7 rising New Zealand musicians to watch

Written by on 10/12/2021

Ask a non-New Zealander about their favourite Aotearoan artist and they’ll probably cite either Lorde or some Australian band. (They’re in his DMs, we’re 2583.3 miles away, we are not the same). But there’s a wealth of musical talent simmering on our shores that deserves a look in. Admittedly it can be hard for local artists to get a foothold overseas — especially given our borders have now been closed for almost two years. But you can do a lot with some ideas and a WiFi connection. Besides Lorde, we’ve seen indie-pop artist BENEE get a jumpstart courtesy of TikTok, and teen producer Jawsh 685 nab a global number one after tapping away in his bedroom to create “Savage Love”, one of the most distinctive melodies in recent memory. You know the one. But that’s just the beginning.

One of the upsides of living in a country regularly left off world maps is having the time to do your own thing; a bit more space to sift through a swamp of influences, skim off the gold and forge something new. As a result, in the most brilliant way, there’s no singular sound to the music coming out of Aotearoa New Zealand. The list below is proof.

Read on for the rising music stars making their mark on NZ and beyond.

Molly Payton

Listening to Molly Payton is like taking a bath in nostalgia — all yearning vocals and self-reflective lyrics that slice deep. Having grown up in New Zealand, at 16 the singer-songwriter moved to London with her mum for what was meant to be just a few months. But after making friends with the likes of Beabadoobee and Oscar Lang (who Molly just supported on a UK tour), she realised that music was actually a thing you could turn into a career. Sticking around, she began penning lyrics on the tube and soon released her debut EPs Mess and Porcupine in 2020, tracing the trials and tribulations of a teen let loose in the big city. Naturally, the lyrics are full of warm bodies, kisses in the back of the Uber and the kind of guys who quote Kerouac at you.

Molly’s latest EP, Slack, steps it up a notch. Released earlier this year, the eight tracks tread a tightrope between anguish and optimism, interrogating the paradoxical emotions that erupt after losing someone. If you need a good cry, queue up the standout single “When Skies Were Always Blue”, a melancholic yet hopeful anthem about trying to grow through uncertainty and pain. The track crescendos to an instrumental worthy of a heaving festival crowd losing its shit at golden hour. We’re hoping it’s not long until Molly gets her fair share of those.

TEEKS

Every now and then you discover an artist whose voice is so hypnotically good that you get full body shivers. TEEKS is one of those. It’s surprising, then, that he once said he was too shy to even sing in front of his own family. And while fortunately for the world, that has since changed, there’s still a quietness to his work that speaks volumes. The Māori artist – real name Te Karehana Gardiner-Toi – grew up in a small town at the top of Aotearoa, later moving to Auckland to give the music thing a proper crack.

In 2017, he released his first EP, The Grapefruit Skies, and this year followed that up with his debut album, Something To Feel. As the title suggests, it sounds like a man in touch with his emotions, with the tender tracks bleeding a rare sense of openness and vulnerability — particularly refreshing in a country that so often conditions men to lock away their feelings and swallow the key.

As well as solidifying TEEKS’ talent, the release saw him sign with Beyoncé’s publicist, and hit number one in South Africa thanks to a viral TikTok trend (couple montages set to his impossibly romantic ballad “First Time”). It doesn’t hurt that his face is just as beautiful as his voice.

CHAII

When CHAII moved from Iran to Aotearoa aged eight, the first thing she heard was Eminem — thus she was rapping fluently in English before she even spoke the language. It figures, then, that CHAII has grown up to spin some impressive bars in both English and Farsi, as heard on her 2017 breakout single “Digebasse”. Since then, the (deep breath) rapper, writer, producer, audio engineer and video director has continued to expertly blend contemporary hip-hop elements with traditional Persian rhythms, carving out her own distinctive sound in the process. CHAII celebrates the combining of cultures visually, too, with music videos shot everywhere from Oman to Joshua Tree and Hamilton.

This year saw the release of her latest EP, Pineapple Pizza and, unlike its controversial namesake, there’s nothing not to like about it. The title track will have you bopping your head on the bus and flicking off the guy screwing you round, while “Get It Done” highlights the artist’s smirking flow and wry sense of humour. As well as soundtracking a FENDI campaign, CHAII’s tracks have even bagged her slots on a trifecta of gaming greats — FIFA, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and Fortnite. Game on.

