Oct 8, 2021 Music
TAYI Oh, hello, Ella! How are you?
ELLA I just got off a plane. I’ve been travelling so much. I’m so fucked up. I just needed to have a shower and put skincare on. For an interview with you, I thought a robe and skincare is a vibe. How are you?
T I got in from Wellington late last night. It’s kind of sunny today, but freezing cold. Everyone here in New Zealand is over this winter. I think something you and I have in common is a pronounced passion for summer.
E I was actually thinking that, reading Rangikura — so many sun mentions.
T Yeah, hard out — I was struck by that, too. References to summer and the sun are right throughout both our new works. It made me think about how distinctive and important summers are to people growing up in New Zealand. It’s probably to do with how summer falls at the end/beginning of the Pākehā New Year and the way the school year is structured. I’ve always had the sense that my life has been marked and tallied by summers. Does that resonate with you?
E You are totally right. I loved “Lil Mermaidz” from your book. I was like, “Oh, that totally captures that kind of juicy, fertile thing.” Like, those were the kinds of girls on the beach that I would look at as a kid and be like, “Oh, I want that for me. I want those vibes.”
T I always used to stare at older girls on the beach when I was little.
E You totally encapsulated the heady vibe of being a young woman in New Zealand. All the girls that I talk to about it are like, “Summer is our time to put into practice all the things that we might have learned, or dreamed about, or wished for, the whole year.” I feel like in summer, I make the most spiritual ground, I see myself the most clearly and I feel my most creative, fertile, feminine. There’s just something to that in New Zealand, and I don’t know what it is but I really tried to understand it in making this album. I don’t know if I fully got there, but there’s a couple moments where I connected the dots a little bit. Even in just the way a guitar sounds I’m like, “Oh, that sounds like how summer feels to me.”
It’s an intoxicating force. I remember, as a teenager, feeling like every summer I was just in god mode for three months. It doesn’t get old. I still feel that spice when I wake up and the day is blue.
T Hard out. I love the feeling of potential in the day. And I hear it in your record. At the start of summer there’s a real shift in energy; you start hearing the cicadas, lawn-mowers, sprinklers, the smell of hot asphalt, sea salt, fish and chips, your first swim, when the fruit gets cheap, there is something so —
E Oh, you cut out! All I heard was “cicadas” and then “fruit gets cheap”. Whatever you said in the middle I don’t know, but with those two things you encapsulated summer.
T That’s basically it! I guess the other side to New Zealand’s real luscious summer is when it begins to fade. I always find that super heartbreaking. Like, you’ve been in the ocean almost every day for weeks now, and then suddenly you’ve had your last swim. The fruit is overripe. The cucumbers are extortionately overpriced again. I feel like your record has some of that energy in it, too. I just listened to “Stoned at the Nail Salon” and I can hear you talk to that fading.
E My work has always dealt with summer. On the last record I said, “every perfect summer is eating me alive” because it was that duality thing — “I love this so much but I know it’s going to end” — and I expanded it on this record. I said, “every perfect summer’s got to take its flight”. I feel like I distilled it in the song “Fallen Fruit”.I felt really angry and heartbroken and asked, “how can I love what I know I’m going to lose?” When I wrote that, I was like, “Oh man, this is the mission statement of everything I make.” It’s the nucleus. It’s the touchstone. How can I love what I know I am going to lose? The love and the loss are symbiotic; they’re in my brain at all times. In moments of intense passion, there is always an undertone of “this, too, will be gone”. Experiencing seasons in an intense way is very similar — those feelings, and not being ready to let anything go.
T That’s so buzzy. It’s similar to what I was trying to do in my book, trying to rectify the pursuit of an endless summer, endless fun — and endless life, I guess — which was always impossible and unattainable, but now, given the circumstances of the world, seems even more so.
E I love your collection. It’s so good. I’m so impressed. The first poem, “Tohunga”, and the last two, “A Karakia for a Humble Skux” and “My Ancestors Ride wit Me”, are unbelievable. And you’ve got bars!
T Yeah, I actually do.
E When are you going to get on the mic and feed us?
T Well, actually, me and my flatmate Helena have been hanging out with this Wellington rapper/producer called Young Gho$t, and we made a song. This is the one thing I swore I was not going to bring up. I was like, “Tayi, whatever you do, do not bring up to Lorde the fact that you recorded a song.”
E Oh my god! I’m down. I feel it. Honestly, it’s there in a big way. The cadence is crazy. I really feel like you levelled up in this book. It’s so good. It’s really good having it while being away from New Zealand, too, ’cause I feel the kind of power of where we are from dull as I get away. It’s hard for me to access the same sort of force. I feel like this book has helped me have it right here, so thank you.
