“I provided backing vocals to anyone that wanted them, really. Graham Brazier would grab me for BV’s too, although it was the Chisel act I was connected to. It was my introduction to rock’n’roll, I went on this crazy roadshow. Before that it had been mostly Westie bikie barns, singing AC/DC and ZZ Top and other stuff that was unsuited to me, was no discipline whatsoever.”
In the years since, Cat Tunks has performed and recorded in Ireland, Germany, the US and across the Pacific, and applied discipline to a variety of musical genres – country, rock, blues, soul and gospel. “I’ve always thought that musical labels are restrictive,” she says.
Catherine Tunks (Te Whānau-ā-Apanui/Whakatōhea) was raised in West Auckland and, when in Aotearoa, it’s West Auckland where you’ll find her; not too far from Waiatarua, where it all started, Piha being her chosen spot.
“I suppose I had a typical Westie upbringing,” she says with a laugh, “although no wilder than anyone else. I always knew I could sing, or thought I could, and I hung around with the rock bands out west. It was was all pretty much heavy rock’n’roll, very bogan, playing these huge parties in hired halls, 500 people on a Saturday night.
“And then along came the Cold Chisel tribute group, my first professional gigs. This was the early 90s, booze barns, Cactus Jack’s, The Gluepot. Shaun McLean, who was with the Chisel, encouraged me to start writing and we started doing shows as well as Chisel. I won a songwriting competition at the Java Jive and Hattie St John took me under her wing for a while for a bit of guidance and then Trent [Brimble], the manager of Revolver Studios, wanted to sign us to some management deal. But after about six months I grew restless and headed to the Windy City.”
In Wellington, Tunks met guitarist Stefan Wolf, a German bandleader and a prolific songwriter. “A friend had told him I could sing and he just asked me join his band. I didn’t know anyone in Wellington, I’d only been there a week.”
Wolf was to have a marked influence on Tunks, something for which she is extremely grateful; she’s quick to credit and praise those who have inspired and impressed her. “I hadn’t worked with anyone that creative previously and he encouraged me to be creative: my first steps at being a songwriter. It was much more of an artistic collaboration with Stefan. And towards the end I had written a couple of songs, my first real songwriting attempts.”
With Stefan Wolf and the Madding Crowd, Tunks recorded a debut single, ‘Bohemian Baby’.
As a member of Wolf’s band, Stefan Wolf and the Madding Crowd, Tunks became a fixture around Wellington bars and cafes. It was with Madding Crowd that she began her recording career, with a debut single, ‘Bohemian Baby’ b/w ‘Runaway’. She was yet to find her individual voice but she was getting there.
“Stefan was very important to my career,” Tunks says. “he was so inspiring and he encouraged me so much. I owe him a great deal.”
In 1998, in what might have seemed a curious decision, Catherine Tunks dropped everything and moved to Ireland. “I didn’t think it was really that unusual. I’m very proud of my Māori whakapapa on my mother’s side but I have Irish blood too and I basically went to Ireland because it’s part of my heritage and I wanted to explore that.”
Working as a chef in a variety of pubs, she settled in Dingle, County Kerry. “Dingle is a tiny tiny town, a village really, with 52 pubs and almost constant music, a haven for musicians. It was such an musical environment, I’d always played a little piano, and I started to brush up playing guitar.”
it wasn’t piano or guitar, though, that impressed the locals. “People would regularly sit around drinking with each singing a song in turn. I started to get noticed and one night Jon Sanders, the well-known folk guitarist who has toured New Zealand several times, was in this pub and he said to me, ‘You look like you can sing.’ And I said, ‘Hmm, maybe’ and that was it. Next thing I’m doing four gigs a week.”
Cat was back in Auckland in 2004, with a hankering to sing jazz. She enrolled at Massey University’s Jazz School, staying for 18 months. “I wanted to extend my musical knowledge,” she says, “but it was a little disappointing, actually, more time was spent on the instrumentalists and the vocal side seemed to be secondary and I started to question whether I was wasting my money. But the reason I left was because I wanted to sing and perform again.”
At the jazz school Tunks met guitarist Joel Vinsen and together they set out to form a band, recruiting bassist David Hodkinson and drummer Jason Orme, later joined by keyboardist Kiri Kainamu Wheeler, all students at the jazz school. Living at Piha, locals had nicknamed the songstress Black Sand Diva, a great name for a band.
