For those outside the gospel/R&B community, TJ Taotua’s storming of the 2015 Vodafone Pacific Music Awards – winning both Best Gospel Artist and Best Pacific Male Artist category – may have seemed like a relative newcomer on the scene. The reality is a little different.
TJ TAOTUA by Petrina Togi-Sa'ena
TJ is a leading figure in Aotearoa soul and gospel circles. Through posting music videos on YouTube, mostly solo with his own guitar or piano accompaniment, he has achieved close to a million hits in NZ, the Pacific and further afield. His gospel mash-ups are favourites and he has a huge following for his cover versions of legends such as Al Green, Luther Vandross and Stevie Wonder. Whatever the genre, his beautiful voice and his love of the music comes through loud and clear.
Thanks to YouTube he has fans around the world and when I caught up with him for this interview he had just returned home from a gig in Hawaii that came “out of the blue”. Top Japanese Sumo wrestler, Sale Atisanoe aka Konishiki, caught him on YouTube and decided they had to get together. TJ explains that he’s astonished that such a renowned sporting figure living thousands of miles away would see a YouTube clip and say: “I want that guy to sing at my birthday.”
The reward of the Hawaii trip, is the result of a strong focus on his music and his trust in a higher power. “I’m a Christian, he explains, I grew up in church with biblical values. Often in church you hear people talk about purpose and talk about gifting. There is one scripture that says that your gift will make room for you, it is Proverbs 18:16 which says, a gift opens the way and ushers the giver into the presence of the great. I felt that 2015, particularly after the awards, that I was living that scripture out. So when I talk about purpose and I talk about the gifting that God’s given me, I feel that it is attached to my music”.
TJ’s education has also played a key role in his life. He obtained a degree in Education and Pacific Studies, and followed this up with a Masters in Business Administration. He thought he would start a conventional business but he kept coming back to his first love. “I think it’s obvious that my purpose and my gifting is attached to my music.”
His music journey to the 2015 awards had been long and sometimes difficult. Born in Samoa and raised in Porirua, TJ forged his music career in Wellington. The journey begins in 1993, when he put a hip hop group together ‘Young and Ruthless’, “we were young kids just trying to be like Wu Tang Clan”. In 1994 at the rockquest competition, they won the Paris Texas Urban Music Award, with the prize being flights to Auckland to record two tracks at York Street Studios, with one being added to the NZ Kiwi Hit Disc. These were such great opportunities, but over the next few years, TJ’s main music outlet was performing covers.
Then there was a significant moment in 2001 that changed things. This was when his younger brother, Vini, passed away. TJ was given the responsibility for the head stone and to generate the money he needed, he decided to record and sell an album of music, that he and his brother had written. The album ‘Inside Out’ was sold off the back of his car and from that managed to get the money needed for the headstone. Two years later, when in Auckland, he went into Radio 531pi and gave them the album, telling them to use any of the songs. They selected “If Only You Knew” for high rotation and that’s when people first started hearing about TJ as an artist. “Because I wrote it and to then hear it on radio, was really a buzz”. Next he secured a distribution deal from King Music, and the song was placed on the SupaFresh compilation. Without a plan to follow up this success, TJ returned to gigging and playing representative rugby for a further 4 years.
In 2007 TJ decided to put out his first YouTube clip. He also entered NZ Idol’s online voting competition and he won recording time. In 2008 he connected with Brotha D and was subsequently signed him to Dawn Raid for a short term. Again a great opportunity, but after that “it was back into limbo, then back into rugby and league for another 4 years”. Then, in 2012, a big opportunity came, when TJ’s wife, Linda, got a new job and the family moved to Auckland. This prompted a return to music and after connecting with producer Matt Salapu, aka Anonymouz, TJ recorded his originals “Foreign Queen” and “My Love”. Things moved slowly, and after Brotha D suggested he do a gospel EP, he began the journey to record the album ‘Magnified’ in 2014.
He recalls winning the awards at the 2015VPMA night as the pinnacle of his career – but acknowledges he felt out of place and like the new kid on the block. Performing on the night, was a very special moment. TJ was proud that he ”put a killer band together” and was able to perform his original songs at the biggest platform he had ever performed at. It was a very different experience from all the cover gigs he had been doing. He said it felt like all his years of doing music and countless gigs, came to that point. “I also felt that this made a statement for gospel music, that it could front alongside the other genres”.
