Published Sep 21, 2016Big-voiced and charismatic singer-songwriter Tami Neilson just released her new album, Don't Be Afraid, in her native Canada now (on Outside Music) and will take it on tour across Canada this fall, a mix of headlining shows and support slots for Royal Wood.
Contacted by phone in her adopted home of New Zealand, Neilson is excited about the trek. "I haven't toured Canada since I was a teenager, singing in the Neilsons band," she tells Exclaim! "Being in a family band is such a different dynamic. Your parents run the show, plus my dad Ron was an amazing showman and a natural entertainer. I guess I've grown to be more like him as an adult, but back then I wouldn't say boo onstage."
The figure of Tami's late father, Ron Neilson, looms large over Don't Be Afraid. He fell ill and passed away just prior to her recording the album, and it can in many ways be considered a eulogy to her father.
"I wanted to pay tribute to him and honour him by using his music in the project as well. I really became driven for this to be all about dad and not really about me at all. I want this album to be successful, because I want a lot of people to hear dad's music — songs by him or songs I sing about him, like 'The First Man.'"
Along those lines, one album highlight is a previously unrecorded song Ron Neilson wrote a very long time ago. "Lonely," appearing here as a duet with rising Kiwi star Marlon Williams. Neilson explains that she took liberties with the original lyrics, noting that "at 21, dad's lyrics were rather cheesy. He wrote the song outside a hotel in Kelowna, when he was touring with the band Noah, opening for BTO I think, and it was about missing my mother. My brother Jay [a co-writer on the album] and I found a folder of old demos on his computer, and I'm sure he put it there for me to find, as he knew I was in middle of writing for the album."
There's also a highly poignant story about the album's title track, "Don't Be Afraid," as Neilson explains. "It's a song he was writing in the hospital before he died, his last song. There is nothing worse for a songwriter than to have a song stuck in your head and not be able to record it. My dad had pulmonary fibrosis, so he was hooked up to an oxygen machine and could barely speak.
"For him to sing a melody was virtually impossible, so one day I said 'I'll bring your guitar in and you can play melody on that.' He wanted to sing the melody, but we just got the first verse down. He passed away the next day."
His brief haunting rendition is captured on the end of Don't Be Afraid, a song Tami completed in time for her and brothers Jay and Todd to sing it at Ron Neilson's funeral.
For Tami Neilson, the song's title has multiple meanings. "It is my dad speaking to me, saying 'don't be afraid, I'm with you.' Another reason to call the album that is a reminder: 'Don't be afraid of sharing this personal stuff, baring your soul and exploring musical things where you haven't gone before.'"
She lives up to that vow by forging her own musical path, without fearing the consequences. Don't Be Afraid is a significant stylistic departure from her 2015 breakthrough album Dynamite! That record topped the NZ charts and brought her international attention (The Guardian placed it in their Top 10 Best Country Albums list).
Describing the differences between the two albums, Neilson states that "with Dynamite!, it was a country foundation but with blues and rockabilly and soul flavours. Don't Be Afraid is a foundation of soul and blues gospel and rockabilly, with some country flavours. It is still all the same family but with a reversed ratio I guess."
She also acknowledges that "Dynamite! was such a fun album whereas Don't Be Afraid is such a deep and personal album."
Now firmly ensconced in New Zealand after moving there in 2007, Neilson most misses Canada at Christmas time. "When it's Christmas in NZ and I'm in my shorts, decorating the tree and sweating, it just feels so wrong. I start crying and I put on Bing Crosby's 'I'm Dreaming Of A White Christmas' and I get so homesick for Canada.
"The rest of time I'm quite happy not to live where it is six months of winter. The dream for me as a musician is to get successful enough to tour and chase summer, touring New Zealand and Australia in summer here, then North America and Europe in their summer."
10/4 Waterloo, ON - Starlight*
10/5 Montreal, QC - Upstairs Jazz Bar
10/6 Toronto, ON - Rivoli
10/7 Wakefield, QC - Black Sheep*
10/8 Wakefield, QC - Black Sheep*
10/9 Wakefield, QC - Black Sheep*
* with Royal Wood