BlackSandDiva quickly established themselves as a touring band, and Cat Tunks has remained very much a live performer – although there have been plenty of name and line-up changes.
BlackSandDiva, as a band name, generally refers to Tunk’s more jazz and funk-inspired period, as evident on 2008’s debut album, Chameleon, which features nine originals. Other monikers have included simply The Cat Tunks Band and The Bona Fide Band.
“BlackSandDiva, my original band, was kind of mine and Jason’s band. Others came and went but Jason was dedicated and the strength of the band, the heartbeat.”
Tunks’s second album, Rāwāhi (credited to Cat Tunks & BlackSandDiva) was a finalist in the 2013 Waiata Māori Music Awards and is an altogether more personal album. A more distinctive voice was emerging, inspired by her Irish experiences and life on Auckland’s wild west coast.
After establishing mutual respect with guitarist Thomas Koenig of German band Solid Brew at the 2015 Waiheke Jazz & Blues Festival, Tunks and Koenig arranged to collaborate on a project after the following year’s festival. The result was a five-song EP, The Beautiful Dreamers, Pt 1 (planned as the first in a trilogy). Again, it’s very personal and eclectic, delving into Tunks’s varied musical influences.
“Beautiful Dreamers was not the record we intended. My dad had died and it changed the tone of recording, so in came the new songs and we chucked the others. The band was great: my trusty guitarist Gavin Dowling is on the sessions and these German guys, precise and obviously well-schooled but also playing country style.”
By 2013 a distinctive voice was emerging, inspired by Her Irish experiences and life on Auckland’s west coast
Recorded in 2019, Tunks’s third album was Stranger, seven songs which probably best exemplify the genre-mixing approach to her music. The collection is only available on Spotify. “CDs are becoming an expensive luxury,” she says. “I wanted to get it out there, releasing it on Spotify in March 2020 to coincide with a national tour supporting John Mayall, which would have been a career highlight for me. But Covid killed that, the tour was cancelled. It was so disappointing.”
In between Auckland lockdowns due to Covid, Cat scored a Creative New Zealand grant to record at Revolver Studios in Waiuku. Four songs were recorded (and filmed by Alyssa Kath), and are available to view on YouTube, billed as Live at Revolver Presents – The Invitation Only Series. The line-up features Cat Tunks (vocals and guitar), Gavin Dowling (guitar), Kara Gordon (cigar-box guitar), Alex Griffith (bass), and Michael Barker (drums).
One of the songs, ‘Night Bird’, addresses the mental issues facing some people with the Covid lockdowns. “I think Covid has killed a lot of creativity,” Tunks says. “The hopelessness, that feeling of what’s the point? I’d like to release ‘Night Bird’ as a single but it’s a hard one to let go as it deals with themes of black dog depression and suicide.”
Over recent years Cat Tunks has, when able, played overseas in Germany, Ireland, Fiji and Samoa. She has gigged extensively around New Zealand and become a regular at music festivals big and small. She giggles when she recalls curtain-raising for Renee Geyer in Fiji. “I passed her coming off stage and she said, ‘Nice try, honey.’ Nice try!”
Tunks’s band, more recently billed as The Bona Fide Band, has had a stable line-up since forming in 2017: guitarist Gavin Dowling, bassist Rod Redgrave, and drummer NIck Hulme-Chivell. Sadly, pedal-steel guitarist Janek Buck Croydon died in 2021.
Tunks says, “I feel blessed with the calibre of musician I’ve played with. I’m in awe of some of the guitar players I’ve had the pleasure of backing me, such a high calibre and from all over too. I’ve been fortunate to share stages and studios with Ali Liebermann from Israel, Warren Mendosa, also known as Black Strat Blues, who is a superstar in India, Stefan [Wolf], Thomas Koenig, Kara Gordon ... I’ve been very lucky to have had such great guitarists in my company but my main guitarist and my best friend is Gavin Dowling. Way back he was with Confessor, the heavy metal band. He’s a Westie just like me and a lover of good country music and fine guitar playing. He’s recently moved south to Alexandra but we’ll continue playing together.”
Another of Tunks’s projects is the Rambling Roses, a duo with fiddle player Krissy Jackson. “It’s refreshing to just do small acoustic shows with me and her, two girls on the road. I’m a musical chameleon and I’ll change my music to whatever I feel like.”