With her new album, Chickaboom!, Tami Neilson looks set to blow up America. And all she had to do was light a fuse under her own high heel-clad feet.
Coming in hot after 2018's big, bright and bold soul explosion Sassafrass!, her new one is a-rockin' and a-rollin' hootenanny of a record. For Neilson, the album represents big changes, not just because of its stripped-down sound but in every single aspect of the way she makes her living as a working musician.
"I changed the template," she tells me from behind a huge cup of lemon-honey tea in a sunny cafe on a Friday morning. "I realised that I'd lost my joy."
Touring the big sound of Sassafrass!, an album whose songs were decorated with saxophones and string sections and all manner of wild instrumentation, necessitated a big band and a big band required lots of shows to make it financially viable. She shudders when she recounts a European tour where they blitzed through 20 gigs in 22 days.
"It was relentless. I just completely burnt out. I lost my voice. It was full-on and too much," she says. "I remember getting home from that and not taking any shows for the summer. I was dreading going into a tour."
This led to the realisation that the traditionally relentless treadmill of the touring lifestyle had been created for young, single males. As she puts it, "I am none of those things. So why was I touring that way?"
Things, she realised, had to change.
Brainstorming with her husband on a weekend getaway she came up with a plan on how to make life work as both a touring musician in her 40s and as a mother of two young kids. She decided to blow it all to pieces. Starting with the touring treadmill.
"I really had to look at how things were working and then piece it back together in a structure that suits me at this time of my life," she says. "I'm not 20 anymore. I'm not going to sleep on someone's couch and then drive 12 hours and do a show for 50 people and be like, 'That was awesome!'"
Touring smarter, not harder was the answer.
"Now I'll fly in, do one festival, hit 10,000 people and fly home rather than spend a month and a half away from my kids singing to 100 to 200 people a night in clubs. The math makes sense but also emotionally, financially, all those things, it makes it way more sustainable."
This naturally fed into her next big change, the decision to ground her band.
It was really hard for me because I love my band," she says. "I love my guys, they've been with me for years, but financially it's crippling to fly five people from New Zealand overseas. You're maintaining five people on the road for five weeks. It's not sustainable financially and that, of course, adds to the stress."
The final step was to officially recruit her younger brother Jay. The pair have long written songs together but he's never been properly in her band. Now, he is.
"He would join me sometimes when I'd tour internationally, but I wanted to make it a permanent thing," she says. "I noticed a huge difference in my mental health whenever he was on a tour with me. Just having someone who's in it no matter what. If the money's great, if the money's crap. If the show's great, if the show's crap. They're there because they're part of your village. It really contributed to my joy, having part of my family with me on tour. So I talked to him and asked how he'd feel about making this more of a permanent thing and he crazily agreed."
Grinning she says, "I don't think he realised what he was getting into. He's a bit of a sucker and I capitalised on that. Which I have all my life."
Neilson decided to reinvent her band as a three-piece. She and her brother would twang the guitars and she had a couple of different drummers to call on depending on where they'd be playing. The plan is they all fly in - Jay lives in Toronto, Canada - they do the show and then split.
And it's this, more than anything else, that is responsible for the authentic Americana sound of her new record.
"People ask, 'What inspired this project?' and they think it's all creative and airy-fairy but, actually, a huge percentage of practicality went into the creation of Chickaboom!" she explains. "I wanted to create a sound where the fan expectation would be they'd get what they've heard and I wanted to be able to recreate it as a three-piece. I don't want any disappointment."
She says she couldn't have delivered another big-sounding record like Sassafrass! as a trio and if she'd tried people wouldn't have been satisfied at the shows.
"Sassafras! got as big as I wanted to go sonically. I feel that I want to be able to deliver what people fell in love with. So for Chickaboom! I flew Jay over and we stripped it all back."
When you want that classic gritty and raw sound there's only one person to turn to. And so she coaxed Lyttelton's dark folk troubadour Delaney Davidson out of the shadows to come up to Auckland's The Lab studios to co-produce the album with her.
"If anyone knows how to make the most out of nothing, it's Delaney," she smiles.
Sonically, she was inspired by the golden days of the legendary Sun Records roster, which put out albums from the likes of Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and Wanda Jackson. But it wasn't just the sound she wanted to capture, it was the whole ethos.
