It’s not hard to see why Maisey Rika has such a loyal and growing following, not only in Aotearoa but beyond. The Whakatane-based singer-songwriter has been collecting fans and awards since she was 15, when she was the star soloist in E Hine, an album of classical Māori songs by the St Joseph’s Māori Girls College choir that went double platinum and won Best Mana Reo Album at the New Zealand Music Awards in 1998. The accolades and applause have kept coming, for both the voice and heartfelt songs that reflect her love of te reo and strong social conscience.
Here Maisey (who has Ngāti Awa, Tūhoe, Te Arawa and Te Whānau-ā-Apanui whakapapa on her mother’s side, and Samoan on her father’s) talks with Dale, about where her talent and inspiration come from.
Your name — Maisey. My mum’s name’s Maisey, so I’ve got a real soft spot for anyone named Maisey.
I’ve never met anyone called Maisey, so that’s really nice.
I’ve got to admit that her name’s actually Mei, but everyone calls her Maisey. Does that make sense?
Are you kidding me? My nickname is Maisey. My real name is Mei.
Same with my mum. That’s exactly it.
Yep, Mei. I’m named after my mum’s mum, Mei. I don’t know how we got the Maisey name. But we have a few Mei’s. All named after the same lady.
How lovely. Can you tell us a bit more about your whānau?
My mum raised me and my brother JJ. My mother is Rebecca Tania Arohanui Rika but she’s known as Honey. She’s the youngest of nine, and her mother was Mei Te Ringahaua Nuki Rika (nee Pene). I’ve been told that my mother was the centre of my nan’s universe, and that she did everything for her, because everyone else had left the nest by then.
But Nan passed away when my mum was in her early teens. And, by her late teens, she’d had me, followed by my brother a year later. By the time JJ was born we were on our own. So within a short time, Mum had to grow up fast and learn to take care of herself and raise two kids on her own.
Our dad is Samoan and he’s always been a part of our lives even though he and Mum split when we were young. It’s funny, as JJ has many traits of our dad. He’s a good man and he always rings us up for a chat or on our birthdays. He’s lived in Perth for many years now along with our other brothers and sisters. We also have a sister, Tessa, who’s been brought up in Samoa. Yeah, there’s like 12 of us all up.
Mum was on the DPB back then but she decided she’d better go and get some sort of paper behind her. Get a tohu of some sort. So, during the day, she studied to be a nurse, and by night she was a singer in a band, working in bars and nightclubs around Rotorua. That’s how she supported the whānau.
When she got her job, she said that was one of the most proudest moments of her life — going in to WINZ and telling them that she didn’t need the DPB any more because she had a job as a nurse.
She’s a lecturer now at Awanuiārangi helping others to become nurses.
You had quite a musical upbringing, didn’t you?
Mum and her sisters, they all sang in bands. In those days, they kind of turned a blind eye to children being out the back of bars, so me and JJ would hang out there if there was no babysitter, and sometimes there’d be a TV and a little bit of kai while Mum and her sisters performed.
Music first started for us in the home. I used to practise a lot at home and, in the wee hours after a bit of a function — a wedding, a farewell, a birthday or whatever — the whānau would gather around and we’d all sing. It was the most purest and truest time, listening to my mum and her sisters and their papa sing their songs. All of us kids would just sit around and watch them sing. It was like that all the time. Very happy times.
I remember the night came when the guitar was going around and they asked me to get up and sing. I think I was about five years old. And then every other gathering that we’d have, they’d always tell me to get up and sing. So, music definitely started in the home for me and my brother. It was just something we did as a family. And then, of course, we ventured out into the schools and marae.
Did they have a family group?
Yeah! The Rika Sisters. My papa (Tommy Rika) had a poster of them too. I remember he had it framed. My Aunty Cheryl, Aunty Lulu (her stage name was Ranel Kennedy), and my mum, Honey Rika. My aunty Diane Tibble, who’s like another sister to them, was in the group too. They were the Rika Sisters.
Mum sent us to boarding school, so she had to work as a nurse as well as doing gigs in the weekends to keep us there. So, when I was home, my job was to go with her to help in her gigs at the Whakatane Manor Inn restaurant.
I used to think it was awesome because I’d get paid the same amount of money in one night that my friends working in McDonalds would get for a whole week. The only thing was that it was on a Friday and a Saturday night. So most of my friends were all out while I was working. But it was cool. It was quite an easy job because it was something we both loved to do. She doesn’t do the shows or gigs as such any more. But at any event, they always look to Mum to get up and sing a song. And she’ll look at me. Then we’ll both get up and do the waiata for whoever or whatever the kaupapa is.
You sing beautifully together. What about your brother? Does he still play guitar for you?
Now and again. When I first started out writing songs and sort of putting my own thoughts, ideas and experiences out there, JJ was there by my side. He’d play the song for me, or he’d come up with some of the melodies and then I’d just put the words to it. That’s JJ. We were the first from our whānau to write our own songs.
