Described by Billboard magazine as “one of the most exciting pop voices to emerge from New Zealand in the past five years,” this month critically acclaimed artist Em Walker brings her talent back to Ōtautahi for her first hometown performance in five years.
Interview Josie Steenhart
In your own words can you briefly describe your two artistic persona/projects?
To me, they’re not personas, rather just two different music projects, delivered in different languages, and sonic vibes – with me at the heart of both.
Theia is often sassy and fairly contentious in the lyricism; often set to pretty loud and in-your-face production, whether it be big electronic beats and samples or gritty electric guitar (on my more recent tracks). TE KAAHU is all in te reo Māori, of course, and is more tender and nostalgic in its sound. The waiata of TE KAAHU traverse a wide range of lyrical themes like whakapapa, the environment and spirituality.
Although they seem very different on the surface, both projects represent me as a person and as an artist. They overlap in many ways but also each stand firm in their own right.
You’ve recently returned from a US tour – how was it, and what were some highlights?
Yes! There’s an incredible club scene in LA, which is really suited to Theia vibes. The highlight, however, was getting to perform at Los Angeles Pride on Hollywood Blvd. The crowd was into it! I also headlined the most incredible festival called Sum of Us in the Sierra Nevada mountains in Northern California. The tour was actually for TE KAAHU in Canada, where we played a couple of festivals, including Folk on the Rocks, way up north in Yellowknife where it barely gets dark in the middle of summer and also at the Calgary Folk Music Festival, which is such an iconic festival. It was so cool seeing TE KAAHU on the line-up with such huge names as Emmylou Harris and Jeff Tweedy!
It’s the first time in more than five years that you’ve played your hometown – will it hit different, do you think? And what can your Ōtautahi audience expect?
This show I’m bringing to Ōtautahi is called GIRL IN A SAVAGE WORLD and it’s the fifth show in a tour I’ve taken to various arts festivals around Aotearoa. What’s been interesting is meeting people in the audience who’ve come to the show because they know my Theia material, or vice versa – because they know TE KAAHU – and then leaving as fans of both. Or people who have no idea who I am. They come up and tell me so, but they’ve loved the show and they leave with my records/merch under their arms, and that fills me with joy. I suspect it may be a similar make-up of people in the audience in Christchurch too.
In terms of what can people expect… well it’s a very honest and thought-provoking show. All of the Theia songs are stripped back and played only on guitars and bass, so there’s no escaping the lyrics. Also, I weave together the songs with stories – pretty much like a VH1 Storytellers type format. I hope that people leave knowing more about me, but also that some of the messages resonate personally for them. I should add that the GIRL IN A SAVAGE WORLD show is just a one-off. I’m not sure it’ll ever be performed again after this tour, so I feel really excited that I get to bring it to my hometown.
Your TE KAAHU project won the 2023 Taite Prize for Best Independent Debut for Te Kaahu O Rangi, tell us a bit about that album, and what winning the prestigious award means to you…
It was such an honour to win the Best Independent Debut at the Taite Prize. I made that album throughout lockdown, with absolutely no expectations other than that it might be heard by those in my immediate circle. So to be now touring the album here and overseas, and also seeing that it has resonated with so many people, is just mind-blowing.
To win the prize was like this moment that solidified all that it has achieved. I still can’t believe that a record sung entirely in te reo Māori, and in my tribal dialect no less, has travelled so far. I’m incredibly grateful to all those who’ve listened to it and who’ve supported this kaupapa.
You have a new album due to release in 2024, what can you tell us about that?
Yes, so I have got my Theia debut album on the way. I’m putting the finishing touches on that as we speak. I love these songs so much and can’t wait for people to hear them. People can expect more of the same – they’re honest, they’re raw, they don’t hold back. Anyone who’s coming to the show will get to hear a couple unreleased tracks.
Plans for the summer?
I’ve got a few shows/festivals to play, both for Theia and TE KAAHU. But mostly I’m finishing my record off so I’ll be locked away in the studio. Then I’m back to North America for more shows. I can’t wait!
Theia X TE KAAHU, Girl in a Savage World, Saturday Nov 11, 2023. Click here for tickets and more info.