Tami’s a country legend

How singing her tunes on her favourite TV show led to a ‘pinch-me moment’ starring role

Canadian-born Kiwi musician Tami Neilson talks about her breakout acting role on The Brokenwood Mysteries, life on the road and her life-changing friendship with country legend Willie Nelson.

We’re so sorry to hear about the end of your New Zealand tour being cancelled. How are you feeling now?

When you’re touring with 12 people, odds are someone is going to get Covid. Sadly, half my band got it. I came out unscathed – I just had the good old-fashioned flu!

You’re about to depart for the European leg of your tour. How do you cope with being away from your family?

I’m away for a month and I don’t normally go away that long. I made it a rule that I can’t be away from my kids that long, it’s too hard for me. Originally, they were coming with me, but now I have two weeks in Europe, then I’m meeting them in Los Angeles for five days before I head down to Nashville. We’re going to Disneyland and having a real family blowout after the past couple of years of not being able to go anywhere.

We loved the video of your boys singing at your recent concert. How did it feel to have them performing alongside you for the first time?

For years I’ve said, “Let me know if you want to sing,” and they’d say, “Oh, no, Mummy, it’s too many people.” So I was really surprised when we were driving to Tauranga and I asked just like I always do and to my great surprise Sam, my youngest, said, “I think I want to.” Charlie, my older son, was kind of hesitant, but Sam said, “If we do it together, it won’t be as scary.”

Tami on stage with sons Sam (front) and Charlie.

There aren’t even words to describe how special that moment was for me. It was a crazy swirl of emotions. I was so proud, but I needed to keep it together for them.

I grew up in a family band and I remembered at that moment my dad saying to me, “There’s no feeling more rewarding than the musical bond with your children and the connection of something that you share so deeply in your DNA.” My dad is gone now, but I immediately wanted to share that moment with him. He would have been an emotional wreck.

Family band (from left): Todd, Tami, dad Ron, mum Betty and Jay.

How did your recent duet with Willie Nelson come about?

I was supposed to play at the festival that he holds at his ranch every year in 2020 and, of course, that’s when the world fell apart. So, the festival moved online and after I played my set, I had this influx of new followers on social media. One was a woman named Annie and we chatted for two months on Twitter before I realised she was Willie’s wife. We built a friendship over the course of the pandemic.

When I recorded my new album, I wrote a song about the loss of my dad and I thought, “Who can be the voice of my dad? That’s a pretty tall order.” It took me a few months to work up the courage to ask Willie, but I finally did and he graciously said yes.

Performing with her hero Willie Nelson.

How did you manage to hold it together when you performed the song live with him?

I didn’t! I got through the first verse and chorus, but then watching him sing the second verse, I just crumbled and I started to weep. He’d lost his sister Bobby the week before and I was thinking about my dad. It was such an overwhelming moment. I will never forget it as long as I live.

You’re making your acting debut on The Brokenwood Mysteries this week. How did you feel about stepping in front of the camera?

It was a little bit of a dream come true. I’ve been working with the show for almost nine years now – they’ve used my music throughout their soundtracks and I scored a season of the show. I’ve always harboured a secret desire to be a corpse or something that doesn’t have any lines, but instead, they made me a musician. Brokenwood has become such a big part of my life – everywhere I play in the world, someone will come up to me and say, “I discovered your music through The Brokenwood Mysteries.”

Performing on Brokenwood.

Who are some of your favourite New Zealand musicians now?

I will always and forever love Ladi6, she’s amazing. Obviously, Benee, who is taking the world by storm. And I’ve had the privilege of mentoring Jenny Mitchell since she was a little pipsqueak and now she’s doing amazing things.

What is the best thing about your life now?

My family. My boys are at this awesome age where they are such personalities and they can hold really interesting conversations. That’s number one – family is always the best thing.

Watch Tami in The Brokenwood Mysteries Sundays at 8.30pm on TVNZ 1.

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