One of New Zealand's most promising new artists is Niko Walters, of Te Rarawa, Te Aupouri, Ngāpuhi, who recently released his debut EP Escape.
Musical talent runs through his whānau, with his brother Matiu the lead singer of New Zealand's favourite band, Six60.
But Niko’s music is quite different from his brother’s. It combines soul, R&B, hip hop and pop but, importantly, Niko’s songs share his story about overcoming his own struggles with mental health.
“It’s about love at its core but it kind of talks to some of the real gritty highs and lows of love, and it also intertwines personal themes and experiences that I’ve been through from some sort of mental issues, some addiction stuff,” Niko says.
Addiction to prescription medication
He says he has struggled in the past with substance abuse after becoming addicted to prescription medication.
“I wasn’t in an alleyway buying dodgy stuff off people in streets. I was getting medication from doctors, which was what I thought was the correct way to deal with my problems and going to the Remuera pharmacy and picking this stuff up", he says.
“That escalated and I ended up developing some quite series habits with using prescription medication which forms a big part of my story now.”
As a young man, he sees the importance of speaking up about mental health.
“Especially as a young Māori male there’s always been that element of whakamā about mental health," he says.
“It’s just as important as physical health and it’s not something to be ashamed of.”
He hopes his music and story will help others realise they’re not alone.
“It’s normal to go through hard times and it’s not something that you should judge yourself for. Be kind on yourself. Everyone in the world goes through hard times and it’s not your fault and there’s hope. So I suppose, hopefully, having songs out there and telling my story can potentially give that hope to other people as well.”
One of the first songs he released was Moving On.
“That was when I was kind of coming out of my lowest with regards to substance abuse. It was just a way of kind of dumping all; those emotions out and telling my story in that way.”
There are eight different songs in his new EP including Escape, Not My Neighbour, Old With Me, Close My Eyes, Be There, Stay, Sinner and Colourblind.
“Escape is the first song on the new album which relates to all those personal inner demons and how that can affect a relationship,” he says.
Starting out as a solo artist
Niko says while he has always had a love for music but never planned to become a musician.
“It just sort of happened by chance. I never decided that I wanted to share my music with the world. It was always just treated as a hobby for me and a way of life, with family as we got around together and everyone played the guitar and sang songs," he says.
“My brother chose to go in that direction at a young age and that was his conscious choice and it was never something that I really ever considered or that I aspired to do.”
But his journey as a solo artist sparked up when he was living in London as part of his two-year OE.
“I had a week where I had time on my hands and I just decided to write a bunch of songs and put out a little mixtape, which was like 20 songs.”
That mixtape gathered a little underground hype on Sound Cloud, he says.
“When I got home I was approached by a few labels and started having those discussions and connected with the team at Universal Music,” he says.
Matiu and Niko Walters / Source: Facebook. Matiu Walters
His brother Matiu
Niko says he and Matiu were competitive in gaming and sports growing up but aren’t competitive as musicians.
“When it comes to something like a career or something important in life, with music in particular, there’s nothing like that at all. There’s no competitiveness. It’s just 100% support and there wouldn’t be any competitiveness because [Six60 are] the biggest band there’s ever been in New Zealand.”
Niko says the brothers always sing together behind closed doors and could collaborate to create a new waiata together in the future.
“We’re always singing together and stuff like that. I think one day yeah, there are no plans at the moment but I reckon one day we’d probably release something that we do together.”
Love for Māori culture
Niko says what he loves most about the Māori culture are the community aspects and aroha.
“There’s a side depicted internationally, and sometimes here as well, of violence and aggression and that warrior mentality that is what Māori culture is most known for around the world.”
He says that mentality is not necessarily true or the way he sees it.
“When I got up north and when I go to the marae it’s just all about aroha. It’s about community. It’s all love and kai and waiata and all those beautiful things. So I think Māori is a beautiful culture based on love and I don’t see it as a culture based on aggression and violence.”
Besides making music he loves fishing, hunting diving and sports, especially rugby.
He says he hasn’t put a lot of pressure or expectation on himself as for what he wants to do with his music.
“All I want to do is create beautiful music that I’m proud of and that I hope other people can get some enjoyment from.”