25 Nov 2017

'How Bizarre's Sister Sina is finally releasing her debut album after a 19-year wait

From RNZ Music, 1:30 pm on 25 November 2017
Simon Grigg, Alan Jansson, Sina Saipaia and Trevor Reekie

Simon Grigg, Alan Jansson, Sina Saipaia and Trevor Reekie Photo: RNZ

Sina Saipaia – aka Sister Sina – attracted global attention when she sang the hook to OMC’s hit single 'How Bizarre'.

After OMC’s album was completed Sina went on to record her own debut – Sina, but due to record company machinations, it was never released.

19 years on, the man who released the OMC album and recorded Sina – Huh Records owner Simon Grigg, made a discovery.

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Photo: Supplied

Grigg was looking through web data for the AudioCulture website – a site he founded with the help of NZ On Air, as a kind of online museum for NZ music.

He realized that the 5th most popular page on the site globally was one about Sina.

“I thought it was pretty strange ‘cause despite [the album] never being released, here it is up with the Finns.”

Around he same time, Grigg received a letter from a guy in the UK who was a fan of OMC and ‘How Bizarre’.  He wrote that there was still interest in the UK for the work of Sina.

He told Grigg that popular BBC Radio DJ Chris Evans, who was the first to play ‘How Bizarre’ in the UK, had recently found the Sina single ‘Don't Be Shy’ up on Youtube and played it on his program.

This sparked sufficient interest for Grigg to convince Universal Music NZ to finally release the Sina album.

Universal NZ CEO Adam Holt had been there in ’96 to help drive ‘How Bizarre’ to international acclaim. He’d also released Lorde’s ‘Royals’.

So, in November 2017 the Sina finally saw the light of day, 19 years after it was originally due for release.

Sina Saipaia, a NZ born singer of Samoan descent grew up in South Auckland’s Otara.

She first started singing in church and as a teenager became part of a musical hub centred around the Otara Musical Arts Centre.

The cover of the 2017 issue of Sina's album

The cover of the 2017 issue of Sina's album Photo: Audio Culture

It was there she came into contact with the Fuemana family, including Pauly Fuemana who founded OMC with his brother Phil.

OMC’s path to international success began when they appeared on an album called Proud: An Urban Pacific Streetsoul Compilation, which also included the break-out single ‘In The Neighborhood’ by Sisters Underground.

Grigg heard the album and got in touch with its producer Alan Jansson: “I thought the Proud album was the greatest thing I’d ever heard.

“The quality of the music and the innovation I was hearing … was extraordinary. So I was saying to Jansson … ‘If you’ve got anyone that you want to work with then I’m interested.’”

And so the story of Pauly Fuemana, ‘How Bizarre’ and eventually Sina began.

Sina was not only immortalized in the song’s lyrics: ‘Sweet Zina's in the front,’ but also sang the backing vocals and the song’s hook:

Ooh, baby, (ooh, baby)
It's making me crazy
Every time I look around
It's in my face

When asked at the time whether she thought it was the best thing she’d ever done, or just another session, she responded: “Oh most definitely it was a big lift up for [me].

“To me, music, as far as hooks are concerned, especially in choruses, it does have to have a hook … because to me, if I made anyone put a smile on their face or tap their toes while ‘How Bizarre’ was playing, then we’ve done our job.”

On the strength of her vocal contribution, both Grigg and Jansson were confident in her ability to produce her own full-length album.

Jansson had seen Sina’s live performances at the 1995 Big Day Out in Australia and appreciated her presence, projection and stage skills.

Preparing for a photoshoot in 1997

Preparing for a photoshoot in 1997 Photo: © Simon Grigg 2010

Grigg says, “We’d said to Sina … once we’ve made this [OMC] record, we’re going to do the same for you. Alan’s contribution as a producer and co-songwriter was crucial. So we knew we had the pieces to put it together.”

The creative and recording process was one of mutual respect. Sina: “I’d never met anyone who was such a genius at his art ... Alan understood me especially as an artist and respected me.

“On every song we wrote he took out the goodness in me and enhanced it … he wouldn’t try and change my voice or tell me how to sing, he just took the essence of what was in my voice.

“That was a respect mark towards me ‘cause he didn’t try to turn me into a singer that he wanted me to be.”

Jansson co-wrote the songs, provided the beats and melodic instrumentation and also brought in a number of musicians including the crucial scratching skills of pre-eminent soul and hip-hop DJ, Manuel Bundy.

While Jansson and Sina worked on the album in Auckland, Grigg was building relationships and a formidable contact list of Industry figures who he knew would be interested in Sina.

Everything looked good. Sina was shaping up to be a brilliant follow-up to the success of How Bizarre.

Sina’s ‘Boy’ and ‘Don't Be Shy’ were released in 1998 and demonstrated that there was definitely an audience out there. Things were falling into place.

Jansson took the album to LA where it was mastered at A&M Studios – which as Jansson had predicted, proved to be a wonderful and creative finishing point for an album that he, Sina and Grigg were justifiably proud of.

The record was destined to go out via Grigg’s label Huh in New Zealand, Motown in America, and Polygram for the rest of the world.

But then, in May 1998, Polygram was sold to the alcohol distiller Seagram and subsequently merged with Seagram’s music and film division Universal Studios.

The original unreleased album cover from 1999

The original unreleased album cover from 1999 Photo: 2013 Simon Grigg

The merger resulted in a wholesale re-shuffle of international management and staff, with marketing plans and release schedules collapsing in the chaos.

Sina’s album was put on hold.

“It was chaos,” says Grigg, “Polygram was the biggest record company in the world at that stage and they were bought by the smallest major.

“One of the biggest ramifications for the artists is that [Universal] went through [Polygram’s] roster and just started slashing people … and the people that were given priority were the Universal artists.

“So if someone was signed to Universal – this small record company, they were given priority over a new artist who had been signed to a big company.

“January 1999 was when the takeover happened and there was a period of a month or two where we didn’t know what was going on.

“No one knew who the Managing Director was, nobody knew who the marketing people were, nobody knew who anybody was … so we just sat there trying to work out what was going on

“Universal had already put a ton of money into Deep Obsession [a newly formed local pop group] and basically they had to decide – Deep Obsession or this Polygram act.

“The Polygram act was given a bit of lip service for a while and then they dumped it.”

Grigg says they were never really told the album was being dumped: “They just stopped returning calls … it’s terrible y’know. There’s human beings they’re dealing with here, and careers and there’s this big corporate machine saying, ‘You don’t matter anymore.’”

Jansson says he was devastated, while Sina maintains she understood what happened and was more philosophic about it.

Since 1999 there have been myriad changes in the music industry: continued label mergers driven by consumers’ changing listening habits, the introduction of iTunes, YouTube, Spotify and others. The industry is a completely different place.

But one thing hasn’t changed – you can’t keep a great record down.