Five Questions with Kirsten Te Rito

18 October 2023

Multi award-winning vocalist and songwriter Kirsten Te Rito (Rongomaiwahine, Ngāti Kahungunu) is one of our two commissioned artists at this year's Wellington Jazz Festival.

Te Rito will premiere her new work Māreikura at Meow on Sunday 29 October. Rooted in Māori cosmology and drawing inspiration from the stories of wāhine Māori atua (Māori goddesses), Māreikura channels the divine through improvisation, rhythm and soundscape. Audiences are in for a treat as Te Rito will also debut songs from her new album, Collisions.

I caught up with Kirsten and asked her five questions about her upcoming show and more.

What can audiences expect from your Wellington Jazz Festival gig?

I will be debuting a new piece written especially for the festival, titled Māreikura. It is a 25-minute journey through my perspectives, relationships and feelings around four of our Atua Wāhine (Māori goddesses) - Hine-tītama, Hine Raukatauri, Mahuika and Hine-Nui-Te-Pō. With the help of my amazingly talented band, we will take the audience on a beautiful psychedelic journey to another realm. We'll be filling the space with layers of voice, Taonga Puoro, synthesizers, pulsating beats and lush piano and guitar. The piece begins with a looped porotiti (Taonga Puoro wind instrument) and ends with a high energy dance vibe with lots of drums and percussion. We'll also be giving you a taste of some music from my upcoming album Collision.

Can you tell us a little bit about the musicians you’ll be working with, and why you chose them for this project?

For those of you that know me, you'll know that it's rare that I step on stage without with my partner in life and music, pianist James Illingworth. He is an amazingly intuitive player. The thing I love about performing with him the most is his ability to steer and push the band to new heights whilst improvising. He never shies away from stretching out and flexing, and that often makes for a wild and exciting ride for both the audience - and everyone on stage.

Darren Mathiassen (Shapeshifter, Kora) is on drums. He is an absolute powerhouse, a human metronome and will literally go anywhere the music takes him. I know that no matter what he will always have my back on the bandstand.

Johnny Lawrence is on bass, and has the grooves of doom. He’ll be playing upright, electric and some synth bass too. Between him and Darren they are one of the most solid and creative rhythm sections around.

Tyna Keelan will be joining us on guitar. He has a similar ability to James, that he plays straight from the soul and excels at improv and shredding which I love! He is also an award-winning composer and this really shines through in his playing.

Drummer and DJ Cory Champion is joining us on percussion. He always finds the sweet spot and sits right in the pocket and carves it out and adds so much taste and flavour to the mix.

My sister in song Lisa Tomlins, will be joining us on backing vocals. Lisa and I have been singing together for many years. We have an amazing blend and can bend to each other on the fly. She has such an endearing vocal tone and is the best there is at picking out harmonies. I have learnt a lot from her over the years.

Because of our long history of all playing together in the Wellington music scene, there is almost a sixth sense or type of telepathy that happens when we all get onstage. It is a very strong group of musicians and I love being in amongst that real-time creativity that they all possess.

Can you give us a glimpse into your composition process?

I like to have a story, an intention, a plan before I begin. After I’ve developed the idea in my mind and on paper, then it's all about the vibe and how it makes me feel. I work hard on choosing the right sound before I even attempt to put down any chords or a melody. I use Logic to make demos or guide tracks for my compositions and I like my sessions to be organised, labelled, colour coded and tidy so that once I’m in the zone I can move quickly and efficiently as the ideas often roll quite quickly.

I also like working on different sections separately, then piecing them together and making transitions to join them up. If I find I’m getting stuck on a particular section, I’ll step away and do something completely different where my thoughts can float away, like cook dinner or paint something and then I’ll come back to it later hopefully with a clear head. I nearly always write with my husband James, our different skills compliment each other very well. Often I’ll put down my ideas and then ask him to come and play it better because he can!

What’s next for you?

I’m planning a tour for next year. I really want to play live more and I’m focused on getting my new music out and sharing it with audiences. I’m building up to releasing new tracks from our upcoming album Collision and I can’t wait to share the stories within the songs.

What have you listened to recently that has had a big impact on you and why?

I have been revisiting Te kū te whē by Hirini Melbourne and Richard Nuns. I especially love the track "Purerehua". Under times of stress or busyness its wonderful to put it on loop and just float away. I also found the track "Raukatauri" hugely inspirational in writing Māreikura. The way the Taonga Puoro, voice and breaths are captured in the recording make it sound very intimate as if they are being played right by your ear. If you listen to it outside in the dark or looking up at the night sky you are immediately transported to somewhere else.

Kirsten Te Rito will perform Māreikura at Meow on Sunday 29 October. You can purchase tickets here.