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Talkback: Noema Te Hau III


Kiwi producer and songwriter Noema Te Hau III is based at Big Fan Studios in Morningside, Auckland. The groundbreaking not‑for‑profit, multi‑purpose facility was founded by Joel Little, who has worked with some of the biggest pop artists on the planet, including Taylor Swift, Niall Horan, and fellow Kiwi Lorde. Noema was educated at MAINZ, the Christchurch music and audio institute where Little also trained. Not long after graduating, he was soon back at the Institute, this time lecturing in production, music theory and performance. It was then that Noema got the call to help Little set up Big Fan.

At the moment I can’t stop listening to

At the moment I can’t stop listening to a song by Unknown Mortal Orchestra, who is a Kiwi artist but based in LA. I’m weirdly such a big fan of Kiwi music at the moment — it never used to be that way. Maybe it’s because I’m a bit more involved in the New Zealand music industry now. But yeah, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, the V album. I love ‘Layla’. It just feels good. It kind of gives me Fleetwood Mac vibes. It’s pop, it’s digestible, but he somehow bends things like harmony a lot. The way he plays guitar. We do a lot of writing camps here in New Zealand, and I know Ruban [Nielson, UMO] has done a couple but I haven’t run into him yet. I’m sure it’s coming!

The project I’m most proud of

In terms of music, I just finished an album with an artist called Alayna. She’s another Kiwi artist. We studied together at MAINZ and our careers have kind of kind of grown parallel to each other, her as an artist and me as a producer. It was a debut album, and we had a decent budget to get it done. It’s very much a concept album, which I’m a big fan of. So it was a grind! I think it was about three years, or something like that. One of those things where we just left no stone unturned. So yeah, I’m very proud of that.

Apart from music itself, it would be Big Fan. Managing the studio here. I got to help, you know, start this place. I got to set up all the studios, I got to go through all the little things that you forget are at the start of a new venture. So I’m very proud of what we’ve done here. It’s a charity. We have a two‑storey building here in Auckland, in Morningside, so it’s pretty central to the city. The bottom floor is a live venue, which has a capacity of 170, but it’s a very good music venue. It has an in‑ear monitoring system, a really high‑end PA… Essentially, Joel’s vision was that big artists could come and do a really small show here, and then high‑school bands could also come and play, using the same stuff that those other bands have been using, more or less.

And then the studios: we have three upstairs, and there’s a fourth one which is Joel’s studio. He works out of here a lot as well. They’re basically production suites, so they’re not huge, but they’re very well‑treated rooms and they have everything that you would need nowadays: some preamps, maybe a compressor. For example, this studio I’m in has some Chandler TG2s and some API pres, all just running through a [UA] Apollo. We have some Focal speakers. This room has a drum booth. It’s based around creating music, essentially. For writing, for production. All the rooms have their own characteristics. But they’re all based on what Joel uses, just a simple setup.

Noema Te Hau III: I quite like having things around me. So sometimes, I won’t even set up in the control room.

The first thing I look for in a studio

When I’m going into a studio it’s usually to create, rather than just engineer. So I’m looking for a setup that’s comfortable and creative: ideally, one that’s already set up to be as creative as possible. So, I’d like a drum kit to be there, already miked and ready to go, a piano there, ready to go, a vocal mic to be set up… I quite like having things around me. So sometimes, I won’t even set up in the control room. I’ll set up in the live room, kind of in the middle of it. I’m very much there to create, first and foremost. I quite like that. Maybe we’ll set up a couple of couches in the live room — I’ve done that a few times for sessions. That’s quite fun.

If we’re talking about the fundamentals, building a studio, the first thing I’m thinking about is treatment. When I was building this studio I had never done that before, I’d never done the testing with a proper company before. Seeing these rooms empty, and literally just bringing treatment in and throwing it on the ground — it was night and day. Before even placing it! It was like, holy shit! If there’s anywhere you should spend money first, it’s there.

