To the delight of her legions of fans in her adopted homeland of New Zealand, to her followers, friends and family back home in her home and native land of Canada and her growing bastion of boosters in farther flung locals such as Europe and the UK, the eminently brassy, sassy and brilliant old-school country queen Tami Neilson has returned with a new collection of soulful, rockabilly-infused musical masterpieces.
Well, not just yet. Coming on the heels of the critically lauded and popularly acclaimed Sassafrass. Released in 2018, Neilson will be issuing its follow up, Chicka Boom! in February worldwide in both physical and digital formats. The album was produced by Delaney Davidson, and Neilson, and both also collaborated on some of the writing. She was so excited by the project that she couldn’t wait to whet all her fans’ appetite’s by chatting with Music Life Magazine about it.
If it were up to Neilson, the album would have been released months ago, as she is already well underway composing her next crop of catchy, melodious and hip-shaking tunes.
“It always cracks me up with album cycles, because by the time an album actually comes out and the rest of the world is hearing it, for somebody like me who is a bit of a prolific creator, it’s old news. You’re like, ‘ah that was so last year,’ and already writing new songs and different songs. I had a couple of days off in Montreal when I was back in Canada [in mid-November] doing a run in Quebec and my brother Jay was with me and we have been writing today. And the new album hasn’t even come out yet and we’re already writing the next one. I guess that my management and my label are always trying to rein me in, saying, ‘can you just try to slow down a little bit. Give us a minute to catch our breath and catch up,’” she said, with a hearty laugh.
“For me, it’s just the way I work. It’s this continual flow of ideas that you have when you’re a creative person where little bits and pieces are always coming out. I normally store them away for when it’s time to buckle down and start to write an album because being a mother of two small children and touring, there’s a lot going on and time is a bit of a luxury. I tend to gather little ingredients throughout the year, whether it be a line for a song, or a melody or a groove, and tuck those all away in a folder. Then when it comes time to get into the studio and start writing, I just block out some time and I get all those ingredients out and start cooking.
“It would be much more daunting to be starting from scratch. I guess I do tend to write an album a year. For me, it’s a challenge to sit back and just wait. This album was ready, gosh, six months ago, and we’re talking about the visuals and the videos and everything in the can ready to go. My management team work far more strategically than my creative mind does. I trust that they know what they’re doing with their expertise and trying to give my album the best shot that it can get.”
Her previous album, Sassafrass, released in 2018, was as big, bold, brassy and badass as Neilson’s personality could be, but she felt that she went as far sonically as she wanted with her production and arrangements, and decided to step it back a fair bit for Chicka Boom!
“It had gotten as big sonically as I wanted to go. I had horns, I had strings – it really, really got to be the biggest production that I had ever had. I think when you hit that point as an artist where you’re thinking this is as large as I want to go production wise, then it’s time to strip it right back again and start from the beginning, from the basics,” she said.
“I have been touring internationally as a trio and I really wanted that Johnny Cash, Wanda Jackson sensibility – that really stripped back, rockabilly country where it’s all about the songs, it’s about the voice, and it’s a bunch of punchy little firecracker songs. I wanted to be able to recreate it with just a trio when I toured.”
The epically sassy and badass lead-off track Call Your Mama is a bold swipe at the sorts of men who can’t seem to, well, man up in their relationships.
“I love that real raw, almost White Stripes guitar around which makes the song a little bit of that old school gritty rock and roll, which totally matched the attitude behind the song. Fortunately, its not from any of my experiences. Sometimes as a writer you do bring up personal experiences in your music, but often it’s the experiences of people you live vicariously through, and it’s about writing in way that you could or would respond to things if you were living through it. I do have a girlfriend who has gone through a situation like that and I was like, ‘oh my God, do you realize how valuable you are? This guy doesn’t deserve you. He’s just not worth it.’ So, I think of my single girlfriends and mine their lives for song material,” she said with a laugh, adding that one of the album’s first singles/videos for Hey Bus Driver tackles the theme of being on the road and missing family and friends.
“That one is like the mental countdown that every touring musician does in their head as they’re doing the math. ‘okay I’ve done this many shows, I’ve got this many days left.’ At first the number of shows ahead of you is massive and then it gets smaller and smaller. It’s a good feeling when you kind of break the back of it and you’re on the other side of the halfway point. I feel like wherever we sing that song live and we are getting close to the end of the tour, we look at each other with big smiles as the numbers gets smaller and smaller.”
You Were Mine is a dynamic showcase of the pure power that Neilson can summon from her voice, as it is a plaintive, emotive and exceptionally potent composition and vocal performance, and one that has been sitting around waiting to be recorded since before the Sassafrass album.
“We always close the show with that one, because once I’ve sung it and belted it out, that’s it for me. We’re done here folks. It’s actually one we have been performing live for a couple of years now and people were always coming up and asking if it was on an album, because it was their favourite. We even tried recording it for the Sassafrass album and it just didn’t work. Because we played it so much live, and the live version didn’t translate to the studio during those sessions. We try and tried, and it just didn’t work,” she said.
