In the new series Final Mix, music journalist Yadana Saw chats with local musicians and listens to their latest tracks in the ultimate testing ground: the car. The first episode is with cross-Atlantic country maven Tami Neilson.
“There’s before, and then there’s after.”
It’s a prophetic lyric on Tami Neilson’s new album Chickaboom, coming from single ‘You Were Mine’. It’s a cracker of a break-up ballad, tight as a coiled fist, but it’s that voice that stays with you. It doesn’t demand attention, but commands it, and Neilson deploys it like a witch casting her favourite spell. When she wails, her voice doesn’t break, it holds strong, just as Neilson does.
Whether she’s singing or speaking, Neilson’s voice is one of the most instantly recognisable in music today. When she’s singing, there’s that Cline-esque belt with enough gravel and grit to pave the South Island. But even when she’s talking, there’s that sparkle, full and bright. You can hear the hairspray down the phone line, or smell it through the screen. It’s like Steel Magnolias meets Goodbye Pork Pie.
The ‘before’ for Neilson was looking sunshine bright when Chickaboom dropped on Valentine’s Day. “I’ve been a musician from the time I was ten years old, and I’ve been in this business a long time, and it was the first time that I really felt it. Everyone I spoke to was saying, ‘This is your year, this is going to take off’. The response was so overwhelming, the reviews from Rolling Stone and Mojo. It was just like pretty much every box was ticked.”
This was the world when we interviewed her for Final Mix, The Spinoff’s new web series showcasing local musicians. She had a full schedule of tour dates, rave reviews, and the kind of response that musicians dream about. There was nothing not to smile about.
And then? A global pandemic. Mass gatherings cancelled. People confined not just within their borders, but their homes. Entire industries have been decimated, and music has been one of the worst hit. It is, definitively, the ‘after’.
Our second interview takes place with Neilson when she was meant to be on tour, crisscrossing the world from Texas to Spain to France. When we talk again over the phone, nearly a week into lockdown, she’s at home with her two kids in Waimauku.
“For musicians, [the impact] was probably the most immediate. The fact that we travel and fly around the world for a living, singing to large gatherings of people. Those were pretty much the two things that immediately stopped,” she says.
“My album came out literally weeks before all of this happened. You work for a year or more, actually – it’s probably 18 months from the time of starting to write the album – and then record the album. Then there’s all the preparation that goes into an album rollout. [It takes a] good year of finding your team and the publicists, in every territory around the world. There’s so much preparation and work that goes into an album release campaign.”
For three weeks, it was a dream. The album was picked up worldwide, even crossing over into the vaunted culture halls of RuPaul’s World of Wonder, who showcased one of her singles on their site. “Every morning felt like Christmas morning. All these things that organically happened. It was so, so exciting. And then literally, well, barely even three weeks later, everything just started unravelling. It wasn’t so much the bottom dropping out. It was just everything you’ve worked for pretty much your whole life starts to unravel.”
The album lives and goes on, though. The shift from physical to digital means access to an even wider audience, and even when you can’t get in front of people’s faces, you can still get to their ears. “I’m really grateful that we got it out there and that it’s in people’s hands. All these really challenging things have that flip side of positive things. And I’ve had incredible messages from all over the world of people saying, ‘This album’s bringing me so much joy’. It’s really incredibly special to feel that connection with your fans around the world while all of this is going on.”
It’s not all downsides, though. A few weeks ago, she was meant to be playing a set at Willie Nelson’s prestigious Luck Reunion, a music festival that he hosts on his private property. It’s so exclusive that people have to enter a ballot just to get a ticket, and this year’s festival included not just Nelson himself, but the likes of Paul Simon, Neil Young and Lucinda Williams. Neilson literally (or virtually) opened for Williams, one of Americana’s biggest names.
“It was the most insane line-up I’ve ever been a part of but also not been a part of. We had 100,000 people watching from all over the world. And I just saw on my social media, in that 10-minute slot, that I gained like 400 new followers in ten minutes. So you have to kind of see there’s a silver lining to all this. And the only way we can get through the day is knowing that there are things that come out of this and that we’ll be better for it.”
There’s before, and then there’s after, and Tami Neilson isn’t going anywhere when the dust of Covid-19 settles. She’ll be here.
Final Mix is made with the support of NZ On Air.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.