Pioneering musician Natalia Sheppard is better known by her stage name, MC Tali. The musician, writer, producer, performer, author and documentary maker has chosen to positively push the envelope during the last two years and, when the time arrives, plans to accelerate out of the current red setting at light speed.
When Natalia and her UK-born husband Benn Rolls Sheppard (aka Chiccoreli) moved back to her native New Zealand after making waves in London, the couple chose to make the North Shore home. That was November 2011, and Kiwi dance music icon MC Tali is as much in love with the place now as when it first stole her heart.
Down a steep driveway, Natalia’s house is encased in Le Roys Bush in Northcote Point, bordering onto Little Shoal Bay. “It has these incredible bush views,” she shares. “When I was in London, I said I’m not moving back to New Zealand and moving anywhere without either a bush or a sea view and this was love at first sight.”
Growing up on a farm in Taranaki, playing a wonky old piano was Natalia’s first taste of playing music herself. She was a standout in the local area schools’ choir and took part in theatre productions.
Her mum is artist Margaret Scott and her parents hosted plenty of parties on their dairy farm, where Natalia feels her love of music – and partying – derives from. Investing in piano lessons for their daughter when she was 12, they upgraded their old piano to the one that now sits nostalgically in Natalia’s Northcote Point home.
The first ‘big concert’ she went to was U2 at Western Springs. Natalia recalls travelling by bus from New Plymouth as a 16 year-old and the experience opening her eyes to the magic of large, live gigs.
A year later, ‘U2 weren’t that cool anymore’ - and her view after experiencing a ‘proper DJ’ playing live was rather different.
“I remember seeing everyone raving and the way it united people of all genders, skin colours, ages. Nobody cared who anyone was or how anyone looked… I saw that dance music unites people. I knew there and then that was a culture I wanted to be a part of.
“Drum and bass had a tribal element that I loved. It made my body move differently than the way I would dance to other music. It was deeper. Then there would be some beautiful soulful gospel vocals over the top and that just blew me away.”
After gaining her degree in English Literature from Canterbury University, a Diploma in Performance Art from NASDA, and a Teaching Diploma from Canterbury College of Education, Natalia headed to London, the UK home of drum and bass. There, in the UK, the list of dance music icons she encountered was a dream-come-true for the young Kiwi.
“It was an exciting time. It was the birth of drum and bass, and it was where it was all happening. When I saw my heroes like Dynamite MC and Roni Size perform, that was it. I said, ‘I want to be in this industry and become an MC’, and I did.” She would soon be breaking new ground as one of the few female MCs, working with the legendary artist and producer Roni Size, and signing to his legendary Full Cycle Label at the age of 24.
She went on to release her first album Lyric on my Lip with a UK top 40 single and a worldwide tour.
Never one to rest on her laurels, Natalia has been careful to cover her back. “I have grown to learn how fickle the music industry can be. It can be very cliquey and there are a lot of gatekeepers, shall we say. I’ve always made sure I have plenty going on beyond performing.”
Being a qualified secondary school teacher, she has been made a NZ Music Commission In Schools Music Mentor, which has seen her work with young musicians at schools across the North Island. She also is one of three leaders at Albany Senior High School’s IMPACT music programme, under the principalship of fan-turned-friend, innovative Shore education leader, Claire Amos. “Claire’s also now my roller-skating buddy,” smiles Natalia.
She’s written a book, The Little White House, which explores the concept of observing life happen, as opposed to really living, and the privilege of being able to travel around. She also recently turned documentary filmmaker – producing a documentary celebrating 15 years since the release of her first album 'Lyric On My Lip', featuring New Zealand and international music figures, made during the first lockdown in 2020.
But it was while recovering from an endometriosis operation last year, that Tali decided to start producing her own music using Logic as her chosen DAW (digital audio workstation) and where that has led in a short space of time has been remarkable. She fizzes about how, in the past four months, she has not only been working on a new album, but she has landed a contract producing music for the New Zealand Pavilion at the World Expo in Dubai and has been asked to complete a musical score for a US film, which she begins work on next month ahead of the major international film festivals next year. She says, “Honestly, at the thought that my music might get played at the Cannes Film Festival, my mind is blown!”
Close friends for many years with fellow Kiwi musician, Tiki Taane, Natalia is set to officiate his wedding ceremony next month. Becoming a wedding celebrant is just another string she has added to her already rich and varied bow.
Although Natalia’s career has run alongside that of fellow local drum and bass acts Shapeshifter, State of Mind and The Upbeats, she hasn’t been afforded the same billing locally over the years. It could be argued that her pioneering work as a female MC hasn’t been recognised as fully as it could have by her industry at home. “I’ve argued with promoters about this,” she says. “They’d come up with different reasons why I wouldn’t be headlining, but I was like, ‘put me in that position, give me that chance and see what I can do.’”
While she’s had some ‘amazing experiences’ performing gigs across the world, with stand-outs being Moscow, Miami and Tokyo, nowhere quite compares to playing here. “The best thing is playing to your home crowd,” she smiles.
Now in her 40s, MC Tali was given a Kiwi festival headline slot at Splore last year. “I played the main stage at 9.30pm on Saturday night, to a full crowd, with a full live band and a string quartet, playing my songs. I felt like a proper diva! And we absolutely smashed it.”
Live entertainment industries have been hit exceptionally hard over the past two years and the current red light setting has made live music almost impossible. Tali was moved to express her feelings, in solidarity with her fellow musicians, through poetry. She says, “I was depressed when we moved to the red setting. I felt like the New Zealand music industry was like a ship without a compass, sailing out to sea with only the stars to guide us… that’s how I chose to capture that feeling.”
She hopes that when crowd limits are lifted, people choose to support local artistic talent. “I hope promoters and fans will look to support Kiwi performers who have suffered and sacrificed so much.
“Let’s not rush to book a plethora of pale, male and stale UK DJs for our gigs and festivals, please. Let’s support and foster our local talent next summer. I’d like to see the scene looking after its own before we start bringing more acts in from overseas.”
Natalia practises what she preaches, too. She is working on a new album, to be released in mid-2022, on which she is giving emerging artists a chance to shine, as well as showcasing her own production skills.
She has also been producing for a new up and coming vocalist from Hamilton, Sophie May, and has been managing drum ‘n’ bass vocal sensation Elipsa, over the past two years.
“Even though it’s been hard, I have a deep faith in myself, and the universe, that things will be OK. Even when I am down, I always manage to see the light… with a little help from my husband, who’s my best friend; my mum, and my dad – with their ‘she’ll be right’ attitude. They’re my stars.
“By next summer, it’ll be great to have my own new music to share – I absolutely can’t wait to get out there performing again… I feel like my peak performance hasn’t happened yet.”
Natalia's North Shore 'Fun Fact':
Her Uncle Frank built Beach Haven's public beach - yes, that's right, he built the beach. Larkings Landing is named after her Uncle Frank Larking who, over the course of 40 years, moved and levelled nearly 700 cubic yards of mud with a wheelbarrow, a barge and rope to create the foundations of the beach at Hilders Park. The local resident then covered the levelled mud with over 1200 yards worth of sand he towed in his dinghy from Greenhithe. He later donated his dinghy to be used as a free community boat. As a result, the park adjoining the beach features a playground featuring a specially adapted memorial version of Frank's rowing boat as a focal point, unveiled after upgrade work by Kaipātiki Local Board in 2019.