Three musical powerhouses will celebrate International Women's Day tomorrow in the best way they know how, writes Siena Yates.

"Let's talk about boys."

"Who do you have a crush on?"

"Which member of your band have you slept with?"


Sitting down with three of New Zealand's most renowned artists - country legend Tami Neilson, rock star Julia Deans and pop star Bic Runga - we put on voices and ask these questions like they're jokes.

But the mood sobers within seconds when I realise none of them are kidding - these are real questions they've often had to field purely by virtue of being women.

"Oh yeah," Julia Deans says, nodding. "It's happened on more than one occasion, going into an interview and being asked that sort of jocular ... 'Which member of your band would you sleep with?' "

Neilson has her own story: "Currently people always say, 'which one is your husband?'"

We came together to discuss Milk and Honey, a new female-centric music festival they're all playing for International Women's Day. This was not how any of us expected our chat to start.

SCROLL DOWN to hear the conversation in our new podcast TimeOut in Conversation .

But it's just the tip of the iceberg. Over the next hour, they continue to reveal the "everyday misogyny" they face, the barriers raised against them as mothers, and the sexist expectations and "unspoken rules" of their industry.

That's why Milk and Honey exists; they've come together to push through those barriers as a collective. They, with a host of other female and gender non-binary artists and crew, will pull off a New Zealand first: A festival for women, by women, taking place simultaneously in four cities throughout the country.

"Really it's just an excuse to hang out with your girlfriends and sing and make music," says Neilson.

She is kidding, of course. She actually specifically planned her weekend to make sure she could fit in the festival, even if it meant getting only a couple of hours' sleep before flying to Australia for another festival at 4am the next day.

"That shows you how badly I wanted to do this festival. I thought, what better way to celebrate International Women's Day than with all these colleagues and women whom I admire and respect and have worked with?"

It's obvious that sense of camaraderie is shared by all three of them and they even extend it to me.

Filming a video to run with this story online, we're in hair and makeup together, in front of the cameras and under the lights together. They're used to it. I'm not. But there's nothing quite like Julia Deans nodding encouragingly, Bic Runga reminding you to breathe, and Tami Neilson laughing loud at your dumb joke so you feel a little less out of your depth.

Without hesitation, they do their best to make me one of the gals and it truly feels genuine. This is wāhine toa; the strength of women uplifting other women, fighting the good fight together.

And wāhine toa is how Milk and Honey got started. Deans was looking for female and non-binary artists to open for her album tour and was inundated with submissions from artists around the country, leading to a wider discussion about giving such women a platform to perform.

PC gone mad? Not quite. It's actually a platform which is more necessary than you might think. Neilson recalls an "unspoken rule" about support acts: "Never have a female open for another female".

A rule which surprises me but draws another knowing nod from Deans and an "oh yeah!" from Runga. They know the drill all too well. That same rule, it turns out, often applies to radio play as well.

Deans and Neilson have also been declined from festival line-ups - often woefully lacking in female acts - on the grounds that "we already have a female" - "as if that's a genre!"

"We think we've come along away but we've still got a long way to go," Neilson points out.

In no sphere is that more painfully obvious than when it comes to parenting.

Runga is mum to two girls and a boy and Neilson has two boys. Both have experienced the way being a mother can isolate an artist from the industry.

"I've noticed that no one in the industry especially goes out of their way to champion working mothers . . . I've been around for 20 years but now pretty much everyone I work with is female because they seem to be the only ones wanting to help me," says Runga.

"It's like you're a different archetype . . . you're a mother, you're not a young girl or someone they can manipulate. It's different. But also they assume that you couldn't handle it."

Neilson chimes in: "I've had conversations where it's like, 'we didn't ask you because we know you have kids at home' and it's like, 'well isn't that my decision to discuss with my partner and my family?' So you [miss] opportunities before you even get asked because . . . they've kind of put you in that box.

"Growing up in the music industry since I was 10, you obviously encounter everyday misogyny - the comments about your looks and sexuality and your weight and all of that - and it's kind of just water off a duck's back. But I had never encountered this misogynistic attitude so heavily until I dared to be a mum who also continued to be a touring musician.

It was advice from fellow musician Ladi6 - who is also on the Milk and Honey lineup - that helped Neilson to get over not only the barrier others had put up against her, but the one inside her making her buy into the guilt.

She said: "I know it's a different set of rules for us but you're never going to have to say to your boys; 'Follow your dreams, make sure that you work hard'. They're watching you do it every day . . . you're a living example."

It's that very idea that pushes them all not just to keep moving forward, but to make sure they carry others down the path with them. That's why Milk and Honey exists; "the dream" is to create a world in which women don't have to fight to be heard, where they can be seen as they are and where young girls can see themselves in their musical heroes.

The tide is already changing in Hollywood. We've seen it recently with things as grim as #MeToo and as seemingly superfluous as the Grammys, when the likes of Ariana Grande and even New Zealand's Lorde were denied their chances to perform because they wouldn't do the performance the Grammys' bosses told them to do, instead insisting on their own artistic vision.

We also see it in the likes of Adele, Pink and Kelly Clarkson speaking out about beauty and body standards in Hollywood.

The change isn't coming from those at the top doing better, it's coming from women demanding better. I start to explain it by saying: "The change is more that women are being empowered to . . . "

But Deans finishes my thought in her own, totally frank way: " . . . to say get f***ed."

That's the gist of it.

"For these women to be going, 'Well no, you're not letting me represent myself in the way that I believe I should be represented. I'm not going do it at all', that in itself is a really strong, powerful message for other women to receive," says Deans.

"You don't have to bend over and do what they say, you don't have to go and put on a pretty dress and lose 10 pounds 'because we say so' - because that happens a lot."

"The real change is just whether you take it on board," adds Neilson. "I've definitely been told; 'you're 10 pounds from being a star' and I keep eating and I'm still not a star," she laughs.

"You know, 'you'll never make it with your teeth like that' and it's like really? It doesn't matter that I can sing like a mo-fo through these teeth?"

This is the point: All these powerful, talented women have been told no a thousand times, but they still keep pushing.

"I see [Milk and Honey] as . . . instead of saying, 'wouldn't it be great if there was a female festival?' Well now there is, we're doing it and it's a celebration. It's a positive thing in the face of so much negativity, something really inspiring," says Neilson.

"I think it's good for young female artists to know that they have the power to write their own songs, produce their own records, play their own instruments . . . that there's no real gatekeeper to being able to make art," Runga says.

"You've just got to take it upon yourself and just . . . just do it."

Who: Julia Deans, Bic Runga, Tami Neilson
What: The Milk and Honey Festival
When: Tomorrow for International Women's Day
Info: See

Check out more of our chat with Tami, Julia and Bic in our new podcast, Time Out In Conversation: