As a youngster, Te Karehana Gardiner-Toi, or Teeks, was never far away from singing. A musical father who wrote waiata for kapa haka groups and the lyricism of his native culture, combined with mentoring from other MÄori singers inspired him to become the self-assured performer garnering international acclaim he is today.Â
All good writers know that economy of language is a powerful thing. In an age where anyone with an internet connection can publish an unfettered play-by-play of their every movement and musing, the ability â and indeed, the choice â to say a lot with a little demonstrates a restraint that is, particularly in the case of those with a sizeable platform, increasingly something of a rarity.
Te Karehana Gardiner-Toi or Teeks, as heâs known to friends and, more recently, fans of his music, belongs to this rare breed, capable of deploying a single word to devastating effect. Which is to say, his parents werenât thrilled about the tattoo.
âI actually kind of surprised myself,â he says, tracing his fingers over the word âSurrenderâ, printed in small gothic font across his throat. âIt was pretty impulsive, and Iâm not an impulsive guy.â
From left: Teeks wears Louis Vuitton ‘Monogram’ jacquard sweater; Workshop blazer and tailored chinos
A moment of post-lockdown mania mightâve played a part, but unsurprisingly given the previous admission, thereâs a bit more to it. âIâd been reading all these books on philosophy, kind of going through a process of unlearning and relearning the language that we use every day, and the word just kept jumping off the page,â he says. âLike, what does it actually mean to surrender? All of a sudden it became this really positive affirmation for me; something that could be seen as a strength, not a weakness.â
Like a motivational quote pinned to a dream board, it was an affirmation Gardiner-Toi wanted to see every day, hence the conspicuous positioning that would peeve off even the most laidback parent. âMy dad did come around a bit when I told him what it meant… that it was a reminder to surrender to my emotions and not suppress them; to surrender to creativity, to the process of making art; and to just surrender to the present moment. Thereâs so much going on in our minds all the time, whether weâre stuck thinking about the past or worrying about the future, and Iâm sure thatâs where most of our stress and anxiety comes from,â he pauses. âIâve always been overly cautious or critical of myself and every decision I make.â
To say nothing, yet, of Gardiner-Toiâs introspective and carefully considered sound, having observed the 27-year-old both on the set of our cover shoot, and now an hour into our interview, this revelation is not in the least bit shocking. âBut I was so much worse as a kid,â he laughs. âI was painfully shy, I could barely talk. Iâm so much better now, I can actually have a conversation!â
Teeks featured on the cover of STYLE Autumn wearing Louis Vuitton Short Sleeve with Graphic
A middle child of six siblings with three older sisters and two younger brothers, Gardiner-Toi describes himself as a quiet kid who âkind of slipped under the radar at home.â His parents, both educators, moved the family around the country as different teaching opportunities came up. Of NgÄpuhi, NgÄi Te Rangi and NgÄti Ranginui descent, he recalls stretches in Tauranga where his motherâs whanau is from, Rotorua, his fatherâs turangawaewae of Opononi â a tiny settlement in the Hokianga â and finally Cooperâs Beach in the Far North, where he spent the entirety of his high school years. It was here that music started to bring him out of his shell and he began composing his own songs â a skill picked up largely by osmosis.
âBeing a MÄori kid Iâve always been around music and singing, whether at home or at school or on the marae,â he says, adding that from a very young age heâd watch his father write waiata for school kapa haka groups, âand then Iâd go along with him to training and I loved that. Those memories of hearing the kapa sing… I donât believe Iâd be where I am today were it not for that cultural foundation.â
Not just the source of his innate musicality, Gardiner-Toi also credits MÄori culture with informing his lyrical approach to songwriting. âMÄori songs are very poetic, and thatâs just a function of how the language works. You can see it with whaikĆrero, when people get up to speak on the marae. Itâs so much more than just words and sentences, itâs a language that forces you to get metaphorical and creative and you learn to be quite witty with how you weave words together and structure a story. I think thatâs been an advantage as far as my own songwriting. In high school, the songs I wrote in te reo were always much more sophisticated, but more recently Iâve been able to carry that across to the way I write in English.â
From his first EP The Grapefruit Skies, released in 2017, to his now complete debut album Something to Feel, rolled out in three parts between August 2020 and March 2021, Gardiner-Toiâs still-fledgling career has already seen him evolve from a naive, raw talent with ânone of the toolsâ, to a self-assured performer whose hauntingly soulful sound has not only set him apart among New Zealandâs music landscape, but earned him the endorsement of some of the most influential figures in the global market. They include Yvette Noelle-Schure, long-time publicist to BeyoncĂ© and the late Prince, and mastermind behind the Vogue.com feature that dubbed Teeks âthe male version of Adeleâ and one of the industryâs most promising new artists.
