Interview: Tami Neilson
When Tami Neilson unleashed another thrilling blast of rockabilly, country and gospel on CHICKABOOM!, she talked to Vintage Rock about growing up on the road, overcoming burnout, the vital importance of big hair, and why the best harmonies are in the blood
Growing up, lots of kids dream of running away from the trappings of their everyday existence and hitting the road in a band. But for Tami Neilson, music is the only life she’s ever known. Originally from Ontario, Canada, Neilson’s childhood was spent touring and performing as a member of The Neilsons alongside her parents and two brothers. “I don’t think I ever thought about it,” she says about her unconventional, mobile upbringing. “As a kid, as a teenager, that’s how you’re raised so that’s your normal. You don’t really know the alternative of the white picket fence, the dog, the same school, and the same friends your whole life. That was always so exotic to me. Wouldn’t it be amazing to have grown up with the same people and the same house? It was really romantic to me to think of being a normal person, this fantasy I would have growing up.”
The Neilsons worked constantly, touring the US and Canada, but then 15 years ago, Neilson moved to New Zealand. She’d fallen in love with a New Zealander so despite the prospect of having to start her career from scratch in a remote corner of the world, she followed her heart. “My fellow musicians were like, ‘What are you doing? You’re committing career suicide. People from New Zealand come here to make it!’” she says, laughing. “I would always joke that it was a really long game I was playing, going to New Zealand and becoming successful there so I could springboard my career. It was definitely daunting.” But thanks to a string of great records, Dynamite!, Don’t Be Afraid, SASSAFRASS! and now CHICKABOOM!, Neilson has built a reputation as a formidable live performer – where the only thing bigger than her beehive is her belting voice – and as a songwriter equally fluent in rockabilly, country, R&B and gospel. And she’s unmissable, living by the creed of the higher the hair, the closer to god, while the motto is “leave no rhinestone unturned” for her stage outfits. “I worship at the altar of Dolly Parton,” she explains. “In an interview once she said, ‘I didn’t care about being pretty, I just wanted to stand out.’ I’m a 42-year-old mother, I’m not looking to be the next hot thing, I just think that being confident enough to be completely yourself is beautiful in itself.”
2018’s SASSAFRASS! was rich with big brassy horns, but for CHICKABOOM! she’s stripped back her sound to a three-piece, aided by her brother Jay who flew over to Auckland to write and record with her. “I really wanted to intentionally bring it back to a trio in the tradition of Johnny Cash and Wanda Jackson, those classic rockabilly/country trios,” says Neilson. “I wanted the songs to be these little punchy firecrackers that could stand alone without a huge amount of instrumentation and arrangements. If you add a horn section, it immediately becomes more R&B or soulful. If you add a fiddle or steel guitar, now it’s country, whereas if you keep it in that real bare bones then it becomes more about the song.”
Working with her brother Jay inspired Neilson to write songs that would feature the vocal harmonies they spent a lifetime perfecting in the Neilsons. “In Hey, Bus Driver!, Any Fool With A Heart, Sleep, the entire song is two voices as one voice, singing really closely together,” says Neilson. “I think a lot of the fans I have now discovered me since I’ve been a solo artist and don’t necessarily know that story, those roots of singing with my family and those blood harmonies. There is something really special and magic about that, not only singing with someone who comes from the same womb, but someone who you’ve shared stages with for 30-plus years. You can’t really beat those harmonies.”
Sister Mavis, an absolute R&B stomper that appears on CHICKABOOM!, is a tribute to one of Neilson’s musical heroines, Mavis Staples. In a similar vein, her composition Miss Jones, from SASSAFRASS!, is about the great Sharon Jones. “There are so many songs, especially in country music, where people name-drop their heroes,” says Neilson. “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way from Waylon Jennings, Give It To Me Strait by Tim McGraw, Don’t Rock The Jukebox by Alan Jackson. What I really noticed is that it’s always males referencing males. I was like, there aren’t enough songs with female artists uplifting and celebrating the women who inspire them, so I think it’s really important. Sister Mavis cites not only Mavis, in the chorus it references Mahalia Jackson and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who are the holy trinity of gospel music and rock’n’roll for me. While it might seem like a fangirl moment, I feel it’s really important for people to hear women lifting up other women in music. I’ve opened for Mavis twice now, and I went home and wrote this love letter to her. It was born out of expressing that fangirl moment.
