Stay Outta Her Business: Tami Neilson Gets Sassy! (13th Floor Feature)

After the one-two punch of 2014’s Dynamite! and 2015’s Don’t Be Afraid, Tami Neilson returns with Sassafrass!

Those previous two albums were both very different musical beasts…Dynamite! With its red-hot rockabilly, then the raw emotion of Don’t Be Afraid, recorded shortly after the death of her father.

Sassafrass! (yes, the exclamation point is necessary and appropriate), finds Tami taking up an even sassier personae, while at the same time making some serious statements about gender equality, sexual politics and judgmentment fans.

Tami is at The 13th Floor looking resplendent as always and ready to talk about her new album.

“I guess looking at the progress between the 2014 Dynamite! album, and then 2015’s Don’t Be Afraid, losing my dad –that whole album was written in the wake of the grieving process, it was part of my grieving process – so I guess Sassafrass! is emerging out of the other end of the tunnel, and seeing the light again. I feel like it’s a celebration. It’s definitely an album that, on the surface, looks like a really fun party album upon first listen, until you look at the lyrics, and realize there’s quite subversive deeper meaning within those brightly coloured fun packages.

Every show I would receive a comment, ‘Who’s looking after your children? How can you leave them? Oh, I could never leave my children.” It was just… it was crushing.

That spirit of subversion is evident from the very first track, Stay Outta My Business, a big, brassy number with plenty to say.

“Yeah, that song was born out of eighteen months to two years of touring extensively internationally. I’d never done that since becoming a parent. My kids are six and almost four, so they’re little, little ones, and that’s the biggest challenge for me at this point of my life, having to be away for weeks, away from them. So already when I started out, I was battling that heartbreak and just pining for them, and feeling this crushing guilt of being away from them. So comments from strangers who placed judgments on me being away from them just… pushed it over the edge. I was already so sensitive to it.”

“For a good year, I mean, every show I would receive a comment, ‘Who’s looking after your children? How can you leave them? Oh, I could never leave my children.” It was just… it was crushing.”

You’d think she’d catch a break from fellow females who might be empathic with her situation, but apparently the opposite was true.

“Some of them were of an older generation, predominantly, some male, as well. I really had to work through… because it was something so new to me. I mean, you always encounter misogyny and sexism as a woman in the music industry, it kind of goes hand-in-hand unfortunately – we’re working to change that – but that’s been a mind-set for a very long time. But I had never encountered it as strongly as when I became a mother. Those really deeply rooted societal pressures, and the culture that’s so deeply embedded in us that we don’t even realize it’s still there, even with the most open-minded people.”

Tami found that she had to consider even changing her own mind-set.

“I remember when I first went on the road, and I’d say to Grant (her husband), ‘I’ve arranged everything for when I was away, written a calendar, and this says the boys have to be here at this time, and this time, there’s a birthday party. I’ve bought all the presents, I’ve wrapped them, you just take the kids and’— and he’s like, ‘You realize they’re my kids too, right?’” And I’m like, ‘You’re right! You can do all that!’

No matter what decision you make, there will always be criticism, there will always be trolls, there will always be negativity and judgment.

“I had to do a lot of work over that year of touring and really switch my mind-set, and realize, first of all, when I did a few tours, and came home and my kids were perfectly happy and really, really felt secure and settled in their routine at home, rather than me taking them from airplane to hotel to bus to van, to venue, you know, for a solid month. That exhausts adults, let alone children. And the thing is, and I don’t judge parents that do that, either, – I would love to be able to take my children with me – but what I’ve really noticed with any parent that is a musician that I’ve spoken to, they all do whatever is going to make their child the happiest, and feel the most settled and secure.”

“So, there are musicians that take their kid with them because their kids would not be happy unless they were with their parents, they wouldn’t feel settled and secure unless they had their parent with them. Whereas there are some kids that do way better if they’re in a routine, they’re not leaving their school; they’re with the other parent and feeling really secure in their safe little world, than being on the road.”