From left: Teeks wears R.M Williams knit sweater and AS Colour t-shirt; his own clothing
Closer to home, he has found mentors in musical heroes including Tama Waipara and Maisey Rika, who he first connected with in 2014 at Pao Pao Pao, a mentoring programme for MÄori artists run across four weekends during Matariki. âI remember we each had to work on a song and when Maisey came around to check on us, I had to sing her my idea. It was one of the hardest things Iâve ever done, but if it wasnât for that experience, I donât know if my trajectory wouldâve been the same,â he says. That song, âChangeâ, became the first track he laid down on The Grapefruit Skies, recorded in New York with the help of a producer he was put in touch with by Waipara. It was a gesture heâll be forever grateful for. âBut even just the experience of Pao Pao Pao itself and being taught by these people who I really looked up to,â he muses. âThatâs quite a big thing for a MÄori kid, to see our people doing well in the world.â
Itâs a loaded statement that points to the set of circumstances that underpin Gardiner-Toiâs identity as both a person and an artist: colonisation, problematic media stereotypes, and the institutional racism and unconscious bias that contribute to the overrepresentation of MÄori men in our countryâs crime and mental health statistics.
âWhether itâs in the movies or on the news, the picture you get reflected back to you as a MÄori male is predominantly negative, which is so wrong because we have so many amazing stories and values and traits to be proud of as a people. Thatâs what struck me so much about meeting Tama â this proud, MÄori man with a full-face moko, occupying all these spaces that, as a young, rural MÄori kid, I just couldnât begin to imagine myself in. So if I can inspire some other young kid or help open doors they didnât think were theirs to open? Thatâs something Iâve been thinking about recently, anyway.â
Key to Gardiner-Toiâs objective is dismantling preconceptions around MÄori masculinity. Part of this strategy is educating people on the interplay between the masculine and feminine in MÄori culture.
âThe most important thing to understand about MÄori culture is that we acknowledge ira tane and ira wahine, the masculine and the feminine equally, and thatâs because through our whakapapa â our fatherâs line and our motherâs line â we carry both energies inside ourselves.â
Teeks wears R.M Williams shearling coat and Country Road top
While these energies can manifest as strength and vulnerability, Gardiner-Toi explains that itâs not as simple as male equals strength, female equals weakness. He remarks that MÄori society is matriarchal, with women revered as both head and heart of the whÄnau, and that PÄkehÄ perceptions to the contrary, such as those voiced earlier this year around marae protocol, merely demonstrate an ignorant western perspective âcoloured by coloniser textsâ.
Further to that, he says, the concept of masculinity and femininity is itself a western construct.
âAnd we live in a western society so thatâs the dominant narrative, these western notions of masculinity and what it means to be a man. Being tough and not showing emotion, real men donât cry and all that … again, menâs mental health is so closely linked to these ideas, and so thatâs something Iâve been internalising for a while and that I now want to consciously communicate through my music, and I suppose my platform. That thereâs strength in vulnerability itself.â
Following his sold-out five-stop national tour in December which, by all accounts, saw audiences spellbound, Gardiner-Toi is gearing up to do just that as he takes Something to Feel on the road in the coming months.
âI love performing, itâs my favourite part of all of this, just connecting with an audience,â he says. âI write for me in the sense that itâs cathartic and helps me process stuff. I write to heal myself, not anyone else. But what Iâve realised is that if Iâm true to my feelings and emotions then the songs will resonate, because as human beings we all go through variations of the same thing. If I can get up on stage and express myself and show that itâs okay to be open about who you are and not hide your painful experiences…â
He subconsciously rubs his tattoo. âArt should be symbiotic,â he says. âI want it to speak to others as much as it benefits me.”
Photography by Guy Coombes Â· Styling by Rachel Morton Â· Grooming by Kiekie Stanners for MAC