Some singers spend years trying to find their audience, or work out their style, but Christchurch native Rebecca Nelson has always known what she wanted to sing.
Discovering the magic of the stage at four years old, Nelson was introduced to classic musicals like Carousel by her grandmother.
“When I first saw Shirley Jones singing You’ll Never Walk Alone, that made me think ‘That’s what I want to do, I want to look like her and be like her’, because she was so gracious and classic and just beautiful to watch.”
She loved the songs, but she also loved the grace and poise they brought to their performances, as they created these stories of wonder. Nelson dabbled with singing and dancing all through her childhood, but it was the appearance of Welsh singer Charlotte Church on the world stage which prompted her to think of singing as a serious career.
‘She was about 15 I think when she first came out, and I was around the same age, and I thought, ‘If she can do it, I can do it.’”
Of course the road to stardom rarely runs smooth, but Nelson’s ‘go get ‘em’ attitude, self-reliance, and love of performing has taken her on the unusual path from busker to singing national anthems at international rugby matches (for the Irish team, French team, and All Blacks), performing for royalty (Prince Charles and Prince Harry), being chosen as the Royal New Zealand Navy Band’s official singer, and performing with Sol3 Mio.
Busking isn’t always given a lot of credence in New Zealand, but Nelson credits much of her success to the hours she has spent on the sidewalk, singing for her metaphorical supper.
Having moved to the UK with her boyfriend (now husband) at 20, and spent three months working as a PA in a children’s hospital in Dublin, Nelson found herself without a job after the global financial recession.
“I’d dabbled in a little bit of busking, and thought it might be a way to make some money in the meantime. So I called up the temping agency and said ‘Don’t worry about me, there are other people that need jobs first, and I’ll call you back if I need help’. And so I went out busking every day, and I didn’t need to call them.
“And I think that’s really where I learnt my craft. I figured out which songs worked, how to interact with the public, and it meant I was singing for hours at a time, every day, and working on my voice.”
There is a certain vulnerability to busking, being so exposed to the audience, with no barrier, no separation, but it was an excellent way for Nelson to practice her powers of persuasion.
“I would play this game where I’d challenge myself to find someone in the crowd who wasn’t smiling, and do everything I could think of to make them smile, while I was singing.”
The highly enterprising, charming singer has certainly made a lot of people smile with her busking, and for Nelson it always seemed like a wonderfully direct way to find your audience.
“It was a great way to present your music to people in a personal way. And you never knew who might be watching.”
Indeed those who’ve ended up watching her included the manager of Irish classical trio The Priests, who asked her to tour with them, members of the All Blacks, who helped her fulfil a dream of performing the national anthem at a big rugby match, and the leader of the Royal New Zealand Navy Band.
It was this last discovery which lead Nelson to perform at ANZAC commemorations at Gallipoli in 2015 and in France at the 100 year commemorations of the Battle of the Somme last year, both of which emphasised her love of war time music, and her desire to create an album which would help to keep those songs, stories, and memories alive.
“The music I’m singing is all about bringing back memories. Bringing back memories for people who lived through the war, but also bringing back memories for people whose parents or grandparents have passed, and keeping those stories alive.
“My grandparents remember WWII, but they haven’t often spoken about it. Now, if I ask questions, or when they hear me sing a song from that era, they do. I think a lot of people from that generation think that younger people aren’t all that interested in what happened to them, even the veterans, but if you ask questions, what comes out is just amazing.”
Nelson has won fans across New Zealand with many timeless, graceful performances, her voice evoking nostalgia and delight as she sings favourites like White Cliffs of Dover, Pokarekare Ana, and We’ll Meet Again. Now Sony Music have signed her, that audience is set to widen further, as they release her latest album, and likely Kiwi classic, Poppies & Pohutakawa.