An inspirational country singer and songwriter will return to the Pounamu Country Music Awards in Levin this weekend as a guest performer.
Roimata Neilsen, 33, doesn't have to look far past her own life and personal experiences for inspiration in writing her own country songs.
The youngest of six children, she inherited a love for country music from her late mother Doris Neilsen, a life member and a founder of the Delta Country Music Club in Foxton more than 30 years ago.
All the Neilsen children were encouraged to sing. The Delta club provided a place for the children to sing, and "we could sing whatever we wanted," she said.
"It wasn't just country. My first song was How Much Is That Doggy In The Window. My Mum wasn't too fussed what song you sang, as long as you were enjoying it."
"I pretty much started singing before I could talk and Mum got me into country music early on. She grew up with country music and had a passion for country music and music itself, and it was a place to sing our little hearts out," she said.
"She loved singing."
Her father Greg doesn't sing, though.
"He's a professional member of the audience."
While she liked to perform mainstream songs at competition, she was sitting on a stash of 14 country songs that she had written and composed herself, and like all country music, they tell a story.
One song was a tribute to her mother and described the pain of losing her, while another was about the beauty of her parents' marriage together.
"That's the beauty of country music. It tells a story and makes it relatable. I use my life experiences and it gives me something tangible to put to the healing process," she said.
"When I am down I can be reminded of the beauty of my mum."
"But I haven't performed any of my originals yet. You are your own worst critic and I don't want to expose them until they are ready," she said.
And like many country songs with a story to tell, she had plenty of her own including a journey of weight-loss.
"That's the beauty of music. You find strength in other people's stories," she said.
Neilsen lost 56kg in the last six months. She hoped sharing her story might inspire others.
In recent years her struggle with weight had become serious and it was suggested she look at Mexico as an option for a gastric bypass surgery.
Initially the operation seemed too expensive.
"I did my research and found Mexico was a leading service provider for the US and used by people from New Zealand, Canada and Australia. It was less than a third of the price had I had it done in New Zealand," she said.
The entire cost was $17,000, which included the cost of surgery and all other associated costs, including a support person who travelled with her.
"It has been the best investment...in me..in my life," she said.
Neilsen was told she would have to lose 12kg before the journey to Mexico in a prescribed a pre-operation diet eight weeks out. But she was so determined that she started the diet early and by the time she arrived in Mexico she had lost 22kg in total.
"It was a goal I set down to lose as much as I could before surgery to give myself the best chance," she said.
Since the surgery in July she had lost a further 34kg. She maintains it was the best thing she had done for herself.
"My joints were screaming at me, I was socially awkward," she said.
"My passion was to perform and sing and be on stage and it was uncomfortable for people, to stare at me for my size rather than my talent."
"I've still got a long way to go. It's not going to go overnight. It's a health journey and I'm slowly getting there."
"It has affected me in a good way. I am able to sustain longer notes and it is not as difficult to breath and I have a lot more energy."
"It hasn't changed the person that I am. I'm just a healthier version of myself."
Neilsen had a teaching degree and taught Te Reo Māori at a total emersion school for four years before enrolling at Whitireia where she completed a Bachelor of Music degree, studying all genre, and her passion for music and composing music grew.
Attending the Country Music Awards finals in Tauranga recently was an amazing experience, she said.
"It was a foreign experience because everybody around me had been there previously, but it was a great experience."