A Conversation With Tami Neilson

New Zealand’s Tami Neilson has been a favorite here at Country Universe from the first time we heard the opening notes of “Walk (Back To Your Arms),” the lead single from her 2014 album, Dynamite! In the years since, she’s continued to build her reputation as one of the finest vocalists of her generation, armed with a ballistics-grade voice and a rare instinct to match her performances to a range of styles that fall under the big tent of the country genre.

As impressive as her catalogue is, her forthcoming album, Sassafrass! is her finest, most vital work to date. In what has already been a tremendous year for country music, I’ll be pleasantly surprised if I hear a stronger album in the remainder of 2018.

Neilson is known for her powerhouse vocal performances— and it’s saying something that she’s never sounded better than she does on this record— but it’s the album’s deeply personal and politically-charged context that gives Sassafrass! its ferocity and timeliness. Co-producing the album with Ben Edwards, Neilson also ensures that the album, which foregrounds her vintage soul and gospel influences more prominently than on her previous outings, is never less than compelling and is often just outright fun.

Speaking with Neilson in early May, her humor was infectious, and she punctuated her thoughtful reflections on Sassafrass! with a wry, subversive perspective and a boisterous laugh. Having listened to Sassafrass! for a couple of months now— a full review is forthcoming— the opportunity to speak to Neilson about the album’s recording process and about the experiences that informed her songwriting only made me all the more excited about the album, which should break Neilson to the wider audience her talent deserves.


Jonathan Keefe: One of the things I love most about your music is the tension between your throwback aesthetic and your contemporary point-of-view: How do you work to strike that balance?

Tami Neilson: I think, for me, it’s the music that’s influenced me my whole life, and that’s what’s coming out naturally. And it’s the music I love and still listen to and surround myself with. I love the idea of the music being very much of an era but the lyrics being very much of today and very current, and things that would never ever have been sung about by a woman in the 1960s.

I love this bright, candy-colored, fun packaging, but when you unpack it, there’s quite subversive lyrics. When you pay attention to the lyrics— because some people listen to it and just bop along and think it’s just a fun retro throwback— but when you get grabbed by a lyric, it’s even more rebellious because it’s kind of flying in the face of the culture of that time. So that’s the idea behind it.

And people often say, “Oh, do you think you were born in the wrong era?” with [your] look and the aesthetic, and I say, “Absolutely not.” I love that I can enjoy the music and the design and the fashion and all of that wonderful stuff that came out of the 60s without a side order of racism and oppression. That’s the music that I write and the music that I love, but I want to keep things fresh and contemporary. I’m never going to write a lyric that says “Stand by your man” when he’s cheating.

JK: At least within the country music community, there’s this dichotomy between people who want their music to adhere to traditions and conventions versus people who insist that the genre has to evolve. Do you think those are valuable conversations still to be having?

TN: I don’t know that it’s a valuable discussion, but I think it’s a very, very old one. It’s human nature. We dissect things and critique and judge and have our own tastes, but at the end of the day, Patsy Cline was fighting this same battle. Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, almost every artist who stretches and grows beyond the box that they’ve been put in, they’re always going to face judgment and critique, which is part of art and part of creating. I think it’s only stifling if you place value on it and take it on board, and then it stifles what you’re trying to create. If you ever write an album, in the back of your head, what are the reviews going to say about this, you’re just killing it.

But this exact same discussion has always been there. From when Dolly Parton went from country to having songs on the pop charts. Patsy Cline, having her songs going equally on the country and pop charts. So it’s a very old conversation, and I try not to place too much value in that. As an artist, you take on board what your fans and people and critics—you digest it, but some of it you have to spit out. Chew the meat and spit out the bones, honey!

JK: I think your music, given how you have this retro aesthetic without being a purist, naturally fits squarely into that kind of a discussion.

TN: I tend to get a lot of people that it’s really important to them for some reason that I only fit into one genre or one style. And it’s quite an old mindset. It’s very much a mindset that was kind of created for marketing and business reasons by record labels and management. And yes, it’s obviously a lot easier to sell something when people know exactly what it is and it fits into this category.

But I think in this day and age, music is consumed in a very different way by people. I still create with a whole album in mind. I create an arc over an album, telling a story. Whereas I know a big percentage of my fans buy vinyl and consume music that way. But there’s another percentage of my fans that stream and listen to just a song that they like, or they don’t listen to it in any particular order.

