Lizzie Marvelly has been described — by herself as a matter of fact — as a stupid overachiever.
But, at 28, she’s not resting on the laurels she’s earned as a singer, songwriter, and columnist. She has goals in mind. Becoming a fluent Māori speaker for one. And encouraging young women to speak out and speak up so their voices and their opinions are widely heard.
Here she chats with Dale about the paths she’s been on.
Kia ora, Lizzie. Or should I address you as Elizabeth Lillian Marvelly? No problem with your first names, but we don’t often come across families with Marvelly for a surname.
We think the name comes from Wales. Or France. And it’s probably been anglicized along the way over the centuries. But there’s not many of us here. Perhaps just two strands of us in Aotearoa — and some over in Australia. I’m sure there’ll be others further overseas. But it is rare, and quite distinctive.
Okay. That’s down your dad’s side. But what about your mum?
Well, my mum’s maiden name was Bartunek. Her father was from Czechoslovakia. He escaped from Prague during the Second World War. And Mum’s mother Jean was a Kerrigan from Ohinemutu. That’s where my Māori heritage comes from. It’s down that maternal line.
I’m an only child. Just Mum and Dad and me. We’ve always had a really strong bond. We’ve been a strong little unit. And I’m now going through the process of learning more about my family, my history, my whakapapa.
I’m kind of in the middle of that journey at the moment because there’ve been fractures along the way — which can happen in a lot whānau. But it’s important for me and my cousins to learn more about our people.
I’m assuming that you’ve known of your Māori connections for a long time.
Actually, I only learned of my whakapapa when I was about eight or nine years old. My mum was raised for a period of her childhood on the pā by her nanny Maramena. There were about a million cousins because my great-grandmother had 16 children. So you can imagine that the whānau is rather large. Then she was taken from that environment when her mother and her mother’s new husband moved to Mt Maunganui.
So there was kind of a fracture there. And it’s funny now because I’m learning the reo at the moment — and she sometimes knows what I’m talking about. And she recalls the swear words which her nanny apparently used a lot.
When she did tell me about my whakapapa, it somehow made sense because I’d always felt like something was sort of missing. I was really glad that at that stage I was gifted with that knowledge. And I felt: “Ah. Okay. That’s who I am.”
There are lots of us who either don’t get that opportunity to hear about our whakapapa, or who don’t or won’t or can’t seek it. They might know: “Oh, I’m Māori.” But they don’t have a feeling of where their tūrangawaewae is, and all of that kind of stuff.
I’m certainly on that journey now and I encourage anyone who’s got whakapapa to explore, to find out about it. For me, it’s brought real meaning to my life and a sense of identity.
When you went off to Rotorua Girls’ High, I wonder if your Māori mates and other friends recognised your whakapapa lines.
My friends did know — probably from when I was at the end of primary school. I’m pretty sure I started talking about it quite soon after I found out about it. I went to Glenholme Primary, which was an amazing primary school. It was a very inclusive, very encouraging environment.
Pretty tough, though, because it was a low decile school. I’d get my lunch stolen and had other experiences, too. But it reminds me now how privileged I was as a child. And it breaks my heart that these little kids were stealing lunch because they didn’t have any kai.
That was my first school. Then I went to Rotorua Intermediate, which was also a happy environment for me. Right through both of those schools it was very bicultural — and multicultural to an extent, although I think Rotorua is more multicultural now.
My experiences of those primary school years were enormously positive. We learned waiata and the basics of the reo. We learned how to count in Māori. We learned the Māori names of classroom objects.
And, memorably, there was Mr Griffin, my Year Five teacher, who used to play Māori bingo with us. We’d have a kind of bingo card and he’d call out the reo words — and that was like the favourite thing for my class. We just loved playing Māori bingo.
Māori culture and Māori language were really woven into my primary school years, although I wish it’d been more so. And one of my great wishes for the future is that every Kiwi child will be taught in both English and in the reo. Certainly in the primary school years because it’s such an incredible language — and it’s so beneficial for kids to learn more than one language anyway.
