WHEN TE KAREHANA GARDINER-TOI opens his mouth to sing, there’s an undeniable melancholy that drifts through each note. At 30 years old, the award-winning Māori singer’s distinctive baritone comes in smooth waves; it’s the kind of soulful delivery most singers can only dream of owning.
Breaking into the New Zealand music industry with his debut EP The Grapefruit Skies in 2017, Te Karehana, better known as Teeks, has manoeuvred through the industry at a slow and steady pace–much like the way in which he performs his catalogue of mesmerising, melancholy ballads; or at times, heart-wrenching covers of some of his personal favourites, from Amy Winehouse’s ‘Love Is A Losing Game’ to a silky rendition of Bonnie Raitt’s classic ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’. There was not a dry eye in the house when he performed the latter live at Auckland’s Civic Theatre in 2022.
But no matter the tune, what resonates most is the emotion in Teeks’ storytelling, which is all the more evocative when rendered in his distinctive deep timbre.
Teeks grew up in Hokianga, on the west coast of NZ’s North Island. As a kid, he recalls his father playing “everyone from Bob Marley to Stevie Wonder”. “All the classics,” says the musician. “But the songs that I naturally gravitate towards are ballads; generally sad songs. Just the feeling of melancholy and sadness is quite healing for me. Not just listening to them but singing them too. It’s weird. I understand they’re sad songs, but I feel like I am able to express so much.”
At home, his Māori heritage was also celebrated; he was surrounded by kapa haka (traditional Māori song and dance) and was encouraged to learn te reo Māori, the Eastern Polynesian language spoken by the Indigenous population of mainland New Zealand. No doubt, his rich mix of cultural influences had a formative impact on his ability to tell stories, as well as his evocative style.
“I love storytelling,” he says, as we sip coffee around the corner from his studio space in Auckland. “So I lean into the art of it. The majority of the time, it’s from my own lived experience, too. When I lean into my own lived experiences, it weirdly becomes universal, because people have relative experiences. They can connect in some way.”
The studio where he writes and records music has been recently renovated; Teeks’ beloved companion Āpa, a bulldog he adopted just before the Covid lockdowns, accompanies us on a tour of the digs. The artist is currently in his ‘creative season’, which is industry speak for a period when record labels give artists the time and space to channel ideas into what will eventually become their next record. Fresh from a European summer, Teeks is taking the opportunity to prioritise his creativity and his own wellbeing.
“I don’t have a nine-to-five job. So I have to structure my days myself. When I’m in creative season, I like trying to keep to a routine as much as I can. Whether it’s working on a big show or being in the studio recording. This is where I feel like I’m the happiest. This is my flow state.
“I enjoy taking my time and just honouring my own process and not letting myself be swept up into the machine of this industry just for the sake of appeasing other people,” he continues. “The way that people consume music is so rapid and people’s attention spans are so short. People want new music. When you put out a new song or an album, they’ll quickly want something new within a month. I just don’t have that type of output.”
It’s a pace of working that he’s committed to after a particularly busy three years that saw him release his debut album Something to Feel in 2021, before embarking on a nationwide tour in 2022. He closed out 2022 with his biggest concert to date at Auckland’s Spark Arena in November, an experience that challenged him for the better.
“I had so much anxiety,” he recalls. “At some moments I was unsure if it was going to work… We even had some technical difficulties a week out from the show. There were moments where I would doubt myself and you go through this wave of emotions at the time. But for me, it was about ensuring people were able to come and have a good experience, to take something away; something that’s long-lasting and memorable, you know?”
That same month, Teeks picked up three key awards at the Aotearoa Music Awards, including Best Solo Artist, Best Soul/RnB Artist and Best Māori Artist; he also won Best New Artist at the 2022 Panhead Rolling Stone Aotearoa Awards. The singer says he’s grateful for the recognition, but for him, the priority comes down to creating music that moves people.
“As an artist, you kind of figure out quickly what really matters,” he says contemplatively. “I mean, it’s nice to be acknowledged, but I guess your priorities shift when you understand what success really means.”
Another major priority for Teeks is preserving his mother tongue through song. He notes that in recent years, a newfound resurgence in the language has ushered in a concerted effort for te reo revitalisation, opening up conversations around the necessity of honouring the language across all industries, including music.
