If you’re a hardcore fan of Canadian country music, you probably remember The Neilsons, the family band that released their best-known self-titled album in 1996, containing the hits “Windows To The Past” and “We’ll Hold On.” It was the payoff after many years of hard work for Ron and Betty Neilson and their children, Todd, Jay and Tami, traveling around North America in a motor home since the kids were first able to sing and play together.
However, the time eventually came for other goals to become priorities, and for Tami that meant pursuing a long-distance relationship in New Zealand. The three-year courtship led to marriage, and Tami’s solo career quickly took off Down Under. Her breakthrough has come with her current album Dynamite!, a collection of original songs that pay homage to classic country and rockabilly, in some ways bridging the gap between Patsy Cline and Wanda Jackson.
The album topped the charts in New Zealand after its original release there in 2014, and led to Neilson earning several prestigious awards including the APRA Silver Scroll for songwriting excellence, previously given to Lorde. Last fall, Outside Music picked up Dynamite! for distribution in Canada where it received a warm welcome, but more importantly, gave Neilson the chance to come home and show many of her old friends and fans how she has evolved as an artist. Tami Neilson and her band have two shows booked in Toronto, February 4 at The Burdock and February 5 at The Dakota. More info can be found at tamineilson.com.
What sets your latest album apart from your previous work?
I grew up touring North America for the better part of 10 years with my family’s band, so when I moved to New Zealand—to marry a Kiwi and make da babies—it was the first time I had to figure out who I was as a solo artist. The first three albums I released were me very much finding my feet, discovering who I was an artist, but I kept gravitating back to the family nest in Canada to record them. Dynamite! was the first time I actually went into a studio with the New Zealand musicians I had been touring and working with throughout the past seven years as I settled into a new country and formed friendships.
It takes a long time to start a music career from scratch in a new place, and to meet the people who you trust with your music. I also feel like, after years of growing and finding my way as a solo artist, this album is where I emerged, fully formed and confident in the music I wanted to make and the artist I have become. On a less-butterfly-metaphor note, the reality of limited finances meant that my previous albums were acoustic and homegrown. They were called The Kitchen Table Sessions because they literally were recorded in my brother’s kitchen with my family playing all the instruments. Dynamite! was the first album where I could afford an actual drummer—as well as a fully-engineered studio in which we could fit in an entire band and record that live, off-the-floor, rough-and-ready sound that really gives Dynamite! its energy.
What has been the biggest change in your life in the past year?
I lost my Dad and that has totally thrown my world off its axis. Learning to live with grief can be crippling, but, at the same time, being a parent to a toddler means you don’t have the luxury to wallow and just stay in bed crying. It gives you strength and pulls you forward through life as it keeps ticking on, whether you feel like it or not. Musically, I wondered how I would ever sing another note because my voice is so much like his, or write another song knowing he wouldn’t hear it—he was always the first one I played things for, my sounding board—not to mention perform and entertain while grieving.
But I had studio time booked and musicians that had cut international tours short and were flying back to NZ to record at the end of April, two months after losing Dad. My first thought was to cancel it, but when I mentioned that to Mom, she started to cry, saying that Dad would be devastated if his death stopped me from creating music. I told her I was sure he would understand that I just wasn’t in that headspace! But, it planted a seed and my focus started to shift when my brother Jay and I were listening to some of Dad’s old songs and demos and came across one that we’d never heard before—one that he’d written back in 1972, after he first married Mom and was on tour, missing her. Jay said, “Tam, this song is so YOU,” and so we re-worked it and it became a song called “Lonely” for the new album. It spurred me to actually make the album a work that celebrates Dad, keeps his music and his memory alive. From that moment, the songs started to spill out of me.
What song in your catalogue means the most to you and why?
A song I wrote for Dad, called “The First Man.” It closes my upcoming album. I sat down one day in the wake of his death and got out my calculator and started to figure out how many days I had Dad as a part of my life. As I multiplied and added, I cried, thinking, “He is the one man I will have loved from the very first day of my life to the very last day of my life,” then finished adding up those precious days and wrote the song for him.
What is your relationship like now with Canada and what are some of your memorable touring experiences here?
I’ve lived in New Zealand for almost 10 years now and I love it dearly, but Canada is my home and always will be. I try to get home at least once a year to escape the damp, green NZ winter for a Canadian summer for a month or so to eat copious amounts of poutine, Timbits and A&W to last me the year of withdrawal. My most memorable touring experience would be back in the Nineties, touring with The Neilson Family; we had just finished an outdoor gig in Kelowna, BC and had to leave immediately afterward to check in at the Merritt Mountain Music Festival, where we were playing on the bill with Johnny Cash the next day. I changed into my pyjamas, as I always did when we traveled in the evening. As we rolled down the highway, a car pulled up next to us, the driver waving excitedly. We thought he’d seen the show, so, all waved back, the smiling, happy family. He motioned for Dad to roll down the window and yelled “You’re on fire!” Black smoke was billowing out the back of our 30-foot trailer. Everything was ruined, clothes, just everything. The instruments were stored below, so, they only had smoke damage. So, we rolled up to the festival the next morning with the clothes on our backs, they gave us all matching festival t-shirts and I opened for Johnny Cash in my pyjama pants. Just what every musician dreams of!
What are some of the lessons you’ve learned about how to be an independent artist, and what advice would you give?
It’s bloody hard work, wearing so many hats, but nobody else is going to be as passionate about your music as you are, so you just have to pick yourself up, swallow your pride sometimes and do it. It means being a bit scrappy and hustling, which I’m really uncomfortable with, so have had to push myself way beyond my comfort zone at times. I can remember going to gigs I couldn’t afford to get into when I first arrived in NZ, standing in the foyer of a Lucinda Williams concert at the Town Hall and handing out flyers I’d made up that said “If you like Lucinda Williams, you might just like...” with a photo of my album cover and the date of my next gig. So embarrassing. I’m lucky enough to have a small team of people that now help with PR, distribution and bookings, but that has only developed over the last year as the success of Dynamite! meant that I couldn’t handle everything myself anymore. It’s been really lovely getting to share some of the load with people I trust and count as my friends. I am still waiting to find that manager that is just the right fit, as it’s a huge challenge juggling a full-time career and full-time parenthood, but, will keep juggling until I know I’ve met my match! In the meantime, it’s still hustle, hustle, hustle...