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Skateboarding Through Life With TAMMA

Updated: Nov 4, 2018

It's a cool yet sunny late Friday afternoon when Melbourne-based indie pop artist and "okay skateboarder" TAMMA picks up the phone, eager for the arrival of her parents from her hometown of Hamilton, New Zealand.

Two weeks after releasing debut single, 'Beat You Down', and eight years after twice having vocal surgery, TAMMA reflects subtly on the track's powerful impact. “I’ve had so many beautiful messages from people just saying, ‘This song got me out of bed this morning’," the musician says appreciatively. "I wanted it to give people a little motivation to forget about the small crap bothering them. The most valuable stuff is hearing that other people are inspired by it.”

At its core, 'Beat You Down' stems from a series of TAMMA's own hurdles, but her family's more so. While she bounced back from surgery in 2010, with plans to go to Germany and make music with a few friends, the unexpected death of eight-month-old nephew Buddy threw her life upside down. As the singer relates, which is at the heart of 'Beat You Down', "I talk about making your plans all figured out, but life will have its own ideas."

"I was trying to get home from Berlin to be with my family. It was very traumatic, and all of a sudden, that was my new version of what life was - to get through this horrible, confusing and painful thing that had just come. Nothing outside of that was going on.

"I wanted to write something for my little nieces and nephews in New Zealand who were wondering where Buddy was, and asking all the questions about that. I wanted to give them a message that they could keep turning to each time they faced something bad in their lives, especially if it was a trivial thing that they can rise above."

Remembering her tiny family members' reactions to hearing 'Beat You Down' for the first time triggers a hearty laugh from TAMMA. She exclaims, "Oh my goodness, it’s hilarious. There have been multiple school ‘showings’. My sister tried to FaceTime me at lunch and was like, ‘So your song’s been demoed in the classroom today, and now the whole school are doing a dance routine to it’. We’re from a pretty rural country town, it’s not tiny, but that’s something the local papers would definitely go and check out. I’ve had many little dance routines sent to me in video form, it’s pretty cute. The main thing is that the crowd I was trying to win over was totally on board."

Pushing through the possibility of never singing again was the other major obstacle inspiring 'Beat You Down'. Eight years ago, TAMMA was playing the lead role in a theatre show for a few months with no understudy, with a set of complications arising from vocal trauma.

"I had to start the path to actually getting the vocal ligaments ready for surgery, because I was told that the cyst would always need to be cut away. So that was a big journey. I was told that there were no promises," she says bluntly. "The ligaments are so delicate that you could potentially cause scar tissue that would mean you couldn’t sing again, or you’d never sound the same.

"It was scary but I was very determined. I would spend all my savings and time on travelling to see the best of the best, I was going to and from New Zealand for some of it… Then I moved from post-surgery into rehabilitation and biomechanics training, which has fit me up for lifelong vocal care and endurance. I wasn’t going to take no for an answer, and had to just keep going through it.

“Ever since I was tiny, I was like, ‘I’m meant to communicate with people through music’. I was one of those kids that was a geek, and did get my hairbrush and sing in front of the mirror. It’s so embarrassing but I did," the songwriter turns playful again for a moment.

"I have the goods I need now to have a fruitful career."

One of the key people shaping TAMMA's ongoing success is Auckland-based vocal coach Cheryl McLeay, who has worked with unique R&B artist Kimbra and rock frontman Jason Kerrison (Opshop) among others. "Cheryl - she should be in her seventies now - is just an incredibly intelligent and experienced woman in all the laryngeal biomechanics, and the law of sound," TAMMA describes. "She was hugely involved in working out how to bounce back post-surgery. I also have amazing friends."

"I couldn’t remember how to harmonise, my rhythm was gone and my confidence was shattered. I didn’t even know how to play an instrument at that point in time," she continues matter-of-factly. "So I had friends playing music who helped me immerse myself into the Melbourne music scene. One of them gave me a keyboard, and other one was like, ‘Go and have a look at these YouTube videos. They’ll help you learn to play keys’. We’d spend hours jamming together in the backyard, practicing my vocal harmonies.

"If you’re a decent person, people are more than willing to help you out. There’s a lot of support from awesome people who know equally that I’m there when they need help as well. That’s kind of the way the world works. Well I’d like to think it works that way," she finishes, chuckling.

Consistently having support from the people around her made TAMMA's move from Hamilton to Melbourne much smoother. After being asked about the turning point in life when she decided she wanted to leave her rural country town, the musician replies "I would’ve been about 15. I did an interview not long ago where I was talking about driving a manual car around the paddock at 10 years old, because there wasn’t that much to do," she laughs emphatically.

"I had so much more beyond what I could see. I get the saying ‘The grass is always greener’, but I’m a very curious person, and I felt like there was more beyond my hometown. I was always going to leave. I actually got my first taste of leaving as a teenager, and I came to Melbourne and fell in love with it. It’s the opportunities, the inspiring people, and the talent here is just something that I wanted to be a part of.

"I haven’t looked back, but it is very hard as well, especially after my nephew passed away," TAMMA says. "That’s why Mum and Dad are jumping on a plane tonight to come see me, because even though I’ve got amazing friends here who are family to me, I still have the separation from my immediate family that I miss."

At this point in our chat, TAMMA's listing some of her favourite Melbourne spots, stopping to appreciate Edinburgh Gardens. "You pack your chilly bin (or esky), get a picnic rug and meet all your mates, take the skateboards down or whatever… I love doing that."

"I used to be an okay skateboarder, but I’m pretty average now. It’s more of a cruise mechanism," she admits, chuckling. "I don’t like stacking it now, whereas when I used to do ramp skating growing up, we’d have a half-pipe in the back of our paddock."

The talk of TAMMA's childhood pastime deepens into the artist explaining her decision behind featuring skateboarding in the music clip for 'Beat You Down', shot at Venice Beach and directed by Damien Blue (Slow Pulp, WebsterX).

"I was trying to pick an experience where persistence and resilience pay off. If you think about skateboarding, it is quite scary. People fall off and break their wrists. Not only do you get hurt physically, but there’s an element of being rejected from society as well, because you’ve been seen as a pest. What I like about it is that skateboarders continue to get up and keep going until they nail their move, which is an art form in itself. If you look at what they have to go through to be a good skater, it’s incredibly courageous! I really admire that kind of persistence."

Buy TAMMA's new single, 'Beat You Down' on iTunes here.