Carla Werner is a 29-year-old, part-Maori singer-songwriter with an American major-label record deal, an impressive debut album and a slightly Australian accent. So why haven't we heard of her before?

She sighs. When Werner supports the Pretenders tonight it will be the first time she's played her own material back home, an opportunity she has been craving for years.

She has lived abroad since she was a teenager but she still visits her father on his Northland dairy farm nearly every year. What's more it has taken 7 1/2 years, three countries, four producers and five studios to record Departure, an aptly named collection of mature pop songs tinged with brooding blues, breezy jazz and powerhouse rock.

Werner describes her vocals as "woody" - at times they tremble with a passion reminiscent of Jeff Buckley, at others, they rise from a low, husky murmur to a trilling soprano.


Werner's certainly isn't what you'd call an overnight success story. In fact there was a period of three years, when, after years of singing country music and performing in competitions, she packed it in altogether.

It wasn't until she was 19 and had been living in Australia's Gold Coast with her mother that her passion for music really took hold.

She headed for Sydney on her own, where she was "so enthralled by everything - it was a huge culture shock after coming from a farm in Kaitaia" - she decided to start writing songs, touring the Sydney pub circuit with a guitarist mate from Mt Maunganui, playing covers.

"If I hadn't have done that I still would have been back where I was seven years ago - with a voice but not knowing how to fine-tune it," she says.

"It was incredible, especially singing songs by different artists in different styles. It really gave me a scope, a huge variation of things I can do with my voice. And it's great to learn how to play through a crowded bar with lots of chatter, you know? You get used to it, you become resilient towards it. You just get your skin on and away you go."

That hardy attitude came in handy. No one in Australia knew what to do with her music, she says, so she set off to put together an independent album with Natalie Merchant's producer, John Holbrook, in New York.

Meanwhile Australian label the Engine Room headhunted her, offered her a deal and sent her off to meet producer Carmen Rizzo in LA, where she also recorded backing vocals for star DJ Paul Oakenfold. The label encouraged her to shop herself around and one day she ambled into the Columbia Records office in New York, guitar in hand, where an impromptu performance for the company's president led to her first major-label contract.

"It didn't really bother me because I've busked and I've worked at bars and I've done all sorts of things. I did feel a little uncomfortable because it just felt a little bit cheesy to me, to go and play the guitar in front of people and go, 'Hey! This is me!"'

For the past 3 1/2 years Werner has been based in LA, where she finished the album with Coldplay producer Ken Nelson and Australian Lucius Borich. Last year she went on tour for the first time with the Jayhawks and the Thorns.

"It was very, very cool travelling across North America. It's just littered with cities, that place. You can drive for five hours and bang! You're in the heart of a metropolis. It's quite astounding." Werner will continue to work in that part of the world but says she'd determined to divide her time between LA, Australia and New Zealand.

"Of course I tell people I'm a Kiwi, are you kidding? That's a flag that I wave really high. I was listening to a lot of Kiwi music when I was driving around in my beaten-up old bomb, living in LA. It really made me feel like I had a connection to home. I love Dave Dobbyn's old songs and Split Enz. I grew up with that stuff."


* Who: Carla Werner

* Where and when: Pretenders support tonight at Aotea Centre; Tabac, 6 Mills Lane, Auckland city, tomorrow night (free)