Anika Moa: God save the queen
This story first appeared in the May 2015 issue of Metro. Photos by Jane Ussher.
Gary — That’s interesting, because you’re such a…
Anika —Hori Maori?
The day began at the summit of One Tree Hill and within minutes Anika Moa started spilling her guts about her dad, who spent his last days living in a car just below the crest of the hill.
That’s why it’s one of her favourite spots in all of Auckland, the city she thinks of as home.
While uncertain drivers creep past Moa’s big-ass sponsored Mazda people-mover, we sit inside, out of the parching wind, and she explains that, even though she grew up in Christchurch, she was born here in Auckland. This is where she belongs.
Moa didn’t meet her father until she was 13 — she was raised in a solid, safe environment in Christchurch with her mother and five brothers. “Mum’s also a musician, and she taught me about good vocal ranges. It was a kind of crazy, very poor household, but it was very music-oriented and we were very much loved.”
Her father lived a day-to-day nomadic existence with pretty much nothing to his name. But he was the one who got her into the guitar.
“He taught me a lot about life. I only knew him from when I was 13 to 28; he died in 2008. He taught me some harsh realities about life, but also about being who you are, and not changing for anyone. I used to go, ‘Why don’t you live in a house?’ and he’d go, ‘Why should I live in a house?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah! Good point! Why do people live in houses?’”
Moa’s got that same deep-set desire to be free of convention, to question what’s expected of her. You see it in her, and you can hear it in her music, never less than on the new album, Queen at the Table, which finally establishes her as one of the great New Zealand singer-songwriters.
And the dad? “He liked drugs, he liked a lot of hardcore fucking drugs. He didn’t drink. He stopped drinking six years before I met him.
“I picked up the guitar when I was 13 and spent six weeks during the summer holidays with him, and I said, ‘I want to learn how to play the guitar, because all the boys at school think I’m a loser and not cool.’
“And he said, ‘Well, first of all you’ve got it upside down,’ cos I’m left-handed, and I went, ‘But I want to play it this way,’ and he went, ‘Sweet as,’ so he taught me how to play it upside down.
“And he was just always very supportive with music, came to all my gigs. In saying that, he was in and out of my life. If he wanted to go, he would go. Hitchhike somewhere. Or he’d go picking kiwifruit in Te Puke, or have a 20-year-old girlfriend and go off with her.”
“Hitchhiking with my dad! He robbed a few houses along the way, but luckily, he didn’t take me with him”
Moa says because she never really had a dad, she didn’t pine for one, or blame him for not fulfilling the expected role requirements. “You don’t pine for something you never had. And I think possibly I’ve got the same mind as his — I just thought it was all exciting and adventurous and fun.
“Hitchhiking with my dad! He robbed a few houses along the way, but luckily, he didn’t take me with him. He just did random shit, and I learnt the good things to do, not the bad things.
“When he died he had a bag of clothes, a wallet with no money in it, and a guitar… an electric guitar and guitar amp. Not even a bed.”
Anika — I was 16 in 1996 and living in Christchurch and going to school. Quite possibly boys were getting to third base with me, and smoking marijuana. By third base, I mean the whole way.
After the interview on One Tree Hill, I sought refuge at Real Groovy, the middle-aged music dweeb’s public man cave. Staring at me from among the mountains of unloved CDs was a copy of Moa’s 2001 release, Thinking Room. On the cover, she’s air-brushed, made-up, white-skinned, feigning a “cheeky” smile, showing a bit of skin beneath her unbuttoned denim jacket.
The story behind the album quickly became a legend. The big cheque from Atlantic Records arrived when she was just 18, but she hated the American PR bullshit, told the corporate swine to shove it where the sun don’t shine and hightailed it back to instant and enduring cred on the home patch. Wow!
Except that wasn’t quite how it happened. Moa says now, “The CEO actually got made redundant so, my contract… out the window.”
She’s just always been a bit rubbish at fame. “I’ve got five brothers and they all play guitar, and they all go, ‘We could be way better and more famous than you. You’re stink at it!’
