29 Mar 2024

Tami Neilson: Duets and changing dreams

From It's Personal with Anika Moa, 5:00 am on 29 March 2024

A brush with death in early 2023 gave Tami Neilson fresh perspective on her life and career, she tell Anika Moa about her "come to Jesus" moment and they discuss the realities of being a working musician.

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Tami Neilson

Tami Neilson Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

Realising her indigenous heritage

"On my dad's side of the family I have Ojibwe blood and Ojibwe heritage, which is beautiful, really special. But in Canada, as most colonised countries, it's very complicated. Our people were very oppressed and had horrific things happen, as everyone has seen in the news over the last few years. And so my grandmother was raised on Wasauksing nation in Ontario and when she was just young, her mother, who was indigenous, died in childbirth. So her father, who was German, then took her and her sisters to southern Ontario and left the reservation. She spent most of her life trying to hide the fact that she was indigenous, even though she was very clearly, visibly indigenous. It was not something she liked to talk about. She came from a generation where it was illegal for indigenous people to gather in a group of more than three people. So you couldn't sit and have a coffee together in a restaurant."

"I always knew my heritage, but did not have the opportunity to really explore it being raised in a very fundamental Christian household. It wasn't really until I left Canada and came to New Zealand and seeing how intertwined everything in New Zealand is with indigenous culture. They couldn't defeat the Maori and so they had to coexist. They had to find a way, even though it was still oppressive. Whereas in Canada we were defeated. It was not ever considered to keep that culture in our government, in daily life. Coming here made me yearn more for knowledge of my indigenous ancestry in Canada."

Tami Neilson

Tami Neilson said coming to New Zealand made her want to learn more about her Ojibwe heritage. Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

Her life on the road

"Growing up in a motorhome touring across the United States and Canada for the better part of a decade, I used to look at kids who grew up in the same house with a picket fence and a dog and had all the same friends their whole life. To me, that's so exotic. Whereas people are like, wow, your life was so incredible, you got to grow up touring with your family and living in this motorhome, in a tour bus. And that seems exotic to the average person, but that was my normal. So for me, normal is exotic."

2023's turning point

"I definitely had a kind of what we call a 'Come to Jesus moment' in my background. I went into hospital for a very standard procedure. It was just having my gallbladder out. But there were complications. I ended up getting sepsis and a collapsed lung and being in hospital for over a month. And that is a moment where you're like, 'What am I doing on this earth? Am I in the right place? Who am I without my music?'. Because when you have a collapsed lung and you can barely breathe, I'm like, 'I'm never going to sing again. Uh, is this me now forever?'."

"I think that it changes your perspective hugely, you realize that. yes, I feel it's my purpose, being on this earth, to what I sing about what I write about, standing up for equality for women in our industry, or encouraging people, uplifting people, empowering people. I feel that's my purpose, what I'm here for. But if that was taken away, I could do it without music. I could still fulfill my purpose."

Tami Neilson is recovering from surgery complications.

Tami spent a month in hospital in early 2023, after complications during a routine surgery left her with a collapsed lung and sepsis. Photo: Facebook / Supplied

"The only thing I thought of was my family, my children. I didn't think about music when I was on these crazy morphine visions of seeing my family on one path and having to leave this earth on the other. My guitar was not in that vision."

Gender inequality in the music industry

"There is a very skewed percentage of male and female and non binary. In my world, when you're looking at country music particularly, across North America in 2022, only 10% of country music radio was made up of women. It's just such a huge imbalance. And I tend to work in a genre that is even worse than the norm."

"I think that in the business that we're in, we're putting ourselves out there completely. We're so vulnerable and open and we're so visible, and we're in an industry that values youth and beauty and slimness over everything else. And that industry isn't going to change, but we are building something outside of that industry. I always say the way I look, the way my body looks is the least interesting thing about me".

