With her new album Sassafrass! I reckon Tami Nielson has hit the mother lode. When I spoke to her the back story to the sound of the record is complex and really interesting.
"My story begins in Toronto, Ottawa in Canada, and then to the smaller mining town of Sudbury, five hours north. You can't miss it because, in the true tradition of a Big Carrot in Ohakune or the Big Banana in Australia's Coffs Harbour, your introduction to Sudbury is a Big Nickel"
"My late dad Warren had been a fulltime musician since he was 17 and my mum was musically talented so I guess my introduction to a career was almost pre-ordained. When I was 13 I became a fulltime singer and sometimes accompanist in The Neilsons, as part of the family business.
"Because we were constantly on the road I didn't go to school which sort of explains my musical influences. Instead of being influenced by my peers' tastes from the music of the day. Because we were together literally most of the time it was the music that Dad and Mum played which initially cast its shadow over me. This meant the Beatles, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and especially Dolly Parton, Judy Garland, Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn. These were the touchstones that have stayed with me and also inspired me to write songs as well."
Tami arrived in New Zealand in 2007, marrying a Kiwi, and "basically" just carried on from where she had left off in North America, where she had already built a following. Her profile grew rapidly and recording sessions saw 2014's Dynamite and Don't Be Afraid the next year helped her create a fanbase here while regular touring maintained her reach into the States and Canada. Instrumental to this progress was her brother Jay, her band, and Ben Edwards' now-renowned studio, the Sitting Room in Lyttelton.
"Over the past few years I have been extremely lucky with the way my career has developed. My dad in particular had instilled in me a strong work ethic which played a large part, along with my own approach to song-writing. I also managed to surround myself with good people, like my brother Jay, my band and the crew at the recording studio in Lyttelton. I wanted my next album to be different and to grow my performance and especially my song-writing.
"I was listening to a lot of soul music and then out of the blue I was also asked to curate and perform a Gospel show for the Christchurch Jazz and Blues Festival in the Cardboard Cathedral. Initially I baulked at the idea thinking it would take her too far from her comfort zone. But then I realised that we could broaden the brief a little and a lot of the music I was now listening to would fit into this show.
"Luckily the organisers and I reached a compromise and it became more of a soul show. I brought together a 20-song set list from the likes of Ray Charles, Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and especially Mavis Staples, who I adore. My approach has always go big or go home, and the programme was a resounding success, and that set the scene for the what became the album Sassafrass.
"Choosing the songs for the Jazz Festival show took me on a trip back to my early days when my folks were listening to blues artists like Howlin' Wolf, Lightnin' Hopkins, Etta James, Janis Joplin and again Mavis Staples. The song choices reflected not just delivering a gritty and passionate vocal performance , but I realised that I would have to take on a big stage personality, with a mix of swagger and intimacy.
"The next few months I was mostly on the road in North America but I was also gestating the new record. I wanted to deliver some messages which have always been close to my heart, mostly about my views on how much harder it us for women to make their way in the music world. I reckon that the first song on the album, Stay Out of My Business, represents my feelings pretty well and I am especially proud of the video we made to go with it. Overall Sassafrass! reflects the passion I had developed for soul, gospel and blues music.
"Bananas is a fun novelty song, and I have no idea where that one came from. I was definitely channelling a late night Ray Charles persona on Diamond Ring, and yes on A Woman's Pain, I was inspired by Bobbie Gentry and her song about the Tallahachie Bridge. It was also based on the life of my grandmother's teen pregnancy and shotgun wedding. I had to find a way to involve the late Sharon Jones on the record which is called Miss Jones, and I had the idea for Manitoba Sunrise at Motel Six when I heard about Glen Campbell's death. I knew when the sessions at the Sitting Room studios were done that Sassafrass! was quite different and it will be interesting with our upcoming tour to see how it is received."
With a road trip to China and through Canada under their belt Tami and the band will have honed the studio sounds into a compelling live performance for their New Zealand tour. Tami Neilson's band go under the moniker of the Hot Rockin' Band of Rhythm. Their line-up is Joe MacCallum drums, Mike Hall bass, Brett Adams guitar and Neil Watson guitar and pedal steel. The album Sassafrass! was co-produced by Tami and Ben Edwards.
Tami Neilson and her band are playing Hamilton's Clarence St, Wednesday August 1, in Napier at MTG Century Theatre, Thursday August 2, Wellington Town Hall Friday August 3 and at Auckland Town Hall, Saturday August 4.