Why Anika Moa is 'the greatest unsigned television talent in NZ'

By Greg Bruce

Singer-songwriter-mother Anika Moa tells Greg Bruce why she doesn’t like happy endings.
Singer-songwriter Anika Moa. Photo / Greg Bowker
Singer-songwriter Anika Moa. Photo / Greg Bowker

Anika Moa is the greatest unsigned television talent in New Zealand - and that is no exaggeration for dramatic effect. Her Face-to-Face interviews on the New Zealand Herald website last year were landmarks in the new media landscape. The interview with The Bachelor, Art Green, in which many of her gestures had to be blurred due to their sexual content, was the most massive hit of the series but few of the interviews were anything less than a violent storm in the otherwise placid subtropical climate of the on-screen celebrity interview.

"Would you ever have considered being one of the men wooing one woman on The Bachelorette if you hadn't have done The Bachelor?" she asked Green. "This is a serious question. Because there's you and there's 21 girls and you get to mack all of them and, by golly, I would have done every single one of those bitches."

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Asserting a strong feminist position and then immediately and comprehensively subverting that position is not a strange thing for Moa to do. During the same interview, discussing some catwalk modelling the women on The Bachelor had done for Green, she said: "I wouldn't have done that, except I probably would have. In fact, I've done it in the past."

She doesn't care. Life's a happy jumble and sometimes the internal coherence of an ideological position can bugger off.

During an interview for this story, she said: "Somebody like Lizzie Marvelly, she's feminist and beautiful and strong but, you know, I want to f***in' zone out. I'm a mum, I want to zone out and I want to watch 10 f***in' Kim Kardashian episodes in a row and f*** feminism for like an hour, you know what I mean? While the baby is sleeping, of course."

The conceit of the Face-to-Face interviews was always the same: Anika Moa interviews somebody famous and makes it mostly about Anika Moa. Her exploitation of the conceit is a big part of what makes it funny. She makes fun of her shameless self-promotion but that doesn't mean she's not self-promoting.

During their too-brief life, the Face-to-Face interviews delivered comedy and they provoked honesty and emotion. Marlon Williams came on and performed a shockingly beautiful rendition of the Goodnight Kiwi theme, Hine e Hine, which was one of the best things caught on camera in New Zealand last year.

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Moa is a big fan of Williams and you can see the emotion catch her as he starts to sing. She harmonises with him, then stops and reaches toward him with her face, as if to kiss him or do something else outrageous, then she retracts it, smiles faintly and closes her eyes. She looks back at him and giggles. She seems so affected by the music that it looks like she's not sure whether she's the Anika Moa who has produced some of this country's most heartfelt songs of unlikely beauty, or the Anika Moa who uses her hands to describe lesbian sex acts to Green.

To some extent, her life exists between these two poles. It happens time and again in these interviews: she says outrageous things for 10 minutes and then she sings for a few seconds and she transforms. Sometimes it's not even a transformation, but an interspersal of the disparate parts of her - beauty pouring from her mouth and comedy falling from her face.

Her wife-to-be, journalist Natasha Utting, says: "Most of us have filters we put on. We change our behaviour, modify our behaviour in different situations. Anika is pretty much always herself. She doesn't really know how to filter."

"She is only ever herself but the self that she is is multifaceted. She's a Gemini. She's got her stage presence-type person, her extroverted side and her sensitive side. She couldn't write those kind of love songs if she didn't feel things very deeply, as she really does. She cries easily, she's moved, she's sensitive and easily hurt, she has that lovely softer side to her as well as the out-there side."

Wandering through the zoo recently with her 16-month-old son, Soren, somewhere near the meerkats, Moa bumped into an actress she knew through Twitter. They greeted each other effusively and talked about their respective experiences on the television show DNA Detectives.

The actress was with another mother, who Moa hadn't met. The other mother, who was sitting a few metres away on the grass, called out to the actress: "Oh my God! Is this lady Ahnaka?"

"Aneeka," the actress corrected her.

"I'm such a big fan!" The other woman said, oblivious, swept up in excitement. She told a story about recently going up to somebody in the supermarket she thought was Moa and saying, "Are you Anika?" and when the woman who wasn't Moa said, "No", she turned to her husband and said, "I think it is. What a bitch!" Then she looked up Moa's photo, because she was, like, "What a lovely voice and what a bitchy personality.

"I had to look her up and I was like, 'Oh, no, actually it's not her'."

"Maybe it was Brooke Fraser," Moa said.

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The woman told her she loved the album Songs for Bubbas, which had not only been fantastic for her baby but had helped her learn the Maori words for colours.

"Wow, you're going to love the next album then," Moa said. "You'll be the queen of Maori."

The new album, Songs for Bubbas 2, is being released next week, on April 8, as Moa told the two women - as she tells everyone, at every available opportunity. The first Songs for Bubbas album was a big success, in spite of the fact her manager at the time suggested to her that it was career suicide. She didn't care. People have often told her that she's committing career suicide.

"It sold heaps, thousands and thousands. People don't sell albums like that in New Zealand anymore. There's Lorde, Six60 and maybe Fat Freddy's Drop and then there's me and my baby album. People just don't buy albums any more but mothers do because they need a CD in their car player when they want to get their kids to sleep."

Moa, now a full-time mother, knows the value of sleep, and is canny enough to be able to monetise it. But in spite of that success, and in part because Moa doesn't release her music through a label, the new album still required a crowdfunding campaign to raise the $40,000 needed to produce and market. As a thank you to everybody that contributed, she's going to do a 20-stop tour, playing the album at venues to be decided by her Facebook fans, with performances scheduled around children's nap times.

