Hawera-born singer/songwriter Bailey Wiley takes the spirit of classic R&B and neo-soul, and reframes it inside modern electronic production, in the process creating songs that pay homage to the sounds of the late 90s/early 2000s, while also looking forward into the far-flung future of music. Having spent time living in Christchurch, Dunedin, Berlin, and Auckland, she’s cultivated a talent for prophetic lyrics, syrupy melodies, and a captivating stage-show. When deployed in combination with her hip-hugging beats of choice (as provided by the likes of Ben Esser, Eno, and Soraya), these hard-earned talents have seen her connect with audiences around the country time and time again. Be it through nightclub, theatre show, or festival stage performances, over the last six years, Bailey’s become a familiar face around New Zealand. Fresh off dropping ‘Lady,’ and in the lead up to the release of her NZ On Air funded music video for ‘Penultimate,’ she connected with us for a wide-ranging interview.
Over the last year, Bailey’s been involved in Manawa Ora, the flagship project of South Auckland’s Ngā Rangatahi Toa: an arts-mentoring and transition program that connects the top creative talent of Aotearoa with rangatahi who have been excluded from mainstream education. Manawa Ora sees creatives like Bailey workshopping one-on-one with young people from alternative education backgrounds to create and present a series of one-act plays, performance pieces, installation works and songs in front of a live theatre audience.
As someone who went through alternative education as a teenager, before studying performing arts and music in Christchurch and Dunedin, Bailey has been relishing the opportunity to give back and help the next generation. She’s the person she needed when she was younger. Working with rangatahi helps keep Bailey connected to the challenges faced by young people in New Zealand today, and has given her cause to reflect on her experiences as a teenager.
In the conversation below, Bailey discusses all of the above, and offers her thoughts on New Zealand’s recent political shift, coming up as a musician under a National government, and opening up to your audience on a deeper and more personal level.
Header photo by Eliza Trubuhovich
Before we kick off, can you define alternative education in your own words?
Alternative education, from my understanding, is based around more creative themes. That is what it was for me. The way I learned how to do maths and English was based around music and arts. You would use creative forms to teach yourself school basics. From my knowledge, there are two ways [you end up in alternative education]. One would be maybe you were playing up in high school, and you were kicked out. The other would be you couldn’t keep up with the curriculum because your brain was wired differently.
To me, was one of the big failings of the education system when I was in high school. The one size fits all approach.
Exactly. I look at the kids I have been working with, a lot of them were kicked out of school. Me on the other hand, I wasn’t kicked out of school, but I couldn’t keep up. My brain wasn’t wired the same. I’m not a dumb person. It’s just the education system didn’t work for me. I think alternative education is more broad in a sense nowadays. It’s definitely more open. I remember when I went to alternative education fifteen years ago, it was a bit “Ooohhh okay,” but now it’s probably got a better light around it. It isn’t just for “dumb kids” or “bad kids” anymore.
You’ve been involved in two seasons of Manawa Ora as a youth mentor. What sort of perspective has this given you on the challenges young people in New Zealand face?
I think the biggest shift for me was seeing the kids on day one and seeing them on the last day. The emotional and mental shift was massive. To be honest with you, I don’t know what sort of support they have at home. We have bosses above us that manage that. What we see of them is them in their purest form trying to be creative. I think a big part of it is having the tools to be creative, but also having someone to stand beside you. Someone to have faith in what you are doing, and believe your product is amazing and should be looked after.
Can you expand a bit more on the sorts of worldviews you’re seeing in the kids?
One of our big themes we explored together this time was freedom. That was the biggest theme for the last performance. I don’t want to speak on behalf of the rangatahi, but from my perspective, I think their fear is not being heard and not being able to use their voice. I’m talking in social settings, and maybe within their families as well. Being heard is the biggest thing. They’re young, but they should still have a voice.
The feeling of voicelessness is a big part of what people don’t engage in a lot of areas. If you don’t feel like your voice will be heard, why would you bother speaking?
I think another thing which is aligned with this, and I saw this in myself as well is this: kids like me from Hawera don’t usually get opportunities like the ones I’ve been given this year – for example going to Chicago for Red Bull Sound Select. I think the kids might feel that same buzz; they might feel like they shouldn’t get these opportunities. They just see that shiny stuff on TV, but what we’re trying to teach them is, if you work hard and you believe in yourself, you will be able to get those opportunities.
If you knew where I’m from, twenty years ago I would have never thought that I would be doing what I am doing today. It all comes down to mindset, and that’s what we are trying to rewrite. Mindset is everything. Growth mindset is something I stand by every day. Growth mindset is everything. If you get a wall in front of you, you can be the kind of person who says, “Oh, there is a massive wall in front of me!” or you can say “No!” In my eyes, if a barrier comes up, that makes me work harder, because since I got this far, why not go further. This sort of attitude is something we are trying to implement in them. Don’t be a no man, be a yes man.
Shot by Eliza Trubuhovich
Does working in this space take you back to being a teenager?
