After a very big year, Te Karehana Gardiner-Toi aka Teeks is performing with the APO and facing the challenge of a debut album.
He’d walked off while the lights were still down, while pianist Nick Dow and the Ngā Tūmanako kapa haka group were still on the stage, while the last booming lines of Te Ahi Kai Pō resounded around Spark Arena.
So he missed the standing ovation he had earned for probably the most powerful Kiwi musical moment of 2018. The applause was both for his emotionally charged performance and for the song (co-written by Ria Hall, Te Ori Paki and Tiki Taane) about an 1864 battle in Tauranga in which more than 100 Māori died at the hands of British soldiers. Hall and her co-writers won the Maioha Award for best song in te reo Māori.
“I didn’t find out until after that people had stood up,” the soul singer better known as Teeks says. “I kind of missed the whole thing. And even though Ria was sitting quite close to me, all she said on the night was, ‘I can’t speak to you right now.’” Teeks deadpans her reaction as meaning, “I must have done an okay job”.
A few months later, Teeks remains almost bafflingly humble about a performance that had the same emotional punch as, say, Adele’s version of Someone Like You at the Brits in 2011. He says simply that he’d been terrified to sing in front of “a stadium full of songwriters”.
This promises to be an important year for the 25-year-old emerging talent, who is performing with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra at their Session Series in March. It has been 18 months since his Grapefruit Skies EP impressed with its rich, pure vocals and its intensely personal lyrics. Amazingly, he didn’t come to soul music until after high school, but he still had the connections to record at New York’s Bunker Room studios.
Teeks is promising his debut album will arrive this year. And he’s slowly learning what it is to be a full-time songwriter carving out the right material.
“I have friends who can write a song a day about anything, and I’d love to say I’ve written 50 songs and will just cut them down for an album – but I’m not like that,” he says. “As with the EP, it’s still the same. I find it easier to write a song when I’m able to connect with it on a personal level. I feel like my strongest stuff will come when I’m on my own. I need that isolation, that bubble.”
There’s already evidence that, even for an artist who admits he sometimes struggles to fill an entire set with his own material, his writing is bearing fruit.
A new song, Without You, was road-tested at The Great Escape festival in the UK last May and he’s “definitely keen” to try more new songs when he performs at Womad in New Plymouth in March.
In fact, Womad – and the idea of how his new music will sound live – is playing an increasingly important role in the emergence of this debut album.
“With the songs I’m writing, I always picture how they will change in a live setting,” he says.
“I feel those are the values I hold intrinsically, and having grown up Māori and performance being part of my culture – even with the kapa haka behind me at the Scrolls – there’s an emotion in everything you do, in every line you sing, every action and having that specific way of holding yourself on stage.
“Because kapa haka performance has always been a spiritual thing for me, I take that with me when I perform in a contemporary setting as well. That’s just how I grew up and who I am.”
Teeks will perform at Womad New Zealand 2019 in the TSB Bowl of Brooklands, New Plymouth, March 15-17. Session Series with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, Auckland, March 28.
This article was first published in the January 19, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.