Critical acclaim, a casual couple million Spotify streams and taking out the Best Māori Artist Award at the Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards – TEEKS (full name Te Karehana Gardiner-Toi) is quickly emerging as one of New Zealand’s best + brightest soul artists. With velvety vocals, silky smooth melodies and just the right amount of swagger, TEEKS’ 2017 EP The Grapefruit Skies provided a tantalising taste of what’s to come on his debut album, expected for release later this year (fingers crossed).
We chatted high school bands, Lauryn Hill and finding his place in soul music with the singer/songwriter before he heads to Adelaide for this year’s WOMADelaide festival.
BNKR: You really kickstarted your musical journey in development programs like the Pao Pao Pao program – can you tell me about the first time you realised you wanted to be an artist?
TEEKS: I’ve always been around music and performance and stuff because it’s a big part of being Māori and in our culture and connecting people . . . but I guess in terms of wanting to do music as a profession, as a career, it was when I got to high school and I kind of joined a band with some of my friends. We entered some competitions like Rockquest and it was during that time that I started dabbling in songwriting, and I realised I really enjoyed doing it and it was something I wanted to pursue.
The band that you formed in high school, did that have a soul feel like your current music, or was it a bit of a different vibe?
No, no – it was different, it was completely different! I went to school up north, in the far north of the North Island and most of my friends listened to reggae and so yeah, the music that we were playing was very different to what I’m doing now.
So what attracted you to soul music later on?
When I was at school, I went to study music for a couple of years and I went to Auckland and I studied at Unitec [Institute of Technology] and I guess I was kind of introduced to, like, I actually don’t know – I was very sheltered, in terms of my musical knowledge and the different types of genres and artists that were out there, so I got to uni and got introduced to [new] people . . . my parents listened to Lauryn Hill a lot, Stevie Wonder, so that was definitely in the background when I was quite young, but at that age I wasn’t really… like the music was there but I wasn’t present, I didn’t take notice until I got to uni and I was like oh, yeah this is definitely cool. I just love now how those type of songs could make you feel with just a simple melody and the way that the song can compliment the voice, and because my voice is quite distinctive I was still trying to figure out what type of music suits my voice and I came across soul music and was like, “This is it, this is the one”.
I wanted to ask about your songwriting process – what kind of environment do you feel best to write your music in?
I usually write most of my songs at home in my bedroom . . . it’s a bit different at times, like I’ll carry my phone around and just record ideas when they come through and I’ll be like driving or be out somewhere so it’s really important to catch it. And then I’ll come back to them and try and finish them – I have so many in my phone that are just sitting there, but other than that yeah, my process is very simple.
Sometimes that’s the best way.
Yeah, I’ve been trying to work on my lyrical capabilities and reading certain types of books, like ones that give you direction on how to write better lyrics and having actual formulas, which is very interesting. I feel like I tried that but it didn’t really work with me.
I wanted to ask as well about your 2017 EP, which was received to great critical acclaim and you racked up millions of streams in the first few months – what was it like experiencing that degree of success on your first record?
It was pretty overwhelming. That EP took a couple of years for me to finish and it was my first body of work that I had ever put out as an artist. When I did finally finish it and put it out I didn’t know what to expect, because I was so eager to get the music out because I’d been waiting so long . . . but I think it happened at the right time and for good reason, that everything fell into place and I met people who I was supposed to meet. And when the EP did drop and the response we got – not just back home but overseas as well – it was quite overwhelming – and a reassurance. You know, it’s what you want, you want positive feedback and you can’t please everybody but the amount of people that were supportive and encouraging it was really humbling and…crazy.
And so you started recording some music over in London for your first album, is that correct?
Oh yeah! So we’re in production at the moment for my first record. I was in London in May/June last year and I was there for a couple months. I had a couple shows and I just decided I wanted to stay for longer and do some writing and I had a few sessions – not a few, I had quite a lot actually – it was quite an intense period of just writing and meeting all these people I’d never met before and every day was going into a different room and meeting different people and it was quite an experience for me, I definitely learnt a lot and I came home and I’m still chipping away! We’re getting close, but it’s the same thing [as the EP], I’m not going to rush it – we’re going to take our time.
What can fans expect from the new album?
I definitely this next recording’s a lot more mature in terms of the narrative and lyrical content and some of the songs – I mean, the EP was quite personal and I think this album is another layer of me, my life and my experiences and things I’ve been going through the past couple of years, I guess. The music is definitely still soul music – but I’ve been wanting to try different things and experiment and kind of modernise some of the songs in certain ways.
So what does the rest of 2019 hold for you?
The rest of 2019 – that’s a good question! Well as soon as I finish this album, which I’m hoping to wrap up within a couple months – I don’t want to say any dates because I don’t want to make promises I can’t keep. That’s all I’m focussing on at the moment, and once that’s out I guess it’ll dictate how the rest of the year looks, like if we want to tour and play it live, because I haven’t really been doing that much – I haven’t done a New Zealand tour yet, I want to do that, I want to tour in Australia, I want to go overseas and travel and play more – play as much as I can really and meet new people – I’m excited.
You can catch TEEKS at WOMADelaide on Monday 11 March, tickets here.
Feature image via WOMADelaide.
Words: Lucy Ahern