“So, for this album I said to Delaney, who doesn’t play with me live, that we needed to strip the song back and do it differently than the way that we do it live. And it ended up bring just really simple and straightforward, and it is actually different that the way we do it live. That song was written by me and my brother Jay and it was sparked by a conversation that we had about our dad dying [five years ago] and how we measure time now. I said, ‘isn’t it weird how whenever any sort of loss happens in our lives, even when you’re talking about movies and it’s like did a certain movie come out before or after dad died.’ And it’s kind of how everything in life is measured by before and after it happened. Jay was saying that he was still living a very good life and that he loved his life, but he felt like his life before dad died was the original movie and afterwards were the sequels. The sequels can be awesome, but it’s never going to be the original. And that’s how we feel about dad, and so I kind of got thinking about the way you measure time in a relationship – before and after ‘you were mine.’”
Sister Mavis is a truly inspired ode to one of Neilson’s biggest musical heroes, legendary American R&B/Gospel singer Mavis Staples. Although Staples had been an idol since Neilson was a young singer, she only felt compelled and comfortable writing a musical tribute now.
“I got to open for her here in New Zealand two years ago. And then I had the chance to open for her again just this past April, and that’s kind of what inspired me to write this little love song of admiration for her. At first, I very much questioned having it on the album. Is it just too much of a fan girl thing, you know? But then I had a chat with Delaney where I asked if it was weird to name drop like that. But the we looked at how it’s something that’s doing throughout music, especially in country music and hip hop, where you get artists always referencing their heroes, more so in hip hop, but also a lot in country. People are always referencing Hank Williams or Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard or Johnny Cash – it’s a pretty constant thing,” Neilson explained.
“But it’s usually males name dropping other males. I thought it was quite rare to hear songs about women admiring and listing off their heroes and singing about them. I did a song about Sharon Jones on Sassafrass and I figured that it’s actually something I am comfortable doing. I did my song for Sharon and now I am doing one for Mavis. I think it’s important that you share that admiration. And it’s a love song – but it’s love for someone who is an inspiration or a hero. It’s obviously about Mavis, but also references Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mahalia Jackson as welly – my own personal holy trinity.”
If there was an easily definable overall theme to the songs on Chicka Boom! from Neilson’s perspective, it all comes back to family.
“Almost all of the songs on it are either about missing my family on tour, or juggling family life, or missing my dad. Almost every song has that theme, and I guess it’s just that I write what I know, and that tends to be a continuing message throughout most of my albums, that family is quite central,” she said.
“One thing that was really important to me for this album was I really wanted my brother Jay [Neilson] involved. After growing up together in a family band and then for the past 15 years building my solo career overseas in New Zealand, it just kind of came back full circle. I have been touring more extensively over the past three years than I ever have before internationally. And the more that you tour, the more you realize just how isolating it is. It’s a very hard lifestyle to be isolated and away from your family. So, whenever I toured Canada, I would throw Jay in the band. And for the times he was a part of it, there was such a difference in just having that person that who is part of your village, and I realized just how much I missed that. It was part of my DNA growing up; I never sang without family with me.
“To fall back into that, it was like, ‘ah yeah, that’s it,’ like riding a bike. And it’s just the ease of it and that silent communication you only share with someone you have been on stage with for 30 plus years – it’s a different thing. And the blood harmonies; you can’t really replace blood harmonies. So, it was important to have Jay involved on this album with me in all aspects of it.”
This focus on family has led Neilson to alter the way she tours, putting time at home as the paramount consideration.
“This last year I tried something new. In previous years, you’d go out for a big stint, like if you’re going all the way to Europe and you’re flying your whole band from New Zealand, you want to make the most of it, so you’re there for five weeks and playing shows like a mad person, with hardly any time off, so you can get back home. But I really hit a wall. After a big block of shows in Europe, like 20 shows in 22 day and just no time off I was losing my voice. It was a really, really hard tour, and I got home and started to re-evaluate and looked at this template of touring. I know this was a good template, but it was created for a young, single male essentially, and I am none of those things. It’s not really working for me at this stage in my life with two little ones,” she said.
“My husband and I went away for a weekend and we just decided to pull that touring model apart and put it back together again and see what’s going to work best for my family and how it can be made to work more sustainably. So, we came up with the idea of not flying my whole band from New Zealand every time I do an overseas run. Now it’s just me flying in and out, and using my brother Jay, who is based in Ontario and a Canadian drummer, reducing the band from a five piece to a trio. And I also said to my manager that I don’t see any point in doing a string of club dates for five weeks to a couple of hundred people a night. Can’t we book festivals where I fly in and sing to 8,000 in one shot and then go home? For me, that’s touring smarter, and for this stage in my life and for tailoring touring as a mother of two you boys, that’s what works for me. So, we tried that last year and, man, it made a world of difference to be able to say to my kids ‘see you next week.’ And since then the longest I’ve been away is a week or a week and a half, tops. I am always jet lagged, mind you, but it’s made such a huge difference to my family.”
Although Chicka Boom! won’t be out until February, Neilson more singles and videos will be coming in anticipation of the release as well as announcements for show dates, including some back home in Canada.
For more information, and to get updates or pre-order the new album, visit http://www.tamineilson.com.
- Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for nearly three decades. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at email@example.com.
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