Interview: Tami Neilson

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“I grew up singing in a family band with my parents and my two brothers,” recalls Canadian-born powerhouse of country soul Tami Neilson.  “My mom was into country, and my dad was a rock n’ roll blues guy, so I came out some sort of a hybrid. I always gravitated to big voices, I was the kid in the bathtub belting show tunes,” she adds with a laugh. “We hit the road full-time when I was about 12 years old and toured for the better part of 10 years around North America as The Neilsons. When we came off the road, I lived in Canada for a while and did some trio work with my brothers, and then…I met a boy. He was from New Zealand, so I ‘upped sticks’ and moved overseas.”

The Neilsons had been playing festivals all over North America, opening for the likes of Johnny Cash, and performing with other legendary artists. “To start over with nothing in a brand new country was pretty daunting,” she admits. “I’ve been there for 10 years and I’m making my way.” That might be the understatement of the century–Neilson has amassed quite following in New Zealand, had a roof-raising round of showcase performances at this year’s AmericanaFest, and is currently on tour in North America. With her latest jaw-dropping release, Don’t Be Afraid, becoming available in the States on September 30th, the sky is only the limit.

“It’s the most personal album I’ve made,” says Neilson. “It was written in the six weeks following my father’s death; we were very close—not just as father and daughter, but he was my musical mentor, my co-worker, all of those things. It all happened very suddenly, I rushed to Canada to be with him, and he passed away in the two weeks I was there. I had already planned to record an album during that time, and I thought I probably should cancel it all, but my mom told me that my dad would be gutted if he thought he had stopped the momentum of what was happening in my career.”

“I think the turning point was the title track, ‘Don’t Be Afraid’; it was the last song my dad wrote, while he was in the hospital—he never stopped. He was hooked up to machines, and he couldn’t play, let alone sing, but there’s nothing worse for a songwriter than to have a song inside you that you can’t get out,” she continues. “He had all the lyrics written down, he showed them to everyone who came to see him, and said he was going to get better and record it. We brought his guitar to the hospital one day so he could try to play it, hoping we could get at least the melody on tape. He got one verse out before he had to stop–the hidden track at the end of the album is actually that recording. He was a man of really strong faith, and the lyrics were from the perspective of God speaking to him;  now, I view it as my dad speaking to me.”

If that doesn’t give you goosebumps, you should check your pulse.

“Don’t Be Afraid”, the opening track, showcases her serious case of bluesy grit as it virtually erupts from one the biggest, most powerful sets of vocal pipes on the planet today. But it doesn’t stop there—Don’t Be Afraid is utterly brilliant at every turn. “It’s really special to have an album of songs that are about my dad, or about grieving the loss of him,” she adds. “It’s not a dark album though, it’s very much a celebration of him and his defiance in the face of death.”

With its thriving Kiwi-cana scene, the island’s artists are making waves all over the world, and Neilson is more than happy to be a New Zealander, or at least partly one—“I’ve given birth to two of them, so I feel like I’ve earned my stripes,” she laughs. “New Zealanders have always punched well above their weight when it comes to the arts, and it’s a great time to be able to bring our music to the rest of the world.”

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Susan Hubbard

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