Balu Brigada

Balu Brigada is an actual band of brothers making tunes stacked with hooks that’ll run circles around your brain for days. Henry and Pierre Beasley grew up teaching themselves how to write, produce and play multiple instruments before officially becoming a band when younger brother Pierre was old enough to pass as 18 and play gigs in bars. Their name has its origins in the Jungle Book character Baloo — “the ultimate chiller,” they say — which morphed into Balu Brigada when they decided they didn’t want to get sued by Disney.

Their 2019 Almost Feel Good mixtape established their sound at the intersection between sunny and melancholic, but it’s the new singles from their forthcoming EP (set to drop early 2022) that really see them level up. The funk-laced “Favourite Clothes” laments the age-old pain of someone running off with your best fits post break up; “Preview” slows the tempo down with a yearning ode to wanting more from someone, while “Number One” hits the gas on their brand of upbeat bops. The video, from up-and-coming young director Riley Coughlin, features the boys hooning around Auckland in a vintage Merc under blue skies. It’s a joyride you’ll want in on.

Leaping Tiger

Leaping Tiger is the brainchild of Jacob Park, a multi-instrumentalist and producer who first hit the scene in 2017 with his debut EP Cool Down. Across his already vast discography, you’ll find an extensive roll call of genres and influences: his beats skate through R&B, hip-hop and dance while clearly nodding to influences like SOPHIE, Kaytranada and Flume. While his previous releases have seen him anchored behind the laptop screen, for his 2021 sophomore album Soulsleep, he’s put a voice to the name for the first time in highlight track “Gooey”.

After seeing an ex’s new partner on Instagram, he used the word to describe that rank vomit-in-your-throat jealousy everyone pretends they don’t get. And while it may feel like pure shit, he makes it sound mighty nice, with synths shimmering over a grimy bassline and smooth vocals we’d like to hear more of. An arbiter of good taste, Jacob also cherry picked a handful of top collaborators for some of the tracks — including Maxwell Young and imugi 이무기, two names to watch in their own right — as well as recently launching a platform called ESP (Extra Sensory Perception), in an effort to create not just a stellar back catalog, but a whole creative world.

JessB

A few years ago, JessB was all set for a career as a professional netball player. And while getting dropped from her team was inevitably a gut punch, it was also one of the things that led JessB to hip-hop. Turns out, the sliding doors moment worked out incredibly well for her — she recently jumped on an official remix of Saweetie and Doja Cat’s Best Friend and has opened for the likes of Stormzy and Little Simz. But JessB is not just a feature artist. As her 2020 EP 3 Nights In Amsterdam proves, she’s got the effortless beats and bars to make it big in her own right.

JessB has also found the time to co-found Auckland club night FILTH with the DJ Half Queen. Their aim is to provide a safe space for QPOC while plugging a hole in Auckland’s nightlife scene, and this year they hosted NZ’s first Boiler Room. Auckland has just spent about four months under strict lockdown, so the next FILTH night will no doubt be a sweat-fuelled screamer — after all, as JessB raps on “09 to the World Freestyle”, “If you don’t do it for your hometown, who else will?”

Kiki Rockwell

With a name that sounds like a Lana del Rey track, Kiki Rockwell is the newest of this list to launch, having just dropped their debut EP. Previously a member of local indie band The Leers, the German-Kiwi had clearly been chipping away at their own writing and production skills on the side. Their efforts have culminated in Bleeding Out in a Forest, a series of folk-infused pop tracks laden with haunting vocals, atmospheric soundscapes and lyrics that resemble R-rated fairy tales.

Kiki showcases their expertise in world-building with the video for “Same Old Energy”, which features a coven of vintage maidens writhing their way around a bonfire in peak The Witch vibes. The cosplay continues over on Kiki’s TikTok — one day they’re a pirate whispering salty nothings; the next, a shotgun-wielding nun. Somehow you get the sense that Kiki Rockwell’s barely scratched the surface with their storytelling, and we’re hanging on every word.

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