First published on Tuesday the 8th of March, 2016, this piece comes in at number 29 in the top 30 most read Villainesse stories of 2016.
Five Women. Five Questions. Five Days.
Who: Natalia Sheppard, singer and MC
Why: Her career in music, as a singer and an MC, spans decades and continents. She’s always believed in creating her own path and once turned her nose up at a career in pop because conformity was not an option and never will be.
It took one smash hit and a teenager from Auckland to make the world sit up and take notice of the music that’s being made in New Zealand. There’s no need to elaborate. Even my 85-year-old grandmother knows who Lorde is. She’d probably be able recite a few verses of Royals if I asked.
Ella Yelich-O’Connor’s success story truly is remarkable - but no less remarkable than some of the stories that aren’t plastered across the headlines and one of those stories belongs to Natalia Sheppard, AKA MC Tali.
I must declare that I did in fact chase an interview with Lorde for this article. She, or her people at least, didn’t get back to me. That’s ok. I knew it was a long shot. She’s busy. But now that I sit down to write this piece, remembering that I initially wanted a name that everyone knew, I’m a little pissed off with myself. Because if Lorde had said yes, fewer Kiwi women would know Sheppard’s story and that would be an incredible shame.
It begins on a dairy farm in provincial New Zealand. I’m also from a farm and at the age of seven, in the very early 80s, I discovered Bob Marley. I spent the next three years zooming around paddocks on my 50cc motorbike dressed only in red, gold and green, thinking I’d one day be a reggae star living in Jamaica. Needless to say, it’s not a dream I fulfilled. So how did Sheppard, a little girl from Taranaki, end up working in the beating heart of London’s male-dominated drum and bass scene in the early 2000s?
“I was never the pretty girl or the smart girl in the class. It was like you had to find your niche, and mine was my wit and how quickly I could retort,” she says, explaining that it was her ability to use “words as a weapon” that led her to rap. "Back in the 90s there was this big presence of women in rap. They were really amazing role models.”
But then the hip-hop scene started to change. “There was this misogynistic vibe. It didn’t seem like the place that would be right for a girl,” she laughs.
Sheppard could’ve chucked in the music dream. But instead she put her energies into singing and songwriting, before moving to Christchurch and finding herself right at home in the emerging 90s rave scene. “I was like, ‘Fuck this is awesome'. To me, it embraced more ages, more cultures [than hip-hop] and even though there weren’t many women involved, there seemed to be more equality. I thought, ‘Maybe this is a chance for me to express myself’.”
She recalls her boyfriend at the time being supportive of her decision to get into MCing and says he gave her one piece of advice that really hit home. “He said, 'If you want to do this, it’s not good enough to just be good. You have to be really, really great, because there are no women doing this and people are naturally going to judge you because of that’.”
And really, really great was what Sheppard became; moving to Australia and immersing herself in drum and bass, practicing and absorbing all she could until a life-changing encounter with one of her music heroes, the British producer and DJ Roni Size.
“I loved his label Full Cycle and I always told myself, I’m going to go to the UK, I’m going to find Roni, I’m going to knock on his door and say, ‘I need to be a part of your label’. But as it happens, fate brought him to me – he came to Melbourne. I was at his show and then the after party. He walked into the room. I walked up to him, got his attention and told him I was Australasia’s only female drum and bass MC and that he should be checking me out. He asked me to MC and sing for him on the spot, which I did. I nearly had a ‘yeah, nah’ moment. But I just did it and he was really impressed.”
Size told Sheppard to look him up if she ever came to the UK. Of course she did. And the rest is history. She landed herself a deal with Full Cycle and was bang smack in the middle of the highly-competitive, male-dominated British world of electronica.
There is a lengthy list of horror stories cataloguing the struggles women in music have faced in an industry run largely by men. Back in 2014, singer Christina Aguilera spoke openly about the crisis meeting label bosses ordered when she piled on 7kgs. You might also remember the American music exec who recently resigned after Dirty Projectors singer Amber Coffman released a series of tweets accusing the publicist of sexual harassment. You’ll also likely have punched the air in jubilation at Taylor Swift’s rousing Grammy Award speech in what was clearly a response to Kanye West’s lyrical claims to “have made that bitch famous”. And there can’t be many who haven’t closely followed the outrageous circumstances surrounding the Kesha and Dr. Luke saga.
