ON THE RIDE OF HER LIFE

The woman be­hind one of the catchi­est songs of 2016 tells Lizzie Marvelly about the dark in­spi­ra­tions be­hind her lat­est re­lease

Weekend Herald - Canvas - - CONTENTS - PHO­TOS BY DEAN PUR­CELL

The woman be­hind one of the catchi­est songs of 2016 tells Lizzie Marvelly about the dark in­spi­ra­tions be­hind her lat­est re­lease

If you’ve lis­tened to the ra­dio over the last few years, chances are you’ve heard the song Roam. You know the one. “Ev­ery­where I roam is home / Ev­ery­where I roam is home / Ev­ery­where I roam is home, home, home, home, home.” It’s a catchy tune. So catchy that it’s been played close to 13 mil­lion times on Spo­tify, and was the most played Kiwi song on the air­play charts for seven con­sec­u­tive weeks in 2016.

Be­hind the song, the sweet voice, pithy lyrics and ear­worm hooks is 26-year-old Christchurch­born mu­si­cian Theia (real name Em-Ha­ley Walker). Sit­ting in Karanga­hape Rd’s St Kevin’s Ar­cade on a dreary Auck­land af­ter­noon, Walker stands out. She is no wall­flower. She sips on green tea and peers out through blue-lensed glasses, look­ing ev­ery inch the pop star she’s fast be­com­ing.

Be­neath the edgy fash­ion, how­ever, there’s a warmth and shy­ness that is en­dear­ingly Kiwi. When she speaks, her sen­tences are pep­pered with “likes”, “I means” and “what nots”. Walker might have been trav­el­ling around the world for the last two years, open­ing for su­per­stars like Sia and work­ing with var­i­ous in­dus­try leg­ends, but un­der­neath it all she’s just a South Is­land girl on the ride of her life.

She’s been singing since she was a kid. “I’ve al­ways just loved mu­sic and ap­par­ently al­ways sang [as a child]. I sup­pose I’ve al­ways been writ­ing as well. I didn’t re­ally re­alise that I was ac­tu­ally writ­ing songs but I guess I started when I was 7 or 8. I would write, like, po­ems and sing them and stuff. I just did it to ex­press my feel­ings, and I’d al­ways keep a lit­tle note­book be­side my bed, like, all the way through school. When­ever I had any­thing I needed to get off my chest, I’d just write it.”

She joined a kapa haka group when she was at pri­mary school, although a crip­pling fear of per­form­ing saw her opt out early on. “I didn’t re­alise that you had to per­form, so as soon as I found out, I quit. Be­cause I was just do­ing it for the love of it.”

That fear of per­for­mance would fol­low her for years, although when she reached high school, she be­gan to re­alise that she wanted to pur­sue a ca­reer in mu­sic. “I gen­uinely don’t think I clocked it in my mind that I could ac­tu­ally do it for a liv­ing and as some­thing that I en­joyed full-time un­til prob­a­bly high school. When I re­alised that, I was like, ‘Okay, this is re­ally cool, I might as well just try and step up my game.’”

Mu­sic would have to wait, how­ever, un­til af­ter univer­sity. It was im­por­tant to her to do that first. “If I hadn’t done my de­gree I just feel like it wouldn’t have been the right tim­ing. I’m just very grate­ful for be­ing able to take the time and learn.”

Walker at­tended the Univer­sity of Can­ter­bury, com­plet­ing a dou­ble ma­jor in te reo Maori and Maori and In­dige­nous Stud­ies. She is Maori, and traces her whaka­papa back to Waikato Tainui. “I fin­ished school and I be­gan study­ing ba­si­cally to learn more about my iden­tity and my taha Maori [Maori side],” she says.

“When I was at school I didn’t even think I’d get into univer­sity. I didn’t think I was smart or aca­demic. There was just so much I got out of it; con­fi­dence, dis­ci­pline, and know­ing I could fin­ish

This song is so much big­ger than a song. Mu­sic is able to speak in more ways than any other form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion or art, so it’s so im­por­tant that it’s out there. Em-Ha­ley Walker

some­thing like a de­gree … I mean, that was crazy, I never thought I’d do that.”

Emerg­ing from univer­sity flu­ent in te reo and with a deeper un­der­stand­ing of Maori cul­ture, Walker felt more grounded in her iden­tity. “I think that there’s a strug­gle any­way, try­ing to fig­ure out who you are, so the more pieces of the puz­zle you have avail­able to you, the bet­ter, and it’s been re­ally spe­cial un­der­stand­ing that part of me.”

When Walker speaks about her Maori­tanga, it is with joy and rev­er­ence. Her kui (grand­mother) played a sig­nif­i­cant role in her life, in­tro­duc­ing her to her hapu and iwi, and con­stantly sup­port­ing her tal­ented moko (grand­child). Sadly, just be­fore Roam was re­leased, Walker’s kui died. It was a loss that she felt keenly.

“I just kind of wish, be­cause she was such a part of me, of my jour­ney and so had my back and held my hand the en­tire time, gear­ing up to when I first re­leased my mu­sic, that she was just able to be there for the rest of it.”

Her kui gave Walker the kind of strength that en­abled her to over­come her stage fright. “We’d sing to­gether — she was so fab at har­monies, she could har­monise any­thing. I re­mem­ber when we were at her brother’s 80th. It was this packed out sit­u­a­tion at the marae in the wharekai, re­ally for­mal, where ev­ery­one is stand­ing up and, like, giv­ing speeches and what not and she was like, ‘This is my moko and now she’s go­ing to sing for you.’ She turned to me and said, ‘Sing, moko.’ So I stood up in front of all of these peo­ple and started singing. That was prob­a­bly the year be­fore

Roam came out. She just sat there beam­ing and rock­ing. It was only for her. She was so proud.”

She’d no doubt be even prouder if she could hear Walker’s new song, Bad Idea. Slated for re­lease on July 13, the song tack­les the dif­fi­cult sub­ject of self-harm. It’s a song Walker felt she had to re­lease, so im­por­tant is its kau­papa (mes­sage).

“I first wrote it in Syd­ney and the ses­sion ended up be­ing so short. It was only a cou­ple of hours, so I only had the verse and a cho­rus. I came back to New Zea­land, spent a bit of time hav­ing some space, re­vis­ited the song again and then I was like, you know what? I can’t sleep on this song. It needs to be out there.”

Bad Idea was mo­ti­vated both by Walker’s own ex­pe­ri­ences and the de­sire to help other peo­ple. “I don’t re­ally care what kind of suc­cess or what­ever it has, this song is so much big­ger

than a song. Mu­sic is able to speak in more ways than any other form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion or art, so it’s so im­por­tant that it’s out there.”

“I have strug­gled with self-harm in the past. There were times when I didn’t tell a soul about it and other times when I was lucky enough to have some­one who I was able to talk to. It was also such a com­fort when I’d read or see some­one shar­ing their ex­pe­ri­ences. I know first-hand how im­por­tant it is, to not feel alone or ashamed.”

With lyrics like “So many times I didn’t want be alive / It’s too heavy in this life / Am I strong enough to fight?” and “Hold on a sec­ond, it’s a bad idea / Don’t hurt your­self, it’s a bad idea / Breathe in, breathe out / Just let it go,” the song is both bru­tally hon­est and hope­ful. It is son­i­cally glit­tery, with bub­blegum-pop melodies laid over a heavy, rolling bass. De­spite its sub­ject mat­ter, it is not the melan­cholic dirge it eas­ily could be.

The jux­ta­po­si­tion of such poignant lyrics over a happy sound­scape was in­ten­tional.

“It’s more di­gestible for peo­ple,”

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