SASSAFRASS! is the latest album from Canadian-born Tami Neilson and it isn’t just the singer’s strongest, most assured album to date, it’s also a potent social and political statement dressed up in catchy melodies and infectious choruses that sometimes belie the more serious elements taking place deep within the choruses. Neilson couldn’t have planned the album to arrive during a maelstrom of pro-woman, pro-equality activity but the record speaks to the zeitgeist with ambition and truth.
She takes on the glass ceiling via “Bananas”, the need to have space to conduct one’s life as one choses in “Stay Out of My Business” She also takes time out for conventional romance that’s anything but conventional once she utters the tune’s first note (“One Thought of You”) and becomes overcome with appreciation for the late Sharon Jones (“Miss Jones”). Her appreciation for Bobbie Gentry comes across in “A Woman’s Pain” before she digs deep into her country roots for “Manitoba Sunrise at Motel 6”.
Neilson cut her musical teeth in the family band the Neilsons, which included her father Ron, she made her way to her current home in New Zealand with no connections to the local music scene there. Slowly but surely she climbed her way to the top there and began attracting attention from press and radio around the globe.
Speaking from her home in Auckland, Neilson proves a warm interview subject, given to big, boisterous laughs and a sense of self-depreciating humor. She is never less than self-assured, though, aware of her accomplishments and willing to discuss virtually every subject from parenthood to going from significant visibility in her native land to passing out fliers for shows she wasn’t sure anyone would come to in her adopted country.
“My first goal was to spend half my year in Canada and half my year in New Zealand,” she remembers. “I just wanted to be successful enough to do that. I think that’s what motivated me in that wake of grieving over losing my life in Canada at that time. That was a huge factor that fueled that tenacity. I’d been here almost 10 years when my album Dynamite started to gain traction. It was a wonderful feeling of saying, ‘Wow, it’s finally starting to happen.'”
How did you wind up in New Zealand?
It was definitely not a career choice! [Laughs.] When I moved here friends and family said, ‘What are you doing? You’re committing career suicide. People from New Zealand move to North America to make it big.’ But, you know, the things we do for love.
You were established so there must have been questions about how it would change your career. How did it change your professional life?
It was daunting at first. I think it is for anyone starting over in a new country but especially New Zealand which is quite isolated. It even gets left off the world map all the time. It was difficult to leave an established career because in the music business everything is very much about who you know and your connections. Starting over from scratch, from the very first step, was pretty daunting. But all the things people said to me about the country being so small and there not really being a country music scene or Americana, I decided I would see as positives.
I thought, “Great. That means there’s less competition. It’s going to take me less time to establish myself. I’ll be really unique.” Within a couple years of being here it was quite incredible to achieve things like winning Best Album at the New Zealand Music Awards. After just a few years of being here I was opening for Emmylou Harris and James Taylor and Mavis Staples. If I had stayed in Canada it would have taken a hell of a lot longer to reach that kind of profile.
I’d been in the music business in Canada since I was 11 and in just a few years here I’d accomplished so much more than I had there.
Were people right about there not being anyone to play country or Americana music?
When I first arrived country music was very much your grandparents’ music. It was always made fun of, it was always quite tongue-in-cheek. It started to change once I’d been here for a couple of years. But I can remember that when I first landed Lucinda Williams was playing at Town Hall. I couldn’t afford a ticket but I was doing a gig a few weeks later and needed to promote it. So I stood in the foyer and hoped that they wouldn’t kick me out. “If you love Lucinda Williams, come see Tami Neilson!” There was a lot of really uncomfortable hustling but that’s just what I felt I had to do.
But I figured that if there was an audience for Lucinda Williams and Old Crow Medicine Show, there’d be an audience for me. I looked around at the sold out auditorium and thought, “These are my people!” I emailed the support act who were a local band called the Eastern, which was Aldous Harding’s band. I met with them to see if I could figure out how to start. I started finding people like Marlon Williams, Delaney Davidson, Nadia Reed.
The short answer is that finding those artists was about having spent some time here but also, as the Kiwis would call it, my North American hustle. A little more scrappy, a little more assertive in trying to make my mark.
It must be strange to see that hustle come out in a completely new place.
I had never needed to use that part of me. I grew up in a family band. My dad did everything. He was the manager, he was the booker, he was the tour bus driver. I had a front row seat watching the reality of the music business and the hard work that he put in. I watched that for the better part of a decade and I never thought that I was that kind of a person. I would kind of inwardly cringe when my dad would go and introduce himself to people or just hustle in general. I could just sit back and turn up to sing. The second I hit New Zealand soil, that part from my dad just kicked into gear.
What was the first album you made when you got to New Zealand?
I recorded a little bit of Red Dirt Angels at home, a couple of demos so that I’d have something in my hand when I landed, a little business card to give people. That album is a hodgepodge of demos and songs I could afford to go and record in the studio. I was writing in Nashville and writing for other artists. I had it in mind that other people would be singing those songs. So it definitely isn’t a picture of who I am as an artist now but it’s a picture of that time in my life where I was having to relocate, figure out who I was as a solo artist after being in a family band for a decade for most of my life. I can hear myself exploring and trying to figure things out.
The two Kitchen Table Sessions albums were made while I was flying home to the security of the family nest. A lot of what I did was dictated by finance and not yet knowing people here. It was going back home and doing these around the kitchen table sessions with my brother and my dad. The first time you start to see some of the New Zealand cast creep in is the second volume of the Kitchen Table Sessions.
