1 Aug 2020

The Mixtape: Stan Walker

From The Mixtape, 5:05 pm on 1 August 2020

Stan Walker picks songs and dives deep into everything from whānau and childhood to politics, racism, lockdown, and hope.

Stan Walker

Stan Walker Photo: Supplied

Australian-born musician Stan Walker shot to fame as the winner of the seventh and final season of Australian Idol in 2009. He's released five albums since then and is currently promoting his new single 'Bigger', which he recorded in both English and Māori.

Discussing New Zealand's level 4 lockdown Stan says he went a bit stir crazy at first but after a while learned to love it as it brought a lot of time for self-reflection.

"The first week and a half I felt like I was having a mental breakdown because I'd never been so still in my life, especially in the last 12 years. I'm always flying, always travelling, always gigging, always doing something - I just get lost in the busyness of things

"I realised a lot about myself, and I was exposed to my own self in ways I had never been before and I learned to actually love lockdown. 

"Having home cooked meals every night... I enjoyed it, I loved staying home, I enjoyed the conversations I was having... Definitely it changed a lot of my perspectives. I just had to look at myself in a different way and I was like 'Whoah, I need to change that', or 'this needs to come out'...

"In most ways it was a positive, empowering, exposing, life changing experience. Yeah, so much happened in such a short amount of time. 

"To be alive in a time when the whole world was locked down? That's trippy."

First song: Sam Cooke - 'A Change is Gonna Come'

Change is a big theme for Stan at the moment. He says partly that's about the Black Lives Matter movement, but it's about more than that too. It's about everything. 

"If we're not passionate about stuff, if stuff doesn't move us and hurt us, like with Black Lives Matter, then I feel like we're part of the problem," he says. 

"It starts with my family, it starts with my people, it starts with the land that I serve, the land that I'm here to protect. 

"This is a song I think that most people are brought up on. This song has the same power and applies the same as it did as I guess when he wrote it. 

"More now than ever, it's like I think we're living through the change, so change is happening." 

Stan says he can empathise with the Black Lives Matter movement, but he can't compare his own experience to that of a black person living in the United States. 

"There's similarities and I can empathise but I could never compare... I can go for a run and not think 'am I gonna get shot and killed today because it looks like I'm running because I stole something'. 

He's passionate about pushing for change, and says that has to start at home. 

"I have those similarities with Black Lives Matter. Climate change, we're at the forefront of the battle, the Pacific, the islands are at the forefront of the battle ... it starts with generational trauma within Māori people, within Pacific people, indigenous people ... change is coming and giving the power back to the people and ... for people to realise that they have the power."

His new single 'Bigger' is being released in two versions - one in English and one in te reo Māori. He says that was a no brainer - having grown up on a marae in Mount Maunganui, he's always sung in Māori. The difference - or change - he says, is he has started putting it on record. 

"We grew up with old-school Soul, R&B and gospel music, and also Māori hymns, Rātana hymns. So that was our upbringing. 

"It's not like I'm tryna, it's just because I prefer some stuff in Māori, just like I prefer some stuff in English but lately I've been preferring it more in Maōri. 

"We grew up on the marae, so it was always around us, in our culture. My mum and dad never spoke Māori, they came from a different generation where their parents were kind of beaten up for speaking Māori so they just never grew up with it. 

"Me and my brothers went to kōhanga, my brothers went to kura kaupapa, I was in the Māori unit at high school, because we move back and forward, so we've always had it around us but practising it is a different thing. 

"Anybody that gives it a go, that's what it's about ... be open for correction... but if people are trying to tō kaha kē on your mana or try and bring you down ... there's a few elitists out there like 'oh you're saying it wrong' and I'm like 'well, are you gonna help them or just sit there and just mock them?'"

He says he goes home a lot to see whānau and spend time. 

"It's just like the old days but way better cos we're adults now ... you know, we have proper conversations, we go and have kai together, we go and have gatherings, we have a drink together ... we reminisce a lot, we love reminiscing, it's like our favourite thing. 

"I was the kid that every uncle and koro used to want to give a boot up the arse. The nannies loved me for some reason - I think they found me hilarious - so I was a nanny's boy. 

"I used to get into fights, all my cousins wanted to give me a hiding. I was a little thief ... the cheekiest. I was a nark from way back, I still am a nark from way back. You know, 'snitches get stitches' and for every snitch that I did I'd be stitched up my whole body, I'd be Frankenstein." 