Coming face-to-face with gender stereotypes

"It cracked me up because this was on International Women's Day. It was an elderly man, and he came up and said, 'So how come you're out here having fun while your husband's at home babysitting?' And I said, 'First of all, when it's your child, when they're his flesh and blood, it's not called babysitting, it's called parenting, which I do most of the time, but when I have to go away from my work, he takes care of our children. When he goes away to work every day, I take care of our children. It's a balance. It's equality. It's a thing called equality."

Tami Neilson

Tami has been battling gender inequality her whole career Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

"That was probably like seven or eight years ago, now you're kind of arguing to a brick wall a lot of the time, I let my music speak for itself. I often say when people get offended when you talk about equality or feminism, when people get offended by those things or say, 'Oh, you're too political, you're always man bashing', when I'm simply only talking about equality, I have to remember that they're not mad at me. Music holds up a mirror, and what you see in that mirror is how you experience the music. So if you hear a sad song and it reflects how you're feeling, it can help you ease your grief. It can express how much you love someone. Because music is a mirror and you only experience what you see in it. And so when they see those things, they're just seeing their own reflection. They're not seeing what I'm saying. It's a reaction of their own reflection. So I kind of go, oh, this is between you and the song."

The duet with Willie Nelson

"I was asked to perform at his festival, The Luck Reunion Festival, which is on his ranch in Texas every year during south by Southwest week. It was the week, March 2020, that the world shut down. South by Southwest - canceled, Luck Festival - canceled. And they got in touch with me and they said 'We're going to do it online, if you could beam in from New Zealand and do, like, two or three songs?'."

"The crazy thing is, if I had gone, being a new artist, I would have been on at, like 11:00 a.m. No one would have been there. But because it got moved online the whole family was watching. Willie and his family were watching the festival. And I only knew this years later, the organizer of the festival said to know when you came on and started singing, Willie's wife was texting me, going, 'Holy, who the is this?'"

"So after I did that performance I had a huge influx of new followers online. And one of those followers was this woman named Annie on Twitter. And every time I'd post something, she'd respond. [We] would just chat back and forth and it wasn't until, like, two or three months later, she then followed my brother Jay, because she saw that we were connected. And when she followed him, he looked at her bio and he said, 'Um, do you realize who Annie is that you've been talking to? [It's] Willie's wife. So I was like, twitter besties with Willie's wife? And I didn't even realize it."

Tami Neilson

Recording a duet with Willie Nelson has been the highlight of Tami's musical career. Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

"It came time to record this song and I didn't even think of shooting for that level. And my brother joked and said, 'Oh, why don't you ask your new best friend Willie Nelson to sing it with you?'. And my heart started pounding, and I just thought, 'Oh, but I don't want to ruin our friendship. I'm sure everyone's like, oh, you've been playing the long game for 18 months and now you're going to spring this on us like everybody else'. So I was very sensitive about it not ruining our friendship, and so it took me, like, months to get up the courage to even ask, and I was, like, shaking and nervous every time I thought about it. And so I finally texted [Annie] and just said, I do not want this to affect our friendship. I'm sure you get this all the time. I would love for [Willie] to sing with me, but if this is going to affect anything, delete this text and pretend it never happened. She came back and said, 'Oh, sure, I'll play it for him. So, long story short, she came back and said, he loves it and he recorded it."

"I remember we were in lockdown, and for some reason, my husband was home, which he never is. I was out for a walk and [Annie] was texting, saying he's just finished recording it we're sending it through, and I'm, like, racing home. And I get home and it's in my inbox, and we put it on over the speakers, and my husband and I just sat on the couch and just cried and listened to it, just crying. And I'm like, this is crazy."


"I think we have these ideas of what success looks like. For me, success is not being a global superstar. I realised that a lot of my goals were my 18 year old goals. I am not an 18 year old anymore. They're the dreams of an 18 year old that a 46 year old mother cannot fulfill and does not want to fulfill. I don't have the energy or the time or the f's to give. And so I think in our business, ambition can be what drives us. It's what keeps us propelling forward and growing. And it can be a good thing, but it can also be a disease."

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