If you've listened to the radio over the last few years, chances are you've heard the song Roam. You know the one. "Everywhere I roam is home / Everywhere I roam is home / Everywhere I roam is home, home, home, home, home." It's a catchy tune. So catchy that it's been played close to 13 million times on Spotify, and was the most played Kiwi song on the airplay charts for seven consecutive weeks in 2016.
Behind the song, the sweet voice, pithy lyrics and earworm hooks is 26-year-old Christchurch-born musician Theia (real name Em-Haley Walker). Sitting in Karangahape Rd's St Kevin's Arcade on a dreary Auckland afternoon, Walker stands out. She is no wallflower. She sips on green tea and peers out through blue-lensed glasses, looking every inch the pop star she's fast becoming.
Beneath the edgy fashion, however, there's a warmth and shyness that is endearingly Kiwi. When she speaks, her sentences are peppered with "likes", "I means" and "what nots". Walker might have been travelling around the world for the last two years, opening for superstars like Sia and working with various industry legends, but underneath it all she's just a South Island girl on the ride of her life.
She's been singing since she was a kid. "I've always just loved music and apparently always sang [as a child]. I suppose I've always been writing as well. I didn't really realise that I was actually writing songs but I guess I started when I was 7 or 8. I would write, like, poems and sing them and stuff. I just did it to express my feelings, and I'd always keep a little notebook beside my bed, like, all the way through school. Whenever I had anything I needed to get off my chest, I'd just write it."
She joined a kapa haka group when she was at primary school, although a crippling fear of performing saw her opt out early on. "I didn't realise that you had to perform, so as soon as I found out, I quit. Because I was just doing it for the love of it."
That fear of performance would follow her for years, although when she reached high school, she began to realise that she wanted to pursue a career in music. "I genuinely don't think I clocked it in my mind that I could actually do it for a living and as something that I enjoyed full-time until probably high school. When I realised that, I was like, 'Okay, this is really cool, I might as well just try and step up my game.'"
Music would have to wait, however, until after university. It was important to her to do that first. "If I hadn't done my degree I just feel like it wouldn't have been the right timing. I'm just very grateful for being able to take the time and learn."
Walker attended the University of Canterbury, completing a double major in te reo Maori and Maori and Indigenous Studies. She is Maori, and traces her whakapapa back to Waikato Tainui. "I finished school and I began studying basically to learn more about my identity and my taha Maori [Maori side]," she says.
"When I was at school I didn't even think I'd get into university. I didn't think I was smart or academic. There was just so much I got out of it; confidence, discipline, and knowing I could finish something like a degree … I mean, that was crazy, I never thought I'd do that."
Emerging from university fluent in te reo and with a deeper understanding of Maori culture, Walker felt more grounded in her identity. "I think that there's a struggle anyway, trying to figure out who you are, so the more pieces of the puzzle you have available to you, the better, and it's been really special understanding that part of me."
When Walker speaks about her Maoritanga, it is with joy and reverence. Her kui (grandmother) played a significant role in her life, introducing her to her hapu and iwi, and constantly supporting her talented moko (grandchild). Sadly, just before Roam was released, Walker's kui died. It was a loss that she felt keenly.
"I just kind of wish, because she was such a part of me, of my journey and so had my back and held my hand the entire time, gearing up to when I first released my music, that she was just able to be there for the rest of it."
Her kui gave Walker the kind of strength that enabled her to overcome her stage fright. "We'd sing together — she was so fab at harmonies, she could harmonise anything. I remember when we were at her brother's 80th. It was this packed out situation at the marae in the wharekai, really formal, where everyone is standing up and, like, giving speeches and what not and she was like, 'This is my moko and now she's going to sing for you.' She turned to me and said, 'Sing, moko.' So I stood up in front of all of these people and started singing. That was probably the year before Roam came out. She just sat there beaming and rocking. It was only for her. She was so proud."
She'd no doubt be even prouder if she could hear Walker's new song, Bad Idea. Slated for release on July 13, the song tackles the difficult subject of self-harm. It's a song Walker felt she had to release, so important is its kaupapa (message).
"I first wrote it in Sydney and the session ended up being so short. It was only a couple of hours, so I only had the verse and a chorus. I came back to New Zealand, spent a bit of time having some space, revisited the song again and then I was like, you know what? I can't sleep on this song. It needs to be out there."
Bad Idea was motivated both by Walker's own experiences and the desire to help other people. "I don't really care what kind of success or whatever it has, this song is so much bigger than a song. Music is able to speak in more ways than any other form of communication or art, so it's so important that it's out there."
"I have struggled with self-harm in the past. There were times when I didn't tell a soul about it and other times when I was lucky enough to have someone who I was able to talk to. It was also such a comfort when I'd read or see someone sharing their experiences. I know first-hand how important it is, to not feel alone or ashamed."
