“If I wasn’t open to the sound around me, I would never get to where I know I should be, Maybe you could come and get to know me… Cos here’s what you might find..”              (“Dark Days” – Tali – Audioporn Records 2011)

My siblings were the focus of my intense admiration growing up, and I was particularly close to Craig the eldest. We would play together quite happily, despite there being almost nine years between us. (Yes I was an accident, the best mistake my parents ever made btw haha). Over the years he and I have also always shared and had lengthy discussions about music. Craig has always had an extensive and eclectic music collection. When I was very young he introduced me to some of the music he was into – Dire Straits, The Cars, Chris Rea… (I remember ‘Money For Nothing’ being huge in our house) I liked it, but nothing really stuck with me – most of it was Male led music.

Warrick was at the age of being ‘cool’ so I wasn’t really too much of an issue to him, or him to me and he listened to a lot of heavier rock. I did really like Midnight Oil which I heard through Warrick though, ‘Beds are Burning’ is still an exceptional political track.

Marnie and I had a long standing love/hate relationship. However we both loved music and through this our sisterhood would at times seem more like a friendship (much to my delight). We would listen to Wham! and dance around the room pretending they were our boyfriends, (obviously she always had George and I ended up with Andrew) and sing at the tops of our voices into our hairbrushes. As little girls we idolised Madonna and Cindi Lauper, were both confused and in awe of Boy George, got emotional listening to Sade and Tracey Chapman, and were spurred into frenzied dance moves by Jody Watley, Prince and Michael Jackson. I remember as Marnie was a bit older than me and started high school a few years before I did, her music taste also evolved into appreciating early 90s’s UK music such as Rebel MC, Snap and later Soul II Soul. As I approached my early teens I became obsessed with these albums myself – sometimes stealing the tapes from out of her room to take to school on the bus and listen to on my walkman.

I remember when I was little, about 7 or 8 years old, my parents used to take my brothers into Hawera to play hockey. It was always boring for me and so sometimes they would leave me to play at their family friends the Kelsons. Mrs Kelson, or Glynss as I called her, was well into her music. She would let me pull out the records from her precious record collection – Duran Duran , OMD and The Pet Shop Boys (all bands Marnie also was very much into) and I would sing along to my favourite songs. However I distinctly remember one day her pulling out Grace Jones’ album ‘Night Clubbing’.

“Look at this one” she said placing the cover into my lap. “What do you think of this?”

I looked at Grace Jones’ image, my young mind taking it all in. She seemed both masculine yet feminine at the same time – the cigarette dangling from her mouth, her liquorice skin glistening, partially exposed by her open jacket. I believe Grace was probably the first image of a Black Woman I had ever seen.

“Wow she’s so….black!” I remember my little voice saying in awe.

“Yes she is very black” Glynss replied in agreement, “And isn’t she beautiful? I love this image because she looks so powerful. She is a really incredible performer too and she has an amazing voice that sings amazing songs.”

I looked back down at the image and this time I saw what Glynss had described. A strong, fierce looking Woman with eyes holding secrets that could only be discovered through listening to her songs. She was sexy and beautiful and masculine all at once, and I remember feeling very wowed by her image. Later when I listened to her voice on the record I felt the same emotion again. To this day I am a huge Grace Jones fan and inspired by both her voice and her performances.

   Marnie and I shared a room until she turned twelve when the old nursery room was converted into her room. She had to walk through my room to get to hers though, which used to pissed me off, especially when it always sounded like good fun was coming from in there that I wasn’t allowed to be a part of. When Marnie had friends over, I became nothing more than an annoyance. Doors were slammed in my face and though I put notes under the door begging to be allowed into play, she very rarely relented.

However sometimes Marnie and I would lie awake at night with our adjoining door open, with the radio going in my room (because I got the clearest reception) and I would turn the dial until we lost some of the static so we could tune into Energy FM the best radio station in Taranaki, broadcasting out of New Plymouth. Here is where I discovered some of my first Hip Hop music such as Young MC “Principals Office’ and ‘Bust A Move.’ Lying there in my bed listening to this young kid rapping, I was enthralled by both the lyrics and the delivery and couldn’t stop jiggling my little legs to the beat.

