Tami Neilson's long road to success

By Alan Perrott

This one-woman, self-managed band is a product of sheer determination, writes Alan Perrott
Award-winning musician Tami Neilson believes hard work and self-belief are key to success. Pic Mrs Jones photography.
Award-winning musician Tami Neilson believes hard work and self-belief are key to success. Pic Mrs Jones photography.

OK: What do Jane Austin, Vincent Van Gogh, Edgar Allan Poe, Eva Cassidy, Stieg Larsson and even Johann Sebastian Bach all have in common?

Yes, they all dabbled in the arts. And yes, they are all dead, dead famous even, but what really unites them is that no-one got to enjoy their current (if relative) fame while they were alive and kicking.

Which is great for their estates or whoever owns the rights these days, but it's four flavours of useless to the dearly departed.

Yet they were all banging out their craft for as long as they could regardless.

So the question becomes why? Why flirt with the romantic if dysfunctional trope of the starving artist when they could have simply become wage slaves like the rest of their mates?

Apparently, it's because they had no choice, like the mountaineer seduced by a peak's mere presence, an artist will tell you they are compelled to do whatever it is they must do.

It's what divides the true artist from the mere artisan.

Bollocks or not, there must be some way of fulfilling this drive without all the hunger, blagging or chopping off of ears.

After all, a fair number of locals seem to manage it, Don McGlashan still tours and records with nary a bum note and Moana Maniapoto's iwi funk has somehow rendered her ageless, while singing remains a daily joy for Dame Malvina, even if it's only to her cows.

Now, I'm not going to embarrass the multi-award-winning, American chart-registering, country singer/ songwriter/ musician Tami Neilson with inclusion among my opening cast of stars - after all she's very much alive - but artists could do a lot worse than learn from this ex-pat Canadian's example.

Now 39, she started out as one of the Neilson Family, and graduated from busking to performing throughout north America at 13.

It was a heady plunge into the only job she's really known.

But even as she was opening for Johnny Cash and partying with the Osmonds, her eyes were always open wide.

"I guess I've always had a very clear view. My dad was a professional musician, so I saw both sides, the excitement and joy of accomplishment and celebrating all that, but also the ticking along every day, the grunt work. I've never had those stars in my eyes, the dream that one day I'll make it big ... I sometimes think it must be nice to have that little honeymoon period, just for a little while."

Instead, the Neilson approach was to never, ever say no, because, as she says, every opportunity plants a seed and the more seeds you plant the greater your chance that one of them will bloom.

Even so, whenever they were travelling and passed someone carrying a guitar or some such, dad would slow the bus, wind down the window and shout: 'Don't do it, it's a trap!'

"And we'd all laugh," says Neilson. It's funny 'cos it's true ... especially when she followed her new husband to his home in New Zealand and found that her beloved country was almost a dirty word in these parts.

It didn't matter how many gigs she'd played, who she knew, or how good she was, Neilson was back at square one.

If that was dispiriting, a trip back to Nashville almost ended her career.

"I was in my 20s then, when everything was about appearance, midriff-baring, blonde teens, and I was never that girl. But it doesn't matter who you are, Prince, Lorde, anybody, there is always someone trying to tell you what to do, 'ditch the family', 'sing this', 'you're not doing it right'."

I've stuck to a slow, steady pace, it's been my cunning 10-year plan, and I've never banked on the notion that I would ever be an overnight success. Now I'm hoping that the longer I take to get there, the longer I can stay.

What began an opportunity to write songs with country hall of famer, Dennis Morgan, in Nashville evolved into an opportunity to audition for reality television show, Nashville Star, a country version of American Idol.

After two auditions, where the only attention anyone paid was to her chest, she was ready to give up singing: "It was so disheartening, awful, and it almost tipped me over edge. To have been in this business my whole life and be reduced to that was just so embarrassing. It was a humiliating situation."

So Neilson started seeing herself as an ex-singer until a friend pulled her aside for a pep talk: "Your songs are great, your voice is great, so forget everyone else and go write for yourself." As isolated as she felt, New Zealand was probably the ideal place for a do-over.

The first thing she did was slather blackboard paint all over a wall of the couple's Mt Eden home to scribble out a five-year plan and figure out who the hell she was.

"That was really important, it's so easy to lose focus when you're caught up in the week to week scramble of moving from gig to gig."

She also had to whip up a solo act - as part of the family band she'd never had to play guitar before.

Not that she'd shaken off her family completely, her first solo albums were all recorded in Canada; lo-fi, acoustic country efforts produced by her brother and, in part, sung around the kitchen table.

It wasn't so much a stylistic conceit as a financial necessity, Neilson simply couldn't afford studio time.

But the result was that New Zealand began to take notice and the Tui music awards began to flow.

Yet she still felt like a foreigner. New Zealand is notoriously cliquey and even though country was undergoing a resurgence, Neilson was an outsider.

The first time she approached current band mate Dave Khan at an open mic night on Ponsonby Rd, he basically shunned her.

It wasn't until she sang on a track for his band, the Broadsides, that he had his "holy shit" moment.

Even then, acceptance wasn't a done deal; her onstage personality was too big for some and she's made a deliberate effort to reel herself in.

"Sure, I'm a confident performer," she says.

"But some people mistake that for ego, like I was full of myself. To me they are very different things, but that's just how things are here ..."

Still, her growing reputation saw her included in the seminal Gunslingers Ball and Great Hayride tours, packaged gigs featuring the cream of our new breed of country players. "They were the country Olympics," says Neilson.

"Not so much because they were competitive, but playing with people like Nadia [Reid], Marlon [Williams] and Delaney [Davidson] lifts the bar, you had to really bring it."

She'd finally found her people and it was time to take things up a gear. "I'd never recorded with drums before and I'd never really had other people having input into my songs, mostly because of money, but now I could actually afford to pay musicians ...with Dynamite, I think a lot of people were expecting more of my acoustic stuff. I mean we thought we'd laid down something good, but you can never tell."

Dynamite changed everything. Her first single, Walk (Back to Your Arms) won the Silver Scroll award, and as something awarded by her fellow songwriters it was hugely emotional.

But she remains a one-woman, self-managed band who's up every morning to tend her social media profile, answer emails and find time between dealing with her two young kids to sing the odd melody into her cell phone.

But things are definitely progressing.

Most exciting of all is being accepted to play at the prestigious Americana festival in Nashville, an opportunity to lift the tapu from her last appearance there.

She's also going to be playing in Canada, with her New Zealand band, and with her family watching.

It's exciting and terrible at the same time, because her much-loved father didn't live to see it.

But none of this has been an accident.

Sure, she has the talent and the background, but she wouldn't have come close to her evident success without a bloody-minded determination to keep going, keep evolving and keep saying yes.

"I've stuck to a slow, steady pace, it's been my cunning 10-year plan, and I've never banked on the notion that I would ever be an overnight success. Now I'm hoping that the longer I take to get there, the longer I can stay... and if anything I might have to start learning how to say no."

- NZ Herald

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