Second song: Twista ft Faith Evans - 'Hope'

"I love this song, and I feel like this is a song for everybody, now. Always hold onto hope ... when I talk to people I always say 'always be hopeful, always hold on to hope'. So yeah, this is that song." 

Hope was the slogan of the previous US President. Stan says he's not a fan of the current one, but it was Donald Trump's connection with Kim Kardashian and Kanye West that means he is not afraid to wade into politics a bit. 

"A lot of the black community, man, they came for him, they're like 'how dare you, he's killing our people - but imagine being an influence to the most powerful person ... and being an influence that you could change their mind. 

"The person or that person in a position in power, who is making all these big decisions that could be killing our people, holding our people down like little dogs, and who is at the top of the system - it can trickle down. That influence can trickle down to change for the people... I thought 'hmm, who do I want to align myself with, who can I influence with my influence with my gifts, with my platform?'"

Stan really admires a lot of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's qualities.

"The reason why she's had such an impact on not just New Zealand but the world, is she has inspired the people ... she's nurtured them. She came in as a mother when the mosque shooting happened ... not like the Premiers in Australia and not like the Prime Minister in Australia where they're so divided and now that country's turning into a blimmin s***hole. 

"I reckon that's how you change people's lives, you inspire people first, then you educate them. 

"She has done the most incredible job. There's policies that I don't agree with of course, that's normal, you're not gonna love everything 100 percent about our leaders, there's some stuff I'm like 'aw nah bro'. And then other stuff I'm like 'you came in and you did that. You did that'. 

"She inspired people." 

Stan's living back in New Zealand now, and says he's perfectly happy with that. 

"I'm a dual citizen so I'm lucky in that. So I've got two passports, actually I think I've lost my Aussie one ... actually I think I've lost my New Zealand one too. It's somewhere... it's the most useless thing right now. 

The one thing he wants to do at some point, is go and see his family. 

"I just don't want to get stuck in quarantine over there and then come back and get stuck in quarantine cos I will lose my marbles because you'll be stuck in a hotel.

"If I got stuck at my own house, sweet as. Put me out for six weeks, all good."

Third song: U2 ft Mary J Blige - 'One'

"It's the song ... it's just it's all about one, kotahitanga. It's all about togetherness and, oh, I love it." 

During Covid, Stan performed a song for his new single on a big stage but in front of no audience. 

Asked about how he felt performing to no audience, he says he was like "who am I serving". 

He said having an audience gives him energy: "Like I need that, like it gives me fire. They're like stoking my fire because I'm there to serve the people.

"You find your joy and you find your groove when you get on stage... I've done a few online ones now and I've had heaps of fun and I've felt like the crowd is there but on a little screen or whatever. But there's nothing like doing a live show with an audience singing your songs with you, blimmen going crazy. Like, oh, it's a feeling you can't describe."

Stan is currently doing the Good Vibes tour in New Zealand at the moment and says he just wants to "rip it up".

He will be performing his new single 'Bigger' and right now is unsure whether it will be in Māori or English. 

Talking about his new single he says: "In terms of my music I've been doing a lot of these songs that still have yet to be finished but my message is still the same. It's not all the same time, like I talk about love, I talk about heartbreak, I talk about climate change, I talk about the issues that are happening now with Black Lives Matter but our version of it, being Maōri being in the industry in Australia and New Zealand and the challenges I've had to face. 

"I'm a person that's full of so many different things, like I'm not just oh yeah I'm this person that's just striving for greatness, man there's a part of me that's stuff that I just can't stand. A part of me that's completely in love, a part of me that's heartbroken, part of me just wants to talk about something else other than that. I wanna go to the beach and I've never liked when people or the industry has tried to box me in 'you need to be this and just be this person' I was like 'well I'm not that person'. I'm like a whole onion, with a whole lot of layers and every layer is different."

Fourth song: India.Arie - 'I am Light'

"I love this song. I've been in this place I've been thinking of like the whakapapa of why people do stuff and I've been going deep into different things and dark issues and I'm like 'why?, where did it start from, how do we stop it?'

"There's a lyric in there that she's like 'I am not the things that my family did, I am not the voices in my head, I am not the hurt' ... and I was just like, far out, I think people need to hear that, especially people that have been abused whether it be sexually, physically or mentally. 

He says people need to know that they are not their abuse and that they are not what they have been told over their lives. 

"In lockdown, much as it is hard at the beginning for me but enlightening at the same time for me there's a lot of people that lives were at stake in lockdown... the abuse levels went up, and I'm ambassador for Youthline and they said the phone lines were peaking."

