Tami Neilson - Country singer on family life

A love of travel, music and the great outdoors keeps Tami Neilson's family in perfect harmony.

Wearing a Johnny Cash-inspired "Crawl The Line" onesie, and with the lyrics to John Lennon's Beautiful Boy framed on his nursery wall, little Charlie Neilson is surrounded by song.

Music is at the heart of this house.  A house where mum Tami is still on a high after winning Best Country Album at the New Zealand Music Awards for the third year in a row, and where dad Grant doubles as baby-sitter and merchandise seller at his wife's gigs. Grant admits he's not a huge country music fan but says, "I'm a Tami Neilson fan."

Just like a country music song, theirs is a love story with heart and soul. Canadian Tami was in New Zealand visiting a friend from her home country who had married a Kiwi chap. His mate Grant was invited along to do some tiki touring around the Bay of Islands, they were smitten and the next nine months were filled with emails and phone calls before officially starting their three-year, long-distance relationship. Tami says it was hard, but worth it. "With a long distance relationship you really have to work at it," she says.

They had a few years of married bliss, simply enjoying living together in the same country, before starting their family. 

Issue 19 Family 1

Sharing the love
Now they have bonny baby Charlie and are enjoying introducing their passions to him. For Grant, it's a love of the great outdoors. A multi-sport athlete, he'll get home from work and take Charlie off for a couple of hours in a special stroller made for running, giving Tami time to relax with a book or take a nap.

Tami's love of music "saturates pretty much every aspect of our life. Everything we do seems to prompt a silly song, from waking-up songs, to changing-nappy songs. My song-writing content has really gone down hill!" 

Tami and Grant had vastly different childhoods. Grant had a pretty traditional NZ childhood growing up in Auckland with lots of sport and hanging out with friends. 

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Tami was a member of her family's band, The Neilsons, touring across North American in a 12m motor home with her parents and two brothers. They'd stage their variety show in churches and community halls. They even had a couple of top 20 singles, and performed with legendary country artists Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn.

At the time Tami and Grant were dating, she was still performing with her brother in a duo. When he started heading in a more "indie rock" direction, and she was more "country" they agreed to call it quits, which Tami says was "when I felt free to go" and move to New Zealand. 

"My career was my family as well as my personal life," says Tami, "so for me it was especially hard to leave." 

She was thrilled to have her mum and dad out from Canada for the birth of Charlie, and is close to Grant's mum who lives across the city in Remuera, Auckland, but travels every Wednesday to Greenhithe to look after Charlie and give Tami a few hours off mothering duties.

Tami says she's so grateful for technology to help ease the heartache of living so far from home. Everyday she posts videos and photos on Facebook to share with friends and family back in Canada, and she loves Skype.

"I'll take the laptop into Charlie's room and hold it over his cot while he wakes from a nap or put it on the floor for them to watch him play and giggle and talk his baby-talk.

"That said, there are definitely days when I have a little cry, wishing they were part of our everyday life and I know they feel the same way."

Charlie is also fast learning about his parents' other great love - travel. In August Tami took him for a month-long trip to meet his Canadian relatives for the first time. She says she can't wait for him to experience a Canadian white Christmas when he's older.

Welcome Charlie
Tami says she remembers guys asking Grant when she was full-term, "Are you nervous mate?" But says, "He was more calm and prepared than I was."

The labour and delivery on 1 March were also textbook, "Four hours from start to finish, so I was very lucky."

Initially, Tami didn't believe she was in labour, thinking something she had eaten had given her a tummy upset. But as her mother pointed out, it must have been something very strange to be giving her stomach cramps three minutes apart.

Half an hour after arriving at the hospital, Charlie made his grand entrance. "I will never forget the feeling of seeing his face for the first time. It's just indescribable." 

Back to work
Tami performed right up to 37 weeks of her pregnancy, and did her first gig back only two weeks after giving birth which, she admits, was bit crazy.

"I'd never do it again, but I'm glad I did it as I really needed to prove to myself that I could do both and I felt the longer I left it, the harder it would be to get back into the swing of things."

She says any musician in New Zealand has to have their fingers in a lot of pies to make a living from it. So as well as writing and performing her own songs, she does cover gigs, vocal tutoring and some commercial work. 

In the summer B.C. (Before Charlie), she was on tour with Toni Childs and the Topp Twins.

Issue 19 Family 2But it's the songs she sings to Charlie that are the focus right now. Tami says, "He breaks into a big, gorgeous smile and tries to sing along, which right now sounds kind of like a dog howling!" And if he's unsettled at all, she simply gets out the guitar and plays a bit and he instantly clams down. Charlie's favourite songs are the Carpenters' "Sing a Song", "You Are My Sunshine", and classic old show tunes from the '30s and '40s.

But whatever tunes he gurgles along to, there'll be a song in his head and heart for many years to come.


Photography: Fiona Tomlinson (





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