Music

Tami Neilson Examines Parenthood and  Feminism via "Queenie, Queenie" (premiere + interview)

Photo: Sabin Holloway / Courtesy of Conqueroo

Rockabilly queen Tami Neilson gets back to basics on her new LP, as she moves between country, gospel, and R&B. She also looks back on meeting one of the artists who shaped her life, Mavis Staples. "She radiates joy," says the singer.

Tami Neilson releases her latest album, Chickaboom!, this Friday. Yesterday, we praised the record with Rich Wilhelm calling Neilson the "heiress apparent to legendary rockabilly/country queen Wanda Jackson".

On Chickaboom!, the New Zealand-based singer continues her longstanding tradition of marrying deep, soul-shaking grooves with insightful social commentary inspired by contemporary events. As with past outings, she touches on the struggles of working people ("Ten Tonne Truck"), matters of the heart ("You Were Mine", "Hey, Bus Driver"), and parenthood ("Queenie, Queenie") with unflinching honesty.

At times, her songwriting harkens back to the 1960s and the often overlooked role that feminism played in the country genre, whether via "Fist City", "D-I-V-O-R-C-E", or others. Yet Neilson remains fiercely contemporary and forward-thinking as she delivers the latest in a line of exhilarating and soul-cleansing records.

The latest video from the new long-player is "Queenie, Queenie", a rhythmically-driven piece that spotlights the full power and might of Neilson's voice and lyrical prowess. Simple in its presentation, complex in its intent, it's an anthem of empowerment for women, some of them mothers, some of them not, in the first light of a new decade.

Speaking from New Orleans during a recent trip to the U.S., Neilson said, "Queenie, Queenie" "was written during the summer holidays in New Zealand. I have two little boys, five and seven. I always say that that's why it has no instrumentation on it. You're so frickin' busy you can't even pick up a guitar when you have your kids home. It's just a day in the life of being a mother."

She adds, "The last verse references the role of women on country radio and the Tomato-gate controversy when radio consultant Keith Hill famously advised his programmers not to play female artists and especially not to play them back-to-back. I thought that would be irrelevant by now, but just this week, a DJ tweeted about not being able to play women back-to-back on their station. Artists tweeted back, and the news picked it up, spotlighting the fact that the controversy is still relevant. I look forward to the day that it's not."

Neilson spoke further with PopMatters about the origins of Chickaboom! and meeting one of her heroines, Mavis Staples.

* * *

Chickaboom! is different from your last release, Sassafrass! in terms of production.

Sassafrass!was as big as I wanted to go, sonically. You have Dynamite!, which is more like this one, then Don't Be Afraid, which sounds bigger, then Sassafrass! Some of it is the practicality of it. I've decided to change the way I've been touring internationally. Coming from New Zealand with a four- or five-piece band is not financially sustainable. You're looking at 12,000 dollars in flights before you sing a note. I decided I would use my brother Jay on the ground and a drummer on the ground.

I wanted to create an album that could be reproduced live without my audience being disappointed. Chickaboom! was part of that. It was intentionally written to be performed as a trio or a four-piece at most. I really wanted it to be about the songs and the voice. It's almost the Sun Records vibe where it's very rhythmic, bare-bones.

There are elements that are reminiscent of the 1960s. It has dashes of soul but also hints of country.

I tend to sound like an era of music rather than just one genre. Memphis and Nashville were the hotbeds of music at that time. People weren't so worried about slotting things into genres. Elvis was singing gospel, rhythm and blues, country, rockabilly. Same with Johnny Cash. There wasn't this differentiation like today. Because that's the music that influenced me when I was growing up, I tend to paint with that same palette. Some records are painted more with one color, but it's all the same palette.

Was there a particular song that led the way for the new album?

The first song that was in existence was "You Were Mine". I wrote that before the Sassafrass! album. I'd been closing my shows with it for the past two years. We tried to record it for Sassafrass! Sometimes it happens that you play something live, people connect with it and ask for it at shows, then you go in to record it, and it just falls flat. I think because the band and I were so close to it, we couldn't get it. It was a tough decision to let it go because I really love it.

We tried it, and it was with Delaney Davidson co-producing with me. My brother was there, so it wasn't a typical band. They weren't as close to the song as I was. It was a fresher take, not that different, but it has little tweaks.

"Ten Tonne Truck" struck me right away.

I tend only to write what I know and what I've experienced. That's a very autobiographical song. The first verse is about my grandparents. The second verse is about my parents and the way that we grew up. The third is about now and the struggle in the industry that I have. Pretty much every line in that song is family history.

You pay tribute to Mavis Staples with "Sister Mavis". How did you first encounter her music?

We were living in Nashville at the time, performing as a family band. We all went out for this taping at the Ryman for this project called Rhythm, Country and Blues. They paired up country artists with R&B artists for some crossover hits. I believe the Staple Singers were paired up with Marty Stuart for "The Weight". It was quite seminal for me: country, soul, and rhythm and blues come from the same place and belong together.

That was the first time I saw Mavis. I would have been 14 or 15 years old. I didn't connect with her on a deeper level as a fan until I was moving to New Zealand. Her first Jeff Tweedy-produced album, You Are Not Alone came out, and my brother gave the CD to me for my birthday. That was the album that made me completely obsessed with her and made me connect deeply with her.

I guess I've always felt this kinship with her because she grew up in a family band and was very close with her father, and then she lost him and kind of felt like she lost her way musically without him. All of which I've gone through in my life as well. The second time I saw her perform, it was her, Aaron Neville, and the Blind Boys of Alabama in Auckland. I never thought I'd have the chance to open for her.

Have you met her?

I've gotten to open for her twice in the last few years. There's always that fear of meeting your heroes. On one of the opening dates, I was in the middle of my set, and I wasn't even sure if she was around. I was singing, and then I heard the gospel backbeat clapping. I looked over and heard this voice go, "Yeeeees!"

[Laughs.]

She was sitting on a stool in the wings, swaying and raising her arms. My heart burst out of my chest. I went back after my set. She came over and was so complimentary. Lovely. She was everything and more that I hoped she might be. She radiates joy.

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