Singer Tami Neilson is taking a new approach to international touring to try and better accommodate her young sons, she tells Sandra Simpson.
“The way I’ve done touring forever is to do a long tour and cram in the shows,” Tami says, “but that kind of schedule is created for young, single males, not mothers of young children.”
So she’s broken her 2019 North American tour into chunks of a week or a fortnight, and travel solo, performing with local musicians, including her Canada-based brother Jay. At the time of our chat, she’s just arrived home from a week of shows in New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia.
“With this new thing I’m trying, I’m always getting back from somewhere,” she laughs. “But it means that although I’m gone every month, I’m also home every month. I live in a constant state of jet-lag but I’m also getting plenty of cuddles with my boys.”
Her husband Greg, who works fulltime, is primary caregiver when Tami’s overseas and a friend, Lee, is “like another nana”, helping with after-school care of the 5 and 7-year-olds.
“It takes a lot of planning and making sure everything’s in place,” Tami says, “and there’s no more spontaneity as a parent but it’s made such a difference to my mental health. You have to have a village for sure.”
In Tauranga Tami will perform a stripped-back acoustic set with her brother Jay, interspersed with stories about growing up in a family band that also included their brother Todd.
Dad Ron and mother Betty sang together when the children were small and when Tami was about 13 the whole family began to appear on stage, mostly performing Christian songs.
“Jay was getting badly bullied at school, to the extent he needed stitches, so we sold up, got a big motorhome and took off. Mum, who had been a teacher, started homeschooling us. It was just the way we grew up and we didn’t think anything of it.”
The family, who performed all across North America, opened for performers such as Johnny Cash.
The Neilson siblings have indigenous Canadian heritage, thanks to their Ojibway great-grandmother who married a Scotsman. “After she died in childbirth the family separated. My great-grandfather couldn’t legally stay on the reservation so left with four of his five daughters and the tribe kept the youngest.
“Our family had very humble beginnings and we faced the same challenges all First Nations people face – poverty, violence and alcohol abuse. All these veins run through our family tree and came out in my song A Woman’s Pain, which is the story of my grandmother.
“Because of this split our side didn’t know much about what being Ojibway meant so it was interesting to move to New Zealand and see a rich indigenous culture that is an integral part of the country.”
Tami’s stage persona pays homage to the styles of her favourite era, the 1950s and she sources vintage clothing from around the world, although says it’s hard to find good pieces in her size.
Judy Dee of Curvy Couture in Hamilton, “my fairy dressmother”, makes Tami custom clothing, while Wellington artist Xoe Hall repurposed a gown with painted leather patches and rhinestones for the cover of Tami’s 2018 album, Sassafrass!
Often singing about empowering women and challenging misogyny and sexism, Tami enjoys the juxtaposition of her beehives and ‘curvy-girl dresses’. “I’m fully a 2019 woman with opinions and a lot of freedom – who has really embraced vintage fashion.”