T You’re so welcome. I remember being on set for the video for “Solar Power” and you were telling me about the cinematic universe of the album and how it’s like this commune situation — how you were inspired by the hippy, counterculture movements of the late 1960s and 70s. I also take references from the 60s and 70s — things like the Māori renaissance, the dawn raids, the Land March, Ngā Tamatoa are a big part of my cultural and artistic whakapapa. What from that period appeals to you? Why was it relevant for you to make reference to it for this record?
E I had been listening to lots of 60s and 70s pop and folk. Then I started reading about the period — it felt like there were a lot of parallels between that time and our time in terms of people feeling disenfranchised from their government. The civil rights movement was happening; people were becoming aware of the environmental crisis; people wanted to transcend it all. They wanted spiritual enlightenment. Their way of doing that was to drop out and start what they thought of as new worlds — though in actual fact a lot of the new ways of life didn’t really work. They weren’t effective, because people would try to apply the same old tenets of capitalism. They were kind of sexist at times. They brought the old baggage. It was really interesting thinking about both the beauty and the idealism of those kinds of ideas, and humans being back on their bullshit, doing what they have always done. Again, the love and the loss. The end of the Summer of Love — it’s really fertile ground for me.
I enjoyed combining the two reference zones for the album: 60s and 70s guitar music and very early 2000s bubbly radio pop with heaps of really sparkly sounds, lots of references to nature and sun. There was this hope embedded, that it was the 2000s, it was a new thing. The two of those were the zones of inspiration that brought together the different things I had been thinking about.
T I can definitely hear it. It sounds like the 2000s to me, especially your song “Mood Ring”.
E You’re a similar age to me, right? You would have had a similar experience. When I hear that music now, it’s sepia-tinted, because of the age that I was when I was listening to it, and just how everything looks in my memory.
T Hard out — just hearing the music brings back all the weird messages we were fed. There were so many American Dream-isms put into the music. The idea that we could achieve anything, and have it all.
E It was so wild. I can’t imagine being a little brown girl at school at that time. There would have been so much to it; it would have been so heavy. When I read some of the stuff in your book I felt so … just ugh. Like your teacher saying that Māori killed the moa?
T Yeah, that was for real for real. It’s sad. Teachers need to be more aware. I was a sensitive little girl and I was really taking it all on. I went to a Pākehā school for primary, and then I moved to a predominantly brown and Polynesian school for intermediate and high school so I had the “two worlds” experience.
E Did you come into yourself more and into your Māoritanga as you got older, in that more supportive environment?
T Definitely. I was a little bit shy and different at first because I had come from an environment of mostly Pākehā, but I got inducted into the hood- rat shit early on, and it was all gang gang and love from there.
E I cannot handle this book! It’s so beautiful. It’s crazy. I feel like you’re just climbing the rollercoaster of your powers.
T I’m obsessed with self-improvement and fulfilling my potential. Are you?
E The thing about me is I am very lazy. I’m hard on myself but I don’t really set goals, I just let things happen. I may need to take inspiration from you on the self-improvement styles. When I was re-reading the book, I could see it happening for you in real time. We meet you at a time of shifting image or shifting shape, seeing yourself in fragments, or fractals. In the poem “Mahuika”, you say visions of yourself in 1000 pieces. I know when I make something, often it kind of acts as a mirror, and I am able to see myself more clearly. How has your image of yourself changed between your two books? What has changed with the new one?
T The difference between this book and the last is mostly confidence, being more accepting and comfortable of what I have done, and what has happened to me in the past, and how my life has been … unconventional. In my first book, similar things were there, but I was shy about it, I was dancing around it. I wasn’t owning my own experiences as much as I am in this one. Plus, with my first book, I had some insecurity that people might view it, and me, as a kind of novelty, basically because I’m brown and there hadn’t been many publicly successful young brown writers. I knew I was viewed as talented, but now I feel like my skill as a writer is more apparent, even if it’s just to me. I feel a lot more comfortable now, so the work is clearer and more hearty.
E What star sign are you?
T I’m a Libra.
E True! See! That’s what it is. I’m a Scorpio. I wish I had some of this.
T What do you mean? Are you too attached and intense?
E I wish I had some of these goals and visions. I read this Miranda July story where she has this experience when she realises that someone hasn’t done what she would do which is, she realised, “I had always detonated each bomb exactly where I had found it.” And I was like, “Oh god!” That was like a real moment. Time to start picking things up, rather than being like, “Here it is.” Boom! I think that’s the Tayi/ Ella difference. I’m taking this in my bag and I’m saving this for later.
T You save other things for later, don’t you? You take your time between projects.