“I kind of had this epiphany one day. I read an article about a musician who takes…her husband’s also in the band…so they take their kids with them on the road. And their little girl comes out and does the finale with them, it’s her most exciting thing, her big highlight, and then she comes out and sells merch with them at the end of the show.”

“And she talked about how they were standing at the merch table, and I thought, ‘Oh God, this is where it always happens,’

“The little girl was standing  there, and a woman said, ‘How can you take her out of her routine. I mean, she needs to be in bed right now, and she should be having a home and a solid…’ And a lightbulb just went off in my head, I thought – here’s this woman who’s doing exactly what I thought, if I did this, if I brought my kid… so if I could afford to travel with my children, that’s what I would do, and this would all be solved, all these judgments would  go away… And the reality is you’re screwed no matter what you do. No matter what decision you make, there will always be criticism, there will always be trolls, there will always be negativity and judgment. So you may as well do what makes you and your family happiest. “

One person who may help change those attitudes is Jacinda Ardern. Neilson is hopeful that having a new mother running the country will make a difference.

“I really love the fact that our Prime Minister is female, young, pregnant, unmarried, all those things, and has a partner who’s just totally committed to being equally involved, and that’s a beautiful thing for our society, and for the next generation of our children. When your leadership takes on a role like that, it filters down into society. It filters down into your culture, in a really real way.”

It’s almost like – To Kill A Mockingbird, this standalone literary genius work. And you just want more of it, but that’s what you’ve got.

Sassafrass! Is full of feisty females. The influence of artists such as Sharon Jones, Rosemary Clooney and Bobbie Gentry can be heard in songs such as Miss Jones, Bananas and A Woman’s Pain, which draws both sonically and lyrically from Gentry’s Southern style.

Bobbie Gentry

“She’s always been quite an influence – some of that I’ve looked up to as a songwriter, as a producer, as a woman in an era where it wasn’t common for women to be taking the reins creatively. Really, she controlled her work, she controlled her writing, she controlled her music, in a time where it wasn’t the norm. And she also controlled the way she left it. She’s still controlling it. She’s made her choices for whatever reason. Those choices are something I would really like to know! Such mystery surrounds her.

After recording Ode To Billie Joe and a handful of other songs in the late 60s and early 70s, Gentry disappeared from public life with only a few sightings over the years.

“I don’t think Bobbie’s got an Instagram, you know. I don’t see Bobbie tweeting. She’s above all that. But yeah, she’s a genius. Nobody tells a story like her… I mean, her songs are so few in quantity, but the quality… it’s almost like – To Kill A Mockingbird, this standalone literary genius work. And you just want more of it, but that’s what you’ve got. But in that distilled incredible collection of songs, the songwriting is just off the charts.”

Photo credit: SomeBizarreMonkey

Tami enlisted co-producer Ben Edwards to tap into that Gentry magic for A Woman’s Pain.

“I had written it just on my acoustic, and the demo was very stripped back, just my vocal and my acoustic strumming. And Ben said, “I really love the demo. I feel like that’s the vibe of the song, and not to dress it up too much,” and I guess for me… the storytelling aspect of it is what really reminded me of Bobbie Gentry. It’s very much a story about my paternal grandmother, and then goes back to the beginning of time, to Adam and Eve. And it felt like a real storytelling narrative, which of course makes you think of Bobbie Gentry and her songs and just the fact that her stuff was always very sparse, just her and her guitar.  So I said, I would love to pay homage to her and have some strings coming in and out, like her Billie Joe, and… we just kept it as minimal and sparse as possible. “


Valentine’s Day, 2018 and Tami Neilson is in Auckland’s Spark Arena, performing for 10,000 people, most of whom have never heard of her. Somehow she landed the opening slot on Robbie Williams’ Heavy Entertainment tour.  How did that happen?

I’d be foolish to not try and win over 10,000 people that have never heard my music before, and who may never, ever, come across my music in any other way.

Michael Flynn Photography

“I thought – wow, have they heard my music? Because it’s so… we’re very, very different genres, very different… we’re just apples and oranges, musically. Am I actually going to get booed off the stage? Like, what’s going to happen here?”

