5 May 2024

The Mixtape: Vera Ellen

10:33 am on 5 May 2024
Taite Music Prize 2024 winner Vera Ellen with album producer Ben Lemi.

Ben Lemi and Vera Ellen at the 2024 Taite Music Awards. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Robinson

This year's Taite Music Prize-winning singer/songwriter Vera Ellen and her producer Ben Lemi pick the New Zealand music that influenced them and talk about the special artist/producer relationship behind Vera's latest album, Ideal Home Noise.

Ellen said the award was "slowly sinking in".

"I feel like ... [there's] something about the Taite Awards specifically, just being around all my amazing peers and community and people I'd been growing up with... just felt like such a big hug and so encouraging, and sweet.

"It was so nice because... a lot of the time at events like that you feel out of your skin... and it's quite nerve-wracking."

It helped that a lot of the attendees were close friends, said Lemi, such as Tiny Ruins, "the Joni Mitchell of West Auckland".

They were planning to reinvest the $12,500 prize money "back in the well" for future projects as well as day-to-day living costs.

"I appreciate it so much and need it desperately... It is very difficult [to make a living as a musician in New Zealand]. As a solo artist and with a six-piece band, I want to make sure everyone else is looked after before I pay myself... so that means investing a lot but not really getting anything back, monetarily at least."

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As NZ Music Month kicks off, Ryan asked them what were their earliest memories of Kiwi music.

Brooke Fraser went to the same intermediate school as Vera in Naenae. "That was the age when I was discovering I wanted to be a songwriter... I remember hearing her on the radio and just thought she was so cool, and [her album] What to Do with Daylight."

Lemi recalls growing up with the Footrot Flats movie, and hearing Dave Dobbyn's soundtrack: "That's one of our NZ music legends."

Vera and Ben's playlist

The Mermaidens - 'Dress for Success'

"I love the riffs," says Vera. "It's just got a really amazing chord progression, it's really punchy, strong... I'm such a fan of theirs."

A.U.R.A - 'Dr Simone'

Lemi and Vera met after he worked with her elder brother Albert River.

"He's an amazing songwriter, an amazing musician, amazing spirit, and he said, 'Hey you should check out my sister's music'.''

There were strong similarities between the siblings' sound and lyrics - Albert and Vera's older sister Tali is also a musician, as well as being a poet and vocalist who "does a lot of screaming and spoken word poetry".

Growing up with Tali's "punk, hardcore vibe and edge" and the great songwriters, such as Jeff Buckley and Joni Mitchell, that Albert introduced her to, gave her a solid musical grounding, says Vera.

Meanwhile, Lemi's stepbrother put a guitar in his hand when he was six and introduced him to Jim Hendrix.

"Dr Simone" is a song produced by Ben with Albert, and references jazz great Nina Simone.

Would Vera ever do a family band with Albert and Tali? "It could happen!"

Lemi says he never set out to become a producer. He started co-producing albums with French for Rabbits and Vera and "took a real liking" to the process.

"With Vera, we talk about the aural aesthetic ... and the intention behind the songs. For me, I [try] to ingest the energy of the demos... and turn that into recordings and a meaningful capturing of Vera's songs."

CC(TV) - 'Kinnie'

This song is by Vera's Flying Nun stablemate and colleague, Carla Camilleri.

"I really love this song, it really reminds me of summer and ... captures her spirit so beautifully."

Vera has worked in a record store and loves how it expands her musical tastes. "It's one of the best jobs - being surrounded by music... and immediate local releases. It's pulled me out of the 1960s and 90s... there's a lot of cool stuff happening now."

Charlotte Ryan asked the duo for their thoughts on the future of the "full album".

Lemi: "I really admire how Vera places a lot of importance on constructing an album from start to finish... really thinking about the order of the songs, and the album as a whole experience. That would be a real shame to miss out on that experience."

Vera: "Artistically, I just like working that way. It just makes sense to my brain as a musician... though I can definitely understand economically why people might prefer just to put out singles or EPs."

Vera has a new, "very emotional, very raw" EP coming out soon. "I just don't want to lose that part of who I am as a musician... "

Jazmine Mary - 'You're Never Alone If You've Got Music'

"It's just such a gorgeous ballad... It reminds me of Nick Cave... It feels very classic already."

Vera admires so many of the influential artists on the Flying Nun back catalogue - and it was the only label she sent her music to.

"It's grounded in the NZ community and music history and I feel like attaching or being a part of something that's outside of yourself - in an environment and industry that can feel very extremely isolating at times - has been very grounding and just a real privilege to be in that lineage."

i.e crazy - 'As It Stands'

This track comes from their album Country Justice.

"I became a fan of theirs a few years ago. I love the way that they put different textures together. I love how they use audio tracks mixed in with music, and then how much gut is put into their songs and it just comes across so strong."

Orchestra of Spheres - 'Hypercube'

Lemi's partner plays the bass in this band, although its members are pursuing individual projects currently.

Vera Ellen is touring with Voom and Reb Fountain, playing the James Hay Theatre, Christchurch on 30 May, Errick's, Dunedin on 31 May, the Great Hall, Wellington on 1 June and the Powerstation, Auckland on 2 June

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