Tami Neilson is taking aim at sexism in the music industry

by James Belfield / 22 June, 2018
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Tami Neilson.

Tami Neilson’s new album Sassafrass! shows her at her most political, but there’s still room for family business.  

On the morning she was due to fly to Lyttelton to record a new album, Tami Neilson was brushing her hair when, suddenly, two lines of a song she hadn’t sung for years ran through her head.

“Just one thought of you to get me through the night. I dream the sweetest dream and with daylight that’s all I have.”

She broke down, sobbing.

The lines were a memory of her father, Ron, and came from a song he’d worked on as the leader of their family band, which toured almost continually through Tami’s youth between their home in Canada and Nashville, setting her on a musical career that’s led to a 4.5ha lifestyle block near Waimauku, close to Auckland’s west coast, a swag of music awards and a role as New Zealand’s first lady of country.

She texted her brother Jay to see if he remembered the song, but to no avail. Her mum, Betty, fared a little better, finding a guitar track – no melody or words – on Ron’s old computer, under the title One Thought of You.

Neilson’s last album, 2016’s Don’t Be Afraid, was a tribute to 65-year-old Ron, who had died the previous year. It was infused with grief for the man who had set her on her way in the music business.

But when these lines came to her last November, she was about to record a bold, uncompromising album she’d decided to call Sassafrass!, which included songs about gender equality and – as she rather surprisingly for a non-potty-mouth performer puts it – “not taking any bullshit”.

“It was like he knew I was going to Lyttelton and was saying, ‘You know you promised to keep my music alive …’. So he whispered in my ear and it just came out of my mouth.”

One Thought of You sits at the heart of Sassafrass!, acting as a kind of intermission between the impassioned hollers such as Stay Outta My Business (a reaction to the constant carping Neilson says she receives about juggling the roles of mum-of-two and touring musician – carping that she notes her fellow male musos don’t have to put up with), Miss Jones (a lively homage to late soul star Sharon Jones) and Kitty Kat (a thoroughly tongue-in-cheek track about … well, let’s just say Donald Trump has a penchant for grabbing at them).

Neilson. Photo/Mrs Jones

Musically – and grammatically, thanks to the shared exclamation marks – Sassafrass! harks back more to 2014’s Dynamite! than Don’t Be Afraid, but it’s her new approach to honest, punchy lyrics born from seeing and experiencing sexism in the music industry that sets this work apart.

“A lot of my life, I’ve been a people pleaser, which, let’s face it, is common among musicians, and that has always dictated what I created. But now I feel, ‘Why the hell am I worried about their opinions?’

“I don’t know if it’s a combination of losing a parent, having children and turning 40, but life changes dramatically and you realise its fragility. When I started contemplating these sorts of things, I started to question what I was leaving behind for my children and what legacy I was creating through my work.

“In the end, I felt more confidence, and the more confident I became, the less tolerance I had for others’ bullshit.”

Although Neilson’s new voice is very much in line with the Me Too and Time’s Up movements, the songs were largely written before the latest crop of scandals – one of the last, Smoking Gun, was penned the week news of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct broke last October.

Instead, she says they’re the product of “a groundswell that’s been building for decades of women who are reaching their breaking point” and a snapshot of a time that she feels she needs to be reflecting as an artist. She was also greatly influenced by country music’s “tomato-gate” in 2015, which resulted from a radio consultant advising stations not to play too many songs by women and never to play them back-to-back.

His phrasing especially provoked Neilson: “Trust me,” he said, “I play great female records, and we’ve got some right now, but they’re just not the lettuce in our salad. The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that. The tomatoes of our salad are the females.”

“It’s emboldened me to keep writing, certainly, and it helps that I’m a cheeky, subversive person,” Neilson says. “But I really hope the album will be largely irrelevant in five years, because it will mean that all that social change has happened.

“In the same way as we look back at albums from the 50s and 60s and such songs as Stand By Your Man, where we’re validating and excusing cheating husbands, and we cringe and we laugh, I’d love for my children to look back on these songs and go, ‘Wow, is that what Mum had to go through? Thank god things have progressed now.’”

In typical Neilson fashion, Sassafrass! mixes soul, gospel, country, rockabilly and Patsy Cline-style country to create the feel of a movie soundtrack rather than a straight country album. And it’s telling that Neilson’s movie always comes back to family.

The final song, Good Man, was started three years ago and intended as an anniversary gift for husband Grant. And, yes, it may have been finished “in a van full of five smelly men on a tour through Europe”, but it still speaks volumes about how Neilson fights to balance work and family.

Her latest fight will play out when she tours with the new album, first in China for a week, then back in her native Ontario in July. She and Grant have decided to use the familiar surroundings of Canada and the fact there’s plenty of family on hand as an experiment to see how well six-year-old Charlie and four-year-old Sam cope with life on the road.

Strangely, she was able to compare notes on musician-parenting with popstar Robbie Williams (whose son, Charlie, is around the same age) when she opened for his Auckland and Dunedin shows in February and said it had been a “reality check” to realise that even superstardom can’t smooth the ride.

“We were just talking about our kids and he asked that golden question I get asked all the time about how I make all this work with the kids, and I said, ‘Well, probably the same as you only with a much smaller budget,’” Neilson says.

“Right now, my kids are excited about going on tour, but we’ll see how they travel. It might be that I end up looking at Robbie in a whole new light, because it’s true that all the money in the world can’t buy your children’s happiness and security.

“I grew up on a tour-bus motorhome with Mum and Dad and music, and I know that parenting and touring are the most exhausting and rewarding jobs in the world, but you make your decisions based on your children, not on what someone says you should be doing.”

Sassafrass! is out now. Tami Neilson plays Theatre Royal, Nelson, July 26; Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch, July 27; Glenroy Auditorium, Dunedin, July 28; Clarence Street, Hamilton, August 1; MTG Hawke’s Bay, Napier, August 2; Opera House, Wellington, August 3; Auckland Town Hall, August 4.

This article was first published in the June 23, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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