Anika Moa gets real about love, death and success 10 years on from her toughest days

Anika Moa, shot exclusively for Stuff by Lawrence Smith.
LAWRENCE SMITH/STUFF

Anika Moa, shot exclusively for Stuff by Lawrence Smith.

Anika Moa reckons she could write this story herself. And to be honest, she's probably not wrong.

Anyone who has seen her brilliant Maori TV series All Talk With Anika Moa knows she can get blood out of a stone with her cunningly mischievous, all-too-brazen interviewing technique. And as the writer of some of New Zealand's most beloved pop songs of the past two decades, she can obviously turn a bloody good phrase.

"I'd work at Stuff...I could do that, aye? I'm just going to work here every day, whether you like it or not."

Let's be clear, Moa doesn't want to do my job - but recently, she has had to consider what life would be like without music. At the end of August, out of nowhere, her left eardrum burst and the other got infected. The singer lost her hearing almost completely, albeit temporarily.

"I just woke up one day [and it was gone]. I've never had any problems with my ears and after a day of pain - worse than childbirth, toothache - it was scary. But it's not anymore, because I can hear again," she says matter-of-factly.

"It was the most intense time I’ve ever had," Anika Moa says, remembering the release of her third album, In Swings The Tide.
LAWRENCE SMITH/STUFF

"It was the most intense time I’ve ever had," Anika Moa says, remembering the release of her third album, In Swings The Tide.

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She's almost back to full strength, and now plays the whole thing out like a bit of a joke. Stock-standard Anika Moa, really. But there's no denying she found the whole experience unnerving.

"My missus takes the piss out of me. At home, because everything is so loud, I'll be like 'What'd you say? What did you say, dear?' So I get a lot of s--- at home.

Anika Moa revealed her hearing loss in an emotional Instagram post.
Anika Moa / Instagram

Anika Moa revealed her hearing loss in an emotional Instagram post.

"This kind of thing happens to everybody though…"

But not everyone relies on being able to hear things for a living.

"That's what I was scared about," she admits frankly. "I thought about what I was going to do - I was going to have to get a real job, work at Countdown or something."

In reality, Moa's doctors say she'll be fine and won't have to consider a career reinvention. She says she only had to cancel one gig - "it was a charity gig for my boys' school, so lucky I wasn't getting paid for it". But the health scare came at a time she was already naturally reflecting on where she's been - and where she is heading.

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It's been 10 years since the release of her third - and most commercially successful - album, In Swings The Tide, and she's about to take it back on the road for a mini-New Zealand tour to mark the occasion.

It's also been a decade since she came out as gay. And since her dad died. In fact, all three things happened within about a week of each other, back in October 2007.

Anika Moa spent the summer touring New Zealand following the released of In Swings The Tide.
Patrick Hamilton

Anika Moa spent the summer touring New Zealand following the released of In Swings The Tide.

"I had to tour and do publicity while I was grieving, and that was really, really hard for me," Moa, 37, remembers of her father's death. "I'd wake up every day and cry - and then put makeup on and turn it on - that's my job and that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to take the album out to the world. But it was very, very hard."

She had greived her father - his battle with cancer was a long one. But the situation felt a little tougher because there was a song about him on the record - a song she couldn't just ignore as she did the things artists do to make people buy their music. She calls My Old Man "the diamond" that ended up defining the album and their relationship.

"My dad was homeless and he was a bit of a vagabond. I saw him more as a really cool homeless person that I knew, not as a father-figure.

Natasha Utting and Anika Moa married in February 2017.
Hannah Peters

Natasha Utting and Anika Moa married in February 2017.

"Even though I wrote this very painful, raw, emotional song about him, I called him my old man - I never called him dad, ever."

Moa calls her mum her "mum-dad" and more than anything, it is her she hopes is proud of what she has achieved. Her father was the one she saw on holidays, the one who she talked music with. That was their common ground.

"We loved music so much and we used to sing together all the time. That's all we did, we had guitars, amps and singing. He was wild, but he was a really good songwriter, one of the best I've known. It's in the blood."

Anika Moa's Chop Chop Hiyaaa tour has continued to win her younger fans around the country.
STUFF

Anika Moa's Chop Chop Hiyaaa tour has continued to win her younger fans around the country.

In comparison to the loss of a parent, no matter how removed, Moa plays down what it was like to come out when she was 27. As she puts it, it was a couple of interviews, then she was done.

"It wasn't really me coming out, it was more me saying 'ah yeah, I'm just a lezza'. It was actually really lovely and really cool.

"I remember one person asked me if I was scared people wouldn't buy my album because I'm gay? I was like, OMG that is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard because why would that dictate [anything]?"

Moa splits her new tour between her children's gigs and ones for adults.
LAWRENCE SMITH/STUFF

Moa splits her new tour between her children's gigs and ones for adults.

