In celebration of New Zealand Music Month, Tami Neilson talks music, motherhood and marriage with Elisabeth Easther. Born in Canada, Tami Neilson grew up as a member of family band The Neilsons. Life as a musician was largely mapped out, at least until Tami fell in love with a Kiwi, and had to rebuild her career from scratch in Aotearoa. Embraced by her new homeland, Tami has since won numerous awards, and has two nominations for this year's APRA Best Country Music Song. The winner will be announced on May 30.
Now that I'm a parent, I look back and think my parents were insane, or brave, possibly both, to pack up three kids under the age of 12 and go on the road fulltime in a 30-foot motorhome. Although, whatever you grow up doing just feels normal, and you don't think of it as odd till you're older. We spent long periods in the motorhome travelling between gigs, and my brothers and I would sit at the kitchen table, and do our school work, much as we would in a normal house, the only difference being we were hurtling down the highway at 100km/h.
To my mind, it was this beautiful thing, the best of both worlds – normal family life mixed with showbiz and touring. We did squabble, we were a regular family in that regard. Sometimes we'd fight and there'd be nowhere to go, so Dad would pull up to a mall and we'd all go our separate ways for a few hours to cool off.
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We were home-schooled, but it wasn't correspondence as we were constantly travelling with no fixed address; but we had a curriculum, although I never got an official diploma. If I grew up and wanted to do something different it might have been a setback but I had an invaluable foundation. Dad drove the tour bus, booked gigs and organised merch, he wore all the hats and I had the Neilson hustle instilled in me from a young age.
A girlfriend of mine married a Kiwi and, when she got homesick, I came out to visit, and through her I was introduced to Grant. We started with a long-distance relationship, ping-ponging back and forth for five years. There's a reason we fall in love when we're young; if we were older maybe we wouldn't take such risks. But love is a powerful thing and it can pull you across the world and take you from everything you've ever known.
Because the entertainment industry is all me, me, me, it's great to be with someone in Grant's line of work - he's with the police - because his work is all about helping other people. We have a really good balance. Grant is completely practical, he's not wired like an artist. But most importantly, he's compassionate and kind. We have those foundations, those building blocks, in common and we laugh a lot. Of course we have disagreements but I have never had a screaming fight with him, and I can be a very passionate, loud person, while he's very calm, steady and solid.
My parents loved him. On one of Grant's trips to Canada, he asked my parents for my hand before he proposed. Dad said they couldn't be more thrilled but he made Grant promise that, no matter what happens, you'll never let her give up on her music. And Grant has kept that promise.
It's definitely a big challenge, being a musician and a mum. As much as you love what you do, you're always torn and, unfortunately, when you're with one, you're without the other. During this pandemic, while I've had to grieve as I've watched everything I've worked for fall apart in a matter of weeks, years of work disintegrated, there's definitely a silver lining - all this precious time at home with my kids. The boys are 5 and 8, and I think of the times I've sat in green rooms and fantasised about this very thing, nowhere to go, nowhere to be and no anxiety about the next time I'll be parted from them.
When I'm on tour, they send me little videos, and I wonder how I could have left them when they're so tiny. I once made the mistake of sitting in a green room watching those movies, and I rang my husband - who knows what time it was in New Zealand - and I cried, "I can't keep doing this, I've been watching videos of the babies and I'll never get that time back." And Grant said, "Even if you were here 24/7, you'd still never get that time back. We all feel that loss. None of us get that time back. As a musician, this is part of your work and when you're home, you're all theirs."
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Growing up on tour, we'd have a busy season and a dead season with winters in Canada and I definitely had my share of side hustles. I was a cosmetician in a local drug store doing makeovers for housewives. I've worked in shops, a women's gym, I've done nannying. When I landed in New Zealand, I didn't know anybody, so I would sing anywhere and everywhere. I did four-hour sets at SkyCity, the 10pm-2am slot, singing ABBA and Kylie Minogue to backing tracks. I did heaps of open mic nights at folk clubs to find my people, musicians I could work with or collaborate with. When you don't know anyone, it is daunting.
When Lucinda Williams toured here I couldn't afford a ticket to the actual show, so I had postcards printed that said: "If you love Lucinda, you might like ..." then info about a gig I was doing at The King's Arms. The flyer had my photo on it, although I hadn't factored in that I'd be handing them out, but that was the kind of hustle I did. It makes me kind of embarrassed now, but that's how I built my audience, one person at a time, one show at a time.
The most significant breakthrough was when my album Dynamite came out - winning the Silver Scroll was a game-changer. Up until then I'd won two or three Tui awards, but always associated with the country genre, but the Silver Scroll, it transcends genre, suddenly doors opened and the mainstream media was interested.
The future? To preserve mental health, I have to focus on what I can control and not look too hard at what I can't. I get emails at least weekly about cancellations, festivals falling over. I've accepted that touring is a long time away so I do the things I can control. I can't perform live, I have Chickaboom, my new album out, so I'm not going to produce a new one, so I've started making The Tami Show with my brother Jay in Canada. I'm doing things fans have asked me to do for years, like a beehive tutorial, or letting people peek in my closet. I used to laugh and say who has time for that, but now I do have time and it's my weekly connection with people. It's a lot of work but it's also a blessing to have something to create, a purpose and a focus plus it helps get my brother out of bed.
On The Tami Show: Live from lockdown in the rolling hills of New Zealand , Tami invites fans into her living room (and closet!) for a homemade helping of long-distance musical collaboration and answers to fans' questions in segments like "Ask Tami" and "Tami's Closet".