The musical chemistry between Neilson and Jay was forged through good times – like opening for Johnny Cash – and tough times when the kids had to go out busking on the street to help put food on the table. “We had been in the States for a year working a season in Branson, Missouri,” remembers Neilson. “We had a manager at the time whose wife was our accountant – red flags already go up – and they ended up leaving the country and we never saw the money we were sending home every week. We lost $200,000 and that was 20 years ago, that’s a lot of money.” The family went back to Neilson’s mother’s hometown of Midland, Ontario, to lick their wounds. They found a small two-bedroom house, everyone slept on mattresses on the floor, and while Neilson’s father went out looking for work, the children busked outside a café. “I guess it’s a different mentality,” says Neilson about shouldering that responsibility at a young age. “I think the only people that might get it outside of music are family businesses. When you walk into a restaurant and you see everyone from grandma to the youngest grandkid all working, they’re serving tables, they’re cooking, they’re doing everything, that is very much all for one, we’re all going to pull together and make this work. When you grow up in that environment of a family business, you know that everybody is pulling for everyone and that it depends on all of us for survival.” In that same spirit, after a day singing on the street, the kids would bring home whatever money they earned and give it to their mother to buy food. “If that’s not a country song I don’t know what the hell is!” says Neilson.
Nowadays, she faces very different challenges, balancing her solo career with raising two kids, all of which is complicated by the fact that New Zealand isn’t exactly the most centrally located country on the globe. As Neilson’s international profile has risen higher and higher, she’s been required to spend more time away from home. “I definitely got to a point where I really lost my joy with touring,” she says. “About a year ago I hit a wall with touring Europe. It was a really hard tour, we did a month and it was a run of 20 shows in 22 days with no days off, those two days were just travel days getting to the next place. It was really intensive, I was missing my kids, I got home from that and really did a re-evaluation of how I was touring. You get on the treadmill, you start slogging it out and I realised touring was created for young, single male musicians and I’m none of those things. How would a touring template look for me at this time in my life?”
So, she sat down with her husband and came up with a new approach to her career that would mean not being away from her family for such long periods all at once. Instead of doing five-week tours playing to a few hundred people every night, she decided to focus on festivals and opportunities to reach the greatest number of people in smaller runs. On top of that, bringing brother Jay into the touring band has made the road a happier place to be. “I notice a huge difference even in my mental health on tour when I have my brother with me,” says Neilson. “Having part of your family on the road with you just makes such a huge difference, having that person who has your back. That became a real priority, having him involved in the touring side of things for this album, so we talked about paring it down to a trio. I fly in and out of New Zealand myself and then have my brother and a Canadian drummer with me on the ground whenever I tour internationally. While I’m constantly jetlagged, it means I might be away for a week every month as an average, but I’m also home every month with my kids. CHICKABOOM! was also born out of the practicalities of making a career in music work and making decisions to get my joy back again.”
Neilson has been nothing if not prolific as a songwriter, releasing four studio albums since 2014, but she’s had to learn to grab chances to write whenever and wherever she can. “I’ve definitely had to lose all of the trappings and luxuries of being able to write in silence or solace,” she says. “That starts to happen as soon as you have young children, so you’re like, ‘I’ve just got to make this work in the time that I have.’ The way I write has changed drastically, before and after children.” Her working method now is to capture any snippets of news ideas, whether that’s a song title, a lyric, melody or groove, on her phone. “It’s this process of collecting everything throughout the year and then carving out time to cook it all up. With the SASSAFRASS! album I had all my ingredients, but I was on tour for five weeks in Europe before getting back and going into the studio. I remember investing in some great noise-cancelling headphones, I had my notebook and I sat at the front of the tour van every day on these long drives around Germany while the rest of the band were doing their thing, and I was in my little silent zone with headphones on writing. You find moments when you can. You don’t have that luxury of being like, ‘I’m going on a retreat and when I come down from the mountain, I will have a fully formed album!’”
While her records are packed with tail-shakers and foot-stompers, Neilson’s lyrics have tackled female empowerment in tracks like Big Boss Mama and Queenie, Queenie. But even when she’s singing about feminism, it’s always with a sharp sense of humour to charm the listener. “I’m a mum of small kids, you’ve got to give them medicine with a little bit of sugar. It’s the basics of parenting,” she says. “It’s that mentality, if I want to deliver a message that’s important to me, then it needs to be wrapped up in beautiful, bright, candycoloured packaging and you disarm people with humour. If it’s a little tongue-in-cheek, people might be a little more open to hearing about how you feel about equality and how important it is to you. I’ve never really been one to stand on a soapbox and shake my finger. That might just close off the conversation right away whereas if you deliver something with humour and it’s fun and there’s a party going on around you, it’s a lot harder to have your arms crossed. That’s just my personality.”