Marnie and I were both were keen surfers as well and loved blasting tapes in Dad’s yellow ute that Marnie was driving at the time. we’d have Edie Brickell’s ‘What I Am’ on, the volume up all the way out to Opunake singing at the tops of our voices. As all the trucks and cars pulled up onto the grass where we parked and unloaded our surfboards, everyones stereos would be competing with the latest jams. The local boys were pumping ‘2 Live Crew’, We would have ‘Soul II Soul’ on repeat, someone else would have Milli Vanilli or Tone Loc on. It got us all going as we donned our wetsuits to head out into the waves.

Us kids still loved gathering around the TV – especially when it came to ‘Ready To Roll’ which was our first taste of music television. Each week we would debate over which track we thought would make it to number one, whooping with delight if it was the artist we predicted. I remember Michael Jackson spending weeks at the top spot, and later ‘Poi E’ a song sung completely in Te Reo Maori by The Patea Maori Club. We loved this track because Patea is in Taranaki so it was effectively a Taranaki track at number 1! We even learnt the song at choir, such was its popularity. Interestingly enough – there has never been another song with only Maori lyrics that has reached so many or been played on prime time radio. Kinda sad considering its our native language… (Yeah what’s up with that anyway NZ radio?? ) ‘Ready To Roll’ later became ‘RTR’ hosted by Robbie Rakete, but by then Marnie was more into ‘Radio With Pictures’ a late night music television program hosted by the uber cool Karyn Hay. I remember INXS ‘Need You Tonight’ coming on and Marnie and her friends going gaga for Michael Hutchins. As I watched this sexy young man with his long hair writhing about in front of the camera I was both afraid and completely enthralled.

As a young high school kid I got massively into my Nu Jack Swing. I loved Bobby Brown,  Colour Me Bad, Tony! Toni! Tone! and Bell Biv DeVoe, and got more and more interested in listening to Hip Hop and writing lyrics. Its funny because none of my brothers or sister ever really got into Hip Hop music, it was something that I discovered a love of on my own, partially because I loved words and making up my own rhymes, and I discovered I was especially good at freestyling. My favourite program growing up (Other than The Cosby Show) was The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air, because I loved the fact Will Smith and Jazzy Jeff were also actual musicians. Fashion and music were something that were intertwined and I was heavily influenced by the fashion I saw on music videos. Not to mention that I loved dancing! I imitated Paula Abdul, Madonna and Janet Jackson, learning the steps and pulling them out whenever we had a school disco.

In complete contrast to all this, My Mum enrolled me to first piano lessons when I was ten followed closely by singing. When I first started piano Mum and Dad managed to find an old second hand piano that had seen better days. They got a piano tuner in to try and coax something that sounded in key from out of its wobbly interior wires, but there were ivories missing from the keys and a couple of keys that had lost their voice altogether. But I didn’t care. The Piano was mine and I practiced scales and songs that I was given to learn, as well as making up my own songs.

I had basic piano lessons first with Mum’s friend Christine, who taught me how to read and play. But she also suggested I should learn classical as she taught modern. I don’t know why she felt I should play Classical, but she recommended a teacher who could teach me. Piano and eventually singing were both taught to me by  Julie Cudby in Hawera. I loved my lessons with her. It all began when I was very young singing with my school and many other schools around the coast at the local choir meet in Kaponga. Someone sitting next to my Mother in the audience remarked that you could hear me singing over all the other children, and in tune. She suggested Mum take me to singing lessons, and as Julie could teach both singing and piano – it made sense.

 Julie was a beautiful woman with dark skin, a halo of dark shiny teased out curls and red lipstick. She wore big glasses and spoke very well and their house was a beautiful old period property. Both my Mum and I loved Julie very much. She was a wonderful teacher, firm but fair, loving and supportive.

She nourished my passion for singing by entering me in competitions where I thrived and won numerous awards year after year, and by getting me involved with the Hawera theatre, singing and dancing at various performances. To this day I credit Julie with giving me the head start in life I needed regarding singing on stage, conducting myself with professionalism, (She always made me go and congratulate the winner even if I was seething with bitterness), and that practice makes perfect.

Our drives to and from Hawera were special for Mum and I too. Often we would sit in silence, musing over our own thoughts, listening to the music Mum let me play on the tape player. Or other times I would tell Mum ideas I had for stories and songs. One being, that the big plastic wrapped bales of hay, looked like alien eggs that had been laid overnight… waiting to hatch and consume the world! Mum would laugh and encourage my imagination, always telling me I should write this stuff down.