“I definitely think there’s progress, especially within the last couple years,” he reflects, nodding to projects like Waiata / Anthems (an album of popular songs re-recorded in Māori by some of New Zealand’s biggest musicians including Bic Runga, Stan Walker and Lorde). “Projects like this allow the Māori language to simply exist. Maybe as recently as five years ago you wouldn’t really hear Māori songs on mainstream radio. So I think we’ve come a long way, but there’s definitely still a long way to go.”
Part of the complexity of the issue is acknowledging how the ongoing impact of colonisation means the majority of Māori grew up without their ancestral language and have subsequently felt the ripple effect. For Teeks, it’s about ensuring authenticity is delivered when advocating for the language through his music, and in turn, ensuring the intention of the lyrics are true to meaning.
“It’s about getting to a place where we don’t have to translate anymore, where we can just write in Māori,” he says. “Singing in Māori is much more personal,” he acknowledges. “Even when I speak Māori, I feel different. Like, I have a different personality. I just feel like a different person. It’s my first language.
Māori pride also dovetails into another of Teeks’ creative passions: fashion. At New Zealand Fashion Week in September, a surprise call from leading Māori fashion designer Kiri Nathan saw him walk down the runway in one of her designs. Although Māori designers have long been a key part of the Fashion Week schedule over the years, Kiri was the first solo Māori fashion designer to have the honour of officially opening New Zealand Fashion Week in its 20-year history.
Teeks’ outfit posed as another conversation around Māori and Pasifika pride within a contemporary Aotearoa context. Comprised of a tailored denim blazer matched with a wrap skirt, a pair of boots and a large pounamu (greenstone) pendant adorning his neck, the look was representative of how local creatives continue to decolonise predominantly white spaces, particularly in the creative industries.
“I’m not a model,” he laughs. “But I just thought about the significance of that moment. I’ve been through this journey of decolonising and unlearning things we’ve been conditioned [to think] by society–including what it means to be a man and embracing both masculine and feminine parts of who I am.”
Indeed, personal style plays another part in the artist’s creative process. “My style has grown after releasing my first album,” he acknowledges. “I’ve always loved clothes, but I wasn’t confident in terms of being able to experiment or figure out the connection between fashion and self-expression. Eventually, I got to a point where I was like, Oh, it’s the same thing as music. It’s like I’m expressing myself. Like no matter what I wear, it doesn’t matter what other people think. Realising this was a defining moment for me.”
For his Esquire photoshoot, Teeks was able to explore the latest Ermenegildo Zegna collection in Wanaka at the iconic private ski area of Soho Basin. As we chat about the experience, which saw him sport the brand’s trademark cashmere sweaters and alpine-friendly outerwear, we laugh at how, as North Islanders, we rarely get the chance to make the trek down to the South.
“That was actually my first time in Queenstown!” he exclaims. “I was like, OK. I understand now. It’s so beautiful. It feels like a different country. I’m a Northland boy so I never had the need to travel to the Deep South. I’ve done shows in Christchurch and Dunedin, but I’ve never really seen snow like that. It inspired me to do a proper road trip. Maybe it’s time to really see my country,” he says, with a contemplative smile.
WITH NEW ZEALAND still dealing with the aftermath of the January floods and the impact of a fraught election year, the summer months beckon for some continued respite and creative inspiration for the singer, before returning to the summer festival circuit—he’ll perform at the Homegrown Music Festival in March. It’s a further opportunity to do what he loves most—connect with people through music.
“I just really want to focus more on enriching my life as much as I can right now and that means establishing and maintaining relationships with people, whether that’s friendships or whether it’s romantic relationships,” he says, his face looking toward the light.
“I don’t want to get down the road and regret not slowing down and taking the time to be present with my life and also with other people. Because ultimately, this is what matters the most in the end.”
Photography: Benn Jae
Styling: Grant Pearce
Grooming: Lochlain Stonehouse using Aesop Skincare
Photography assistants: Adam Walker and Heather Treston
Location: Soho Basin, with support from Release Wānaka and Lake Wānaka Tourism.
This story appears in the October/November 2023 issue of Esquire Australia. Subscribe here.