As a child, Carson Taare spent a lot of time in his grandmother's lounge listening to music, tapping his foot along to powerful ballads by legendary singers like Glenn Campbell, Willie Nelson, Kenny Rogers and Elvis Presley.
While the singer-songwriter's parents were in hospital with his beloved big sister Elle, who was fighting leukaemia, Carson found comfort in the country-style tunes during one of the darkest episodes of his young life.
The Palmerston North performer, 17, is now a rising young star, getting ready for his biggest local performance to date with the Glenn Miller Orchestra in September.
He's being billed as special guest for their Greatest Hits show with the New York-based band, whose members have played with the industry's best, including Barbra Streisand, Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra.
"I fell in love with performing when I was 10 and sang in front of a crowd of 300," enthuses Carson, whose voice has been compared to his childhood idol Elvis.
"I'm really excited to play with the Glenn Miller Orchestra – it's a huge honour!"
So far this year, the high-school student has travelled overseas to perform live and even released his debut album Breaking News! But the road to his budding success hasn't been easy.
Carson's mother Jodie Whitehead-Wilson, 51, says that days after her talented son turned one, they moved into Ronald McDonald House in Wellington while his elder sister underwent cancer treatment.
When he was just two, Carson was the donor for a bone marrow transplant that saw Elle's cancer go into remission for 20 months.
"For two months before, Carson wasn't allowed around other kids, including Elle, and had injections in his legs every day for a few weeks," recalls chiropractor Jodie.
"They drilled six holes in his hips and took out about a litre [of bone marrow] over three hours, which they then took straight upstairs to feed into Elle's bloodstream."
Carson was one of the smallest patients doctors had taken that amount of marrow from.
He was labelled a "young superhero" when he bravely became a blood and bone marrow donor again at five, hoping to save his sister's life a second time when the leukaemia returned.
Sadly, the bright-eyed girl lost her four-year battle and passed away at age 12.
"Being so young, there wasn't really any way to express how I was feeling, and I stopped talking to my parents about it because they'd cry," reveals pianist and guitarist Carson, who also has a 10-year-old brother, Armani.
"Counsellors didn't know what I was feeling, so it wasn't helpful. I escaped into music and as I got older, I began writing. I don't like to call it an outlet because it seems like you're getting something negative out. It's more about letting things heal."
Carson's soulful and mature sound is heavily influenced by swing tracks from the golden era, but he's equally into performing pop, classical, choral, jazz and rock'n'roll.
"When I write lyrics, they aren't about getting drunk and going to the club!" he laughs. "I tend to write story songs with meaning, which people can relate to."
Jodie – whose husband Mark, 48, is Carson's stepdad – says her son never played radio pop songs, instead strumming away to the likes of the Bee Gees.
"They were always songs about love or loss and when he started writing at 14, they were about those things. That's how his experience has shaped him."
When Jodie sent demos of Carson's singing to his mentor and now-manager Gray Bartlett – who helped launch a 13-year-old Hayley Westenra's career – he was impressed. The New Zealand music mogul helped with Carson's album, recorded at Neil Finn's Auckland Roundhouse Studios and released in May.
"Gray's the loveliest, kindest old soul you'll ever meet," Carson beams. "He liked my music style and we just clicked in the way you sometimes do as singers and guitarists."
Carson also made his television debut performing at This is Who We Are, the fundraising concert for victims of the Christchurch mosque attacks. His moving rendition of Willie Nelson's Something You Get Through, backed by a nine-piece band, was broadcast on Maori Television.
"I was invited to perform by one of my managers, Mark Dennison," tells Carson, who heads to Hong Kong and Germany next year as choir leader with the New Zealand Secondary Students' Choir.
In June, Carson visited Nashville, Tennessee, as the only Kiwi invited to perform at the annual Country Music Association Festival. There, Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood were among the 350 country-inspired acts.
"I got to see what music is like overseas and met Ray Stevens, who I love," Carson beams. "I had a mini heart attack when I saw him in the green room eating cheese and crackers, and went up and shook his hand and gave him my CD! He was lovely."
Excited for his upcoming shows in Auckland and Hamilton, Carson hopes there are greater things to come.
"I couldn't see myself doing anything else," he says. "My experience has made me more understanding of people and the songs I'm singing."
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