Rotorua Girls’ High was a pretty proud Māori school — as it is now. It was a real tough love environment, but nurturing. And full of girl power. We were encouraged to speak up and believe that we were as good as, if not better than, the boys at Boys’ High. And there was a lot of proud rivalry there.
From a race relations perspective, though, there were tensions, and I remember that some of the Māori teachers would run special assemblies for the Māori students. I can remember going to one, although I was still quite tentative about my whakapapa at that stage.
One of the issues was that I think you were allowed to wear your taonga and also wear a cross, a necklace, if you wanted to, but all other jewellery was banned. And I can remember that even I was a bit grumpy about that. It was really a lack of understanding of what things like taonga mean to Māori people. I wasn’t there yet.
So Rotorua wasn’t a utopia — but, for me, it was the kind of New Zealand that I wish we had all around the country. Because, while there are pockets of racism, Māori culture is everywhere in Rotorua. You can’t grow up there without absorbing the reo and tikanga.
We had pōwhiri multiple times a term, especially at Girls’ High, and I’m immensely grateful to have grown up in that environment. I know some of my friends from other places can still feel, well, frightened of Māori situations. Like at a pōwhiri, or listening to a mihi.
For them, it’s not accessible, so they perceive it as a little bit threatening. I’ve never felt that way and I doubt that many kids who grew up in Rotorua would feel that way because it’s been normal for us. As it should be. I’m so proud of our community.
Every now and then, I see racist outbursts that just do my head in. But, for the most part, the partnership between my iwi, Te Arawa — and especially Ngāti Whakaue — and the council is something to proud of. I think it’s really special. It’s true biculturalism with a very inclusive, welcoming approach towards people from other cultures.
Thank you, Lizzie, for those observations. Thank you very much. Let’s turn, though, to your singing which has been such a big part of your life — on tour as a 16-year-old, and with an album out when you were still in your teens. Carl Doy produced that album, didn’t he? And I imagine that he was a big influence.
I absolutely adore Carlos. I first met him when I would’ve been about 17. And he tells a great story about how I rocked up to his house in my school uniform. And he thought: “Oh, my god. What are the neighbours going to think?” Which was pretty funny.
So yeah, we worked on my first album together, when I was completely green. And then he was the associate producer on my second album. Now I think back, I learned a lot from Carl. Some of it just by osmosis.
I’d watch the way that he organised the recording and how he interacted with the orchestra. And one of the things I absorbed during that time was a piece of advice. Not that he put it into words, but it has really kept me in good stead throughout my career. And that’s to make sure you’re easy to work with. Otherwise people won’t want to work with you. Carl always made people feel comfortable — and still does. He’s incredibly easy to work with.
I’m really grateful for people like Carl. Frankie Stevens, too. And Sir Howard Morrison, who had an enormous impact not just on my career, but on my life. They were all so giving, so generous with their wisdom and support. I don’t think many artists get that opportunity to spend time with people who are many years their senior and yet are treated as equals. I feel blessed.
Initially, your specialty was classical singing. That’s before you crossed over into pop and into songwriting.
I haven’t really thought of myself as a classical singer for quite a while now. But, with classical singing, people love the money notes. They love the high notes. They love the vocal gymnastics. There’s something really impressive about that. And my teacher used to say that, to be a singer, you must fall in love with your own voice.
That sounds incredibly arrogant but I get where she was coming from. And I think the part of my voice that I love the most is the middle because it’s the richest. It’s got the most character. I can do the high stuff, but I’d much rather play around in my mid range.
The other thing that’s developed as I’ve got older is control. On the last tour that I went on, just over a year ago, I really enjoyed as a singer having the full command of my instrument. I didn’t have to think about what I was doing.
That’s just something that comes with age. It comes with physical maturity, but also with experience. And, as a singer, it’s a real joy to almost be like a painter painting on a blank canvas — where having that light and shade is really natural.
