Stan Walker says he won't be a pawn anymore, ditches reality tv and manufactured music
Stan Walker tells Shaun Bamber how he's left behind reality TV, manufactured music and being a pawn in the game.
"I am not that little 18-year-old boy that sings Purple Rain no more."
The first time I ever spoke to Stan Walker, he was 22 years old, doing promo interviews for the 2013 first season of The X Factor New Zealand, on which he was a judge alongside fellow singers Melanie Blatt, Daniel Bedingfield and Ruby Frost.
Despite already having been "in the business" for four years at that point - he won Australian Idol back in November 2009 - Walker's answers were often merely single-sentence, and at times it seemed a struggle for him to spit out what he really wanted to say.
On other occasions it has been possible to hear the exhaustion in his voice, even over the phone, sounding clearly wearied from the lifestyle that is also his livelihood - recording, touring, movies, TV.
The Stan Walker I spoke to recently however sounds like a new man - a man with purpose, passion and fire in his belly.
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Enthusiastic and animated, he speaks at length on his latest single New Takeover, released last month ahead of an accompanying video which Seven Sharp presenter Mike Hosking described as having "a touch of controversy about it".
Walker scoffs at this claim. In the press release for the song, he declared: "It's a song for all the underdogs, the minorities, the outsiders and the indigenous people who don't have a platform to speak or express who they are and their truth."
When we talk, he expands on that point: "It's rare that you get to see people really embrace their culture and show their culture in a video.
"I think people only get excited about their culture when it's popular you know? I think how people have grown up, sometimes it's hard to be proud of yourselves, because being different to everything you see is kind of ugly sometimes.
"Now it's cool - but I'm not doing this because it's cool to be cultural. I'm like, 'Man, we should be proud of ourselves no matter what'. Yes, I'm native - and I'm proud. But I had to realise that myself. It's taken a while though, because I was scared. I was scared to be like myself.
"And then I think I got to a point of like full-on frustration, because I felt like Maori, and people of the Pacific, and indigenous people - they've just been misrepresented. We're either thugs, we're poor, we're hori, we suck at talking, we're lazy, we just giggle - but people don't see the beauty of all our cultures. Throughout the Pacific man, we're strong."
Yep, the now 26-year-old star has come a long way since Black Box, baby.
"I mock that song every single day," says Walker of his 2009 hit, which went double platinum in both New Zealand and Australia, peaking at number one on the charts here, number two across the ditch. "If it had lungs, I would fill them with water and just drown it in the ocean!" he laughs.
"Everyone was like, 'Aw, why did you write that song?' and I was like, 'I didn't write the song, I didn't even have a choice on the song, it was given to me'.
"Personally, I don't like it anymore. But at the same time I'm so grateful for it, because if it wasn't for that song, this song wouldn't have happened. And the songs before this one wouldn't have happened."
Looking back on those early days now, Walker says he has "learnt a lot of hard lessons" over the years.
"Well, I started off in Idol you know, so you get catapulted out to the world and you go straight to the top and then you just do as you're told - I kind of had to fake it for a long time and figure it out along the way. I learnt a lot of hard lessons, and I didn't really know what I was doing.
"I was a singer for a while, but then I became an artist, because I started taking over my own stuff - I came to a point about four years ago when I didn't want to be who they wanted me to be no more. And I decided then and there that I wasn't going to be somebody else's puppet - I wasn't going to be played like I'm a pawn on a chess table.
"I was like, I wanna be the player. I didn't even want to be the king or the queen, I wanted to be the player. I was sick of getting played. Sick of getting told what to do."
Part of this turnaround for Walker was also the realisation that Australia and beyond didn't necessarily represent the be-all and end-all of his career.
"My heart beats for New Zealand, that's all I can say bro, that's why I'm still here. That's actually why I've come back - and I resisted it for ages, because over in Australia I just got told all these things. Like, I was thinking, 'Oh no, don't go back to New Zealand, it's a small, insignificant place' - honestly, this was my mindset. And I'm a hori little Maori boy from the flippin' paddock!
"But man, I was just getting pulled back too much and I feel like God was pulling me back here. I found my fire here, I found my passion here, and I found my purpose - or my purpose was ignited here. I never thought that I'd have to come back to New Zealand to find that - I thought that I had to find it in Australia then go to America. But man, here is where it's at. Honestly, the most talented people come from here, the most gifted people - like, naturally.
"I've been around the world and I've seen world-class acts with not even half the natural raw talent that people have here in New Zealand. The singers, the artists, the actors, the people who create films, the creators of all different kinds of art - they're next level. Honestly, we may be small but man, we're starting to take over. Straight up."
As to what the future holds for Stan Walker, apart from a couple of new movies on the horizon - New Zealand-shot western The Stolen and Aussie sports flick Chasing Comets - everyone will just have to wait and see.
"I want to do more than just your standard album and stuff like that," he says. "I wanna be more, I don't wanna just be average or just be another artist that does a single and a video, do your promo, nek one. I wanna do something. I'm like, what am I going to do to leave a mark on this earth?"
"Stuff will take time - but I've got some stuff coming."