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Her tears at the airport Tim Hortons let Tami Neilson know she was home

You can bet dollars to donuts that, over the past three years, Tami Neilson has deeply missed Canada.

The Mississauga-born, Auckland, New Zealand-based singer and songwriter — whose soulful countrypolitan and rockabilly stylings, dynamic stage presence and hurricane-magnitude singing voice have been turning any head within listening distance — hasn’t seen her family or toured here since March 2020 due to pandemic lockdowns and other restrictions.

However, that’s changing with the release of “Kingmaker,” her fifth album on Outside Music to be released domestically. Neilson confesses she experienced a surprised outburst of emotion at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport on Sunday as she stepped off her 17-hour flight.

“I walked through my gate and there was a Tim Hortons,” a “jetlagged-to-hell” Neilson recalled during an interview. “I burst into tears immediately. That’s when you know you’ve been homeick and not letting yourself go there. Just a glance at Tim Hortons made me fall apart.”

Ok, we’ll go with the donuts.

But while she’s enjoying other such Canadian delicacies as “cheesies, butter tarts and poutine,” Neilson will have plenty of time to catch up with family and friends: she’s spending the rest of July performing in Ontario and Quebec, including appearances at the Mariposa Folk Festival this past weekend and at Guelph’s Hillside Festival.

Scattered within those dates is a free day-of-album-release gig at Harbourfront on July 15.

“This trip particularly is really, really special and quite emotional,” said Neilson, who moved to Auckland for love in 2004. “When you go through these pandemics and you’ve been apart from your family, we have to shut down a part of ourselves to survive. It’s traumatic.”

The COVID-19 restrictions imposed around the world — and especially New Zealand — did do her one favour. It allowed her time to experiment and create what may be her finest work in the 10-song “Kingmaker,” a brilliant collection of material that is cinematic in nature and seems to possess a kindred spirit with the music of Bobbie “Ode to Billie Joe” ” Gentry, especially the intriguingly aloof and mysterious “Green Peaches.”

“Bobbie Gentry has always been a huge influence on me, as well as the Nancy (Sinatra) and Lee (Hazlewood) albums, just that real kind of countrypolitan era of music,” said Neilson, who is in her 40s. “And her work particularly was so ahead of its time. It still is.”

Previously, the artistic direction of such acclaimed albums as 2018’s “Sassafrass!” and 2020’s “Chickaboom!” was determined by what Neilson wanted to represent on the road.

“I tended to lean more towards a low-fi rockabilly sound that could easily be produced live.”

But “Kingmaker,” recorded in Auckland at Crowded House frontman Neil Finn’s Roundhouse Studios, is a little more refined and employs an 11-piece orchestra on certain numbers.

“It was a little bit different for me, because when you perform live so much you’re used to going full throttle, especially when you’re still trying to build your audience,” said Neilson.

“Having not performed live at the time of recording this album, it left me with a lot more room for nuance and being confident in who I am as a singer and an artist… With no touring on the table for the foreseeable future, I thought , ‘I can just make what I want to make. I don’t have to tour this album live.’”

She paused.

“Of course, now I’m completely screwed,” she said, laughing.

The movielike aspect of “Kingmaker” she attributes to her collaboration with Karyn Rachtman, the music supervisor for film director Quentin Tarantino, for whom Neilson had been performing the music of “Pulp Fiction” and “Reservoir Dogs.”

“Having a lot of discussions with Karyn, I just started really thinking about soundtracks,” Neilson said. “My music has never really adhered to one genre because I like listening to things that tell a story and take you on an emotional and sonic journey.

“That was my guide: tell a story and not be worried about being boxed in by genre.”

A strong example is the tune “Baby, You’re a Gun,” a loping country and western shuffle that binds verse to chorus with human whistling. It brings to mind the music of the late Italian composer Ennio Morricone and his spaghetti-western scores to films such as the 1966 Sergio Leone classic “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”

“Kingmaker” also contains something of a coup for Neilson: a duet with Willie Nelson on the poignant waltz “Beyond the Stars,” written in tribute to her late father, Ron.

Before she flew solo, Tami was part of the Neilson Family Band — her brother Jay is touring as part of her trio — and spent her much of her childhood opening shows for such country legends as Kitty Wells and Johnny Cash.

Neilson was booked to perform at Willie Nelson’s annual Luck Reunion concert in Texas in March 2020 when the pandemic shutdown hit. The concert was held online.

Afterwards, Neilson struck up a friendship with a woman named Annie, who turned out to be Nelson’s wife.

Neilson had written “Beyond the Stars” as a duet with a friend about both their fathers dying. It took her months to muster up the courage to ask Nelson to participate, but he agreed, asking her to send him the song via email.

“We were about 10 days out from the deadline for the master being done. I was out walking with a friend and when I got back to the car, I got a text from Annie saying, ‘You’re gonna love this, sis. Willie and Trigger (Nelson’s guitar), we’re just listening to playback now — we’ll send it through soon.’

“I don’t even remember the drive home. My husband was there, and we sat and listened to the song and just wept, both of us. I probably cried for about three days straight, just listening to it on loop and for so many reasons — the most obvious being … it’s Willie Nelson singing with me on my song … but also the thought of my dad hearing the song and what he would have thought.”

As in her previous efforts, “Kingmaker” reflects Neilson’s own experiences, with tunes like the clap-driven “Careless Woman” and the banjo-pickin’ “King of Country Music” taking feminist stances.

“The one thread that has been through all of my albums has been singing about and challenging the disparity and (in)equality for women and people of colour, particularly in country music,” said Neilson, a mother of two who is of Wasauksing ( Ojibway) ancestry.

“For me, as an Indigenous woman in the music industry, it is my personal, everyday lived experience”

She admitted it’s “exhausting” to continue to sing about such issues as “the power imbalance, the sexual harassment or the lack of opportunities for women in the industry, and country music particularly. But I think the only way to keep the conversation at the forefront is to continue to write about it, sing about it and talk about it in interviews.

CORRECTION — JULY 11, 2022: This story has been edited from an earlier version that said Tami Neilson was performing in Oshawa, Hamilton and London. Those indoor shows have been canceled due to COVID-19 concerns.

Tami Neilson performs at the Harbourfront outdoor Concert Stage, 235 Queens Quay W., July 15 at 9:30 pm

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