“And I’m like, ‘If I’m so bad at it why don’t you give it a go?’ And they go, ‘Nah, I can’t be bothered! I’d rather be in Christchurch man!’ They’re real little shits.”
But her albums and especially her vineyard tours have made her part of the cultural furniture — elite furniture, in the company of old troupers like the Finns, and Dave Dobbyn and Bic Runga. Even so, she might be better known for being gay.
When she came out, she did it vividly, and got hitched in a 2010 civil union with a burlesque performer whose stage name is Azaria Universe.
The painful end of that relationship gave birth to the idea of Queen at the Table, Moa’s fifth album as a serious singer-songwriter, not counting the marvellous and hugely successful Songs for Bubbas from late 2013. Maybe include that one too: in a largely risible category where patronising tosh is the gold standard, Songs for Bubbas was a rarity: a record for small children that soothed and entertained on repeat exposure without driving parents into a coiled rage.
Perhaps she needs an album like Queen at the Table right now. It’s a resolutely adult work, a serious push at the quality of her singing and songwriting that owes little to having become the acceptable face of dyke culture and a solo act you throw on winery tours because she sings like an angel and has the crowd in stitches between every song. A veritable, if risqué, family entertainer.
Not that Moa’s own tastes are especially refined. She loves Dire Straits and Taylor Swift, watches Friends repeats, likes to eat McDonald’s.
It always seemed to me the acclaim had come too soon, that as lovely as her songs were, they lacked edge, were just a little slight. If my qualms were partially addressed by Music for Bubbas, part of which consists of brilliantly evocative songs for exhausted mums, Queen at the Table introduces an Anika Moa we’ve only heard in a gestational stage before, an Anika Moa whose music is now just as expressive as her personality. It’s not just good, it’s great.
Gary — She’s quite surprising, isn’t she?
Jol Mulholland — I only found out on the winery tour she’s a lesbian.
Anika — He was coming onto me.
Jol — She just wasn’t into it, eh.
Anika — If you’ve got a vagina, sweet.
Down a lot of stairs and up some more stairs and into an airless, windowless room full of computer gear and random instruments, I find Anika’s producer, Jol Mulholland. Mt Eden studio The Lab is his workshop/lair. It’s also where his unlikely pairing with Moa created the album.
Mulholland, thin and bearded and in his late 30s, has worked as a hired hand and go-to guy for the Finn clan, as well as making several of his own discs that display a skewed affection for classic pop.
He is to Moa on this album what Joel Little is to Lorde, and it’s Lorde who has inspired a fumbling local music industry and motivated Moa to go completely electronic. It’s a move that’s way out of her comfort zone, and out of Mulholland’s comfort zone, too.
“Music’s supposed to evolve. What am I supposed to do? Be an earnest singer-songwriter with a guitar all my life?”
“It was really good for me to break out of that world of drums, bass and guitar,” he says. “I’ve never made an album like this, but I do love that shit — geeking out on plug-ins and synths. Maybe because I’m lazy, I’d just dig on a simple beat with a simple keyboard and a strong melody, and that did it for me. You’re always conscious of other electronic albums, but who really cares?”
“I don’t care!” shouts Moa. “Because music’s supposed to evolve. What am I supposed to do? Be an earnest singer-songwriter with a guitar all my life?”
His spare production allows her the breathing room to make the most of multilayered vocals, and they’re exquisite throughout. “I’ve never heard my voice without guitars before. When I started doing those layered harmonies, it was like, ‘Wow, you can hear every single syllable and every single note.’ It’s so crystal clear, and that excited me, and it also allowed the lyrics of the song to tell their story.”
Mulholland describes the process as “a bit of hard work and heaps of happy accidents”. He’s thinking of one day in particular.
She says, “I was still high on speed.”
He says, “I had this bit of music I’d been mucking around on, loaded it up and Anika just banged out this awesome song, this whole song… just scribbled down some words and it all happened.”
“I was wild that day,” she says, “real hung over and shivering in bed before I came in.”