People are intelligent, and I don’t underestimate my fans, and I don’t think they’re not smart enough to realize, “Oh, actually this isn’t my cup of tea, I think I’ll just press the skip button.” That’s quite all right. If you’re more into country, then you’ll listen to those [songs]. If you’re more into soul, you’ll listen to the other ones. Or if you’re more like me, and you love all of those and don’t want to get too bored with eating the same meat and potatoes every day, spice it up with some different styles of music.

JK: Do you go into an individual track with the mindset of wanting to pay homage to a particular genre or style?

TN: Yeah, I think that as I create the bare bones… that a good song is a good song, and then the production of the song determines the genre it’s going to be. When I write it, I definitely have an idea of the direction of it.

I go into the studio— co-producing this one with Ben Edwards— I make a folder for each song, and in that folder is the demo that I’ve very basically hacked out with me singing into my phone with my guitar. And then I even include two or three reference tracks of songs: I’ll send a few songs and say, “The groove on this song, the tempo of this song, and the vibe of this song,” to give him an idea of what I’m hearing in my head, which I’m very limited to playing on an acoustic guitar or with my guitar-playing abilities.

And sometimes they get crazy references. For the song “Bananas,” the demo with just an acoustic sounded just really random. I said, “I almost don’t want to give you the demo, but I know you have to have it for reference for where the music goes and what the chords are.” But for the treatment, in the folder, I had “Come On-a My House” by Della Reese and The Jungle Book, “I Wanna Be Like You,” Louis Prima.

JK: I can actually hear how that particular track came together from those two things that maybe no one would think would go on the next Tami Neilson record.

TN: Just think “Disney!” Not like Frozen, but the 1930s and 1940s Disney. And they just shake their heads. But I definitely go in with an idea and a point of reference, and then that can spark something. It might roll into something completely different, but it gives us a starting point.

JK: In terms of style, Sassafrass! is something of a departure from Dynamite! and Don’t Be Afraid. There are definitely some strong country elements to several of the songs, but there’s a strong push into a vintage R&B and rockabilly style. What inspired you to move in that direction for this record?

TN: I guess for me on all of the albums, they’ve all had elements of that. I kind of look at it as a color palette. And I always tend to paint with the same five colors: country, soul, rockabilly, gospel, and blues. And I think that, on some albums, I tend to use one color more than the others and little splashes of others. I think for Dynamite! it was heavily the country and rockabilly colors with a little bit of soul. Don’t Be Afraid was quite the darker colors, and I had a lot of gospel soul with the content of the album, still with a little bit of country colors. And so this album tends to be all of those same colors, but in different ratios.

When people say, “You sing so many different genres, why can’t you settle on one?” And, in my mind, it makes perfect sense: Those 5 genres are a family. They were all born in the same place. They were all born in the deep South around the same time. They all have their origins springing from that same well, and they’re all brothers and sisters. And if they’re all part of that same family, then it makes sense that they all intertwine in my head. I guess for others, they’re a distinct separation.

JK: Thinking specifically about soul music, this album includes a tribute to a soul artist. It can be hard to pay tribute to an artist without being too literal, but “Miss Jones” is such a terrific tribute to Sharon Jones. She’s someone I’ve compared you to when I’ve written about your work previously, so I was especially thrilled to see her invoked on this album. What speaks to you about her music in particular? What do you see as her legacy in popular music?

TN: Where do you start? She’s one of my heroes. I’ve been aware for her music for a long time, and I enjoyed her music, but I guess I didn’t really deeply connect with her until I saw the documentary. And when I saw the documentary [Miss Sharon Jones!, 2016], I connected so much with her.

I can remember one scene in particular. It was when she was on the cover of a magazine, and she was talking about it. And I had recently lost my dad—I think he had only been gone for a year—and she sees the cover of the magazine, and she says, “I just wish my mama could’ve seen this,” and she starts to cry. And she says, “All of these things have been said about me: I was too fat. I was too old. I was too black.” And I connected so much with that— well, I’ve been told two out of those three things!— and it was you’re too old, too fat, and you’re a mom, and you live on the bottom of the world!

There’s all of these obstacles that we face particularly as women in the music industry, and I just connected with her resilience, with her grief over her parent. And for me, she’s this symbol: Her legacy to me is one of hope. She’s 50 years old when she finally gained recognition. So she’d lived a fully-formed 50 years before creating music, and that comes through in her music and her lyrics.

And in her performance. I really connected with her as a performer. I guess I feel that, growing up, you always feel the pressure from people’s words and what’s said to you or just from society in general that you need to be 20 and slim and blonde and all of these kind of stereotypical things, and she just completely flouted those things and flaunted herself in the face of them. I loved that. Her stage presence was so much strut and swagger and sass, and it’s really inspired me to embrace performing the same way.

