23 November 2010
Author: Tim Grouar
Familiar with the ways of musicians, I’d initially invited her to join me at a well known Wellington Pub for a beer and a chat. However, Paki was more in the mood for a cup of tea. So over the hum of a near by cafe’ I played ‘mother’ whilst one of New Zealand’s most intriguing singer songwriters laid out her soul with the Earl Grey and biscuits. Paki was a little Journo-shy at first and with good reason. Earlier that day she’d been out to Avalon TV Studios to record on “Good Morning”. Inevitably they’d quizzed her as to how one this country’s most promising artists had gone from obscurity to fame and back. “They don’t understand how I could sell a truckload of records and yet live under a bridge” she says, “It’s hard, you know?” As she speaks, Paki looks into the distance, avoiding eye contact less drop her staunch facade. When I press her, she drops hints of travel, dead end cafe jobs and transient friends but no real sense of where she’s been all this time. I get the feeling that this chapter of her life is very personal and still very painful.
Paki was born in 1968 in Whakatane. Around the age of 6 or 8 her dad scored her a $40 guitar from some mates and her aunt nudged her over to the piano stool for a few lessons. That obviously paid off because by 19 she’d recorded her first song, Wanea Ngakau (Deep Emotion), eventually finding its way onto Student and Maori radio. But it was her single, System Virtue, that cleaned up at the 1993 New Zealand Music Awards winning Best Songwriter, Most Promising Female Vocalist and Best Video, as well as that year’s Best Music Video at the Flying Fish Awards and NZ TV & Film Awards. The video was also the most played New Zealand video of 1994.
Her next single, Greenstone, produced by Neil Finn, charted to #5 locally and won her a nomination for Best Female Vocalist in the 1994 New Zealand Music Awards. Then the 1996 debut 'Oxygen Of Love', produced by Crowded House’s Mark Hart won her a second nomination for Best Female Vocalist. It also scored her Best Album in the Entertainer of the Year Awards in 1996 and took out the Mana Maori Award.
There were performances and tours supporting Sheryl Crow, Crowded House, Dave Dobbyn, Big Day Out, Strawberry Fields, Mountain Rock, and a ’97 Japan record promotional tour including TV and radio performances, along with various TVNZ performances.
‘Oxygen Of Love’ reached gold status after just eight days, flying off the shelves. But after a dispute with her record company EMI, the album was pulled. Then there was the infamous rugby league match when Paki fluffed the lyrics to the National Anthem in front of a capacity crowd. “At the time, I was really damaged by it. I didn’t want to make any more records,” she says. “And the media were quite harsh on me, you know. Even now they talk about me like I’ve died or something. This is...something that’s hard to get over, you know? I don’t remember what happened really”.
Publically, it seemed her star had fallen. Industry colleagues acknowledged her incredible talent, but were shocked by her exit from music into more humble endeavours - like waitressing. She remembers Karen Hay coming into the cafe she was working at and turning “bright red” with embarrassment and disbelief. “It’s hard when you live on the street. People expected I’d be some big music hot shot or something but music is tough when it’s your livelihood.”
Paki says through hardship, there’s been one thing that's kept her going - her music. “You know, it was like my great big conversation with struggle, or great big conversation with my emotion.”
Why she really left the music industry is uncertain Paki closed that chapter and we didn't hear much more from her until recently. Nearly ten years on she’s emerging again, fronting a conscious women's campaign, launching a re-mastered version of ‘Oxygen’, talking of a new album and peddling her latest new work ‘Trinity’ – an EP of three songs, performed and mixed three different ways, creating a total of nine tracks.
In 2003 she collaborated with Heartmusic’s Tracey Tawhiao and Malcolm Black and from this process three songs - Solid Love, Stand Alone and Century Sky were produced with three different versions, played acoustically, then presented as studio mixes with a band with contributions from Bic Runga (who also produced), activist Tame Iti’s son, Wairere (on Sax) and then again remixed by Tony Strong.
“Bryson does ‘hype hope’ and untrained – talented – feel guitar and rhyme on Stand Alone, the Dam Native version. Danny D who’s ‘true-the-true streets’, can’t sing but he can thing. Ya get the real thingz bustin’ outta them in their hip hop with the traditional male whanau (family) support role.”
Stand Alone tears at the heart-strings for a love that has been lost and the pain that doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. “Seems like my life sometimes I suppose. I wrote it when things seemed bad.” She recently wrote that the song was “about wanting to be with Mum and Dad, instead of the partner with a violent childhood, waiting for God’s red sea to part.” In 2004 Paki moved back to Auckland, home to the street-level community where she’d “freely busked years before”. After losing her post office bank book on rent day and compounding ‘media’ issues Paki felt she’d been backed into a corner. Solid Love was essentially a defensive reactive to all that. “I wrote Solid Love sitting by a pool in Arizona. I was there to get a record deal going. Not sure about that now”. When mixed the song becomes sad, dark and you can’t help wondering where it will take you. Century Sky is the strongest, an invitation into the heart of Paki. The song documents her return, triumphant perhaps, to Auckland, feeling 100 years from where she’d been. Her voice transports you to a place where anything is possible. The way it would be for lyrics to describe a playful summer splash or an intimate moment with someone special.
The process of recording to a while to gain momentum.
“Sometimes I wondered if it would ever get finished. But how can you rush it when the whole thing was about love. It ran on love. I always wanted the details right, you know”. She faced the dilemma between the impatience get the work out and being mindful of the producer’s passion to get it just right. “I was getting to the stage where I wanted it out and was pushing to do so. I asked who’s doing numbers on me? But how can I when the person I’m working with is all about ‘Love’ I do understand why it took so long, because we just didn’t take just any deal. Free Spirited as I am. I am organized... a force to be reckoned with. For an Aquarian I am well organized”. And confident to start the next chapter. Paki says song writing picked her up again. Shes about to front a Women's Collective campaign about mental and physical wellbeing during hard times. “I feel really positive and happy. About time!”http://www.nzmusician.co.nz/index.php/ps_pagename/article/pi_articleid/2145/Emma-Paki-Chapter-and-Verse-