He says he felt selfish and too privileged at that time: "I'm at such an amazing home where I'm getting homecooked meals, where some of these people couldn't eat and you're stuck at home with your abusers and there's no way out."

"So this song is maybe for people like that, or people who are still dealing with past trauma in any kind of way that 'you are light, you are beautiful, you're amazing'."

When asked about writer's block, Stan says you just have to have a break, listen to different music, take your mind off it, and sometimes it's just like boom, there it is.

He says he doesn't do much when he's not working. 

"Nothing, absolutely nothing... I Netflix it hard, when I'm not working I will do absolutely nothing. I will stay home and stay in bed and do absolutely nothing."

On his health, Stan says after having stomach cancer he just wants to get back in shape.

"I just wanna get lean, lean so I can take my shirt off at shows... I'm vain, I wanna look mean. You can be cute over there with your little dad bod, not me, I wanna be on.

Discussing his diet and what he had to change he says "it is what it is now". 

"I just don't know anything else. I know when not to and when to and then sometimes I just do it even though I shouldn't."

"I say no a lot more and I pull out of things a lot more, where I never used to ... the capacity that I have to keep going is not as much as it used to be, but in a different way I just have less tolerance for things. It's not so much my body because I feel like my body can move and do things that it could never do.

"So I feel like I'm more powerful and that I'm a more powerful performer, but I think I'm more matter of fact of 'no I don't want to do that'.

"If somebody brings an idea to the table, I'll either be yep, or nah, or I'll have a little look at it, but there's no 'oh I don't know if I can do it, oh what if I have to do this'."

Fifth song: Tupac - 'Changes'

Talking about Tupac's 'Changes', Stan says "we have to be the change".

"If the system is still holding us at where we're at we have to make the change, we have to beat the system by being better.

"We have to stand up more, we have to speak out more, we need to educate ourselves more, we need to come together more, we need to use our voices and our power even though we might be little."

He says it's like one grain of sand: "You think it's nothing, but you look out at the beach. If we come together we can be the change."

"Obviously the system has failed a lot of us... I remember talking to my uncle and he goes 'oh you know boy, I've worked hard for my stuff' and I was like 'but uncle, you wouldn't know what it's like to be Māori in your own land and feel displaced and get looked at because you are Maori ... or get followed around in a supermarket because you are Maōri.

"I as Stan Walker get shut down for speaking Māori on television ... you will never be told 'don't be too brown'. Or 'you're not one of those ones'. I was like there's a difference uncle and I was like 'We've constantly been held down, and I've noticed it because I've seen it. I've watched Mum and Dad go through these things, I've watched TV and I've been on the other side, I've sat at the table with these people who think... I've been the exception. 

"Going back to that having to be the change and fighting the system, but it's been hard. It's been hard and especially I've experienced it more in Australia than I have here ... but if we come together, if we work together, then you know.

Talking about racism in Australia, Stan says people would notice different things.

"I just noticed that people would notice different things ... like 'why is your nose flat; why do you talk like that' ... or constantly just the jokes like 'oh you sheepshagger, oh you're a Māori can you do the haka', like mocking, every day."

He says people don't understand it's an everyday thing and says it still happens. But he says he'd rather try and educate people than lash back at them.

"Do you know the one thing I appreciate about Australians that New Zealanders don't have - they're up the guts, they say exactly how they feel. I'd rather know if you hated me or you thought I was this and that, than you smiling at me and going, 'Come in for a cuppa tea', and then behind my back, 'Look at this little fool, I can't stand his voice'. 

"You get a lot of people, especially from New Zealand, who go, 'Oh Australia is way more racist than New Zealand.' It's not. Racism is racism. There's no more or less. black is black, white is white. There's no more or less black. This is how I see it. People try to quantify how Māori I am, I'm like 'I'm Māori'. They're like 'but how much' - I'm Māori. 

He says for him it's that simple.

Stan says he's still learning and sometimes realises that his little slurs are actually racist: "I didn't know that because I didn't know what these slurs meant. It's just something that I've been taught and that I've heard and it's just become part of my vocab, and have become part of my attitudes that I've learnt from other people, without actually knowing what they were. And I'm like geez, I am shocking."

Sixth song: Renee Geyer - 'Heading in the Right Direction'

"I love Renee Geyer, she's like one of my earliest memories of voices, of songs. This is my mum's favourite song. She plays it on the guitar so I sing it with her.

"It's like all this new beginning, where am I heading ... it's a bit different from the rest of them but for me I love this."