“It was a memorable one, eh?”
“When I first started with Jol, I had just separated from my partner,” she adds. It was the time of the less-than-successful Anika, Boh & Hollie album with Boh Runga and Hollie Smith, recorded off the back of a winery tour.
“Every time I saw Jol he heard about what I was doing with whomever I was doing it with. I was a rollercoaster, but I always came in inspired. I was able to be myself, and there was no judgment.”
Anika — I’ve been out with an actress — they’re all fucking crazy! Bitches.
Gary — In my experience dancers are worse.
Anika — Oh they dance everywhere. I was at a wedding once and this woman was like, fucking throwing herself on the ground and I was like, “Can you stop living, bitch? Stop it! I don’t want to see you frolicking on the ground!”
It’s lunchtime. I buy her bottled water and get myself a stiff shot of coffee from The Creamery at Cornwall Park, and we find a good possie on the grass under the shuffling of giant trees heaving with drying autumn leaves.
How appropriate to mark the change of seasons talking about fucking up, and regret — oodles and oodles of regret.
“It’s about an absolute fuck of a break-up, and then the meeting of a new love,” says Anika of Queen at the Table. But that doesn’t begin to describe the record, which destroys the classic relationship-disintegration scenario — from the heartbreak to the healing — with a detour through horn-dog madness.
It’s a subject that hardly gets discussed, the awkward mixture of freedom and pain when you’re between relationships, and the missteps and the hurt you can create when you’re itching for action but not quite ready to give again.
“I felt very sad for my relationship, and I didn’t know how to express myself because we had kids, I had a career, I was trying to juggle everything, and I felt like I’d let everyone down, especially my partner. So that’s what I wrote about, the fact that I had disappointed her and let her down and been a fucktard, and hadn’t been the best parent.
“We had children, she was the mother, I was the father; I had to go out and work, and by doing so I disappointed her by not being there. And I disappointed myself because I wanted to be there, because I’m a woman and I wanted to be a mother too. So it was very, very conflicting.
“And then we broke up and it all fell to shit. I had to go on tour and she had to take the kids, and then we had lots of friction and to-ing and fro-ing, and the day we broke up properly, I went downhill very quickly.
“I’m a gypsy, I like being free, I don’t like being told what to do.”
“And that’s when I started hurting other people’s feelings by whoring myself about. But writing these songs has been therapeutic for me, and I know a lot of people who have been through the same thing. I still struggle that my ex-partner is the primary caregiver and I only get to see my kids a snippet of the time. It really cuts to the bone. But I’m telling you this because I don’t want to hide from the fact that that is what happened to me, and that I’ve also made a few mistakes and I feel very regretful for them.
“That’s what the album’s about. And then it’s about meeting Natasha [Utting] — a beautiful, kind, gorgeous woman who is accepting of all my flaws.
“I’m a gypsy, I like being free, I don’t like being told what to do. I need to have space, I need to have an open field in front of me, and I need to run and do what I want to do, but also be a parent.
“It’s fucked up, I’m fucked up, I’m one of the worst fuck-ups. But I heartily and readily admit it. You can’t do everything perfect in a day. You wake up and go, ‘Today I’m going to be a better parent, I’m not going to swear, I’m going to try and not get grumpy with my kids, I’m going to write a song, I’m going to try to get a gig.’
“And then when you go to sleep you think: ‘Did I actually achieve any of that? And I’m pissed! Damn it, I told myself I wouldn’t drink today!’
“I want to make sure people know I’m human and I make mistakes. I love with a lot of passion and I hate with a lot of passion as well, and I’m a woman. Women are crazy.”
With all her talk of passion and madness, you’d half-expect her to sing in one of those fat, demonstrative voices, or pack the kind of rah-rah punch we know from her diva idols Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. But while there are diva moments on Queen at the Table, they’re subtle. Instead of the tacky 80s porn tones of Houston and Carey, Moa’s vocal fancies are sensual whispers, warmly embracing. There’s such a sway and a swoon to her deliciously nuanced vocal performance that you can’t help but give yourself up to its spell.
