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A kiss, a hug, and a good strong cup of tea. Visiting Anika Moa's house is just like arriving on the marae.

"Are you sure you don't want something stronger?" she asks. There's beer and wine on offer, and a whisky or a gin as well by the looks of the top shelf in the kitchen of her Mt Eden home.

The cuppa is great, and the spongy couch is just as soft and tatty as those mattresses in a meeting house.

"Hope you don't mind doing the interview at my house - with me panties hanging in the lounge," she smiles, jostling the clothes rack. Ah yes, Anika Moa, the cheeky and friendly Maori girl who writes those beautiful songs, swears like a trooper and is a self-confessed " hori".

She's always been into her Maori culture - be it as part of the kapa haka group at high school in Christchurch or being able to hold a conversation in te reo. But in the four years since her debut album Thinking Room was released she has learned about her culture even more.

Her latest album Stolen Hill begins and ends with two short Maori songs. Imagine the reaction that would get in the American market, I suggest. "They'd be like, 'Those bloody Ma-oris," she laughs. "But that's not going to happen. I would never, ever sell my album to that kind of market. 'Cause they just wouldn't [expletive] accept it. They'd fire it back at us."

Her slight grudge towards the American music industry is understandable. She was, back in 2000, the first New Zealand act to sign direct to a major international record company without having established herself at home first. She was 20 then, the American thing didn't really work out, and she doesn't give a hoot. More on that part of her life later.

But Stolen Hill, she says simply, "Is just me growing up."

"I wrote all these songs in [the past] four years and I was starting to experience new things and reading different books about the Maori land wars and Parihaka. Do you know about Parihaka? We didn't get taught that at school."

Stories like the invasion of Parihaka - a Maori settlement in Taranaki whose people practised non-violent resistance in opposition to land confiscations - in 1881 by colonial forces left a big impression on her. The album's title track is about how unfairly Maori were manipulated during the land wars and how that still haunts us today.

"I decided to give myself knowledge about the whole of New Zealand's heritage, not just my tribal heritage, and that exposed a lot and made me feel a lot about being Maori. So I had to write about it and I had to write these songs so I could feel better about myself.

She certainly has strong opinions on Destiny Church (a church her father belonged to, but, she says gleefully, has now quit), which are referred to in the song Broken Man.

"Destiny Church are taking advantage of poor Maori people who are lost, and have no home, but want to find something to believe in, so they go to corporations like that," she says staunchly.

"People will say, 'Okay, she's gone away from the pop thing'. But I didn't do it on purpose. I just can't write pop songs any more. My standards have risen. Every single word in the song has to be perfect and very, very honest and intelligent. I don't just want to have words that rhyme any more."

She quotes a line from Falling In Love Again, off Thinking Room: "'There's a boy in every town, no wonder I get around.' You know, such a dumb, lame line. It can't be like that any more, there has to be a more inventive way of saying, 'There's a boy in every town, no wonder I get around.'

"I used to think no one would ever bother listening to my lyrics because everyone would think, 'Whatever, she's just a pop singer'. Then I realised people do listen to lyrics,'cause I do, and I get inspired by what certain people say, so I have to start talking about what I believe in, especially as a New Zealander and as a Maori."

During the interview she occasionally mocks Thinking Room and jokingly warbles a few lyrics from her debut single, Youthful. She seems amused at how naive and bashful it is.

Thinking Room was a beautifully polished, American-made album.

"Go on," she butts in, "you can say it. Over-polished. Over-produced, you can say it - I won't get offended," she smiles.

But she's more serious about Stolen Hill and sums up the differences between the two albums easily: "Stolen Hill is not as over-produced; more sparse, more feeling, more family-like, more Maori, more me."

She puts the long break between the two albums down to touring and record company problems.

"I toured for two years, and then I wrote the album for two years, and that's what took up my time," she says dismissively. Then continues: "Touring, going overseas, living overseas, having a life and that Warner thing."

That "Warner thing" was last year's redundancies and downsizing at her New Zealand record label Warner Music, which meant delays in recording the album.

"That was more to do with the delay than me. I was sitting there twiddling my thumbs."

One of the casualties of the Warner Music restructure was managing director James Southgate, the person responsible for kick-starting her international career. In 1998 Southgate heard the song Flowers For You that Moa had recorded when she was a finalist in the high school music competition, the smokefreerockquest.

