Raggamuffin festival star Tiki Taane tells Lydia Jenkin his new album was a challenge, but one he would be happy to repeat.
As TimeOut arrives at Tiki Taane's west Auckland base, chickens are pecking round the driveway, roosters are crowing, and a German Shepherd wanders out to check out the new arrival. It's a beautiful spot - a rural property covered in fruit trees and animals, with an old farmhouse and schoolhouse, owned by his friend and tattooist Inia Taylor.
Taane's current studio spot/crash pad is in a sleepout/cottage, where he's been making music for himself and others since 2006, when he first left Salmonella Dub and moved up from his hometown, Christchurch.
"In the last year of Salmonella Dub I was wanting to break away from things, and Inia said, just come out here. I was in a pretty bad state at that point, I'd broken up with my girlfriend of five years, and I was just being out of control.
"Sal Dub was an amazing band to be in, but musically I wasn't doing what I wanted to do either. So I came up here, I grew a beard, wore gumboots, and started talking to the trees" he laughs.
He's clearly at home there, among all his gear. He has a house in Papamoa now, but it's clear that in the seven years since he first arrived, the farm has been a solid, productive place for Taane to work on his music, and has been a meaningful part of him becoming one of the country's most accomplished solo male artists, producers, and live sound engineers.
If you want proof of this, look no further than his imminent album release: With Strings Attached: Alive & Orchestrated. It's a beautiful album which brings together multiple elements of the entertainer Taane has become, and showcases songs from across his career.
Back in 2012, Bailey Mackey, a friend of Taane's and producer at EyeWorks TV, approached him about putting together a one-off live show where Taane would perform live with a string section, and it would be filmed as part of a TVNZ/NZ On Air series With Strings Attached.
"Initially I said no, and I said no the second time too, because I thought I wasn't ready for it, because of my own insecurities around not being able to read or write music. But he came back a third time, and I kind of realised I've got to step up, and give it a go, because it's a great opportunity, and I'd be pretty stupid to turn it down because I'm scared."
Having agreed to the idea, Taane built on it with some additions of his own - not only were there 16 string players (arranged by Steve Bremner and conducted by Hamish McKeich), but he brought in Shapeshifter as his backing band, vocalists Ria Hall and MC Tali, his father, and 12 members of kapa haka group Te Pou Mangatawhiri.
And they staged it in Old St Paul's Church in Wellington. That's a lot of elements to mix not only for a live show, but for a documentary, and an album.
"It was a challenge, it hasn't really been done, but it seemed like such a cool idea that we couldn't say no. And doing this has really inspired me with lots of ideas about what you can do with strings and kapa haka group that no one has really touched upon yet. There's so much scope with those two elements. They're totally opposite, but you can get them doing something unified, and it looks cool, but it says so much too, a kind of colonial representation, and an indigenous one, and coming together, representing New Zealand.
"So if anyone out there who has a bit of money who could help me put this show together again, on an even bigger scale, that would be amazing " he laughs.
It's the kind of show that bridges all sorts of gaps, after all - Taane was also highly aware of the audience who would initially see the documentary, and wanted to impress people who might not have come across his music in the past.
"I'm really glad that we made it palatable for a different audience, you know, here's this tattooed high school dropout, slightly controversial, has been arrested for singing F**k the Police, and here he is on TV One, dressed up, with some NZSO members, getting into the homes of TV One viewers on a Saturday night, and sharing his story. I love that, I love how music can transcend any preconceived ideas about age, race, background."
That's not to say it won't resonate with longtime Tiki fans too of course. The album features hits like Always On My Mind, and Salmonella Dub favourite Love Your Ways, along with Starship Lullaby, which was written for his son Charlie. But it also features heavier tracks like Tangaroa, Whakakotahi, and recent hit Summertime, plus two tracks which have a special place in Taane's life.
"Nana's Song is an adaptation of Past Present Future, and it's an important song for my whanau - my aunty passed away last year, and my sister played that song to her over and over as she passed on, and I can imagine doing something like that with my Dad as well, and maybe for me when it's my time to move on. But it's also for everyone, it's an opportunity to think about those important people in your life."
He was also very keen to include his single Freedom To Sing, which was written after Taane was arrested in 2011 for singing NWA's F**k The Police at a Tauranga concert, and charged with "disorderly behaviour likely to cause violence".
"It was an important part of my life, I got arrested for singing a song, and I just wanted to raise those questions, you know, it was so bizarre, how does it happen? Freedom of speech is so important, and it's just one of our freedoms that's being eroded away in this political climate. It's pretty insane."
It was all resolved in mediation in the end, and Taane says his relationship with the police these days is all the better for it ("we usually have a laugh about it"), but the song stands as a statement about his ideals.
"I had to put the song in there, and remind New Zealand about the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 14 S, which says we're allowed to sing songs like that. I grew up listening to Bob Marley and Martin Luther King, they were my idols, and so for me, I think it's natural that I feel some sense of responsibility to speak about these things."
Who: Tiki Taane
What: New album With Strings Attached: Alive & Orchestrated
Where and when: Tiki is performing at Raggamuffin Festival at Rotorua International Stadium tomorrow, at Muriwai Waitangi Day Festival on February 6, at the Sevens World Series in Wellington on February 7 and 8, and at Homegrown festival in Wellington on February 15.