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Star on the rise

6 May 2022

Best known for her deliciously catchy, clever alt-pop tunes produced under the moniker Theia, Christchurch-raised singer-songwriter Em Walker is one to watch (and listen to). Interview Josie Steenhart

Described by Billboard magazine as “one of the most exciting pop voices to emerge from New Zealand
in the past five years,” this month the critically acclaimed artist showcases yet another facet of her serious musical talent with the release of hauntingly beautiful album Te Kaahu O Rangi as part of her reo Māori project TE KAAHU.

Tell me a little bit about each of your projects, Theia and TE KAAHU?

Theia is my alt pop political shutting-down-the-patriarchy project, I love experimental sounds and harder beats. TE KAAHU is a home for my compositions that are entirely in my ancestral language and honouring my whakapapa and tūpuna. I believe the act of writing and singing in reo Māori as a rangatahi Māori is political in itself because of the oppression my people still face at the hands of the institution
that aimed to irradicate our language and culture. However, TE KAAHU is presented in a nostalgic, warm
way that is healing for whoever listens, Māori or Pākehā, you can feel the emotion regardless of whether you understand the language.

The TE KAAHU debut album is being released around the same time as this issue of Style, what can you tell us about it?

Te Kaahu O Rangi is the name of my debut TE KAAHU album. The name means ‘Hawk of the heavens’ and also ‘Rangi’s hawk’. Rangirara was the name of my late kui (nanny) and after she passed, I began seeing kaahu everywhere I travelled. I believe she returned to me as a kaitiaki in the form of our manu rangatira (chiefly bird) and so this album of nine tracks acknowledges my kui and her mother, my female
ancestors and their strength and mana (spiritual power).

theia at roundhead bw

Do you have a favourite track?

I love the waiata ‘Pai Maarire’, which means goodness and peace. A song to Te Ua Haumēne – leader of Pai Maarire – the faith my family and iwi have observed for hundreds of years. Te Ua encouraged our people to fight for our rights and land using peaceful resistance.

You’re from Ōtautahi Christchurch, how long did you live here, and how has it influenced your life/work/music?

I lived in Christchurch from when I was five years old through to high school. My first mahi was working at Heathcote Valley Riding School on Bridle Path Road. Every weekend I took kids on farm rides and did chores for pocket money as my whānau could only afford riding lessons for me every second week. Also a huge part of my life in Christchurch was kapa haka. I joined the Puanaki’s Te Kotahitanga kapa haka out of Aranui where my uncles and cousins all attended high school. So that was my introduction to waiata Māori and performing.

Do you come back often, and where are your must-visits when here?

When I come back (at least once a year) my favourite places to visit are the Arts Centre (Frances Nation Home and Grocer are so cool and I have a collection of their items at my whare), also Lyttelton (I love Spooky Boogie cafe’s lil nooks to drink up in the back on the hill) and visiting my old surf lifesaving club at New Brighton beach.

When and how did you first discover your passion for music?

I think I, like many young Māori, was destined to love music because of growing up doing kapa haka, having [radio station] Coast playing all the oldies, and also hearing endless Howie Morrison and Dennis Marsh with my kui – how could you not? Haha.

As well as singing, you’ve also received many accolades for your songwriting…

I love the art of vocals and layering harmonies to give ethereal moods. I also adore writing and using metaphors and in TE KAAHU weaving in pepeha and whakataukī (tribal sayings or mottoes and proverbs) so it’s a huge honour to have that recognised in New Zealand and internationally.

te kaahu

Do you have favourite lyrics from the new album?

One of my favourite lyrics is from ‘Rangirara’, a waiata about my grandmother –

“Maaku ngaa whetuu e aamene maau” (“I will gather the stars for you”)

This lyric is close to my manawa (heart) because it shows the undying love and connection I have for her and uses kupu whakarite (metaphors) relating to the aspects of her ingoa (name) Rangirara, meaning “beyond the heavens” and “heavenly resting place.

What’s next for you?

Now that I’ve finished the TE KAAHU album, I’m moving on to getting the debut Theia record finished too! I’m also looking forward to playing the first ever TE KAAHU show at Matariki.

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