Courtney Naera playing the piano in her home studio in Lansdowne. PHOTO/TOM TAYLOR
It’s NZ Music Month, a celebration of Aotearoa’s music and the musicians who make it. In Wairarapa, that means a celebration of our songwriters and the original music they produce. Times-Age reporter TOM TAYLOR met up with Courtney Naera in her home studio in Lansdowne to talk family, teaching, and her song “It’s Not Easy”.
The first song Courtney Naera wrote was for her baby daughter.
Courtney was living with her sister and five-month-old Alexis at the time. She wrote “It’s Not Easy” both to and about her five-month-old, touching on the frustrations of parenthood along the way.
“Sometimes I’m gonna yell,” the song begins. But it quickly follows with, “Don’t listen to a word I say, ‘cause I don’t mean it.”
“You’d do anything for them,” Courtney says of her children.
Now with five of them in the household, including her stepchildren Milarn, 15, and Latrell, 14, Courtney says that feeling hasn’t changed. However, she thinks if she were to write another song about Alexis – now 10 – it might have to be moodier.
Teenage angst must not be an issue just yet. When Courtney sang at the Relay for Life, Alexis joined her on stage.
They sang ‘Cover Me In Sunshine’’, originally performed by another mother-and-daughter duo, P!nk and Willow Sage Hart.
Courtney’s youngest boy, Asher, is also developing his talents.
“My youngest, he’s three years old, so he tries to sing. It sounds like yelling. But they’re starting to get interested. There’s music on all the time – we listen to [More FM announcer] Brent Gare every morning,” she laughs.
The driveway leading to Courtney’s house paints a picture of her priorities, with toys lining the path. One of these is a toy truck complete with a personalised plate: ‘Cassius’.
The truck belongs to Courtney’s six-year-old, who was diagnosed at an early age with lissencephaly, a rare brain disorder. Cassius has come a long way to now attend Lakeview School.
Courtney spent last year working as a teacher aide to support her son and get the school accustomed to his needs.
While she was there, she also taught the school band and choir and coached some of her pupils to success at Wellington’s Battle of the Bands.
Courtney took a step away from teaching at the beginning of the year but said her pupils had been pressuring her to get back into it.
“Everyone’s like, ‘where did you go’?”
Although her own start to singing involved a particularly awkward classical recital where Courtney forgot her words and swore in front of a crowd of ‘fancy people’, she still thanks her mum for putting her into singing lessons.
Her mum listened to a lot of early jazz: Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and their contemporaries. Courtney liked the freedom of the music, and when she started singing along, people told her that her voice sounded like Amy Winehouse. Courtney’s middle name is Valerie, and she now has a tattoo of Amy on her arm.
“I think my voice sounds really jazzy, but I prefer RnB or hip-hop music, so it’s just a weird in-between thing.”
Courtney went on to study a Certificate of Contemporary Music at Ucol – a course which no longer exists. Waiting around for the diploma to become available, she became a tutor of the certificate course.
“I was always doing peer support and helping out the kids in the class anyway, so the people at Ucol were pretty supportive. They said, ‘why don’t you just jump on and do some part time work?’”
Her day job now is at REAP Wairarapa’s Youth Employability Programme ‘Licence to Work’.
“It’s a real wrap-around service. It’s not just about them getting a job, it’s about their well-being too.”
Part of that involved singing a lot of waiata.
“If the students have a vested interest in music, then I’ll take them away and we’ll do some music. Some of them have said they want to do some rapping, and I’m like, ‘Sweet! You can come around home and we’ll do a song.’”
None of them had yet taken her up on the offer.
“Every time I actually go to bring them around, they chicken out, but the option is there.”
Courtney had only recently set up the home studio, after much nagging from her husband Charlie, who had bought her recording gear for Christmas.
In one corner, her computer is set up with digital audio workstation software Logic Pro. Against another wall is her Casio keyboard.
Although Courtney says she only developed her piano skills as an afterthought, on request she launches into a rendition of Childish Gambino’s Redbone with no hesitation.
“A lot of the singing I’ve done in the past has been recreating covers, so it’s been quite hard for me to write my own music and find my own voice, because I’ve spent so many years just doing covers and listening to other people.”
Now that the studio is set up, Courtney plans to write much more. She says the process always starts with lyrics, which often come to her when she’s on a hike at Mount Holdsworth.
“I normally start off with the words and the melody first, and then I try to put music to it. I was always a vocalist first, and then just picked up keys because I needed something to back myself.”
Because they are largely written on the move, Courtney doesn’t tend to write down the lyrics of her songs. She sings them over and over again in her head until they sound right.
“Normally, once you get the right words, you remember them.”