Kiwi singer Theia’s life lessons

Theia opens up about her new life in the States and why New Zealand will always be home.

Local singer Theia talks a mile a minute, with a constant grin on her face, as if she constantly can’t believe her luck. Her burgeoning musical career, however, has nothing to do with luck – it’s all down to hard work and dedication.

She’s currently back in Aotearoa from Los Angeles, where she’s now based, for a whirlwind string of summer festivals. “I wish it was longer, but I just have so much work to do!” she exclaims. “I better hurry up and make the most of my time!”

Theia’s talking to us from Christchurch, where she’s visiting family, but she originally hails from Port Waikato. “That’s where my marae is and the rest of my whānau – pākehās down here and Māoris up there!” laughs the Roam singer, who has Waikato-Tainui and Ngāti Tāpa ancestry.

However, the highlight of her trip home will be performing at Taranaki’s famous Womad NZ arts festival next month. “I’m closing the entire thing!” she grins. “Dope, eh? I literally cannot wait for Womad. It’s so iconic.”

Theia – real name Em-Haley Walker – will also be performing separately as her alter ego, the passion project Te Kaahu, at the festival. “Te Kaahu is dedicated to my nanny, so the sound is very ’60s doo-wop with a Māori spin.”

She’s truly a woman of contradictions. While Theia’s music is alt-pop and edgy, Te Kaahu’s tunes are dreamlike and spiritual. Both acts share important political and cultural themes, but as she’s talking to Woman’s Day, the singer references mainstream icons such as Britney Spears, Rihanna, Beyoncé and, er, Hello Kitty.

She might be a pop princess, but Theia’s got points to make and she’s excited to spread her message overseas. She says, “I deal with a lot of triggering issues, like forces of control upon women and indigenous folks, and calling out predators in our communities. I didn’t know how it would be received in the States. It was so moving, though, to be able to express myself as a young Māori woman in an environment where there wasn’t a single other Māori.”

Not that Theia is hung up on representing our indigenous culture overseas. “I’m just trying to do my thing,” she says. “The main challenge is going into a gig, being me and not filtering myself.”

Moving Stateside has been a big change for the singer, but it was the next necessary step in her career, Theia explains.

“Our nation is so tiny that when you do more alternative or underground stuff like I do, you feel like an outsider. But then you go overseas and you’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, there’s an entire group of people who feel exactly the same!’ It can feel really lonely. But being over there, I’m not alone in that way.”

Theia’s biggest hit, her debut single Roam, has had almost 15 million listens on Spotify since it came out in 2016 and she’s set to release an alternate version this year, despite having mixed feelings about the catchy pop tune.

“There were so many growing pains and it was full-on for me as a young artist,” Theia says of those early days of her career, when Roam first came out. “I never used to perform it live. I was a lost little girl, but I’ve ended up getting a new appreciation for it. I’ve grown up since.”

Performing at LA Pride. “I find community everywhere,” she says.

It’s hard to know exactly how old Theia is – she comes across as youthful and innocent, but she’s very grounded and articulate. She good-naturedly refuses to reveal her age, laughing, “I don’t want people to be able to say, ‘You’re too young for all this!’ I just want to be appreciated for my mahi.”

Despite her growing profile in the US, Theia hopes her aunties at the marae will always call if they need her for anything.

She grins, “They rang me recently and said, ‘We’ve got a loudspeaker. Maybe you could just stand in the doorway and sing for the whānau?’ I love that. I do find community everywhere, but nothing beats being where you’re really from.”

As soon as Theia is done with Womad, she’s on a plane to Vancouver, where she’s playing Babes On Babes, a “super-hardcore cult-following lesbian night”. She says, “They’re bringing in lots of indigenous talent, which I’m blessed to be part of.”

For now, though, she’s due on a flight to Auckland to pack up her storage locker. As she checks her flight details on her phone, tapping away with long, perfectly manicured nails, she chats away, warmly dishing out tips on visiting California.

It’s like we’ve been chatting to a life-long bestie. But when we point this out, Theia giggles, “Oh, my gosh, I thought we were just getting to know each other!”

Womad NZ is on 15-17 March in New Plymouth. For info and tickets, visit womad.co.nz

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