembers the day she lost it. A whaea spoke to her in te reo at school, but she couldn’t understand a word of it. “I remember crying because it was so shameful that I didn’t know.” 

“It was strange losing my language whilst at school,” she says. “It kind of doesn’t make sense to be in the education system but losing something.” She’ll pick it up again one day, but so far it’s been near impossible to fit into her ever-changing work schedule as a costume designer.

Renata at Point Chevalier Beach in Auckland (Photo: Charlotte Muru-Lanning)

Elements of her performance are a way for Renata to reclaim her Māoritanga – in a way that feels almost mystical to her. It’s reclamation through subtle inflections like incorporating a wiri into her music video choreography or opening her album release show with a rendition of He Wawata, a song recorded almost a century ago by Ngāti Whakaue and Tūhourangi singer Ana Hato

Somewhat surprisingly, much of that Māoritanga is expressed through Renata’s affection for the country genre. Despite country music’s stereotypically white American associations, the genre lends itself surprisingly well to expressions of Māori identity. Themes of country music are often informed by rural landscapes and an intimate connection to the land. All of Renata’s whānau adore country music. Her grandad would wander around the house yodelling and her dad performs country music when he’s not working in film.

Although she’s lived in Auckland most of her life, Renata moved back home to Maungatūroto for a period six years ago. That shift was sparked by a growing sense of disconnect to the Auckland music community. “I was really trying to find a connection,” she says. “I was almost fooling myself.” A fixture on Karangahape Road at the time, she realised her own values were incongruous with the community around her. “I looked around and went ‘what the fuck, I’ve just become everything that I despise’,” she says.

On Baby Blue, the fifth song of her just released album, Renata cheerfully proclaims “I’m going to the country”. And in 2016 she did – spending two-and-a-half years living with her dad. Those days spent mooching at the beach, fishing and collecting oysters were “amazing” but also “weird”. Despite feeling isolated at times, and “like a teenager all over again”, that chapter of Renata’s life was a cleanse, and pivotal to her songwriting.

In 2020, when her grandmother, Nana Venus, passed away, Renata was living in Auckland, but it meant a return to Maungatūroto again. After the tangi, she spent five months alone looking after her grandmother’s two-bedroom pale blue weatherboard home. “I’m very attached,” she says of her grandmother’s place, “so I wanted to keep it warm and look after it.”

While grieving on her first night in the house, once the rest of her whānau had gone home, she “cleaned the house till about four in the morning and drank wine and chain-smoked all night, with rubber gloves on”. Needing to clear the space to feel comfortable, she couldn’t help feeling that she was cleaning years of DNA and fingerprints off the walls as she scrubbed.

Nights alone were spooky. Without any wifi, she relied on the landline for a connection to the outside world. Each evening, as she made her way from the kitchen to the lounge to the hallway to the bedroom, turning the lights off at each point, Renata would talk to the ghosts. “It’s not that I was afraid of spirits, I just don’t want to see them,” she says with a laugh. As the months passed she started to feel that she was experiencing what her nana’s life was like there by herself.

The sloped section of her grandmother’s house, with harakeke, lemon trees, pōhutakawa and nīkau that kererū like to visit, has whānau placentas and around 40 pets buried in it – “it was kind of our marae,” she says. It was also the last piece of land in the town owned by the family. 

Desperate to maintain that stable thread to her home, to continue that kaitiakitanga, Renata managed to quickly wrangle bank loan approval for a deposit on the house after her grandmother died. Despite her attempts, the home was sold to a couple outside their family. She’s at peace with the decision now, saying “I feel like I have to trust that it wasn’t meant to be”. But in a practical sense she still contemplates,“How do I go home if we’ve got no one with a home there and we don’t own property there?” Those tenuous links to place were spun into inspiration for her album.

Erny Belle in the woods at Maungatūroto (Photo: Joseph McAlpine)

This year is a turning point for Renata. Despite releasing an album just a month ago, she’s ready to write another. “It took so long to release that album that I’m already at the stage where I’m like, there’s new vibes,” she explains. Some songs on the album were written two years prior to recording, others were written three years prior – so she’s accumulated plenty more stories to tell since then. Songwriting for Renata isn’t constant, instead songs will “bottle and brew over a long period of time”: a handwritten lyric there, a voice memo there, and eventually songs take shape. 

“My heart’s entirely in music,” she says. Because of that, there’s immense anxiety associated with what comes next. “I don’t know how it’s gonna pan out but I’m just going to keep going, that’s all I know.”

For Renata, there’s a sense of duty in sharing these kinds of stories through music. Keeping thoughts and experiences entirely insular, rather than sharing them, “is kind of a weird way to live”. It’s about finding connections with people, with land and hopefully, with home.

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