With lyrics like "So many times I didn't want to be alive / It's too heavy in this life / Am I strong enough to fight?" and "Hold on a second, it's a bad idea / Don't hurt yourself, it's a bad idea / Breathe in, breathe out / Just let it go," the song is both brutally honest and hopeful. It is sonically glittery, with bubblegum-pop melodies laid over a heavy, rolling bass. Despite its subject matter, it is not the melancholic dirge it easily could be.
The juxtaposition of such poignant lyrics over a happy soundscape was intentional.
"It's more digestible for people," Walker says. "[Bad Idea] is about self-harm, but it's also about hope and that's the main message that I want to give."
Self-harm is a subject that tends to stop a conversation in its tracks. Though we've come a long way in our approach to mental health, in no small part due to the work of heroes like Sir John Kirwan and Mike King, self-harm is still taboo. We may be reluctant to talk about it but self-harming behaviour is on the rise. The rate of intentional self-harm hospitalisations rose by 4.6 per cent in the period 2004-2013.
Shrouded in shame and misunderstanding, self-harm often inspires fear, particularly for parents. It's not hard to understand why. Self-harm is often connected in people's minds to suicide, and youth suicide numbers in New Zealand are the worst in the OECD. With a statistic of 15.6 suicides per 100,000 people aged between 15 and 19, our young people are ending their own lives at a rate twice as high as in the United States, and almost five times as high as the rate of youth suicide in the United Kingdom.
Although many people think of self-harm and suicide as being linked, most people who self-injure do not go on to end their lives. Experts suggest it can more often be a maladaptive coping mechanism than a precursor to suicide. As the Mental Health Foundation explains, "Often the injury will draw blood or leave a scar, but it is not usually the person's intent to kill themselves. Self-harm is often used as a way to deal with overwhelming or intense emotions." Still, there's no doubt that many young people in New Zealand are struggling to cope.
Walker, who had a close friend commit suicide as a teenager, hopes that her song will help some of those people. "I wanted to make sure that anyone who connects and identifies with this song knows that you don't have to be afraid, it's okay to ask for help and please ask for help because you're loved and you're not alone."
While writing a song about such a weighty subject is a new experience for Walker, she has been aware of the healing power of her music since the release of Roam. She's been receiving messages from fans thanking her for her songs for years. "There was this person who came from America and they were travelling in New Zealand and they said that they felt really alone. And then they just turned on New Zealand radio and Roam came on and it just became the song they would just listen to non-stop and it made them feel less alone.
"And then I got this other really beautiful message from a young guy in Pennsylvania, who said that Roam really helped him when he was coming out. That kind of lets you know that, 'hey, this is also why you do it'. You write something and it can change lives, I suppose. That's totally what music has done for me my whole life. It's like that comfort and that friend."
Walker points to Amy Winehouse as a musician who has helped her to deal with her own struggles. "Amy Winehouse is my favourite artist of all time. She's helped me since I was, like, 13. I've always understood her, because she's so honest."
Also helpful is self-care and a strong support network, she says. "I'm just figuring out what kind of things can help me. I'm starting to get there and I think the more we start to be more open and courageous about how we feel and looking after each other then I think that's going to help."
She makes sure to check in with her friends regularly. Like many young Kiwis, a number of them are away on their OEs. With Walker's music taking her all around the world, travel is an experience they have in common, and it's "quite special" when their paths cross. "I met one of my really good friends in New York in October last year and I was just, like, crying, going, Oh my gosh, literally a year ago we were sitting at this really cute place in Christchurch called Thai Container just planning ... and the fact that I'm just making music living my dream is unreal."
She is living her song, Roam, and if the next few years are anything like the last, she will likely only roam further.
As she says, the world's her, "what's a vegetarian version of oyster?" The world is her "vegan ramen bowl".
Help a friend
If you're concerned that someone may be self-harming or suicidal, the Mental Health Foundation gives the following advice:
• If you've noticed scars, marks, or behaviour that concerns you, but you are not sure whether the person is self-harming, talk to them. Ask them if they would like to talk about what's going on for them and be patient. They might not want to open up straight away, but letting them know you are there for them is a big help. Show them you care and that you are concerned.
• If someone tells you they are self-harming or they want to hurt themselves, take them very seriously. If they are seriously hurt or have taken any poisonous substances get help immediately. Call emergency services on 111 and ask for an ambulance, to take them to the emergency department at your nearest hospital.
• If you are worried they might be suicidal, ask them. It could save their life. Asking about suicide will not put the thought in their head. Support them to access professional help, like a doctor or counsellor. Go with them if possible.
• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
• Youth services: (06) 3555 906
• Youthline: 0800 376 633
• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• The Word
• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
• Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
• CASPER Suicide Prevention
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.
Bad Idea by Theia is released on July 13.
Click here to pre-order her new song now.