Then about four or five years ago, we decided that one of us should go and learn how to read music. It was a bit backwards — we’d done the albums and then decided we’d better go learn the theory behind it all. So JJ ended up going to the performing arts school in Rotorua.
From there, he decided to go and work in Gisborne with the youth and then he came back to Whakatane. And that’s where he is at the moment — in Kawerau working with rangatahi. Helping them build up their self-esteem. That’s always been his goal. To help the coming generation in any way he can.
I will always ring him up first if I’ve got something happening overseas, but he’s quite dedicated to his job, his proper 9 to 5, so it’s very rare that we do get to play and catch up with each other. He’s very talented.
Can we talk for a moment about te reo Māori? Did you grow up with that or did you pick that up from school? Because you’re pretty confident with it now.
Yeah. I’ve only ever known that world. My mother didn’t speak Māori but she made sure that me and my brother did, and that we were around kaupapa, or around people — anything that encouraged te reo Māori.
At a very young age we were sent to people to learn te reo Māori. To kōhanga. From kōhanga to kura kaupapa. Then to Māori boarding schools. Then to whare wānanga. Mum made sure we were involved in kapa haka as well.
And then just going down the coast to Omaio and being with our whānau down there, teaching us waiata and the history. Just being there, you picked up a lot. We were always at marae. Always listening to kaupapa being spoken on the marae. I’m still learning every day. I haven’t mastered nothing — I just know the basics. And I’m very fortunate and very grateful that Mum gave us that opportunity because she wasn’t really encouraged, growing up. I think that’s where we get our strength from. Our culture. Our Māoritanga.
As you mentioned, Mum worked hard so you could go to boarding school, where kaupapa Māori is prioritised. How influential was boarding school on you?
Very influential — especially when it came to music. Definitely discipline. And study.
Because, from a young age, there was that burning desire to sing. I loved it. I was so passionate when I’d get up and sing. I guess Mum could see that. She always said, though: “Don’t rely on it solely. You have to get some education behind you.” She wanted us to have something to fall back on.
She didn’t want us to struggle like her. She wanted us to live a little, see the world a bit. And she knew that you had to have that piece of paper to live in that world. So, education was a must. That was our obligation, first and foremost. That’s why she sent us away to boarding school.
I remember that was the saddest day of my life, going to boarding school. Leaving my whānau, leaving my town, leaving everything and everyone I’d ever known and the way of life I’d known. I remember feeling quite lost.
And then, we got there and I met the girls, and we became friends. Friends became sisters. We all learned and grew up together in those turbulent adolescent years.
It had a huge influence on me. I noticed that there weren’t any cooking classes. There was very little emphasis on sewing. But Miss (Georgina) Kingi, the principal of St Joseph’s — she was right into mathematics, English, calculus and science. Things like music came second. But there was definitely a strong kapa haka component at the kura, so I still had my music outlet.
Mum was always very proud of our musical achievements but she was very strict on the education side of things. We had to get our School Cert, Bursary, and then go to university. It’s funny, because we did end up going to uni. JJ went. My sister-cousins went. And I went. We were the first lot from the Rika side of our whānau to go through uni. And we all ended up doing different paths of study. I went to Waikato and did psychology, education studies and te reo Māori. Nothing to do with music.
After I graduated, I had two years in the job at Ngāti Awa Social and Health Services, working on the social side with our people, doing counselling one day and running them to WINZ appointments the next.
And then, within a short time, I was doing gigs as well, so I had to weigh it up. I was taking off a lot of time to do shows and gigs in the weekends and sometimes even in the weekdays. But Mum was happy. She said we could do whatever we wanted because we’d fulfilled our obligation. So that’s when I decided to do music full-time. With the support of my husband, Mum and whānau.
I hear your voice in old recordings of Hato Hōhepa, Maisey, and it’s quite distinctive. When did you learn to love your own voice? A lot of us don’t like our own voices growing up.
I just loved to sing. I’ve never really thought: “Oh, I love my own voice.” Especially different waiata, different kaupapa. Certain songs really speak to you and you just want to deliver it and hope that the people feel the way you feel when you sing it to them.
I hear E Hine on the radio — and even in more recent recordings, say Reconnect (2008) — and I think: “Oh, I sound like a little girl!” But I guess that’s how it happens. Your sound evolves over time. You’re not there straight away. I don’t even think now I’m where I want to be vocally. And I’ve still got a way to go when it comes to writing in te reo Māori. There’s a certain standard I want to reach but I know that will only come with time.
What about other people’s voices that you love? Who still stirs the emotions when you hear their voices?
I love the tones of Whirimako Black, Betty-Anne Monga and Annie Crummer. Even watching them and how they deliver the songs. Ruia Aperehama, Warren Maxwell, Hinewehi Mohi. There’s so many that I grew up listening to that still stir that emotion in me now.
Motherhood develops a timbre in your voice, so I’m told. And you have two children?
My youngest is Makeo, who’s three. My eldest, Hairini, he’s 11.
Motherhood definitely changes your perspective on everything. You know, when you have a child, you’re more sensitive to things that are happening around the world to other children.
