Fans, mostly women, are wiping away tears. Mini-baths are rising in their eyes. They whoop and holler through the emotion, like a heartbroken girl in a nightclub, trying to dance away the pain. Only these fans seated at Sydney’s iconic Opera House aren’t in pain; they’re blissfully happy.
It’s Teeks’ debut performance in Sydney on this cold June evening. Watching him fill the sold-out Joan Sutherland Theatre with a full band, a string section — and the voice and presence that has been likened to Adele — it’s a fitting setting for his first ever harbour city show. It’s also a demonstration of Teeks’ inherent impulse to occupy colonised spaces. The Opera House itself is seen by many as a symbol of White Australia’s culture, and therefore of Australia’s racist history. And so, as Te Karehana Gardiner-Toi created a fireside atmosphere, where adulating feedback in real-time was welcomed and responded to, it wasn’t lost on many of us just how grand a statement this show was.
We were hanging off of every acknowledgement of tangata whenua (people of the land), and every bit of between-song banter — especially the parts about his life growing up near Hokianga and in Tauranga in New Zealand, and the songs his Nan would play to him in her car. He performed one of them, “E Ipo” by Prince Tui Teka, entirely in his first language, te reo Māori.
Speaking to Rolling Stone from his label Sony Music’s headquarters in Sydney the day after the show, Teeks explains the culture shock of relocating from Doubtless Bay, where he attended alternative education school Te Kōhanga Reo, to NZ’s biggest city Auckland in 2013.
“I realised how lucky I was as a kid to be raised with the language,” he says. “There was a whole generation that didn’t have the opportunity because their parents didn’t want them speaking Māori. It was out of fear you know,” he explains, “they were scared for their kids, so it was understandable. There was a lot of discrimination, they got beaten [for speaking te reo], so there was a lot of trauma.”
If family is a factor in the formation of a person’s identity, then Teeks is Tāne Mahuta, the “God of the Forest” kauri tree in New Zealand’s North Island, with roots extending well beyond its base. He understands the necessity of moving in colonised spaces in order to keep his own language and culture alive. But, like all First Nations from Aotearoa, he knows that much of Western society’s ailments — climate change, natural resource exploitation, pollution — could be lessened by listening to and engaging with Kaumātua, Māori elders.
“The world, the western world as you know it, is built out of patriarchy and whiteness,” Teeks says, with a wisdom that feels inherited. “I’ve had to grow up walking two different worlds. I grew up as a Māori kid and still have the Māori worldview, but I also had to learn to operate in the western world. I think there’s so much that we can learn from Indigenous cultures. I think if we want to heal the world; if we want to heal people, then we need to turn to Indigenous knowledge.”
There’s a reason why protests have erupted Australia-wide against the continued destruction of cultural sites. There’s a reason why First Nations peoples are leading demonstrations against the local governments that have betrayed their communities. As Teeks explains it, it’s not because these people want to be political activists, it’s because it’s their duty.
“You don’t have the choice but to be political or to be an environmentalist, as an Indigenous person,” he says.
“You don’t have the choice but to be political or to be an environmentalist, as an Indigenous person.”
Teeks’ debut album, Something To Feel, has been out in the world for over a year now. In that time it has walked people down aisles at their wedding, soundtracked over 270,000 TikTok videos, including those featuring gender reveals, pregnancy photoshoots, and loved-up couple moments. It also topped the NZ Album Chart, spawned two Top 10 Singles (“Younger” and “Oil and Water”), and has been certified Gold.
Known for his exquisite lyricism, brimming with emotion and tear-jerking vulnerability (“Power” could heal even the most broken heart), Teeks is the kind of artist who likes to meet his maker when the opportunity arises. He’ll hit rock bottom, like he did in 2017, and come out the other side filled with gratitude. During that particular spell, around the time of his EP The Grapefruit Skies, he was jobless, homeless, sleeping on friend’s couches, and feeling bittered by a career that felt attainable but just out of reach.
“Sometimes, when you’re young you just…” he stops himself. “You want something so bad and you know you can do it, but it’s just the frustration. It’s like, ‘Everything’s not going how it’s meant to be’.
“But I have learned to be patient,” he adds. “I understand that timing is everything, now. And that things happen when they’re meant to happen, I’m a big believer in that.”
I’m transported back to the night before. Teeks and his eight-piece backing band, complete with a string quartet, are filling the Opera House with a reverberating cinematic soundscape befitting a Christopher Nolan film. “Through It All” was actually written as a hypothetical James Bond theme song, and while it’s hard to top the Bond scores released by the likes of Adele and Billie Eilish, the song shows Teeks’ vast songwriting range. The commercial world is already taking notice. Teeks has landed sync deals with Kiwi telco giants 2degrees and Spark, another for Netflix show Easy and a TV commercial for Whittaker’s chocolate.
“I’m glad that I didn’t get the opportunities that I have been given earlier,” Teeks says, pausing. Perhaps he’s filling in the timeline of highlights between ‘rock bottom 2017’ to now. “I wasn’t ready.”
This interview features in the September 2022 issue of Rolling Stone AU/NZ. If you’re eager to get your hands on it, then now is the time to sign up for a subscription.
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