"You listen to their early stuff and its literally three people around a microphone. That's what I love."
Similar to Sun, they worked quickly. They played live in the studio, recording the album in a week, and then spending two days on the mix.
"I liken it to being a parent," Neilson says of the process. "You're efficient with what you have, whether it be time, creativity or resources. Delaney's very much a musician with that ethos. He's efficient with what he has. Not to say it wasn't hard to be like, 'Oh God, this song would sound great with a steel guitar!'". It really was a practice in restraint, keeping it sparse and succinct and having a lot of space. But I really wanted it to focus on the voice and for the songs to be punchy firecrackers. I think we achieved that."
She's not the only one. Two recent whirlwind trips to play big music festivals in Nashville and New Orleans lit the fuse and now America is ready to detonate.
"It definitely has that feeling," she agrees. "When I did AmericanaFest the showcases were really full and really important people were there. Normally, when you do those things you leave going, 'Did that do anything?' because it's so hard to quantify. You just hope something comes out of it. But this had such a tangible, immediate response. I'd meet people and they'd be like 'Oh yes, everyone's talking about you, you're the one to see.' So I can definitely feel that momentum. Which is a really great feeling.
"I remember sitting on the plane leaving Nashville and right before I had to turn off my phone, all of a sudden I was popping up after being tagged in all of these music publications I follow, like, Rolling Stone's list of the best things they saw at AmericanaFest," she says. "I just remember going 'wow'. Then it happened again in New Orleans last week, all my showcases were full, people that I absolutely revere like Ann Powers from NPR were there."
Then clapping her hands and exploding in joyous laughter she says, "I was soiling myself."
Who: Tami Neilson
What: New album Chickaboom!
When: Out Friday, February 14.
The Top 5 Songs from the legendary Sun Records
The sound of Chickaboom! is directly inspired by the golden era of Sun Records, the legendary independent record label. Set up in 1952 in Memphis, Tennessee, although now based in Nashville, Sun was the first label to record rock 'n' roll legends Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and, the King himself, Elvis Presley.
5: Good Rockin' Tonight - Elvis Presley (1954)
Presley's second Sun recording is this simple, straightforward slice of winking rock 'n' roll. While Presley may have been fairly green to recording, his charisma is obvious and arrives fully formed, opening with his suggestively elongated "Weeeellll," before the band kicks in and he finishes the line, "I heard the news there's good rockin' tonight." The public liked what they heard and the single sold 500,000 copies.
4:I Need a Man - Barbara Pittman (1956)
Sun didn't shine a light on many female artists, in fact, Pittman was the only woman to be signed to the label, but her raw husky vocal style deserves to be lit up. This track is an absolutely barnstorming rockabilly classic with an infectiously rhythmic shuffle, a terrific guitar solo and a rollicking piano solo to close. But the real star is Pittman's brutal, bluesy delivery, which sounds like she's pulling the words right out of her soul.
3: Go Go Go (Down the Line) - Roy Orbison (1956)
Coming from any singer aside from the Big O, this song's opening lyric, "You can't be my loving baby, you ain't got the style," would be a laughable boast. Here it's just a point of fact. This pounding tune was the b-side to Orbison's first Sun Records release, the novelty rocker Ooby Dooby, which is more notable for its cranking dancefloor-filling solos than its lyrics. Still, it sold 250,000 copies ensuring Orbison's more subversive tune got heard.
2: Blue Suede Shoes - Carl Perkins (1955)
Considered by many to be the first true rockabilly song, Blue Suede Shoes was an immediate hit, thanks to its successful merging of blues, country, rock 'n' roll and pop. It was Sun's first million-seller appearing on both the rhythm and blues and pop charts. While the Elvis version is the most famous cover version, Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix and even the Plastic Ono Band have taken a crack at it.
1: Folsom Prison Blues - Johnny Cash (1955)
If there's a more hardcore lyric in all of music than "I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die," then we don't want to hear it. In a lot of ways, this is the song that created the legend of the Man in Black, cementing Cash's outlaw image and making him the OG badass. Folsom Prison Blues became his signature song and really captured the public's imagination when, in 1968, he recorded a live version in front of inmates at the actual Folsom Prison.