And you really have to buck up your ideas and get yourself sorted. What’s more important in life? What legacy would you like to leave behind for your kids? But then, there’s that legacy of your kids. There’s nothing more important than a strong, healthy baby growing into a strong, healthy, loving, kind, generous adult.
You write most of your material. Did you write Children of Romania? These are concepts far removed from Whakatane.
I remember quite vividly when my baby was two weeks old. This thing on Campbell Live pops up, and there were these horrific images of children chained to these beds. And rows and rows of babies just sitting in a room, and babies rocking themselves. And I was thinking: “I wonder how old this is? This must be from the 1960s or something.” But this wasn’t old footage. It was happening now. And I just couldn’t fathom it.
There’s certain things that you can’t unsee or forget. And I couldn’t get past it until I’d written or sung about it. I’m still not past it now. I was losing sleep and just always thinking about it. And then I started writing those lyrics in my head, and I had the guitar and those chords just came. And that’s how that song came about.
I tell people that inspiration can come and hit you from any kaupapa, at any time. Could be from watching TV with your children. Or it could be two o’clock in the morning and you wake up and you’ve got this tune, or you’ve got some words. I know other people who say they wake up and they’ve got a tune but they don’t do anything with it. They just go back to sleep and then forget it. Or they’re dreaming and there’s a tune there.
But what you can do is you can record yourself. Quickly record it and then go back to sleep, and then wake up and put some words to it. I’d be standing in line at the supermarket and words just come, and I’d whisper it into my phone. Most of the album Tohu was written on the back of receipts and envelopes. Because that’s the closest thing I had to paper in my bag at the time the lyrics or emotions or songs would come through.
I guess it’s always happened. I remember always wanting to jot down things as a kid. In the last 10 years, I’ve really listened to that. Sometimes, of course, I can’t wake up. But most of the time I do wake up and do a little humming, or a whistle of the tune, or writing of notes or words just to keep those. And I have written songs that have come off those words and tunes over the years.
Maisey, it’s a very powerful tool, this musical tool that you have at your disposal now. When I look at the intent behind say, Children of Romania, the beautiful sound of Tangaroa Whakamautai. You’re a very strong advocate of te reo Māori but seem to have intertwined that with a strong social conscience. It’s a pretty heavy mix.
Those things really touch me and move me and inspire me. Other things don’t. I know I could write more love songs but it just doesn’t resonate. They haven’t been coming as freely. Other things have been coming, like Black Stuff, about the oil drilling in our oceans. Songs about stuff that’s happening now around the world. That’s what I think is relevant.
There’s quite a few songs out there that are really big but I just can’t relate to them. I guess they’re a good distraction from what’s happening — but at the same time, they’re too far away from what’s happening and the lives of everyday people.
How do you feel that your music generated out of little ol’ New Zealand can have global impact now?
We just returned from Guam and Tahiti three weeks ago. We had a show there and after the show, we were there signing autographs, and the line was so long that it took two and a half hours for everyone to come through. People were crying – young and old – crying.
I sang a lot in te reo Māori. And even though they couldn’t understand the words, they could understand the spirit of what I was saying. The wairua of the words. The wairua of the performance. They were just so touched and moved, and I was touched and moved by their response as well.
It’s the same in Hawai’i when we go there.
It’s feeling like someone’s actually listening and singing about these things, and understanding where they come from. And also seeing that you can get up and sing in your language and there is an audience for that. You can sing about certain issues and there’s an audience for that — there’s an understanding of that.
It’s very humbling. I’m very grateful that we can spread our messages through this medium of music — and through our language, te reo Māori.
It’s been a beautiful kōrero, Maisey. I hope you appreciate the pride that our people feel when they hear you sing. I’ve seen the reaction each time when I’ve been at places and you’ve sung. And it’s magic. What goals have you set yourself, musically or otherwise?
I’ve got three totally different albums sitting in my head, on my paper, in my book. The first one is called Tira. I’m hoping to release it in December. That one’s all the songs that I love. Certain songs from the past at St Joe’s, some hymns and chorales and some other waiata that I’ve been inspired by just in recent years, from prolific songwriters from the East Coast. Rikirangi Gage and Rob Ruha. I’ve got other albums I want to write, sing and record as well, that have different themes and genre taste. In the next few years, I want to be able to put those out there for whoever’s open to listen to it.
I’m going to set up an entity of some sort, too, because I love working with emerging artists — to help them and encourage them and give them a safe place to share their ideas and know they’re valued. I want them to have the mana over all their things, all their taonga and all their songs.
I want to do more work with people around the Pacific, and just encourage them to get up and sing in their language and not be ashamed.
And just encourage other people, who may feel that their time is up. I’ve had discussions where people are like: “It’s so hard — maybe I should give up?” I ask them: “Are songs still coming to you? Are you still writing?” And they’re like: “Yeah.” And I say: “Well, obviously it’s not time for you to give up. If they’re still coming, you still carry on until there’s nothing there.”
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