Tami Neilson on creating change in the music industry and her killer style

Tami Neilson

Singer/Songwriter Tami Neilson wearing a tinsel cape from Bottle Blonde Studio and beehive wig by 1800 Wig Takeout. Image by Sabin Holloway.

There really aren’t enough superlatives to describe Tami Neilson‘s incredible voice and she’s an artist who has honed her craft since a young age. Growing up with musical parents in Canada, Tami joined the family band The Neilsons at age twelve and has been performing professionally ever since. Moving to New Zealand for love in 2007, Tami has grown a loyal following here who love her soulful music and killer style. She’s won multiple New Zealand Music Awards and Silver Scrolls for her songwriting talents, releasing seven albums including 2020’s Chickaboom! since making Aotearoa her home.

Tami’s remarkable voice is fascinating in its versatility and captivating in its power, she transitions between country, gospel, R&B and rock’n’roll effortlessly and leaves audiences spellbound with her emotive performances. On stage Tami’s know for her retro-inspired style, with sky high beehives, luscious lashes and colourful costumes part of her stylish ensembles. Tami is a big supporter of Kiwi fashion and turns to vintage-inspired local designers to create her eye-catching stagewear and red carpet looks.

We caught up with Tami to find out more about her love of music, her personal style and why it’s important for women to lift each other up?

How did you fall in love with music and what keeps you passionate about it?
I was raised in hotel rooms and tour buses across North America in my family band, so, music is hardwired into my DNA and a huge part of my identity.

Who are your favourite local artists that you’ve worked with or would like to work with?
It’s next to impossible for me to answer that question, as our music community is something I value and treasure and it’s like choosing one family member over another – I’m gonna get some phonecalls if I choose one and not the other, don’t get me in trouble!

What has been the highlight of your career so far?
Shortly after my Dad passed away, I was performing one of his songs, opening for James Taylor. James stood side of stage and watched our entire set and while I was singing that song, I was fighting back tears, thinking how thrilled my Dad would’ve been to know James Taylor was listening to one of his songs. It’s a highlight because it was a such a direct fulfillment of one of the reasons I do what I do – to honour the legacy and the foundation my father built for me to stand on.

How important is it for women to lift each other up and what does that mean to you?
If honouring the legacy of my father is the car, my fight for the equal treatment of women is the fuel. It is the driving force behind what I do. If I ever wanted to give up, that’s what picks me back up, because it’s about something much bigger and more important than just me. Equality is a human right and we are a very long way from it, particularly in the music industry, which is archaically sexist. Over NZ Music Month, I’ve asked a friend who is a data reseacher/university professor to compile graphs that show the statistics of our music charts. Women make up an average of 10% of the Top 20 NZ Albums. We make up only 15-20% of festival lineups and rarely get booked as headliners. I personally have lost two bookings this month alone because I said I wouldn’t be the only female on a lineup. That hurts the bank account, but, it’s a matter of integrity for me and I have to put my money where my mouth is if I am going to truly advocate for change. I would love to see our male artists include an equality clause in their contracts and shoulder this so that the onus isn’t on the only female artist on a bill to point out the lack of diversity and representation.

How do you personally define success and what does it mean to you?
Success is being able to sustain a career of longevity and integrity while maintaining control and ownership of the music I’ve created. It’s having a loyal fanbase, quality over quantity. It’s making a living doing what I love while still maintaining a life that prioritises my family over fame.

Tami Neilson

Tami Neilson wearing the Xoe Hall dress created for her SASSAFRASS album cover. Image by Ashley Church (left). Tami Neilson wearing earrings by Doodad + Fandango. Image supplied (right).

How would you describe your personal style, do you have a style rule you always obey when you’re putting together an outfit?
I just try to be uniquely me and not dress like anyone else. I tend to gravitate to the styles of the 60s – classic, tailored fashion… which may sound surprising as my aesthetic can be quite over the top, but beneath it all is a custom cut by my seamstress to build on. My mantra is “What Would Dolly Do?” Dolly Parton is one of heroes for so many reasons- from being a savvy business woman and one of the world’s greatest songwriters, which she could successfully do without having to be a public figure. She always said she didn’t care about being pretty, she wanted to stand out and be different. So, the bigger the hair, the brighter the colours, the sparklier the rhinestones and sequins, the better!

Who are your go-to New Zealand designers and brands?
As I said, I tend toward custom made and not off-the-rack… due to wanting it to perfectly fit MY rack and wanting to have something unique. My go-to is Judy Moughton whose online indie NZ label is Curvy Couture by Judy Dee, I then send it to one of my favourite NZ artists in Wellington, Xoe Hall, who handpaints leather patches and sews them onto the garment, along with thousands of rhinestones. For everyday wear, I have about six dresses from Toast Clothing Studio, another online indie NZ designer. Trelise Cooper has generously let me borrow some of her beautiful pieces for special events as well and I lived in some of her bright and beautiful COOP label dresses over the summer.

What was your favourite outfit that you’ve worn on stage or for an awards ceremony?
I think the dress that Xoe Hall created for my SASSAFRASS album cover will go down in history as one of my all-time favourites. It has about 5000 rhinestones and each of the patches symbolised a song on the album. Such a special piece.

What is your favorite beauty look for onstage?
As I said, I go for bold and bright more than beauty, but one of my favourite combos is a beehive wig I had made by a drag queen from the States @1800wigtakeout who does a lot of the wigs for Drag Race, a tinsel cape from @bottleblondestudio, one of my dresses by Judy and Xoe and earrings by Australian artist @doodadandfandango

What is a piece of beauty advice you always refer back to?
Every person has a different perception of what beauty is, so, embrace your own and ditch the rest.

Finish this sentence – You would never catch me wearing…
…nothing.

What’s next for you and where can we catch you performing this year?
I’m currently in pre-production for a new album, which is exciting! I also have a filmed a concert I did with a 12-piece orchestra at the Civic livestreaming on my Bandcamp on 22 May for both my NZ and international fans where I haven’t been able to tour this past year, as well as a tour of my own show “The F Word: Songs of Feminism in Country Music” touring all around NZ in October.

Images supplied.

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