Tama Waipara's musical melting pot

By Lydia Jenkin

Tama Waipara's new album reflects a wealth of personal references, writes Lydia Jenkin.

Tama Waipara only started singing after an accident temporarily stopped him from playing the clarinet.
Tama Waipara only started singing after an accident temporarily stopped him from playing the clarinet.

Tama Waipara has become ubiquitous in our local arts scene. He's a gregarious, multi-talented musician who is just as comfortable performing the works of Jacques Brel alongside Jon Toogood, Julia Deans and Jennifer Ward-Lealand as he is delivering an Auckland Arts Festival show called Everything Is Ka Pai, or releasing and touring his own songs.

The odd thing is, if it hadn't been for a freak accident, we might never have heard Waipara sing.

In 1999, he was midway through a master's degree in performance clarinet at New York's prestigious Manhattan School of Music when a falling fuse box struck him on the head just outside his apartment. After two weeks in hospital, he was cleared to leave. But when he returned to playing the clarinet he'd end up blacking out or vomiting. Doctors diagnosed him with post-traumatic migraines, so the clarinet studies were put on hold.

That's when Waipara decided to explore his interests in singing and songwriting instead. Turned out he was pretty darn good at it, so when the migraines faded and he went back to woodwind lessons, he kept singing too.

More than a decade on, it's his powerful voice he's become known for, and on his third full-length album, called Fill Up the Silence, Waipara feels like he finally reconciled his multiple musical personalities.

"It's the first time I feel like all my bits and pieces are in one place, and they kind of make sense. Because I'm all over the place. I've always been a musician first, and then I got involved in all sorts of other things as well, like theatre and drama and collaborations. But this is a cool opportunity to focus on my music."

He began with the idea of creating an album that reminded him of the East Coast (he grew up in Opotiki), something acoustic and guitar-based.

"I was thinking something rugged, a little bit rough around the edges. And I was also taking it quite literally and thinking, 'Okay, that's reggae and country and party songs', all these things I grew up with."

He wrote the songs over the space of a year or so and recorded the demos, ready to create the album. It wasn't until he was sitting on a plane, about to head to New York for a holiday, that he realised he didn't like what he'd written.

"I put my headphones on and listened to my demos, and hated what I'd done. I literally sat there and went, 'It feels prescriptive, it feels cliche, unimaginative.' I could hear the intention, but it just felt like it didn't have the guts of what I wanted to say."

Fortunately, one of the friends he was going to visit in New York was studio owner and engineer/producer Aaron Nevezie. Together they tried to figure out what was wrong with Waipara's demos and see if they could do something better.

"We started by pulling it all apart, but we still wanted to have that underlying theme of rough beauty and the coast, except that now the East Coast was a reference to my two homes - in New Zealand and in New York. And what happened was really just the synthesis of that: working with Aaron, being in New York again and having fresh perspective."

They managed to capture the wealth of musical references that Waipara has - his parents were both school teachers with a passion for music, and his wide tastes began with their record collection: Nina Simone, Bach, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Donovan. But underneath the touches of 80s pop, or rockin' vocals, it's all drawn together by a strong rhythmic foundation.

"A lot of the rhythms come from the Pacific, but actually they now sound like indie-rock, mixed with Afro-beats. Medicine Man has a pattern that comes from Papua New Guinea, Pasifika has rhythms from Hawaii and Rarotonga, but I've used different instruments to express the same ideas. It's kind of like me, I'm a contemporised polyglot mixture of all these flavours. I didn't want to shy away from that."

Nothing was out of bounds - Waipara wanted there to be no fear of trying new things, and no fear of editing, cutting and pasting. Everything was worth a try.

"The Hunter was a 1950s skiffle pop song, and then we chopped it up and it became this bouncy kind of thing. Then on top of that I added in the chorus section, which was all new. Mirror was a bunch of different choruses turned into bridges and verses. Night Visions was kind of disco when I first wrote it. There was quite a lot of butchery. It became about linking similar themes in writing, or sounds, or intentions, and working out how those ideas fit together."

It will be presented live by a full band with all sorts of percussion, guitars, bass, drums and keyboards, with musicians such as Fran Kora and rising drummer Dylan Elise taking part, and Waipara hopes it'll be an opportunity for people to really soak up the songs and his overarching themes about the hunt for happiness in life.

"It'll be raw and real and colourful. You can get up and have a boogie, but you can also cuddle up to your loved one. It's energetic, it'll be loud. And I'm really hoping people will come out and let rip, because that's what I did."

Who: Tama Waipara
What: New album Fill Up the Silence, out Sep 6
Where and when: His national tour starts at Puppies, Wellington, Oct 3, and finishes up in Auckland at Galatos on Oct 5, and Leigh Sawmill Cafe on Oct 6.

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