I imagine Sheppard’s also dealt with her fair share of horror stories? But she says it was never from her peers. “It was more like fans and haters. Those who said, ‘Oh she must’ve sucked lots of dick to get where she is.’ Or entire threads on forums about my arse.
“I don’t think I come across as the kind of person you should mess with. I’m very forthright in what I say. I think guys think, ‘Don’t mess with Tali’ because I would say something if they did.”
What she finds most frustrating is the lack of women on line-ups or throwaway comments, like the time she asked for a mirror in her dressing room. “I was with two backing singers. We’d arrived at the venue very late in the afternoon… the promoter told us to get changed in the toilet. I didn’t want to, because fans were already arriving. He walked out and said ‘Tali’s being a diva’.
“I’m not being a diva because I want a mirror. I’m just making a request. If that was a guy, you wouldn’t fucking have a problem with it. There are little instances like that. You know, that shit won’t wash with me.”
Equally as frustrating, she says, is the lack of respect and recognition she gets because she’s not involved in a mainstream genre. This is where I start to feel awkward; knowing of course that my first choice for this interview had foolishly been a pop star.
“It feels like women are pitched against each other. And it’s really done in this underhand way. I don’t feel like I’m taken as seriously as someone like Gin Wigmore and I just don’t understand why, because I’ve travelled internationally, I’ve won awards, I’ve put records out. And yet there’s this feeling that my genre isn’t as credible.”
Sheppard tells me about a locally-made TV talent show she once entered. She came third performing an original song. The winner and the runner-up covered pop songs. And yet she was the only one approached about a record deal.
“I turned down having a meeting with the guy. My mother was furious but I remember saying, ‘I don’t want to be a pop princess. I want to leave a legacy and make a mark that is completely different. I don’t want to conform’.”
I find that amazing. That Sheppard had the guts to walk away from a potential opportunity other young singers would’ve given anything for. She could’ve enjoyed a year or two of fame in the local charts as a pop singer. But would it have led to the lengthy, successful career – albeit largely uncelebrated in mainstream media? I doubt it.
“People think that because I belong to a scene that isn’t mainstream, I’m not successful. But I play gigs overseas all the time. I played a gig to 8000 people in Russia. They were screaming my name, lining up to take photos and sign autographs. I’m sorry, but the majority of our New Zealand pop stars don’t get that. My career started when I was 20 and I’m nearly 40 now. It’s crazy that I still feel like I’m struggling for recognition.
“But for me, it’s like, ‘Meh, whatever’. I’ve been doing it for so long now who cares. I get the recognition I deserve from the people I care about. That’s what matters.”
Sheppard’s honesty is so refreshing. I love that she’s so candid, even to the point where she doesn’t hesitate when I quiz her on her past struggles with depression. She tells me how she found solace in the best-selling book and film The Secret.
“Long story short. I’m not into the whole, ‘You can manifest yourself a new car by just thinking about it’. But what hit home was that your mind is a magnet and everything is energy and that you are able to create your own destiny through the power of your mind and through the reactions you have to others’ actions.
“I practiced this power of positive thought – making goals, writing things down and I really started to turn my life around. And habits - changing the way I thought about myself and I saw myself.”
So if she had one single piece of advice to offer a young woman wanting to do what she’s done, would it be read The Secret, sit back and imagine being super famous while it all drops on your lap? No! “You don’t just sit there and say ‘Yo, universe, bring me this opportunity’. It’s not going to happen. You have to put yourself out there and not be afraid. Fear is one of the biggest things that holds women back. Fear of failure, fear of ridicule, fear of being judged.”
Her single best piece of advice then? “Don’t compare yourself to others. Just be you and try and find a unique path.” Oh and cheeky second piece of advice: “Never give up”.
I’d like to end on that note, but of course there’s that pesky fifth question – ‘Can you pinpoint a time in your career when you were your happiest?’ It hasn’t quite sat right with me from the beginning. That said, I did like Jane Hastings’ answer. Not as much as Sheppard’s though: “I think that’s a dumb question.”
I roar with laughter. “Happiness is fleeting,” she says. “It’s something that can never be fully obtained. One of the boys from Shapeshifter said to me last year, ‘Do you think your success was at its biggest when you were signed to Full Cycle and touring he world?’ And I said ‘No, of course not, because if I’m measuring my success and my fulfillment and happiness on one point in my life, then the rest of my life is going to fucking miserable isn’t it?’
“You can’t measure happiness.”