E I do take a long time. I’m a real brewer. I sit on something and I’m just brewing it for years, another thing getting added to the pot. It’s such a long process. It’s like a tapestry, or a really good soup.
T I remember seeing you say during an interview around Melodrama, that everyone has a first album in them; and then there is always talk of the “difficult second album”; so what was making the third album like? Is there more or less pressure than last time?
E I found my second album so difficult. I questioned every single thing. I didn’t know if I knew how to make albums and making that one, I was like, “Okay, I do know how to do this.” It solidified my own knowledge of my powers, I guess. It was pretty well received, so I felt like I could kind of go anywhere. So the third album, I felt no external pressure but I felt a lot of internal pressure. The third album is like — if you get that one right, you kick into this other zone, and you can advance yourself as an artist so much. Like all of a sudden, you can seem like you’ve been around forever. It’s almost for other artists, the third record. The first one is for the kids and they’re so excited, the second one is for critics and the naysayers, and the third one is like, “I’m just gonna play and see what happens and stimulate my peers.” That’s how I felt about it. I looked at other big third records and one that really fucked me up quite early on was OK Computer. I was like, “Oh god, I need to make my OK Computer!” Which is chaotic energy to drop into the pot. But yeah, I just wanted every line to be so tight, and to impress myself, and to be getting in all the facets of the experience, all the different emotional colours and memories. Even just a little word I had been holding on to for years that I decided finally I was going to drop in.
T That sounds really satisfying.
E I recently listened to this George Saunders interview and he said something about how it’s easy to make work that is maybe more obscure or obtuse or that people can’t understand, but it’s much harder to make work that is easy to understand. I feel that with your poetry. I know exactly what you are talking about. There’s absolutely nowhere to hide. I feel like it’s braver, more confident that way. I think of your poems as sharing DNA with pop music, or popular culture for sure, and with this album I renewed my own vows to pop music.
T Do you think getting off social media helped to negate external pressure?
E Oh my god … getting off social media! I need to be careful. I’ve realised it’s so dry to hear someone talk about how awesome they are for getting off social media. I’m an addict. I’ll always be an addict and I love it. That feeling of your first email account, or your first MSN Messenger account. That feeling of sending a message and getting one back. The happy chemicals that would fizzle in your brain. It was the most juicy, incredible feeling. And I never want to diss that feeling because it’s so linked to that 13-year-old summer.
T Hard out.
E I don’t want to be a hater, but it just got to this zone for me, where I was starting to act exactly the way I thought I would. Like everything was just happening. I wasn’t surprising myself. My neurons were operating in really clear patterns. I felt it happening and it started freaking me out, so I got off. I don’t know if you ever feel stifled by social media, but I can’t recommend it enough, taking a break. But, for you, I don’t want you to take a break — I don’t know if you need to. I feel like you’re different to me. Like, I’m too absorbent. I feel like you’re refractive. You have a better shield or something.
T Us being the same age … social media is, like, more than an addiction, it’s imbued into the fabric of society. I got my first social media account, a Bebo, when I was, like, 12 years old. At my intermediate, all of us Year 7s and 8s got Bebo and we all thought we were mad cool with our skins and stuff like that. Our teachers organised a community meeting about our Bebo use, and everyone from our whole suburb came. Our teachers stood us up one by one and pulled up our Bebo accounts on a projector, and started shaming us about the stupid things we were doing, in front of literally everyone and their mum. Basically we were all pretending to be Bloods and Crips and throwing up gang signs on the internet.
E OMG, brutal!
T Yeah. It gave me some perspective that if you do stupid things on the internet, people from your real life might think you’re stupid.
E Bebo was an incredible zone. The endorphins I would feel! My parents didn’t know that I had Bebo and I would log on at my friend’s house. That feeling of getting love from people … Do you look at TikTok?
E I downloaded TikTok for one day, and I scrolled for three hours and I was like, “These kids are incredible, I am completely obsessed, and I cannot do this because it’s going to break my brain.”
T They are so freakin creative! But yeah, it’s dangerous. I have to watch myself hard out. Also, I think there’s such a difference between TikTok and, say Tumblr. With you and your friends, back in the day, were your Tumblrs really gate-kept? I feel like we used to not share our Tumblr URLs with other people.
E Oh yeah, no no no. I remember finding out some under-the-radar girl from school was Tumblr famous. It was really divorced from your social world.
T There was no crossover into real life. I feel like that’s really different from how we use social media now.
E Yeah. Now you are world-building all the time for your personal brand.