Hardout. I think when I was younger, I didn’t have a lot of support around being in alternative education. I went to a great school and whatnot, but we didn’t even find out I had dyslexia until I went to university. So, yes, I was looked after, but we still didn’t find out the problem. The resources just weren’t there. One thing that is different working with Manawa Ora and Nga Rangatahi Toa is they do have the resources. They are reaching these kids on a deeper level to how I was reached when I was younger. Nga Rangatahi Toa is bringing out so many colours in these kids that they have never seen or experienced in themselves. That is huge, and it’s kaupapa based. Not only that, but that they feel educated and safe, and are actually finding out who they are. For me, it took a longer because I didn’t have the support. My education was ruthless, so if I can help make a change in two weeks or two days, or even after the projects are over, I’ll be there.
How have you felt about the recent political shift in New Zealand?
Initially, I didn’t think that Labour would win. I was really dark about it, but we had that shift, and Labour ended up winning. I have a lot of faith in Jacinda Arden. I believe, and know, that New Zealand is ready for a change, because what is happening right now isn’t working. Fundamentally, there are a lot of problems going on, especially within the housing area, and issues like our youth not being cared for properly. I have faith in the process, and I have faith in her. I’m really really excited to see the changes that are going to happen because we need them.
Also, to have a prime minister, who I believe has more compassion, and is more empathetic to what is really going on, and not just shoving that shit under the rug, that means a lot to me. Jacinda doesn’t just see things through rose-colored glasses. She can take those off and look at our society with a real eye. That’s pretty important. I only really know Labour voters, I don’t know National voters at all, so it’s really nice to have someone who has come from the same buzz as us in charge. My manager Jaz is friends with her, and if she’s aligning herself with people like that, I feel safe. I think it’s the thing of being able to [finally] breathe out and relax a bit. It’s in someone else’s hands [now], but it’s in the hands of someone we trust.
When you reflect back, what was it like coming up as a musician under a National government?
It’s interesting. I remember talking to Ladi6 about this one day. She was giving me props because, on a financial tip, she said when she was on the come up and my age, they had a benefit for artists. I was like, “Sis; I am straight up not surviving.” She was like, “This is the thing B, this why everything is so different for you young ones. We had the financial support, so we could produce music a lot faster and put it out a lot faster because we weren’t working full-time jobs as well.” If we had kept that system in place, the music from my generation would happen so much faster. Especially in Auckland, our rent is through the roof, and I am scraping through every week, but it’s just part of it. The fact my generation doesn’t have the government’s support really stands in the way.
On the one hand, your accomplishments are completely your own, but on the other hand, you could argue there is a link between the big bands of the early 2000s and having that support.
You see it in festival line-ups. I think they are slowly evolving, but all the headliners are pretty much the same as they were ten to fifteen years ago. I think a lot of that has to do with the financial support those musicians had at the time, but at the same time, I’m not saying they weren’t dropping gnarly music.
If you really want it, you’ll find a way, right?
That’s the best part, if you want it, you will get it. Even if you have no money, you’ll find a way. Plus, we have the internet these days, so we shouldn’t complain that much. You don’t need a record label anymore.
When you look at the landscape you’re operating in, what do you see as the big challenges for your generation of musicians?
I think the biggest challenge for us is making that leap overseas and having the support to do so. I don’t really mess with mainstream radio stations, and I understand they want to play hit music, but if they did choose songs from my generation, they might become hits. That would be very supportive, but they just don’t do that. So, I think the challenge is also getting that mainstream umbrella on our side. My friends and I who are musicians like to hold a certain sense of authenticity. If we don’t fall under that mainstream bracket for radio, well, we’re not too bothered. We don’t want to be changed, and we’re not going to dilute our product to fit somebody else. That’s probably another challenge we face, being okay and content with what we are doing and what we have. It isn’t about pats on the back and being told, “well done;” it’s about being content with where things are at.
The way you gain a fan determines their value in my opinion. When someone discovers you by seeing you live, they connect with you in a way they might not through just hearing your recordings.
The diehard fans are lit. Someone like Princess Nokia, she has such a gnarly authenticity and really knows who she is, so when people tap into her, there is a finesse about her they are wooed by. She’s an intelligent bad bitch. You don’t have to wear a bikini and be in hoe videos to be cool. You can read Harry Potter and do whatever you want. That’s pretty dope aye.
I watched this documentary in the weekend about George Michael. We’ve all heard his tracks and seen his journey somewhat. As a youngin, I wasn’t the biggest fan. However, once I understood his story and who he was, I fell in love with him so much more, because I gained an understanding of where his songs came from and why he wrote them. I think when you gain an understanding of an artist, not just their lyrics, you fan out so much more. It was the same with the Lady Gaga documentary; I was like, “Whoa, this woman is fucking lit.”
It’s important to find these ways to share stories that support your music.
Artists write songs, and then the audience takes away what they believe. They say, “I feel like she wrote this song about it me.” Once you get into the nitty-gritty, and what that moment or piece of writing was about, it could be something completely fucking different. After that, you see their story and art in a completely different light. I go ga-ga over that shit.
This is a big part of why people can be reluctant to explain their art.
I think that was how I felt about this piece initially. I didn’t want to share too much. But at the same time, I think being comfortable sharing certain things is important. Also, after watching these [George Michael and Lady Gaga] documentaries, I’ve understood this whole concept in a better light. It’s actually a beautiful thing to share these parts of myself and not a hindrance. You don’t have to tell your darkest secrets. It can just be about sharing your perspective. A lot of my friends would say I am a closed book. In a lot of ways, the only time I’m completely and deeply honest is when I write. Ain’t that some shit.
This interview has been edited and condensed.