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Fat Freddy’s Drop Vocalist Dallas Tamaira Is Going Solo Again: ‘I Still Want to Learn About Music’

Tamaira tells Rolling Stone AU/NZ about the excitement of releasing his first full solo EP in over two decades

Dallas Tamaira

Nick Paulsen

From the heartfelt “Hope” to the swing of “Wandering Eye”, Dallas Tamaira’s soulful voice can be found in many a Kiwi songbook. The frontman of Fat Freddy’s Drop has been at the forefront of this country’s music scene for quite some time, clocking nearly 25 years after his first independent release in 1999. You probably won’t find that record, however, because it only came out on a CD.

After a remarkable run of albums with Fat Freddy’s Drop, Tamaira – aka Joe Dukie – is returning to solo work with the EP Levels, following a string of singles released over the past few years. The most recent of these, “Stormy”, teases the soulful, jazzy, and experimental sound to be found in the full EP, brimming with 70’s soul and notes of Bill Withers, who is a major inspiration for Tamaira.

Levels toys with the idea of escapism, the possibility of creating and exploring new worlds and spaces, and was written during lockdown in New Zealand. As Tamaira tells Rolling Stone AU/NZ,  his new EP was written very traditionally, the musician writing about what he heard and felt.

“My songs are connected to the things we did as a family in lockdown, how that felt, and a little bit of commentary on what was happening in the world at that time,” he says. “It’s about how we learned to get along in a small space and how we maintained a positive attitude during that time. We made our small space feel bigger, and we learned to feel much more and be thankful for what we had.” 

Noticeable differences emerged when Tamaira wrote for his own project rather than for Fat Freddy’s Drop, and he quickly realised that these songs were more for himself instead of being simple fan service. 

“I purposefully try and write [the band’s] songs representative of Fat Freddy’s Drop and the people within,” he explains. “[But] the longer the band has gone on, I almost start to write songs for the people that listen to the band as well.”

There’s nothing frighteningly solo about Levels, though, as there’s no doubt Fat Freddy’s Drop is whānau to him, which is why Tamaira sees the EP as an extension of what he’s been doing rather than a brand-new project. 

His band has been supporting him and helping out since the beginning, and Tamaira even recorded the EP’s six tracks in the Fat Freddy’s Studio, where their band producer MU mixed and mastered them; Devin Abrams, a longtime industry friend under the name Pacific Heights, produced the EP.

The Christchurch-born Tamaira (Ngāti Tūwharetoa descent) has witnessed many changes in Aotearoa’s music scene over the past two decades, particularly in the way music is made and distributed.

But whether he’s pumping out DIY sounds from the rocky shorelines of Wellington or touring with Fat Freddy’s Drop around Europe, Tamaira knows what really matters in the pursuit of success. 

“The sky’s the limit when you have a good team,” he says. “ There are so many working parts [with music] now. It’s more than a phone call to your distributor.”

From old days to now, his reasons for doing music have become clearer, and with a family, he says they’ve been a really important motivator. Putting food on the table, as he reveals, can irrevocably change the way you make music. 

“It’s a much different world now than when I first released music. It’s always changing, it’s evolving so quickly, the digital platform thing, the way that people listen to music and how much music is there. Live performance was always a platform or place where you almost wrote your songs when you were performing. [But now], things can come out of people’s bedrooms, finished and ready to go. And then you take the stage.”

From CDs and independent releases to the resurgence of vinyl to the newness of streaming, the reason Tamaira chose music in the beginning is why he still chooses to do it so passionately now. 

“[In life], it’s always about timing,” he insists. “My son, he’s almost 15 now, and he’s about to enter that phase where later on in your teens, at a young age, you’re not too sure what you want to do. And then all of a sudden, there’s that one thing you just want to do, so for me, [music] was this great timing, and I wanted to learn lots about it. I still want to learn about music.”

Dallas Tamaira’s Levels EP is out November 3rd via Sony Music.