This week, we’re looking into Kingmaker, the latest studio album from award-winning, New Zealand-based artist Tami Neilson.
“I use my music to keep the conversation of equality for women and people of colour at the forefront,” says Neilson, adding, “Kingmaker particularly addresses the huge disparity in female and BIPOC representation in country music specifically but it all relates on a broader scale to how we are treated in society as a whole.”
Dig into our 5 Questions feature below to learn more, including what it was like to honor her father by recording a duet with Willie Nelson.
5 Questions with Tami Neilson by Sam Shansky
1) Talk to us about the fantastic artwork for your brand-new album Kingmaker and its supporting singles. Can you tell me who created these gems, and what kind of art direction you offered, or was it their own?
The artwork was created by the amazing Maria Francesca Melis. She’s an Italian artist who lives here in New Zealand. We were in the midst of a four month lockdown and the deadline to get my vinyl order in (there are 7-8 month delays globally due to the pandemic) for it to be ready in time for release was fast approaching. All my grand ideas I had for the cover photo shoot were quickly disappearing, as we couldn’t gather to do photo shoots, have people do hair and make up, or have fittings for the outfits I planned to have made.
I had commissioned Fran previously to do artwork for concert posters as I love her work so much. Her work is beautiful and feminine but also has a darkness and strength, which I felt was a perfect fit for the theme of the album. So, we collaborated via messages online and I referenced certain illustrations of hers that I really loved and asked her to implement imagery (like stars or green peaches) to reference the songs, but it’s her art and creativity that was the foundation for all the visuals.
2) What are the essential themes of this record, and could you identify some specific threads to illustrate the connection to your two previous records, Sassafrass! (2018) and Chickaboom! (2020)?
I guess I tend to write about what I know and my personal experience, which is that of a woman in the music industry. I use my music to keep the conversation of equality for women and people of colour at the forefront. Kingmaker particularly addresses the huge disparity in female and BIPOC representation in country music specifically but it all relates on a broader scale to how we are treated in society as a whole. Those threads have always been in my music but I feel as things grow more dire and equality seems to be taking steps backward instead of forwards, it’s more important than ever to sing the songs of empowerment and encouragement that challenge our patriarchal/colonial systems. Taking up space in this world as a woman is a form of protest.
Bonus: What’s on your mind in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling to overturn Roe v. Wade, and what is the general tone of reaction in New Zealand?
My heart has been so heavy, because for women around the world – when one of us is not equal, none of us are equal. And for anyone who thinks that it can’t happen in their country, all they have to do is speak to their mothers or their grandmothers who experienced this very thing and find out that we are never far away from their experiences, those experiences continue to shape and form us. It is easy to feel defeated, but now more than ever, speaking our truth, singing our songs, holding our space and walking in our power is crucial. Like all colonialist misogynists, the only power they have is the power they steal from the people they oppress. As I sing in Kingmaker, “my famine made your feast, it’s my blazing light that made your shadow tall.” We have to remember that we are kings.
3) Would you share regarding your recent collaboration with Willie Nelson at Luck Reunion during SXSW? What was that experience like for you?
I still wake up every morning and check my phone to see if our song actually still exists because it feels like it was all a dream! We ended up meeting through his wife Annie when I was supposed to play Luck Reunion back in March 2020 and the whole world ground to a halt. They moved the festival online and I did three songs, beaming in from New Zealand and Willie and Annie were watching. Annie started to follow me on Twitter and interact with me quite a bit but it took a few months before I realised who she was! Our friendship grew over the pandemic and it took me about a year to get up the courage to ask if he might consider doing a duet with me, a song that I’d written about the loss of my Dad. He said he loved the song and said yes!
The day he sent his vocals through I couldn’t stop weeping. The thought of what my Dad, a musician who built the foundation of music on which I stand in our touring family band growing up, would have felt and what his reaction would’ve been to Willie being his voice on this song was so overwhelming. And then, finally, two years later, in March of this year, I got to fly to Texas the week our borders opened in NZ, to perform the song in person with him at Luck Reunion. I made it through the first verse and the chorus, but when he started singing his second verse I was a goner. It was so overwhelming and truly felt like a sacred moment.
4) Could you speak about your connection to The Careless Women Choir and tell us about this unique group of singers and how they contributed to the album?
I love this question so much! The Careless Women Choir is made up of some of my best friends and fellow female artists here in New Zealand. Julia Deans is rock and roll royalty here, an incredible solo artist and also the lead singer of Fur Patrol, an iconic Kiwi band. She’s one of my heroes. Anna Coddington is an amazing artist, songwriter, and producer, and my 24/7 lifeline as a fellow Music Mama. Bella Kalolo is a Samoan Diva Goddess (Chaka Khan and John Mayer are both fans after performing with her!) and the first musician I met when I moved to NZ from Canada. Vanessa Abernethy has been my ride or die for 15 years. We used to do 4-hour covers gigs from 10pm-2am when I first landed in NZ and has been my biggest champion from day one and she still tours with me as my backing vocalist here in NZ. These are women who hold me up and have my back and having their voices surround me on this album was the musical equivalent of what they do for me with their friendships every day.
5) How are you feeling about performing at AmericanaFest this year, and who are you most excited to see perform at the festival?
I cannot wait to get my arms around Holly G and the Black Opry Revue! We’ve all become friends from afar over the past 2 years and seeing them in person is going to be such a celebration!