“But I guess as an entertainer, you’re always looking to find a new audience, and I just thought , ’I’d be foolish to not try and win over 10,000 people that have never heard my music before, and who may never, ever, come across my music in any other way.’ So I guess that’s where the businesswoman in me kicked in.”

Not only did she not get booed off the stage, but she received accolades from another rock and roll icon.

“You’re giving it your all, you’re sweating your face off, you run offstage – all the applause going, and this guy with really crazy fuzzy white hair is standing right there, and I’m like – “He looks familiar,” like maybe he’s like a… New Zealand sound-tech guy that I see a lot, but I don’t quite know his name… and, so, in that split-second, I’m running off stage, and he says “That was amazing,” I’m like “Thanks,” and I just kept walking! And about three beats – you know, like three steps, it hit me, and I went “Oh my God.” Scurried back, and went “Oh my God, it’s you!” So that was a… pretty surreal experience. Opening for Robbie Williams, while (Queen guitarist) Brian May watches your whole set from side stage. It was… like, one of those really bizarre dreams.”


Not every song on Sassafrass! Is a big, brassy blowout.  The final two tracks set a much mellower tone, particularly Manitoba Sunrise At Motel 6.

“It’s like a gig, and everyone’s going kind of crazy, and then the end of the night happens, and you start packing down, and you start packing up the van, and go to your hotel and wash your face, and maybe Skype the kids, and you’re by yourself again. And I kind of felt like that was the arc of the album, it was almost the arc of a night of performing.”

“Manitoba Sunrise at Motel 6 was literally written during a Manitoba sunrise in a Motel 6 on tour in freezing February in the prairies of Canada. Everything was cold and crisp and dark and, you know, it’s just that snapshot, being on tour, the reality of life on the road. That moment where you’re just about to get up and start getting the suitcase ready again, getting in the van again, travelling for hours, get to the next gig, get in an airplane, you know, that’s really the only time you’re ever alone.”

I’m sitting there trying to take video of it, and my hands are shaking and – but, oh my God, I’ve never felt so proud and so connected.

“So I wrote the lyrics, when I was on tour, missing my children, missing my husband and my family, and then I didn’t have time to write the music until much later. And the day that Glen Campbell died, I was feeling  very sad about that, and so I just started to have that song going through my head, and I thought, that’s it, I’m gonna pay homage to Glen with the music, and set these lyrics to it. And of course that’s what I relayed to Ben and the guys, and I think that they did a beautiful job bringing that Glen Campbell homage to life.”

Photo credit: Mrs Jones

Having spent so much time on the road, and having come from a very musical family, how would Tami react if her own children chose the life of a musician?

“I guess I can only compare it to the first time I saw Charlie perform at his school performance last year – it was his first year of school, they had a big production, and… this is really, another weird connection…he had a lead in singing We Will Rock You, by Queen!”

“And I’ve never felt so nervous in my whole life! He’s five years old! And I’m sitting there trying to take video of it, and my hands are shaking and – but, oh my God, I’ve never felt so proud and so connected and… it was something so special, and I can remember my dad writing me a letter when I moved to New Zealand.

I read it a lot now that he’s gone, and I remember him saying something to the effect of ‘I’m so proud of you and… you just wait. There’s nothing more special to be able to share that musical bond with your child and to see those things growing and developing in them.’ So, on one hand, I think they will have a front-row seat to the reality of the music business, just as I did, growing up. I knew what I was getting into, from a very early age. I never had stars in my eyes – it’s very much grounded in work ethic and reality. But if I can see that legacy of my dad, of his mother, passing it to him, of him passing it to me, of me then passing it to them, I don’t think that there’s anything more rewarding than that, in life.

But if they don’t want to be musicians, then I’m just like, you go become something and keep your poor musician mother – take care of her in her old age, cause she doesn’t make any money! Go become an accountant or something!”

Marty Duda

Sassafrass! is released Friday, June 1st. Preorder or get a copy from Southbound Record Shop.