JK: I think that, in the videos for “Holy Moses” or “Stay Outta My Business,” that performance aspect of it absolutely comes through. I’ve also always heard a really strong Wanda Jackson influence in your music. Is that fair?

TN: Oh, definitely fair.

JK: Are there certain artists whose traditions you see yourself working in or carrying on?

TN: Always and forever Mavis Staples. Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Etta James. And they’re all incredibly strong, loud women. Really strong vocal pipes. And then women like Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn, both of whom are songwriters. But I love that, Dolly Parton in particular, writes a song and performance, and she’s another one that can get a subversive lyric across in a non-threatening way. So business savvy. And so smart. I just think she’s one to model yourself after.

JK: Sassafrass! is an album that feels especially urgent: That these were stories that you really had to tell and had to tell now.

TN: Definitely. I think it’s kind of this culmination of things that have created the perfect storm. In my personal life, in the last 5 years, I lost a parent, have become a parent, and turned 40. And I think those are 3 massive life-altering things that can really shake you and change your perspective, change your priorities.

I was talking to a friend of mine yesterday that when you hit that middle-aged 40 mark, you suddenly just don’t have tolerance for people’s bullshit anymore. It just goes out the window. And all of those decades of caring so much about what people think and defending yourself against these opinions and judgments of strangers, really. You just have this epiphany that, hopefully, I’m halfway through my life here on earth, and I only have about this many years left if I’m lucky.

And time is of the essence: It is urgent. There is an urgency about it that I’m going to start taking on more and placing value on opinions that come from people who know me and love me and care about me. And not take on board things from people [whose] motives come not out of love but out of blind judgment.

Also, being middle-aged and having two little ones and wanting to make make sure that I leave a legacy for them, something that’s going to impact them in a positive way and impact the world they live in in a positive way. And make a change in any small way I can to make sure that they’re not fighting the same fights that we’re fighting now.

JK: The women you describe on the album are all so different and have such different stories to tell, and that’s reflected in your vocal performances. What was your approach to giving each of these women a distinct voice?

TN: As a performer, I think it’s natural to go that place of, “Oh, look at me and look what I can do,” when you’re showing off, and so it’s easy just to go full-throttle all the time. I think it’s important to realize when that’s not best for the song. And being a songwriter as well as a performer, I think that sometimes you have to think about what’s best for the song. And that’s why I really value having a co-producer. Because I’m producing but I’m also the artist and the performer and the writer, you’re wearing all of these hats.

It’s really good to get an outside opinion of somebody who’s not as immersed in it as you are. And Ben knows me really well. We’ve worked on a few albums together. He’s seen me perform numerous times, and he can be very straight with me. So when I was in the vocal booth, he could say on numerous occasions, “Stop going to your default. Stop going to belt mode. Reign it in. I want to hear some more vulnerability.” And we would have arguments! I can remember even in the mixing process, he’d say, “I want you to do the verses so soft. You can let loose a little bit on the choruses, but I don’t want everything you have.” And I would get so frustrated, and we’d have arguments about it because I’d say, “Come on, we can at least let it rip on the chorus. I feel like it’s just not powerful enough, you know?”

So it’s really good to have that other person to look objectively at it while you’re in it, saying, “No, that’s not what this song needs.” So I definitely credit Ben with a lot of that, because I definitely fought against not going full throttle all the time. But what ends up happening is a much more nuanced performance, a lot more variety than just going pedal to the metal the whole time.

JK: “Stay Out of My Business” has been out for a few weeks now, and many people have picked up on its strong feminist slant. What was the rationale in choosing that particular single? Do you think it will prepare listeners for, “I’ve got some things to say. Find a hat to hold onto.”

TN: Buckle your seat belt! For me, and it may be different for different artists, releasing a first single, you kind of want it to smack people in the face and get their attention so they’ll sit up and listen. And that song definitely, as the first track on the album, sets the tone for what’s to follow.

JK: Of course, the #MeToo movement has been a huge cultural watershed over the past year. The music industry— and the country music industry, in particular— haven’t necessarily had the same kind of public reckoning that, say, the film industry has had. What is your take on the pervasiveness of sexism or misogyny in the music industry?

TN: For me, I can only speak from personal experience, as a woman growing up in the music business. On one hand, growing up in a family band protected me from a lot: Being surrounded by my dad, my two brothers, and my mom, sort of protected me from a lot of that stereotypical ugliness. But then, as I branched away from the family band… There were always the comments on appearance and sexuality and all of that. But I think that, in my case, my safety was never threatened, so the comments you just don’t’ take on board, but you can be made to feel very uncomfortable.