The person I would consider my mentor

To be honest, I never really had a mentor at the start of my production career. I was always kind of annoyed at that! I was like, “God, damn. I just wish I had a bit of an in, to be able to learn off people!” It was always very self‑driven. But now, it would definitely be Joel. He shows us some of the Taylor Swift stuff, some of the big stuff he’s working on. He’ll show us the sessions, break them down with us. He’ll show us how he’ll go into sessions as a producer, how he prepares. He’s by far my biggest mentor now. And he’s also just a bro! So it’s easy to chat to him. He’s also brought in other engineers and producers, his friends, for us. So, for example, Mark Rankin is one of his really good friends. A crazy good engineer. He did a lot of the Queens Of The Stone Age stuff, some of the Adele stuff. I think he did a lot of the 21 album. He came and stayed in New Zealand with Joel. One day Joel was like, “Man, we all suck at recording drums! We should get Mark in!” So Mark spent a day with us, just showing how he would do drums in our spaces, with the gear we had. He worked his overheads first, with the kick and snare lined up so they were dead in the middle of the image, then used everything else to supplement — a few tom mics if the song needed more toms… It was really cool. I loved it.

My go‑to reference track or album

I can’t say that I necessarily have one go‑to reference track. When producing, I mostly let the artists I’m working with lead with their own reference tracks! What they’re currently listening to, or music that they love. Then I’ll do a bit of listening analysis to break down the arrangement, tones and production techniques being used. But if I really had to pick, it would either be ‘Teenage Dream’ by Katy Perry or ‘Human Nature’ by Michael Jackson.

My top tip for a successful session

It’s reading the room, essentially. Especially if you haven’t worked with someone before. You have to learn, really fast, what kind of person they are. Some people like to talk first. Some people just like to get in and smash stuff out! So yeah, you really have to be able to read the room and be flexible in any situation. If you can research the person you’re working with beforehand, do that. If you know other producers they’ve worked with, maybe just ask them a question, or something. Being prepared for anything that comes your way. Sometimes that looks like a template: for me, if it’s a writing session, I’ve got a writing template that I like to use, just to make things quicker. Just be prepared for anything!

The studio session I wish I’d witnessed

I’m such a big fan of ‘Toxic’ by Britney Spears. The arrangement in that is just so weirdly eclectic, like, it has these like spaghetti western guitars, these crazy string lines, and I just want to know how on earth they thought that would all work together! I’m just obsessed with that arrangement and how strange it is. But also how fucking perfect it is at the same time. And of course you don’t notice it because your attention is on the vocals, the whole way through. But I’d like to have been there when they were putting all those ideas together.

The producer I’d most like to work with

That’s a tough one. Max Martin has been someone I’ve studied so much. But then again, I’d also be so scared to work with him! I guess I idolise Max the most. But it would probably be someone like Dr. Dre, or Pharrell. I just think they have such an interesting approach to their arrangements. I like the grooves they create. Especially Pharrell. It’s weird: I don’t make a lot of hip‑hop stuff. But I think that’d be like a really fun experience. I think I’d learn a lot working with someone like that.

The part of music creation I enjoy the most

I was actually talking to Joel about this recently, and we both kind of agreed that it’s in that initial songwriting, early production phase, where something just kind of hits. The song just finds its home. It’s that weird little bit of magic where you don’t quite know what just happened. Suddenly, you guys are all in sync, in the room together. You just link up on an idea. And the idea just happens to be amazing. It’s the feeling I’m constantly chasing, I think, in every writing session. When you’re like, “Oh, my God, we just came up with the most perfect idea for what we were trying to achieve.” It could be a lyric, it could be a melody. It could be a riff, it can be lots of things. But sometimes everyone just lights up, like, “Shit, that’s that thing that brings the song together!” Then you just feel like you don’t want to get in the way.

The advice I’d give myself of 10 years ago

Firstly, trust your taste. In general, what I like about most artists, or most producers, is their own specific tastes. And that was something I never really got, early on. I was always trying to be quite technical, and things like that. But I now realise taste is everything. And everything kind of supplements your taste, supports your tastes. Like, you get better at working synths to showcase your taste. You get better at picking out samples to showcase your taste. So, yeah, I feel like taste is everything. And after that, it’s just to keep working. Keep working hard. You have no control over what comes in your career. You really don’t. So just do music because you love making music. I wish I had realised that earlier on. Whatever happens, happens. You have no control over that. Especially when you’re a producer: so much is out of your hands if you’re an artist, but if you’re a producer, it’s up to the artists you’re working with as well.