I collaborated with a New Zealand artist, Lauren Thompson. She co-wrote a lot of the songs and she flew over the Canada with me. Dave Khan, who now tours the world with Marlon Williams came sent over fiddle tracks. The guitarist Mark Mazengarb popped in and did some guitar. You can start to see a little bit of the Kiwi circle coming into the picture.
By the time I got to make Dynamite I’d been in New Zealand for about six or seven years. I had established my own band here. I had collaborators and had formed friendships with other artists. That’s where things started to click into place. I was working without the safety of the family nest. I wasn’t flying back.
You’re even more prominent on the cover. There is this sense of, “This is me!” Did you feel that going into it?
Definitely. By then I’d done a couple of tours with Marlon and Delaney. Up to that point so much of everything was dictated by finance. A lot of my shows were me and my guitar and my stomp box and my harmonica, doing this one-woman band. When I met Delaney Davidson, who co-produced the album, I performed a song that was just me and the guitar. After the show he said, “Man, you’ve really got this Sister Rosetta Tharpe thing happening there.” I thought, “Oh my god! Finally, somebody who can hear in me what I hear in my head! And he actually knows who Sister Rosetta Tharpe is!”
What was your frame of mind when you went in to make SASSAFRASS!? It seems like a great example of everything you can do as a writer and performer.
In every area, musically, lyrically, this is me coming into my confidence as a woman. Feeling really emboldened by a few things. Obviously the groundswell that’s happening all over the world with our fight for female equality. But before that’d even started to kick off I’d already written most of this album. I remember my mother asking me, “Is there a theme emerging?” I said, “I kind of think there is.” I was only three or four songs into it and I said, “I think it’s this combination of becoming a mom, losing my dad and turning 40.” Those are three major, life-altering milestones.
All three of those things completely shift your perspective. It changes your priorities. I think that when you hit 40 you start to realize that life is not forever. You’re not immortal. Life’s too short to be living it to please others. I think that worrying about the judgements or criticisms of others, especially as an entertainer, is something that’s kind of built-in.
This album is just a celebration of that new-found freedom of saying what I really think and being emboldened by what’s going on in the world. I want to make changed for my children who I hope will be living in a future that’s very different in the way that it treats minorities and having equality for women.
The album is definitely a reflection of all the things that just started to pour out of me. It was definitely being a mom in the music industry that helped flip the switch for me. As a woman in the industry you experience all the typical comments about appearance and weight. You learn to work through it, push past it. You build this resilience.
I had never experienced it in such full force as when I became a mother and dared to continue a music career. The judgements were crippling. There was a period where I did my first international touring after having my boys and every single night after the show I would be getting the comments and the judgements. “How can you leave your children? Who’s looking after them?” All the comments that women who go out and work face.
It’s so deeply ingrained in our society and what our expectations of what a woman’s role is. We think we’ve come such a long way but it’s still there. I just really had to do a lot of work on myself and my confidence. I’m providing for my family. More power to people who can raise kids on one income, that’s awesome. But I’m not just providing financially. I’m also modeling a work ethic that they see every day. I’m never going to have to say the words, “Follow your dreams, boys.”
I have male friends who are musicians. They can go out for a weekend run or a four-week tour and no one says, “What’s Bob doing leaving his son at home like that?”
I know! I have two guys in my band who both have kids. One has four, the other has three. I mention in the show that we’re all parents and the guys never get the questions or the criticisms or the judgements. They’re bringing home the bacon, they’re providing for their family. It’s viewed through a very different filter when you’re a female doing that exact same job.
At the same time, there’s that struggle for balance between family and career. How do you manage?
Every decision involves both me and my husband. It also means you can’t take every single opportunity that comes along. There are no more impulsive, last-minute decisions. Everything has to be quite well planned out in advance and organized. When international opportunities started to come along, we talked about it and I said, “Are we going to go down this road? Because once we do it’s only going to get busier.”
My husband said, “I think we need to cross each bridge as we come to it.” There’s no blanket decisions. We discuss every tour as it comes and decide what’s going to be best for our family and the overall big picture for each decision that comes through. There’s a lot of weighing and measuring to see what’s going to keep everybody happy. My boys are being raised in a family where they see both Mom and Dad sharing the load equally. When I’m at work, Grant is the primary caregiver. When Grant’s at work, I’m the primary caregiver. They see that it’s an equal responsibility that we both take on.
My mom and dad worked in the same industry and they worked together but they shared the responsibilities of parenting equally so I guess that’s why it baffled me when I got hit with all these judgements and realizing that that equality is not everywhere. It’s not yet the norm.
Did losing your dad impact your drive and that sense that you had to get to your goal?
Absolutely. It changed my perspective and my priorities and I think it lit even more of a fire under me. It still breaks my heart that my dad got to see the beginnings of the reviews of my album Dynamite and things starting to take shape but the international touring and going back to Canada as much as I have over the last two years would have put him over the moon.
I remember playing Massey Hall in Toronto, walking onto stage for sound check and bursting into tears. So many of these accomplishments are so bittersweet because he’s not there to share them. The legacy that my dad left me and the foundation that he gave me to build on is something I urgently feel the need to have in place for my boys.
My last album, Don’t Be Afraid, was actually written in the wake of losing my dad. It’s such a privilege to be able to create something tangible that encapsulates the grieving process. It’s a marker, a line in the sand, a memorial.