(Photo by Sophia Bayly)
TAMI NEILSON, A COUNTRY/ROCKABILLY SINGER rambunctious sometimes, sweet other times, full-force energy always, has a throaty, husky speaking voice. Though maybe a little more so today than on her new album, Kingmaker.
“I’ve had a terrible flu that is going around, not the Covid one, just a good old-fashioned one,” she says down the line. “So, pardon me if I sound like I’m hacking up a lung at any point.”
Having grown up north of the 49th parallel but long resident in the land of the long white cloud, does she hack up a lung in Canadian or in New Zealander?
“I’m bilingual: the right side and the left side,” she guffaws. “I think I’ve grown soft. I’ve definitely grown soft since living in New Zealand for the past 17 years.”
Worth asking though: how Canadian is she, or at least was she? During her childhood, her religiously-minded family band regularly traversed the country, hitting the Trans-Canada Highway just like in that great, long-forgotten song by Gene Pitney (and, yes, also the name of a Boards Of Canada album) playing gospel songs so she, her two brothers and their parents could eat. That childhood has had a lasting impact.
“However we grow up it seeps into our entire lifetime, right? It shapes how we view the world, it shapes what follows,” Neilson says. “I can remember moving to the house that we are in now and settling in and feeling like it was a dream. I was so happy but there was this lingering thought in the back of my mind: this is going to get taken away from me any minute now; it’s too good to be true. I’d never been in a house this long in my lifetime and I’d keep waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“Even though I’m in my 40s now, there is still that underlying feeling, the [Damoclean] sword of every musician: when is it’s all going to disappear and I’m going to be back on the rails train to make it from one paycheck to the next? You don’t forget.”
Nor do you forget those who were party to it, or smoothed the road just that little bit.
“I can remember having a conversation with Willie Nelson,” she says, casually.
(Who? “Yeah, he’s kind of an obscure musician I gave an opportunity to be on my album, just trying to share my platform,” and out comes that husky laugh again. To clarify: Nelson duets with her on her new album, in the song Beyond The Stars. He goes alright.)
“And I said to him, when he recorded the duet with me, I don’t know if you can remember the feeling of when someone finally gave you a chance, that moment when you knew this would push you through to the next level, but I feel like you’ve given that to me.
“He said, ‘I remember it well’, and he knows exactly who it was and where it was, the woman who wrote Heartbreak Hotel [Mae Axton] and she was his ticket to Nashville. It doesn’t matter how many decades or how much success you’ve had, those things shape you right from the beginning and you carry that with you forever.”
Quite an appropriate circumstance to bring up actually, yet another woman who was vital in the early days of country or rock or blues or pop – songwriters Felice Bryant, hitmaker for the Everly Brothers among others, and Marijohn Wilkin “the den mother of Music Row” as Nielson puts it, being two more – but obscured or forgotten by male-centric history. They were, to borrow a phrase from the title of Neilson’s album, kingmakers.
“These women were, and have held up, the foundations of the Nashville music industry without being remembered for it,” Neilson says.
One thing those women were told, as so many have been, was not to show anger and not to demand because that would only put men off and they would get nowhere. But on Kingmaker she is not following that rule. One song, Ain’t My Job, has great fuck you energy, in another she sings “I’ll stop begging for what’s already mine”.
“It’s a joyous fuck you,” Neilson says jovially. True that, but one of the life lessons she sings about on the album is knowing what to care about and what not to care about, and men’s delicate sensibilities – and those of white society generally – definitely falls into the latter category.
“That’s it in a nutshell. It’s coming into your power and your confidence,” she says. “By not leaving, or by not doing what you are expected to do by society, by continuing to make the music you do and be the person you are unapologetically, without feeling like you need to placate anyone, that alone, taking up that space, is an act of almost protest. Just by existing as a woman that’s unapologetic about what she has to say on the music she makes and not looking for approval, that makes a lot of people uncomfortable, still.”
And that’s especially so in country music. As Neilson points out, if you think the music industry generally can be archaic when it comes to its treatment of women – and hello to you Sony Music Australia! – “the country music industry is still 50 years behind that”. Which is neither much of an exaggeration, nor the end of the story once you see how flimsy the structures of this wobbly industry are.
“It’s such a liberating truth to come to, that realisation that, hold on, I’m the one who holds the power here,” Neilson says, citing a slew of independent women like Margo Price, who has just finished making an album with outlaw country pioneer, Jessie Coulter, as examples of those who had stopped believing the traditional gatekeepers had the power. “You see somebody like Kacey Musgraves, someone who has won album of the year at the Grammys and fills stadiums, country radio squashed her: never given her a number one and rarely give her airplay. The gatekeepers, none of them liked her because you’re expected to bow and turn a blind eye when they make comments about your thighs or flirt with you or touch you, and she wouldn’t.
“While the road is infinitely harder without radio to champion new or the industry to propel you forward, it just speaks to the incredible strength and talent of these women that they’ve done it despite that.”
Not that Neilson’s albums single out the music industry in her songs: this is some universal shit, and it’s not being tolerated any longer anywhere by people who, maybe belatedly but now decisively, have realised they have the power. Ask any of the “teal” independents at the recent federal election who got tired of waiting for the “good” Liberal men to follow through on their promises.
“It speaks to so many things right now. When we all go through a traumatic thing like we have with this pandemic, and everyone is at home with their thoughts and your perspective of mortality comes very sharply into view, it suddenly brings all of the ugliness that’s been hiding in dark corners, into the light,” Neilson says. “People are not distracted; they’ve had time to look and ponder the systems on which our society is built, racism and sexism for example, and the people that benefit from that.
“And being an Indigenous woman, that’s equally about colonialism, realising that my famine made your feast, and the only reason these people are living fat off the land is because it’s my land. Everything that is making them powerful is only because that power has been robbed from people that they’ve oppressed.”
So why play nice anymore? A joyous fuck you instead, eh?
“It’s getting to the point where you know you’re never going to be accepted by the machine, so why not do what the hell you want.”
Tami Neilson’s Kingmaker is out on Friday, July 15.