T For ages, I thought social media was a good thing. I felt like we were building a lot of community, and there were lots of discussions happening, especially for Māori. We can’t always be in the same place at the same time to have proper hui, but on the internet, for a while, I really felt like we were building a digital papakāinga. And I’ve seen how useful social media has been for things like Ihumātao and Protect Pūtiki, for spreading information quickly. But then it’s probably not the best place to have nuanced discussions. I find it hard to take in a nice piece of critical or racial theory when it’s wedged in between an ad for collagen powder and some random saying he wants to eat some celebrity’s ass.
E Seeing you on social media, I could feel you world-building this incredible indigenous female zone. It was so, or it is so, beautiful and so cool. And I would hate for that to not feel really rejuvenative and powerful for you. But yeah, it’s the context. Like what you say about Pūtiki and collagen powder, nothing on social media can be received without the context of exactly where it’s placed on the timeline. I find that really scrambling. Like, I wouldn’t read books like that. I wouldn’t read one page of 1000 books and then go back to the first book.
T Yeah, that’s crazy.
E I’m going to party on a rooftop tonight. Apparently there will be someone doing tattoos there, which seems crazy. Like all these crazy horny freaks and also having a tattooist at a party … like, “Don’t do it guys!”
T Do you have any tattoos?
E I just have one. Can you see this red line? It’s like a big scratch. When my puppy was a baby, he jumped up and scratched me and I had a scar right there. The scar was starting to fade in the middle so I just wanted to connect it. I got this awesome tattoo artist called Alma Proença. She is so sick and I’ve known her and followed her since we were both teenagers, so I got her to draw it over for me. But my fans are real confused. They think I’ve got this scratch that isn’t healing. They’re like, “Are you okay? It’s been a month and it’s still there.”
T You have fans that love you, eh? They’re crazy about you.
E They really are. They are so passionate and sweet and excited. It’s crazy to be like the mother of that kind of energy. Like, can you imagine being a teenager and having that much energy directed at you? It definitely took me a second to understand how to harness it and use it for good because it’s so hard-out.
T I literally cannot imagine being a teenager and having that happen.
E I know, I know. I feel like as a 16-year- old I was already in such a zone of gassing myself up. I just thought I was the shit, and I had this sick Tumblr, ha ha. I didn’t need anyone to tell me I was dope, you know? But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve really sunk into it more and I’m so grateful for these little maniacs.
T How do you think you managed that? Do you think it’s like a Kiwi-ism, to try to keep your head on your shoulders? ’Cause you’ve got chiller energy to me.
E I just realised that thinking I was a god wasn’t going to make good work. In fact, it would tarnish the work. I need to feel raw and, like, newborn and lost to be able to make what I make and for people to be able to feel it. For a while after I got famous, I just wrote songs about going to fancy parties and being on planes all the time and I was like, “This isn’t it.” I hadn’t figured out a way to tell that story in a way that was exciting or interesting. It really was just in service of the work that I didn’t take on that energy too much. But I almost feel like I go too far in the other direction, where I have so much imposter syndrome, and I don’t want to seem like I’m giving myself too much credit. That’s kind of a Kiwi thing, too. You know what people say about Kiwis, and you know we like to keep everyone … not down, but just on an appropriate level. I wish I had your work when I was 16 because it’s so inspirational to me. Like, no one would ever even try that with you! You’re untallpoppyable. There’s no chop that could ever happen to Tayi Tibble.
T People have definitely tried.
E It would bounce back on them. It’s the refraction. I would hate to be the person trying to do that to you.
T I think you might share an appreciation for a littl’ green plant like I do. You’ve been referencing it in your newsletters. Like voting “yes” in the referendum, or in your music video you hit the fennel bong, the song “Stoned at the Nail Salon”, and so on. Do you think there is a relationship between weed and creativity? Do you smoke while you create?
E I do not. Because then I think everything is amazing. I go on these long walks and listen to music and every song is the best song I have ever heard and I can’t bring that energy into my own music. But there’s something about being a young woman from New Zealand, being in the sun and being stoned, that’s just like the trifecta. There’s nothing better to me. I kind of hate getting stoned on a rainy day or a cloudy day. I feel like it’s been something that has deepened my relationship with nature, for sure, and made me curious about the natural word. I see it as nothing but a positive in my life. Do you smoke and write?
T I don’t really any more. I was a hearty stoner for years, probably like smoking every day, so my first book … yeah, that was written mostly lit, lol. But I can’t really do it any more ’cause of a similar thing. It’s good in the sense that I’ll probably think of some buzzy little line, like, “Oh, that’s mean.” But I cannot sit there and type out what I need to type. So I smoke a lot less now, but I still love it.
E Being stoned on the beach though, amirite? Nothing better.
T Hard out. It’s a vibe.