Teeks explains why it’s important for him to slow down and stay connected to te ao Māori. Photo / Dean Purcell
Kiwi singer-songwriter Teeks is about to take the stage, headlining a show at Auckland’s Spark Arena on November 12. Here he talks about staying true to himself in a world obsessed with social media, why
it will take time and importance to keep in touch with te ao Māori.
Before anyone knew the name Teeks, Te Karehana Gardiner-Toi (Ngāi Te Rangi, Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāpuhi) played small pop-up gigs under gazebos to distracted crowds.
Now, in a few weeks, he’ll be playing a one-man show in front of thousands of fans at one of the biggest venues in the country, the Spark Arena.
Between these two very different milestones were her debut EP The Grapefruit Skies, her acclaimed debut album Something to Feel, sold-out national tours and an ever-growing collection of music accolades, including accolades from MTV and Rolling Stone.
Last year alone, he won three Tūī Awards, including Best Solo Artist.
With that kind of momentum, the natural next step would be a second album and expanding her reach on the world stage.
But instead, the 28-year-old is taking a break.
“My top priority right now is my own mental, physical, and spiritual well-being; that should always come first. If you take care of yourself first, you can take care of others,” Teeks says.
“I have to make sure I keep my feet on the ground and do the inner work because it’s hard…sometimes you get carried away with life, especially because of the lifestyle you have as a ‘artist.”
Since my first interview with Teeks, five years and all of the aforementioned milestones have passed. He has become much more grounded, confident and sure of himself – and much busier. But past that, not much has changed. He is always humble, always introspective and always thinks “less is more when it comes to words”.
He also says “he still loves it, he still loves what I do, and he still feels very grateful. But to be honest, I feel like my life hasn’t changed drastically. in terms of the day-to-day. The most important thing is that I’ve reached a point in my career where it’s become financially self-sufficient. I don’t have to work part-time anymore, I can make music at full time and really just focus on that,” he says.
However, this comes with its own challenges.
When he began his musical career, Teeks worked part-time as a Maori reo teacher and before that in retail. But now he only focuses on music, one of his biggest challenges in taking care of his well-being is managing his own time and with that, his own expectations.
“I’ve found that I have to work hard to maintain some type of structure, some type of routine in my life. If I can stick to a routine and can check things off throughout day, so I can maintain some sense of accomplishment,” he says.
However, the problem with that, he says, is “I think, like most people, I attach a lot of my self-esteem to my productivity. It’s something I still struggle with.
“I don’t feel like I’m doing enough and I find it hard to intentionally rest or shut down. What if I really feel like sitting down and watching Netflix or doing something relaxing, so I feel guilty. I’m trying to rewire my brain, but it’s hard. It’s definitely a process.”
His desire to change that way of thinking isn’t just part of the reason he’s willing to take a break, but it’s impacted everything from the style of music he makes, to the way he designs his Spark Arena show, and even how he interacts with fans, including creating an air of mystery around his personality.
“The goal has always been to be as authentic as possible as an artist. I was intentional in how I let people see me and know who I am and what I stand for, but I I’m naturally an introvert, I’m naturally quite a shy person, so we just incorporated that into my branding,” he laughs.
That’s why you probably won’t see him posting a new video every six hours or endorsing a new brand every two days. Something he’s keen to do, especially in the social media realm, is to challenge the status quo.
“People are so overstimulated and the world is so oversaturated with content these days, so it’s kind of refreshing, you know? You don’t just want to be part of the noise, you kind of want to do the opposite. I get it the power of these tools, especially for artists… and I’ve also taken advantage of social media, I know that. But as much as my team tells me, you know, “do more TikToks”, I don’t I don’t consider myself a content creator either. If it feels natural — like singing a song — I don’t mind, but I’m not going to do a TikTok just to do a TikTok.”
Another reason to slow down, and another major aspect of his well-being, is to maintain his connection with te ao Māori.
Growing up te ao Māori with te reo Māori as her first language, Teeks has never struggled to understand this connection…until now.
Now he lives in Tāmaki Makaurau with less time to return home—Tauranga on his mother’s side, the Far North on his father—and less time to focus on reo. Also, without her Mahi teaching the language to others, her opportunities to speak Maori on a day-to-day basis have dwindled.
So this year he had to specifically take a step back and make time for that. He studies te reo at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa once a week and, despite some difficulty fitting it into his schedule, he says “it has been invaluable”.
“It’s so easy to detach when you’re working in this industry and even just living in town, I’m away from home and can’t come home as often as I would like – going to the marae and see my nan. Those things are so important as Māori to our sense of identity, so I wanted to make sure I was doing something to keep me connected, to ground myself, and the language was a gateway obvious towards that,” he says.
“It’s hard. I used to make excuses and say I don’t have time, but this year it was like ‘if it’s a priority for me, I have to devote to it time”. I’m not going to lie, it’s been hard and I’ve fallen behind on all my assignments but I’m doing it. I’m trying. And I think it’s been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. have taken.”
His next flagship show is no exception to this way of thinking either.
For one thing; despite its size and scale, its goal is still to get people to slow down, breathe, and pay attention to their feelings.
“I want it to be intimate and immersive. I want people to cry, to laugh, to take this journey with me. The album is called Something To Feel and that’s what I try to do with my music, with my show – to remind people of our humanity, to reconnect and be more in touch with our emotions,” he says.
“It’s the journey; to unpack and understand this side of ourselves and understand the healing and wellness that comes with it. It’s reconnecting to our traditional pre-colonial value systems; Indigenous peoples have always known the importance of that, and the importance of our emotional intelligence.”
More importantly, the show itself is a way for Teeks to wrap up this chapter of his life and career before taking his hiatus.
This is the purpose of the Spark show: a farewell, in a way.
“Last year I released my first album and now I’m kind of at the end of it, so this show is almost like a marker and an acknowledgment of this journey with this album, a way of telling the review and report the next phase… what’s to come. So I’m excited about that. I’m excited about the unknown.
He says “the unknown” because so far he has only done one project: travel.
Two or three years stuck at home thanks to Covid have left Teeks eager to get out and explore, perhaps try living abroad for the first time. His sights are on New York or London, big cities with big music scenes where he already has both professional and personal support networks.
More importantly, he says; “I just want to experience life. I’m in no rush to release another album, I think I still have some time ahead of me and I think it’s really important because I need substance .”
This is a scary step for any artist; intentionally stepping away from their work, especially when their career has gained such momentum and is constantly on the rise.
But again, it’s a testament to the kind of slowdown Teeks is aiming for.
“I just try to keep the fire inside me, to maintain the love I have for the creative process and not get caught up in the end result because it’s easy to do; when you’re so focused on a goal you love to forget or miss small things,” he muses.
“I feel like I’m in a really good place. I’ve settled in really well and I just want to keep growing, keep climbing that maunga.”
Photographer: Dean Purcell
Hair and makeup: Elise Anderson