TJ sees the state of Pacific music to be very healthy and that it is continuing to develop. “I think there’s a responsibility for Pacific artists to maintain their culture, their language and to incorporate some of those aspects into our music. Because that’s what makes us unique, as Pacific artists. I feel like there is a strong connection between culture and language, I would like to encourage more artists - if you can unlock language components within your music and within your own journey - it allows you to see your culture in a different light.”
“Not that I was expecting to win – but I did prepare a speech in Samoan that would acknowledge our old people, acknowledge those that were there, and be in alignment with the Pacific Music Awards. I feel that’s a unique thing that we have in New Zealand, with so many different cultures, coming together celebrating Pacific music and achievement.”
Like many music artists, TJ has a day job. He is the Business Development Manager for the Pasifika Foundation Trust, delivering the AHA music mentoring programme. Given his strong music connection and talents, I thought this was something he had purposely chosen to do. However, TJ revealed the personal story behind the work that he does and confirmed that the music mentoring programme “came about by mistake”. His daughter was bullied at school and instead of handling it in a “confrontational way” he decided to run a workshop and get “the kids talking about bullying.” As part of the workshop they made a video and someone who saw the video, suggested he apply for government funding to produce more. He applied for the support and was successful. This process developed alongside the programme, and led to where TJ is now, working full time for the Trust to run the music mentoring programme he created.
I think there’s a responsibility for Pacific artists to maintain their culture, their language... Because that’s what makes us unique, as Pacific artists
Currently the programme still has a focus on bullying, but also a cultural focus as well. There are three key blocks, firstly songwriting, then recording (with mobile recording unit) and finally making a video (storyboarding and shooting the video). TJ confirms it allows the students to experience being an artist - merging the artist model framework with education. “Our vision was really attached to empowering, equipping and educating young people to use the vehicle of music as a tool to find solutions for social issues within their school, whether it be anti-bullying, whether it be violence, whether it be whatever issues they’re going through”.
From his work so far, he can see that the phenomenal amount of talent that is coming through schools. TJ says that 8/9 year old students are singing like 18 year olds. “I think that there is a need to find some alignment with music from a young age. I feel like there can be a lot more mentorship happening, so that we can identify talent a lot earlier and actually mentor them through, at an earlier age.”
Groove and Melody
When asked about his creative process for his original songs, TJ confirms he has a fairly set routine. He begins with melody, and often starts by capturing sounds, melodies and grooves he’s found or created, on his mobile phone. “I’m always groove orientated and I remember what Brian McKnight said, which was ‘melody trumps everything’, so that has always been my approach”. With the groove, feel and chords established, TJ asks himself what sort of emotions does it evoke? Next he will confirm the theme, which will tie everything together and then everything flows from that. For TJ the final part is the hardest, which is trying to attach lyrics to the melody.
“I think I write purely from the purpose and perspective of what God has given me, to be the light in a dark place. I feel as an artist those are the three lanes that I can potentially cross over to – gospel, Samoan music and RnB/Soul. I feel that wherever those three things meet, is how I deliver my music.”
When asked about his team, TJ confirms he works with Campbell Bond, an engineer, to record his songs, a video team Westone Productions (responsible for his photographs, music videos and YouTube clips), and the musicians, he’ll work with for live performances. He also works closely with Brotha D in terms of strategy and music advice. Behind the scenes he has the support of his family. “My wife has been amazing, she is really key to this – being able to hold down the kids, while I pursue the dream”
When asked what song he is most proud of, he quickly answers “definitely Magnify, that’s the song that really I think it is so special as my brother wrote it before he passed away. People may see it as just another gospel track, but not many know the story behind it. To be able to honour him, by recording and arranging that song is something I’m very proud of. Then it was really amazing to win the Gospel award and Best Pacific Male Award with that track and with that album.”
The next step in the journey
Looking back on his journey, TJ would encourage other artists, to prepare themselves, to learn more about business and to build a team around them, so that they can make the most of opportunities that arise.
TJ is currently working on two albums for release in 2016, anticipating releasing singles in the first quarter. He hopes to release the first album by NZ Music Month, in May, with the second album, which will be a Samoan album, coming out later in the year.
As a result of the VPMAs platform, TJ was offered a number of performances and opportunities. He is very grateful for these and looks forward to building his profile going forward, especially within the mainstream industry.
“I’m really excited about 2016, what it holds and what opportunities will come. It’s going to be a big year and I feel there are a lot of high expectations all round. But I think different from last year, I’m going to be a lot more assertive about what I want and where I want it to go and be more responsible about the outcomes. I need to back myself and be confident in my material that I write and push out.
“I feel that my gift is to use the vehicle of music to bless others and to reach out to others. I feel like I’m just starting to do that and just scratching the surface of that now.”