That song got into the hands of Ron Shapiro, the head of Warners affiliate company Atlantic Records in the US. As a teenager she went to New York and played her songs for Shapiro and he loved them.

"Ron Shapiro loved me, and he told me so every day, and we were going to make an album, but I didn't want that. I didn't want him to do anything. I just wanted to tour, and I didn't want them to pressure me into being something that I'm not. It [success] might have happened, it may not have. But I still don't want that, I just want to tour. I'm not into it to get famous and I'm obviously not in it to get rich," she says, motioning round her lounge which resembles a tidy student flat.

She says she went through a period of wanting to be dropped by both her American and local record labels. She even asked them if they could drop her. "They said, 'No way Jose'."

"[Atlantic] are still my record company so I probably can't bag them but they're definitely not right for me," she laughs, with a snort. "Ha, I just totally bagged them.
"It's all about touring for me and getting good record companies that understand that it's about writing music, being in love with your work and being passionate about your music."

Another important role music plays for Moa is collaborating with other musicians. She has been part of Shayne Carter's band Dimmer in recent years and Carter, along with Bic Runga and Anna Coddington from Duchess, make guest appearances on Stolen Hill.

The album was recorded at Bethells Beach, on Auckland's west coast, with producer and musician Ed Cake (formerly of local indie band, Bressa Creeting Cake) and mixed in New York by Victor Van Vugt who produced Thinking Room.

Musically, Cake - a somewhat unsung musical genius - has taught her a lot.

"He's mental. The most mentalist person I've ever worked with or hung out with, but he is a good friend still. And we had a lot of fights but we also had a lot of hugs. We're both quite turbulent people, and we both get quite depressed really easily - or really, really excited. There were moments when we were like a rollercoaster but it evened itself out. But he's good to work with - crazy, but good to work with.

"He put that much quirk into it," she says, adding a pinch of salt in mid air. "But not too much. Like Annie Goes To Sleep, that's Ed Cake, that's him doing his thing. He threw his guitar on the floor, untuned it, stood on it, and recorded it."

Moa says she had to rein in Cake's loony musical mind every now and then, like when he had Carter, Runga, Coddington, and herself, singing like opera singers. "But the guitar moment was a good moment so we retained that," she says.

On first listen, Stolen Hill sounds serene and beautiful, but the wonky and sometimes discordant additive that Cake brings to it gives it a haunting depth. That's why Moa describes it as "a [expletive] slow-burning album".

She says she's learned to be happy with herself nowadays, which comes through in the album, and she's also trying to be a better person. "Because musicians are very selfish. Except for Dave Dobbyn; he's not," she says affectionately. "He's very giving. And he's a good storyteller, and he's kinda cute."

Moa came to this conclusion about musicians three weeks ago while on a week-long song-writing trip with Runga, Carter and Coddington at Mahia Peninsula in Hawkes Bay - where Runga's father is buried.

Instead of writing songs the girls ended up "gossiping about boys, and life, and love, and loss, and we made these greenstones".

She pulls at a chunky weight around her neck. "It took us 14 hours to make these. Shayne just went downstairs and wrote an album and we didn't see him all week. There was no TV, no phone reception, which pissed me off because I love Shortland St and I really love my phone. But I just read books and knitted. Bic cooked sometimes, and then she got a cold and then I got a cold and then we played table tennis.

"But," she emphasises, "we're all bloody selfish. But we try to be good people. We all noticed that we were all really nice people, and humble, but selfish in a way that it's all about us. It's all about me, me, me, me, me, me. And, 'poor me', and 'my songs'. Selfish in that way, not in an evil way.

"But I suspect if I wasn't selfish then I wouldn't be a songwriter, which means I wouldn't be able to do an album that people hopefully like. So I've got to make that sacrifice," she giggles. 


Lowdown


Who: Anika Moa, Auckland-based singer/songwriter


New album: Stolen Hill, out August 1


Releases: Thinking Room (2001)


Key tracks: From Thinking Room - Youthful, Falling In Love Again, Good In My Head, Mother; from Stolen Hill - In The Morning, Broken Man, Loving You, Annie Goes To Sleep.