Radio 13 Interview with Tami Neilson

Clare Martin

In advance of Tami Neilson’s Songwriter Series Tour of New Zealand in October 2019, Radio 13 writer Clare Martin caught up with Tami for a chat.

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Described by Rolling Stone as a ‘fire-breathing belter’ and by Downbeat as possessing a ‘canyon of a voice’, this artist beloved of the NZ tour scene and a multi-award-winning singer-songwriter is about to embark on an acoustic tour from Dunedin to Leigh and in between. Tickets available here

Having won the Tui Award for each of her past four albums, the Silver Scroll and the Country Music Awards touring to sold-out gigs, it’s pretty clear that NZ has taken Tami into their hearts. But having established a place here in Aotearoa, how easy is it to keep being a force to be reckoned with in North America and beyond?

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Tami laughs and replies that it feels like she spends half her life on a plane. Big sigh... a hugely rigorous few years touring has worn her down physically and mentally. She describes reaching a point when a month away from the family was feeling like ‘impending doom’, that kind of tour treadmill just became unsustainable.

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Over the summer of 2018/19, she re-calibrated and assessed what was possible for her and her music. She had been doing tours of Europe and North America, five or six shows a week as well as all the travel. It surely hasn’t been a doddle establishing an international presence.

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How awesome to hear an artist tell it frankly. The gutsy, genuine and straight-up quality of Tami on stage is right here at the end of the phone.

As a result of a big re-think, Tami tells me that she’s worked out a way of ‘touring smarter’, placing in one big festival rather than five-week club tours. And joining forces with musicians already in the northern hemisphere, a move that organically happened as her NZ band members had other dates and other projects develop elsewhere.

But here’s the cuddly bit and makes me love her even more. A factor that created the biggest difference was going on tour with family, brother Jay Neilson. A return to her roots of performing extensively in The Neilson Family opening for the likes of Johnny Cash.

Tami tells me that it suddenly struck her that this partnership with her brother has been in the background all along, why not introduce her ‘best friend’ to New Zealand? Jay co-writes a lot of Tami’s material including the Silver Scroll-winning song “Walk Back to Your Arms”... I suggest it’s about time she brought her secret out the closet and shared with us all.

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It seems that the forthcoming Songwriters Series tour in October 2019 will be the same kind of punchy show as audiences have seen before with the band. A big cheer from me, I enjoy the sass of Sassafrass! (2018) so much. But even acoustically the Neilsons have more than a fair share of foot-stomping energy and noise.

I’m curious about the journey Tami has made from 2007 song “Hey Mama Don’t Cry” written about her mother to her 2018 song “Big Boss Mama” written about BEING a mother, the latter also seems to be a coming of age song. Cos let’s face it, forty can be the time when women can claim their own. Definitely! Tami agrees that she is occupying the space of what it means to be a woman now with “boldness and jus’ a lil bit of swagger”. Love it.

So does the country music industry see it too? Do they embrace the stories and talent of women too? And here-in lies the rub, after all these years and all these stories, there is still a marked discrepancy between female and male artists being profiled in the industry at top levels.

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Tami tells me there is finally an awareness of this but still a resistance to change it from the industry. Maren Morris was the first female artist to reach #1 on country radio in North America in a year. This is enough to make your heart bleed, enough to make you want to pen a country song on the spot.

But there are women ‘kicking down doors” (I hear a song lyric Tami…). But not only that, Tami says that now women such as The Highwomen (do not adjust your spelling) are not only holding the space but creating doorways for other women to follow.

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And what about the future, what is Tami curious to explore? She shares that the themes of family and the business of damned if you do, damned if you don’t continue to interest her, writing from what she knows:

A woman stay home to raise the babies
‘Must be nice to do nothing, must be lazy’
And so she go out to make the money
‘How can you leave your babies, you’re a bad, bad Mommy’….

And the most exciting news of my day is that there is a new single pending, you heard it here first! 

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Grab some tickets for her next appearance, a most special night of songs with the Neilson siblings and featuring songs that will appear on a new album, launching 2020. Get your tickets from here!


Written By: Clare Martin Clare has performed as an opera, recital and oratorio artist in UK most notably the Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank, London. In NZ she has performed with NZ Opera and with the NZ Symphony Orchestra but more recently she has moved into a wider range of contemporary genres including jazz and even Leonard Cohen. Since 2008 Clare has been teaching from her own music studio working with professional and beginner singers. In 2017 she was a mentor on TVNZ’s The Naked Choir working with a cappella choirs and she currently coaches barbershop and a woman’s ensemble.