She's been playing the new album to her kids. It's pretty dark in places. In one song, a witch cooks a girl in a stew.

"My kids will go, every time, 'Mama, did the girl die?' and I will go, [upbeat] 'Yep!' And they're like, 'cause was she under an evil spell?' and I'm, like, [upbeat] 'Mmhmm! Yep!' I'm like a real beeyarch mum, give them the bad ending."

In another song, a taniwha pretends to be the kaitiaki, the protector, but then eats the girl he's supposed to be protecting. "The boys are, like, 'So the taniwha's supposed to protect her but then he eats her?' and I'm, like, 'Mmhhm, yep, and that is just the truth of life, okay?'"

"Their other mother haaaaates it," Moa says. "But you know Spike Milligan, how he just had the craziest stories, where you think they're going to have happy endings but people end up dying, blood splattering everywhere? I love those kinds of stories. I personally love them. I don't like happy endings, I like realistic endings - 'and then she gets married, gets divorced, has another kid to four other people and then they live like Mormons, and she loses a leg'."

The mothers who bought her first album and who are the target market for the second don't know her as the teenager who wrote beautiful iconic hits like Youthful or the young woman who wrote the wrenching In the Morning about her abortion at 20 - or, if they do, they now care less about that Moa than the Moa who sang The Nigh Nighs Song and soothed their otherwise-inconsolable 8-month-olds to sleep.

Later in her zoo visit, Moa again passed the actress and her friend. "Oh, my God!" the friend said, in mock surprise and delight. "Are you Anika?"

In a 2007 cover story in this very magazine, in advance of the release of her album In Swings The Tide, Moa revealed she is a lesbian. The journalist who wrote the story, Claire Harvey, subsequently asked Moa whether she thought lesbianism was still taboo in the music business. She replied, "We'll see how the album sales go." It went platinum, selling 25,000 copies. It's still the second-biggest-selling album of her career, behind her debut, Thinking Room, which was released when people still bought CDs.

"Career suicide!" Moa says people told her at the time of her coming out. She didn't care. Except for a brief period when she was very young, she has never cared. Not caring is a big part of her life. She did care when the two long slides were closed in the kiddie part of the zoo where she likes to take her children. "We couldn't go there for three months and it sucked ballsacks," she says.

Singer/songwriter Anika Moa. Photo / Nick Reed
Singer/songwriter Anika Moa. Photo / Nick Reed

It's weird to think there was a period in her life when she wasn't open about her sexuality, largely because it's almost inconceivable that she could have something interesting or surprising to say and not say it. The only reason she wasn't out before 2007 was that her first girlfriend, who she was with for five years, didn't want to come out.

Asked whether she would have been out years before if not for her ex, she says: "Hells yeah! Heeeeellllllls yeah! I'd have been flying that flag proudly!"

She says it felt awesome finally being out. "People email you congratulating you and they come up to you and kiss you. The amount of people asking me out for dates was awesome. It was awesome. Because I was single. It was, 'Yeah! Woooooooh! Now I can finally spread my wiiingggs! Spread my seeeeds!'"

That was a big year for her, 2007: the public outing, the release of her biggest-selling album and the death of her father, from cancer. She had come out to him years before, pretty much as soon as she figured out she was a lesbian. Her dad's reply was: "That's okay. I've been gay six times." He had been an alcoholic and drug addict and had prostituted himself to help pay for his habits. "My dad was a very interesting character."

After 2007, she spread her seeds for a while, then she met Azaria Universe, fell in love and got married. They had twins, they got divorced, she spread some more seeds, met journalist Natasha Utting, they had Soren, they got engaged. Their wedding is planned for later this year.

In Moa's early days, her record label in the United States messed her around for a while, trying to make her into the type of pretty little thing the music industry loves to turn young women into. After a bit, she found her voice and let them know she wasn't really into that.

"I told everyone to f*** off. I was like, 'You can all f*** off now.' I didn't mince my words there, mate. And a lot of people thought I was a bitch and I was stubborn. The words 'bitch' and 'stubborn', you can change to 'strong' and 'confident'. But because I'm a woman, it's like, 'Oh God she's a bitch, oh God, she's hard to work with.' If I was a man, it would be like, 'Oh they really know what they want, oh they're really confident, oh they're really strong.' And it's like, 'f*** you'."

After shedding her US commitments, she still had to work with her New Zealand record company. They were accommodating to a point, she says, but ignored her requests that she look anxious and reserved on her album cover and insisted instead that she show her "slutty stomach", and be depicted "looking hot and seductive".

Moa has now released seven albums and has full creative control over the whole process, how she looks, her publicity and promo. There have been no more "slutty stomachs".

For the photo shoot that went with this article, she stipulated that she would do her own hair and makeup, not that anybody was trying to suggest they do it for her, God help them. The control of mostly male music executives over the female image is something she's way over.

Anika Moa performs on stage.
Anika Moa performs on stage.

"I saw an interview with Ladyhawke and that's what she got, too and that's what every female singer-songwriter gets. They get told what to wear, they get told how to look, and it's boring." The "B" of "boring" exploded on her lips with the indignity of the imposition. "The whole reason why they sign you isn't so they can mould you, it's to let you be creatively what you want, and who cares what you look like? Well, I don't care."

It's so difficult to imagine that she once accepted anyone telling her what to do or to be. But we were all young once.

She says that, 10 years ago, at 25, she had no idea who she was. Now, she knows, and so do we: She is a woman who makes beautiful music, who makes outrageous and frequently sexually graphic statements, who is a full-time mother, who doesn't give a toss, who feels deeply and cries easily.

She is Anika Moa and, more than any of this, she would like you to know she has a new album out on April 8.

- Canvas

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