Your reputation as a singer has been enhanced, I’m sure, by your performances singing our national anthem, both versions, with a great deal of style and confidence. How have you felt about those occasions?
I’m not sure how to put it. But when I’m singing the reo version, I almost feel like I’ve transcended reality. It’s a really spiritual experience to be up there singing in our language, in the first language of New Zealand, the language that our land speaks. And it’s incredibly emotional for me.
One of the experiences that have really stood out for me during my anthem singing career would be the 2011 Rugby World Cup, when I sang at the semi-final against Australia. That was just completely mind blowing. I still can remember the elation I felt once I finished the last note. It was this all-consuming, body-filling rush of adrenaline, happiness and pride. Yeah. Incredible.
Another one that stands out to me was when I sang at Twickenham, at the end, I think, of 2014. To be at the home of rugby and singing our anthem was astounding. I was absolutely terrified — it was such an enormous thing to be doing.
And the other one would be singing at the final of the Cricket World Cup in Melbourne in 2015, in the middle of that absolutely enormous stadium with a huge television audience. I mean, people don’t realise how big the television audience is for cricket. But I knew there were hundreds of millions of people watching — and I was trying very hard not to think about that.
No doubt Hinewehi Mohi made an impression on you when she first sang the anthem in our reo at Twickenham. What impact did her principled stance as a Māori wāhine make on you?
Hinewehi is amazing. And I can only imagine how her heart must’ve been hammering in her chest when she took that bold step. I have the utmost respect for her because it’s wāhine like her who move all of us forward together. And singing the anthem in the reo took remarkable courage.
We need important people like her. People who take those brave first steps. Without them we stagnate — or even go backwards. Stacey Morrison is another one. And it was her who finally gave me the gentle push I needed to learn the reo. We actually ended up at a movie premiere together and we were having a kōrero about it, and she said: “Well, why don’t you?”
She said there’s a course at AUT that I could enrol in and do the basics. Then, because I’d like to go home and learn the dialect there, she said that’s what I could do after I’ve mastered the basics. It’s still early days for me, but I’ve started right at the beginning with real basic stuff. Recapping a lot of what I’d already sucked up over my childhood and introducing some new stuff as well.
But I’m really glad I started. Now I’m going into the second year at AUT, and I love it, Dale. Honestly, it’s the highlight of my week. Often, I feel whakamā, but I push through it, and now I don’t know what I’d do without it.
There are other important parts of your world, though. And one of those is writing. I’m not referring here to your songwriting, but to the blogs and New Zealand Herald columns. There’s a confidence and a fluency about your writing that suggests you’ve probably been a great reader.
Yes. I am avid reader. And I’ve been a bookworm ever since I was a child. I’ve been lucky to have had that love of reading instilled in me really young.
I choose my topics in all sorts of ways. Often, I’ll go through the news and see what’s been happening through the week, and I’ll spot a subject where I can see that I could provide a different perspective from what’s been presented in the news reporting.
The biggest challenge comes when I write about Māori. Honestly, it sometimes makes me despair because the backlash can be so vile. You just wonder who these people are. I’ve met a lot of people in my time, but I’ve never come across people who are so outwardly, vilely racist.
So that’s a real challenge for me, but it’s certainly not something that makes me want to stop writing about Māori issues. It makes that kaupapa and mahi even more important to me.
I’ve had a lot of support, though. And that’s really cool. Sometimes at airports I’ll have people come up to me and express their support for what I’m doing, which I really appreciate. And I get dads coming up to tell me they get their daughters to read my stuff and that they have discussions about it around the breakfast table.
That, for me, is why I do it, especially for the younger generation. I want to see more young female voices, rather than just my own. I want to make it unremarkable for young women to have opinions and to hold on to them strongly and express them. And I want to blast my way through the wall that sometimes can be there so that others can follow behind me.
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