For a singer with such a big brassy voice and over-the-top demeanor, Tami Neilson is surprisingly down to earth. A Canadian expatriate now based in her husband’s home, New Zealand, she’s also a mother of two young boys and very much committed to being able to balance career, family and the success she’s seen so far. With a dynamic new album, Chicka Boom! and accumulated kudos both at home and abroad, she’s making a name for herself as one of today’s most dynamic purveyors of blues, classic country and all manner of musical styles in-between.
Still, it’s not that she’s a newcomer. Growing up in Canada, she performed with her parents and two brothers in their family band — aptly dubbed The Neilsons — for the better part of a decade. The band played consistently throughout North America, giving her the foundation for the solo stardom she pursued later on. She continues to work with her brother Jay, her touring companions and producer of her early albums.
That said, she admits that the move that took her half way across the planet did prove somewhat daunting.
“I had to start all over, not knowing a soul over there and had to rebuild a music career on the other side of the world,” she recalls. “When you’re climbing the ladder one rung at a time, you wonder sometimes how far you’ve really come. It’s really good to have reminders. Musicians are always looking at what’s next and seeing the grass as always greener, instead of celebrating your achievements as you work your way through.”
Neilson’s speaking while sitting in a hotel coffee shop during a five-day layover in New Orleans where she’s making her debut at the annual Folk Alliance International confab. For the moment anyway she’s shed her trademark beehive hairdo and splashy stage garb to share some time and reflect on her career.
All the while, she punctuates her comments with a ready laugh and a decided sense of wonder at all she’s achieved so far. Indeed, she can claim no small amount of accomplishment, having been accorded some of the most prestigious awards New Zealand has to offer. They include a win at the 2014 APRA Silver Scroll Awards for Best Country Song, Best Country Album honors at the New Zealand Music Awards in 2009, 2010, 2012, and 2015, and Best Female Artist at the New Zealand Country Music Awards in 2010, 2011 & 2014. Her 2015 album Don’t Be Afraid debuted at number one on the New Zealand Music Charts, while her previous release, Dynamite!, was named one of the top ten country albums of the year for 2014.
Clearly that’s no small list of achievements for a relative newcomer. The kudos came quickly as well. “My first award was in 2007 and I had only just arrived in 2005,” Neilson reflects. “So it didn’t take long. Everybody was saying, ‘What are you doing here? This is career suicide. Everyone leaves here and goes somewhere else to make it.’ I sort of just flipped that around. I figured it was such a small country that there would be less competition. I’d get noticed faster. In fact, I was really embraced by the fans and the music industry… If I stayed in North America it wouldn’t have happened that fast.”
Maybe, but maybe not. She says that New Zealand audiences are known for being loyal, once they are in your corner. “It was a really pleasant surprise,” she reflects. “New Zealanders are like British audiences. They’re not an easy win. But once they accept and embrace you, they’re there for you forever.”
Happily though, Neilson’s notoriety has spread well beyond those Pacific shores. Neilson insists that it really wasn’t something she had planned on.
“After restarting my career in New Zealand, I figured that would be my life over there. I’m married, I have two little ones, so I kind of thought New Zealand and Australia were going to be my world now. I’d release albums every year and do my thing. But then a fan in New Zealand sent my album Dynamite! to a blogger in Texas and he raved about it and even included it in his albums of the year list. Then it took on its own organic momentum from there. A writer for the Guardian in the U.K. put it in his own top ten albums for 2014 after reading that blog, and then Mojo did a review. It was so weird. It was a year after the Dynamite! album had come out and it took on a life of its own. Every morning it felt like Christmas; I’d wake up and there would be a new review. So my distributors in New Zealand started talking to distributors in the States, saying, ‘There’s something about this album and I think we need to get it launched overseas.’ And that led me to meeting my label Outside Music in Toronto, who then licensed it for the rest of the world. They were launching an album that was a year old while I was working my new album Don’t Be Afraid! in New Zealand. So it was a bit strange.”
Still, Neilson admits that she’s relishing the success even as her journey continues.
“It’s pretty amazing,” she suggests. “I’ve been in this business since I was nine or ten years old. So it becomes a way of life. If you don’t enjoy the pursuit, then you’re not in it for the right reasons. For me, it’s about the joy of getting there and not about arriving at the destination. So when you do get to the destination, it’s exciting, but it’s almost anticlimactic because you’re enjoying simply getting there.”
Still, it’s suggested, there has to be some satisfaction in achieving all that she has. There’s something to be said for affirmation after all.
“It’s something I’m happy to get used to,” she agreed. “As a creator, you create for the love of creating, and all the grinding and hustling and business side of the music has you pushing forward and forward. Of course, it’s something that we all hope for and dream of happening, and when it does happen, it’s an amazing feeling of affirmation. We all have that feeling at one time or another, ‘Am I really secretly shit and no one’s telling me?’ So when you get that affirmation, it gives you the encouragement you need to create and go forward.”
Of course that also means that once those accolades are achieved, there’s the pressure that comes with sustaining that momentum and reaching the high bar that was set before. Given the powerhouse performances she rendered at Folk Alliance, Neilson clearly has no reason for worry.
“No pressure,” she chuckles when the question is posed. Nevertheless, it is something that she ‘s forced to consider.
“If you go into any project thinking what a critic might say, you’re in deep trouble,” she insists.”I don’t think about it that much. I can only create what I create, and can only write what I write. People will either like it or they won’t, but as an artist, I hope to grow with every album and this was completely dictated by practicality. As a touring mother, at the end of the day, everything I create filters down from my family. The Don’t Be Afraid album filtered down from losing my father. It came out of that experience, and it emboldened me just to speak my mind and not be afraid of the reaction. Yes, there are creative decisions, but when you’re a parent, there are also practical decisions. You have to make the most impact in the shortest amount of time.”
Part of that strategy has been about not being confined to any particular genre. Neilson’s clearly a chanteuse that has no regard for typecasting.
“I can’t stick to one sound,” she muses. “I have to recreate the music that I’ve been influenced by. I’m equal parts Patsy Wynette and Loretta Lynn and Mavis Staples. So how do you get away with being so specific? First and foremost, I’m a songwriter, so anyone can take that song and decide whether it’s country or R&B or whatever. At the end of the day, it’s just about the song regardless of genre. My mom was predominantly country and my dad was a rock and roller. He was a massive soul singer. So I’ve always been a mix. When I look at Memphis and Nashville, it’s all Tennessee baby. When you look at someone like Linda Ronstadt, you can’t tie her to one genre. There wasn’t a single genre she didn’t explore and conquer. When you love singing, good music is good music.”
Ultimately, the album title, Chicka Boom!, seems to say it all. “I love the words,” she replies, emitting another hearty laugh. “I think I have a thing for three syllables and an exclamation point. Chicka Boom! sums up the sound of rockabilly music and Sun Records. You really get the feeling of what it’s getting at it. For me, it describes the songs. I really wanted them to pop and explode. I had this picture of this little string of firecrackers while I was writing it.”
For Neilson, confidence and credibility go hand in hand.
“It’s about coming into your own, and the more confidence you come into as an artist, the more unafraid you are to be unabashedly yourself,” she declares. “Yes, it’s a bit of a persona that instills that confidence and swagger, but it’s also an exaggerated side of me. I think in my writing, creating and recording, it’s about putting all of you into something tangible you can hand to strangers for them to pick apart.”