We would stop for burgers and milkshakes on the way home, knowing that Dad would have headed to the pub already, and when we got home we would settle down together, Mum painting watercolours and drinking brandy in the kitchen with a cigarette in one hand and a paint brush in the other, me in the lounge watching Quantum Leap, MacGyver or Married with Children.

The first time I won an award for piano, Julie couldn’t quite believe that what I had been practising on all that time had still managed to make me good enough to win something. She did however, suggest to my parents that if I was to become really accomplished I would need a better piano eventually.

One day I arrived home from school to find a delivery van in the driveway. Out came a beautiful chestnut coloured piano that although was an upright, didn’t have the tall backs most uprights have, but instead a flat top with a modern, sleek fold away lid.

I loved it. I knew now that I really had to step up my game and try to be the best pianist I could be. But try as I might, and as much as I grew in my first few years in High School, my hands always remained tiny. I struggled through piano exams, and was always in tears by the end as I found them so traumatic and stressful. I stretched my hands as much as I could to reach the complicated chord structures but I just found it so frustrating. That coupled with these intimidating elderly gentlemen who were invited to be adjudicators, clinking their tea cups and scribbling furiously in their books with every mistake made – I often faced what I can only describe as ‘anxiety blanks’.

Even after practising my heart out on my scales and feeling relatively confident going in, I would find myself completely blanking out when asked to perform the scales, my mind becoming a quivering mess of jelly. On my final year of piano exams I remember sitting there hunched over the keyboard watching my tears fall onto the keys with my hands shaking by my sides. I couldn’t remember even the simplest of scales and I felt humiliated and upset that  with every scale I started I couldn’t complete it.

I came out of the room an absolute mess, leaving Julie torn between trying to console me, and ready her next student for their exam. My Mother bundled me out to the car, arm around my shoulders in comfort, but her voice softly telling me it would be alright, I think it stressed her out just as much to see me in such a state, and we were both rather surprised when I received the news I had passed!

I think the adjudicator no doubt felt sorry for me, and though I was very pleased to have passed I was also incredibly relieved when Julie announced that she had decided  we weren’t going to proceed with Grade 6 practical piano the following year, as the adjudicator had commented on my tiny hands being ‘incapable of reaching the demands  that Grade 6 will require’.

I had decided myself the previous year that I didn’t want to do anymore theory exams either. They involved sitting in a classroom in Hawera High School with a bunch of other music students, filling out the exam paper and constantly watching the clock. Although I didn’t find these exams as stressful, it was difficult to concentrate on studying for both these exams as well as practical piano, Singing exams, modern dance lessons, and my school work.

Mum, Julie and I all believed it would be better to focus on my singing which I loved and excelled at in both competitions and exams. I started in at Grade 5 when I was only 12 (Julie didn’t think it was worth bothering to do the first four as I would find it too easy) and sailed right through to Grade 8 just before I turned 17.

I also rinsed the music competitions of both New Plymouth and Hawera, entering all my usual sections but also being the only competitor in the ‘Singer with own accompaniment’ and Singer with own accompanist’ sections, One was singing with another student playing the piano, the other me playing the piano rather clunkily and singing at the same time.

Because I had these two sections added to my overall tally of scores, at the prize giving ceremony (a rather pompous concert that consisted of a variation of prizewinning dancers, singers and musicians performing) I collected five cups, two scholarships and left the competitions for good at the ripe old age of 17 – donating my own named cup for whoever else was willing to take on the same categories in the future.

 

It was such a contrast – on one hand, all those hours practising and performing classical and musical theatre numbers, and on the other, listening to Hip Hop, and writing raps that I would recite and remember and later deliver to my friends when I was school. I remember one afternoon bouncing round my room with a hairbrush in one hand and a beanie on my head rapping out some lyrics over a Hip Hop beat at the top of my voice. My Mum opened the door to my room and shook her head at me saying “Don’t you think you’re a bit old to be listening to Hip Hop now darling?” I looked at her in amazement. She obviously had no idea the passion I had for lyrics and rapping and how much I felt this music and style of lyrical delivery in my soul. I felt for sure there had to be a place for it in my future!

Little did I know at that time – just how right I would be.

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