"It's the most personal album I've ever written, and it is very daunting to put such a raw, exposed, vulnerable part of yourself out there," remarks Tami Neilson of her new album Don't Be Afraid.
Don't Be Afraid was nearly left unfinished. With two songs completed and six weeks left to write Tami Neilson unexpectedly lost her father, the patriarch of The Neilson Family band who Tami had toured across Canada with as a young girl opening for the likes of Johnny Cash.
It was her mother and brother's encouragement that she finish the record as a way of honouring her dad.
"I actually inadvertently wrote the title track (without realizing it would be for the album) the week Dad died. ‘Don't Be Afraid' was the last song Dad wrote, while in the hospital. He had written the melody, lyrics and everything, but he was on oxygen and could barely breathe to speak. He told me that it was driving him crazy that he had this new song stuck in his head, but had no way of offloading it. It's an awful feeling, I know, so I said I would bring him in his guitar so he could play it and I'd record it on my phone. He did a verse, so I got the melody, but then his levels dropped dramatically (that's the hidden track on the album, ‘Dad's Demo'), but we didn't get the chorus, or the melody for the chorus."
Don't Be Afraid finds the soul taking precedence over the country as Tami found herself listening to a lot of gospel around the time of her father's death and finding a kinship with the legendary singer Mavis Staples: "I've always been a massive Staples fan. I had ordered the new Pops album, it was released days before Dad died, and I ordered it in Canada so I could take it into the hospital for him to listen to. It arrived the day after he died, and of course I sobbed about that, but I will always be so grateful for that album helping me get through that grieving process."
Recorded in Ben Edwards' New Zealand Sitting Room studio, the songs were again recorded live, the musicians all in the room playing together. The album features Delaney Davidson and all the boys that were on Dynamite! including harmonies from Marlon Williams on the soon-to-be classic ‘Lonely'. The album features a Tina Turner throwback, ‘Holy Moses', the swinging country of ‘Only Tears', a bluesy swagger in ‘So Far Away' and the southern soul of ‘Burn My Body'. The album is bookended by the title track, including the haunting hidden demo track sung by Tami's father.
"There are a lot of reasons I chose Don't Be Afraid as the title, and one of them is that, musically, as an artist it's a departure for me. There are definite moments where I have had to go, ‘Don't be afraid of this, this is who you are,'" Neilson says. "This album is the guts of me. I guess ‘departure' is the wrong word because it's all the same palette and same family, but whereas Dynamite! was a lot of light, bright colours, Don't Be Afraid is deeper, richer colours – still in that same family but a different level."
Tami moved to New Zealand from Canada 8 years ago and has become one of the country's biggest acts. Tami is the most highly awarded artist of any genre in New Zealand, having just picked up NZ's highest songwriting honour, the APRA Silver Scroll, for ‘Walk (Back To Your Arms)' off 2014's Dynamite!, which also won her (yet another) Best Country Album Tui in May this year.
Don't Be Afraid marks Tami as a new soul staple. It's a raw, deep and hopeful album that finds Tami singing out her grief. "Last year was an insane year, I had the highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows all in one year," she recalls. "And I guess that is what the album is, it reflects that constant cycle of life."