There are R&B inflections, but the album doesn’t really have a funky bone to it. She says, “I’m all about soul and heart and harmonies and melismas, but I really am not a groover.
“I can’t dance, I am absolutely totally 100 per cent white in everything I do, even when I’m on a marae. I love my culture but I feel a little bit uncomfortable. It’s that whole identity thing. Yes I’m Maori, yes I’m white, but what am I?”
Probably the biggest musical influence during the recording was a disc a friend gave her of old Bacharach songs — you can hear it in the voice, the harmonies and melodies, not in a 60s loungey way, but definitely in a classic pop context.
“I’m an absolute harmony queen. I love harmonies and the thing about it is that it takes me very little time to do, because I’ve already got it all in my head. I say, ‘Jol, get 50 tracks up and let’s just do this bitch,’ and then I just sing. So sometimes I’ll be doing six melodies, six high harmonies, six low, and we just go, ‘Whoosh!’
“All I know is that I don’t want to make it too full on, but I want to get the message across, and demonstrate the feeling, with every note. I just try to be as all about me but not about me as I can, because it’s about the highs and lows of life that anyone, everyone has been through.”
Gary — Tell me about Auckland.
Anika — There’s skin colours that aren’t just white. It’s multicultural. It’s got your ching chongs, your… that’s my Christchurch racism.
Gary — Christchurch always had a lot of skinheads and racism.
Anika — I used to walk down the road and skinheads would drive past and go, “Fuck you, nigger,” and I’m like, “This isn’t black! This is brown! You’re all factually wrong, losers!”
Moa is touring Queen at the Table, with Jol Mulholland on keyboards, electronic drums, bass guitar, electric guitar and samples.
Meanwhile, she’s working on a follow-up to Music for Bubbas, and trying to get up the duff. Two twin boys with her former partner and a six-month-old boy with Natasha have made the urge to get pregnant all the stronger.
Music for Bubbas was an unexpected success. When I tell Anika we play it to our baby daughter every day, she says: “So do I, to my children, every single day, because it helps when you want to settle your baby. I get lots of mothers with autistic or handicapped or Asperger’s children, and one mum said her child couldn’t speak until he listened to my album.”
The project was partially motivated by the fact that so few recordings for children were bearable for the adults who had to hear them, ad infinitum.
“They all sucked arse. When I tried to find music for my kids, it was the fucking Wiggles. I fucking hate the Wiggles. I can’t stand them! What else? Fucking Dora the Explorer? It’s just shit music, I hated it all, and I don’t want to spend a four-hour car journey listening to the Wiggles! I’d smash the car into a pulp.”
The sequel, however, has a small, smelly problem.
“At the moment I’m writing songs that are all about poos and farts, because my kids are at that age where they just want to talk about poos and farts and punching and kicking.
“Should I censor myself? I’m a parent, and this is what I’ve experienced, and my kids, all they talk about is their poos and they just want to touch their bums and stick their fingers up their arses!
“My ex-partner doesn’t like talking about poos and farts, but when they’re with me, spew forth! They can say whatever they like because it’s hilarious! When we fart in front of each other, I crack up, and they’re like, ‘Ha!’, but with their mother it’s like, ‘No, don’t do that!’
“I just think whatever makes you laugh. If it’s innocent, you should laugh at it and have fun with it. Everyone farts!”
Her life right now is about making music for babies, and making babies. “I want a girl. How am I going to write sweet lullabies if I don’t have a baby girl? I want a big family, so more kids! My mum’s got six kids and my stepdad’s got two, and my real dad has got three or four, who knows? So I’ve come from a big family, and I like that.
“I’ve had Azaria be pregnant with our twins, and Natasha pregnant with Soren, and it’s just so unfair! It’s like, uh, hurry up so I can have a go, you sluts! Mind you, if I have twins I’ll be throwing half of myself down the stairs. Fuck having twins again!”
She cackles, and says: “I’m joking.”