I had never experienced misogyny and sexism to its full strength until I became a mother, and I dared to continue a music career while being a mother, and all of the judgment that came with that. That I dared to think I could do both. And that’s when that storm was unfurled on me, and it was very unexpected and very surprising. I guess because I grew up in a family of musicians. I grew up in a family where my mom and dad were with us equally. They parented equally. They shouldered parenting responsibilities equally. And that was very normal to me. And then realizing that, when I went to follow in their footsteps and do the same thing, getting confronted with these attitudes and societal pressures that had never been there before, it was quite a shock to the system.

For me, it was kind of this head-shaking moment. I was quite bewildered by it. To think we’ve progress and come so far… So that’s specifically how I’ve been experiencing things and that really spurred a lot of the content of this album that was my personal experience.

The song “Bananas” in particular was inspired by #TomatoGate. It kind of boggled my mind that, in this day and age, a powerful, influential male could tell hundreds of other very powerful and influential males who are programming what people are listening to, what they’re going to consume, what they’re going to be exposed to on radio across an entire continent in one of the most powerful industries in the world, in the United States. To think that those words could come out of his mouth, saying that, if you want success in country music radio, you take the women out, that you never play them back-to-back, that men are the lettuce in the salad and women are the tomatoes. It blew my mind that we live in a world that people still say those things.

JK: And that, when pressed on it, really doubled-down and just would not back off and kept saying, “Oh, we have all of this callout research.” And then people pushed back on that—with some actual statistical analysis on why that research is flawed— still doubled-down and said, “Nope, women really are the tomatoes.”

And that was almost three years ago, and it doesn’t seem like things have improved much. On the most recent Billboard chart, there were 7 solo women in the top 40 at country radio. To see how things have shifted from the 80s and 90s, when so many prominent women were all scoring hits and selling huge amounts of albums, I think it’s alarming, but it doesn’t necessarily seem like the people involved in radio are terribly motivated to change, which is a shame.

TN: I know. I mean, in the heyday of Shania and Trisha Yearwood and Martina McBride… And before that in the 60s and 70s with Patsy and Loretta and Dolly and Tanya Tucker and Tammy Wynette, and the list goes on and on. When I think of country music hitmakers, I instantly think of the women first. But it’s a different agenda, and it’s a tough one to change.

JK: In terms of how we keep these conversations going, do you think it’s important for the people who write about our culture—who write about film or television or who write about music– to be aware of the ways that they write about women?

TN: I think that, by and large, people are starting to because it’s starting to be called out. I mean, some guys are now like, “Oh I have to be so careful…” It’s kind of this given of, “Oh, the effort involved,” to not make a sexist or misogynistic comment. Or to not offend anyone and be racist. Oh, is that hard for you? And it’s great that people are starting to be more aware of the way that they’re writing… when you walk read an interview and it immediately opens with what the woman is wearing or her lipstick color.

I mean, obviously we are different, but we should be equal. I guess, it’s a very fine balance. I think as long as people are aware and sensitive about it, then they have nothing to worry about. Anyone who isn’t a sexist and isn’t a misogynist, they’re not worried. But I think that people like that are already more sensitive people. They’re trying to make sure that they’re being compassionate and considerate.

JK: One of the things that I think makes Sassafrass! so effective is that it’s a politically charged album that deals with some heavy and important topics but is still such a fun listen. It’s an sounds accessible to a wide audience. What impact would you like to see an album like Sassafrass! make on an individual level?

TN: It’s a very hard thing to change a mind. And so, I don’t know that anyone can change minds. You can only present your point of view. With this album, it’s very much presenting it in a way that’s tongue-in-check, quite sarcastic in the humor spectrum, and I think that disarms people a little more to listening to a message.

And I need to clarify, when I say sexism and misogyny, I’m also talking about women who have this same mindset. It’s something that’s ingrained in us from such a young age. From birth! Sometimes even in myself, it’s something you’re not even aware of until someone points it out, and then this lightbulb goes off.

I can remember having a conversation with a very well-meaning, lovely woman who was the wife of a male artist I was opening for on tour. I did a month-long tour with him, and she came to a few shows with his kids who are grown now. And the first time I met her, we just had a light chat, and she found out in that conversation that I have two little ones, and you could just see the look cross over her features of this shock and horror that I was out working without them.

And then the second time we met, we were chatting again, and she said, “I have to admit, when I first talked to you, I guess I judged you quite harshly, thinking what kind of a mother leaves her kids and away goes on tour.” And I said to her, “But your husband does the exact same thing.” And she said, “Oh, yes, but he knows that the kids are well taken care of, so he doesn’t have to worry about that at all.” So I said, “My husband is equally capable, and it’s insulting to him to assume that he’s not. And I’m just as equally not worried about their well-being and their happiness.”

