Teeks: The soul singer whose voice will give you goosebumps

Soul singer Te Karehana Gardiner-Toi, aka Teeks.

Growing up immersed in waiata (and the sounds of Bob Marley and Elvis Presley), soul singer Teeks has a voice that gives people goosebumps – a response that is about to get a whole lot more widespread with the release of his upcoming EP.

Teeks has the kind of voice people whisper about. When you’re lucky enough to hear him sing, your jaw will drop a little. Or your eyes will widen and you’ll say something about shivers under your breath, or point at the tiny goosebumps forming on your forearms – although none of that really describes the magic of his voice with any accuracy.

The fact that 23-year-old Te Karehana Gardiner-Toi (as his family know him) is completely unassuming about his talents only makes him more appealing as an artist. He’s a clever, kind, committed songwriter, and he’s on the road to big things. He won the Emerging Artist Award at the Waiata Māori Music Awards in 2015, participated in the elite Songhubs programme in February, and recently spent time in New York recording his debut EP The Grapefruit Skies, which is out on 23 June.

But his musical story starts long before any of that. Despite the fact he’s a solo artist, his is a story full of supporting characters. “I guess I was brought up around kapa haka and that was really my earliest impression of music,” he says. “My mum and dad were part of a kapa haka group, so as a little kid I was watching them performing a lot.”

He grew up immersed in Māori at home and school in Tauranga and then Rotorua, and his early musical memories are connected to Te Reo and kapa haka, and waiata. But he wasn’t particularly drawn to music as a child. “I don’t know if I was that into music at first, not really,” he says. “Like my dad used to write songs – he’s a songwriter – and he wrote songs in Māori for his kapa haka groups and schools and stuff, but I don’t remember being that into it. He was really into Bob Marley and Elvis Presley, and that’s really all I heard or listened to. And I kind of was always like, ‘Man, play something else Dad!’ But now I appreciate it – they’re not bad artists to grow up listening to,” he laughs.

Both his parents were teachers, and so the family moved around a few times, eventually settling in Opononi and then Doubtless Bay in Northland, where Teeks went to high school. His dad was the principal, his mum a teacher, so he “had to be a good boy”. “It was bad but it was good at the same time,” he says. “It kept me on my toes.” When he hit his teens, the Smokefree Rockquest and Pacifica Beats competitions began pulling him down a musical path: he and his friends started a school band and entered the competitions, sometimes performing songs written by Teeks. “Now I listen back to them,” he says, “they’re terrible, but I guess we had a good time.”

They can’t have been that terrible, because the group, Ahomairangi, made it to the Pacifica Beats national finals in 2011 with their reggae and Te Reo-influenced sound. The experience ultimately convinced Teeks to try and forge a career as a musician. “I realised I wanted to make music full-time,” he says, “and I went, ‘Okay, now what?’ And I realised I had to move down from up north, and try it out in Auckland, and I wanted to go to uni, so I thought, let’s do music at uni. That seemed like a good step in the right direction.”

Teeks at Songhubs, a week-long songwriting programme.

After finishing his university studies, Teeks began teaching Māori at Unitec, participated in the Māori musical showcase Pao Pao Pao, and ended up involved in a mentoring programme designed to give a leg up to developing Māori musicians, which brought him to the attention of well-established artists like Rob Ruha, Maisey Rika, and Tama Waipara. “That was big for me, I learned a lot,” Teeks says. “And those connections are why I am where I am. They were so great, they took me under their wing, and I went on tour with Maisey. They just want to expose us to as much of the industry as possible.”

These connections were a key part of creating his first EP. After securing some Creative New Zealand funding, he ended up heading off to New York to record with producer Jeremy Most – creative and personal partner of acclaimed, Grammy-nominated American soul singer Emily King. “I didn’t actually even really know who he [Most] was,” Teeks laughs. “But he was a suggestion that Tama Waipara threw out there as an option – we could go to New York and work with some people he knew. And I wasn’t going to say no to that idea really. So I found out a bit more about him, we started talking via email, and I sent him some demos and got things cooking. I really love the sounds he creates in Emily’s stuff, but I also just really liked Jeremy’s way of working, and his choices. He’s really into acoustic instruments and organic sounds, but he combines it with electronic ideas too, while keeping the integrity of live qualities.”

He also recorded some tracks in Auckland at The Lab studios, working with Seth Haapu and Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper to cultivate his own take on that rich soul sound. “Soul music is what I love. Old school soul, experimental soul, future soul stuff, all of it. I listen to a lot of different music I guess. Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, and I love a lot of British stuff, this guy Kwabs is great [a British-Ghanaian artist] – his voice is something else – Samm Henshaw [a British-Nigerian singer] is another one, and I like Leon Bridges a lot.

“I just love the feels,” he laughs. “But I feel like vocals play a big part. Soul songs are often vocal-driven, and that suits me. And I really love melodies, I’m all about really nice melodies, not too obvious, but cool.”

Given his bilingual abilities and his love of other artists who have introduced elements of different cultures to the soul genre, it might seem natural that Teeks could introduce us to a whole new way of thinking about Māori language in music. And it’s a challenge he’s keen on, but hasn’t quite surmounted yet.

“I do want to write songs in Māori, and hopefully that’ll be something that comes next, but at the moment I find it tricky. I don’t know why really. It’s hard to make it sound good enough I guess for me, at the moment. I have to be really careful, because I feel like I can easily slip into sounding a bit cheesy when I write in Māori. But Māori is very poetic and very beautiful, I just have to master it.”

He’s keen to give credit where it’s due, but you can tell Teeks is a guy with the kind of motivation and talent to make the most of any opportunities that come his way. He has spent the last couple of months fully immersed in music, preparing for the release of his debut EP, and also participating in the week-long Songhubs programme. Run by APRA (the Australasian Performing Right Association), Songhubs was specifically created with the idea of creating an environment conducive to co-writing and collaboration, and to provide an opportunity for rising local talent to try working with some high-flying international professional co-writers like Mike Elizondo (a man responsible for hit songs from Eminem, Gwen Stefani, Snoop Dogg, Fiona Apple, and many more), Emily Warren (who won a Grammy in February for her work with The Chainsmokers), and James Newman (who helps to smash out hits for Rudimental, Calvin Harris, and David Guetta).

Twelve local artists got together with the international guests for five days at Neil Finn’s Roundhead Studios, and wrote one full song each day, hoping to come up with some songwriting gold dust. The atmosphere, Teeks says, was “electric – Songhubs was probably one of the best weeks of my life. It’s an incredible thing when people who share the same passion, dreams, and aspirations come together and submit to creativity and all its magical powers. Because that’s what it was, magic.”

Friendships were forged, potential hits were made, and the idea of co-writing opened up all sorts of possibilities for Teeks. “Opening up to other people, that was daunting – what if they don’t like your ideas? What if they think you’re weird? But you get over that. And then it’s exciting.”