She was right, it was ridiculous. In Swings The Tide spent 39 weeks on the album chart, peaking at number six, and was certified platinum for selling over 15,000 copies. The album's first single, Dreams in My Head was the soundtrack of that summer, literally - it spent 18 weeks in the charts and picked up a Silver Scroll nomination along the way.

But for all her talents, Moa is not a fortune teller. She knows there are so many people - including artists, musicians and actors - who hide their sexuality to safeguard their careers against undeserved backlash and it took her to be confident in herself to shake off those fears.

"It's kind of like a weird little twisted thing, where for the first five years that I was discovering I was gay, I didn't want to say anything. I was scared because it's such a known thing, where if you're gay, people won't like you - which is ridiculous. It's normal."

There was hate mail - only two emails from church leaders which were pretty nasty. She didn't bother replying. Today, she calls herself a "gay pastor" to her fans.

You can imagine she would have had some thoughts she wanted to share with those two people who bothered to write to her, though. And given the way she describes her twenties, it's pretty surprising she didn't.

"I couldn't control my emotions. I didn't have a path. I was just going with the wind. I was crazy. I'd fly to London, then get bored of London and fly home. Then, 'I'm bored of New Zealand, I'll fly back to London'. All within a week. That's how psycho I was.

"Really though, I was just a 20-something woman who had hormones."

Compared to a decade ago, life these days is very different for Moa. She married her second wife, journalist Natasha Utting, in February 2017, and the pair have a three-year-old son, Soren. Moa also has six-year-old twin boys, Taane and Barry, from her first marriage to Azaria Universe, which ended in 2013.

Recently, she has been focused on her Songs for Bubbas albums - there have been two so far - and shows. The songs have been hailed as a parenting saviour by mums and dads everywhere, and there's no denying the kiddy circuit has been good to Mama Moa in ways she never expected. She clearly adores it, and is juggling daytime G-rated shows for bubs during her upcoming In Swings The Tide tour to keep her tiniest fans happy.

"When you go on stage, it's like you're a rock star. I think, 'Cool, I've finally made it'. Really I'm just singing all these dorky songs to all these cool little kids and they dance and they sing and they give a s---."

But she says balancing "adult and baby land" is the hardest thing she's done professionally. And, she admits, some of her decisions have been driven by the hard facts of life.

"I guess I give more time to whatever makes me the most money for my children, so the kids music has definitely been my priority. But now it's my time, it's mum's time to shine."

Given her new life-stage, it wasn't exactly Moa's idea to revisit the emotional few weeks she had in the spring of 2007. Her manager decided she needed the push - it's been two years since she released her last studio album, Queen At The Table - and he delivered the hard word that it was time to revive her career back with people old enough to vote.

Her first challenge? Refreshing her memory.

"I don't even remember half of the songs, I'm not even joking. I listened to the whole album the other day and I felt so embarrassed - I was so innocent and naive.

"But a lot of people tell me that album is the soundtrack to their youth, or to their dad dying or them coming out, or falling in love. I've been a part of people's lives for so long, but I don't even know it."

You get the feeling Moa doesn't often look backwards - she's a full-steam-ahead kind of woman. This process has forced her to revisit both proud and painful memories she had long moved away from.

"It has made me nostalgic. It was just before I met my first wife, so there are all those feelings there too. But mostly it's about those two months surrounding the album - when I finished it, when my dad died, when I came out and what happened after that. It was the most intense time I've ever had."

Moa is writing for grownups again, and will perform a handful of new songs during the anniversary tour. But she's honest - it's not easy to be a pop star when you are a happily married mum of three. Those songs about heartbreak take a bit more to find when you are content.

"I think you lose who you are when you become a mum. You have to question what you are, who you are to your children, who you are to your partner, who you are in life. It's a real fine balance. You've got to be really adaptable, but also light-hearted about it.

"When you're in your twenties, you're more selfish and self-centred. My whole life revolves around my children now. When I write, I have one hour a week and I think, 'oh wow, I wrote a song'. And then I feel like a loser when I go back into the real world because I realise I have to wipe s---- bums and clean up spew. And I remember 'ah, that's right. I am no one'."

Anika Moa's In Swings The Tide 10th Anniversary Tour
Saturday 30 September - The Savoy, Dunedin
Saturday 7 October - Blue Smoke, Christchurch
Friday 20 October - Kings Arms, Auckland
Saturday 28 October - San Fran, Wellington

Songs For Bubbas: Chop Chop Hiyaaa!
Saturday 30 September - The Savoy, Dunedin – 10am Show
​Sunday 1 October - Lake Wanaka Centre, Wanaka – 1pm Show*
Wednesday 4 October - The Bay Hall, Timaru – 10am Show
Friday 6 October - New Brighton Club, Christchurch – 10am & 1pm Shows

Tickets via NZtix except for Wanaka, where they can be bought via Eventfinda.

 - Sunday Star Times

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