At this age and this stage and, depending on how busy the tour is and how much traveling that we take into consideration with every tour that I do—with this tour being in a different town every day for a month and on airplanes and in vans and hotel rooms and that’s all you’re going to see– they’re far happier being home with daddy, being in their routine, going to school, being with their friends, and their little worlds are totally uninterrupted. And they talk to mommy every day. They see me every day. They’re far happier than if I were dragging them around with me at this point and on that tour.

Like I said, some parents do travel with their children. And sometimes I do travel with my children depending on the tour and what’s going to be best for them. The bottom line is every parent is making the decision of what’s going to keep my family and my children feeling happy and safe and loved and cared for and secure. And that’s the decision we’re all making.

So yeah, when she said those things, “Oh, he doesn’t have to worry about those things,” and I said, “Oh, I don’t, either.” It was like I could literally see a lightbulb go off in her said, like, “Oh, my God, you’re right.”

JK: Like maybe she didn’t realize she had internalized it to the extent that she had, and this was how it had come out.

TN: Yeah. She kind of went, “You’re right, and I was wrong to judge you for that.” And her husband’s been doing this for 40 years and for much longer stints away than I do with my kids. But we both do the same thing. We’re both providing for our families, putting food in their stomachs and putting roofs over their heads. And it’s wonderful.

Anyone who can afford to raise children on one income in this day and age, I applaud them, but that’s not the reality in my world.

JK: And it’s not the reality of most people’s world! So I’m guessing that experience may have informed at least the third verse of “Stay Outta My Business”…

TN: Yes, definitely. That whole tour was a real learning curve for me. Her comment, it just was compounded every night. It’s always at the merch table after the show when you’re out and meeting people. And some people are trying to show some sympathy, and they’re like, “Oh, it must be so hard to be away from them,” and, “How much longer until you’re home?” And then equally the other ones who are like, “How come you’re out here and your husband’s babysitting?” And I say, “It’s called parenting when he’s the one who knocked me up. It’s parenting!”

So it was confronting that every night, and I came home from that tour exhausted and just crushed by insane amounts of guilt, and I just had to do a lot of work on myself over the last 18 months. And that’s because I was confident in what I was doing, thinking, “This is normal. this is right.” But because I’m doing all of these things. The way that I was raised, I’m in a profession that’s usually quite open minded. But it’s so deeply ingrained in us to feel that we’re doing the wrong thing.

And I think the moment when it really switched for me was I was reading a blog by another female artist, and her husband is in her band, and she does a blog about their life on the road. And since her husband is in her band with her, their kids travel with them obviously. So I thought, “Oh I wish I could do that. I wish I could afford to bring my kids, and then all of this judgment would stop.”

And then I got to this paragraph where she talked about this night at the merch table. I thought, “Oh God. What’s going to happen?” And sure enough she was like, I constantly get people saying, how can you drag your kids out here on the road? Oh, they need to be in bed. This is too late. They need to be in school. And it kind of just clicked for me, that no matter what decision you make, you’re going to get judged and criticized, so it’s better to disregard it and do what’s going to make your family the happiest.

JK: Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison are a married couple, and they’ve spoken about some of those issues, as well. Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, they really seem to push back against those criticisms.

TN: I think the answer is just not to care and to be confident that you’re doing what’s right and just not engaging with it.

JK: There’s really no avoiding the context of a song like “Bananas,” which alludes to glass ceilings and the wage gap, or “A Woman’s Pain,” which is built on both a personal story and a Biblical allegory. Personally, I believe that all art is political, but what do you think about the fairly common idea that artists should avoid politics in their work?

TN: I’m kind of one of those people, actually. I’ve always thought that people who come to your show don’t want to hear about your politics. But for me, you can’t help but be influenced by what’s going on around you. So I guess for me, it’s a time that, with the groundswell of what’s happening and coming to a head with women’s equality and all of the things that are coming to light, these old ways that are being challenged, it’s something that’s a very personal thing and has rung very true with me.

So you write what is true to you, and it’s always reflected in your work. And what’s viewed as political is viewed as personal: It’s affected me deeply and impacted me deeply on a personal level. And once it gets to that point, it comes out in your music. I’ve never been the kind of artist to kind of stand on a soapbox, but I write from my own personal experiences, and those are the things that are happening in my life right now and that’s what’s impacted me personally.

Sassafrass! is out on June 1st on Outside Records. Neilson will be touring New Zealand, Canada, and parts of Europe throughout the summer and fall.

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