When Tami Neilson became a mother, she began to take notice of the way people formed expectations about what she should be doing. A working musician for most of her life, the Canada-born, New Zealand-based performer was frequently asked by male colleagues and complete strangers how her sons could be receiving proper care while she was away on tour. Her answer was simple: Would you ask my husband that same question at his job?
"Some of the judgmental, negative comments I get about being a mother who tours – 'Who's looking after your children? Oh my god, how could you leave them?' – not only is that insulting to me, but it's insulting to him to assume he's not fully capable and that the boys [don't] feel just as secure," she says, calling from her home base in Auckland.
Neilson, who previously performed with her family band the Neilsons in Canada, explores ideas of gender inequality and feminine strength on her newly released LP, Sassafrass!. The collection, which she co-produced with Ben Edwards, brings along the classic country and rockabilly influences of her previous solo albums Dynamite and Don’t Be Afraid, but this time mixes in a prominent splash of retro soul and R&B to tackle these contemporary topics.
The album title, a pun that serves as fair warning for the outspoken positions contained therein, even has some layered meaning when considering the history of the tree that provided its name.
"It comes from a Latin word that means, 'to break rock,'" says Neilson. "It's this plant that it's sweet, it's fragrant, it's beautiful, but it's so strong that it breaks through rock. I felt that it definitely embodied this album – a lot of these songs can be heard musically as being sweet and fragrant and fun and candy-colored packaging, but the lyrics deliver quite a subversive message."
Album opener "Stay Outta My Business" directly addresses all the unwanted opinions and negative comments Neilson has heard, with her powerful voice backed by bright pops of brass and a stomping R&B beat as she upbraids someone for "all the poison that you spread with these nasty words you said." The Tomatogate-inspired "Bananas," on the other hand, lets her slip into the persona of a misogynist who says no thanks to "peaches" and "pears" and "melons," and insists that the "bananas" should be making all the big decisions. With its strutting, Jungle Book rhythm and playful tone, it's a powerful feminist message masquerading as a riotous, old-school party tune.
"You want to deliver something in a really fun, appealing beautiful package that is initially, 'Ooh, something sparkly and shiny,' and it gets someone's attention," says Neilson. "They can fall in love with that and then suddenly realize, 'Wait a minute, did she just say equal pay? What's this actually about? I thought it was a song about produce!'"
Neilson embodies many different types of women on Sassafrass!, giving voice to their myriad struggles. The bopping rockabilly tune "Kitty Cat" describes a woman claiming her agency, while "Devil in a Dress" draws some comparisons between a sexually liberated woman and a chaste Catholic school nun. In "Smoking Gun," she describes a Harvey Weinstein-like character whose empire is starting to crumble. The Bobbie Gentry-evoking folk song "A Woman's Pain" is one of Neilson's most personal, looking at the hard life of one of her grandmothers and the cultural expectations that shaped her. "Partake of pleasure and reap the shame / The hand that holds the power, assigns the blame / and the whole world turns on a woman's pain," she sings, tracing the way back to Adam and Eve's transgressions in the Garden of Eden, followed by God's punishment.
"The woman's curse was that you will have pain in childbirth, and that she would always fight against the fact that men would rule her," says Neilson. "I'd never really absorbed that before until now, which it really struck me that this was something that's been going on since the beginning of time."
The pronounced soul influence on Sassafrass! draws on the work of another bold woman: the late Sharon Jones, whose documentary Miss Sharon Jones! proved to be a turning point in the way that Neilson felt about herself as a performer. She repays the favor with the funky tribute track "Miss Jones."
"I see her as this beacon. She didn't become well known until she was 50, so hell, I've got lots of time," she says, pointing out that Jones' embrace of her own body and age was a powerful, defiant gesture against anyone who told her she couldn't do it. "I just thought, what am I waiting for?" says Neilson. "Why can't I strut? Why can't I have strut and swagger and be 40 and have a belly that's birthed two children and crooked teeth?"
That realization was a liberating one for Neilson, who'd been grieving the death of her father a couple years earlier and felt compelled to stretch herself as a singer and performer as never before. As she demonstrates on Sassafrass!, Neilson can make imminently enjoyable – even fun – art that still has potent meaning, for her own family and others who need to hear it.
"I don't know if it's a combination of becoming a parent, losing a parent and having it driven home that life is not forever, turning 40 – all those things culminated into this light-bulb moment for me, going, what am I actually waiting for?" she says. "Why do I care about the judgments of people who don't love me or care about me and don't know me? Life is too short, and I need to model that for my children and pass that legacy down."