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First Play: Tami Neilson, Don't Be Afraid

Holly Gordon

“Don’t be afraid/ for I am with you/ I’m gonna see you/ see you through another day,” sings Tami Neilson on the first verse of her new album’s title track, “Don’t Be Afraid.” Her voice, strong and reassuring, starts after a single guitar note, and the bluesy song builds into a testimonial of love and faith. It was the last song her father wrote before his death last year.

“He had written the melody, lyrics and everything, but he was on oxygen and could barely breathe to speak,” Neilson explained in a press release. “He told me that it was driving him crazy that he had this new song stuck in his head, but had no way of offloading it. It's an awful feeling, I know, so I said I would bring him in his guitar so he could play it and I'd record it on my phone.”

The patriarch of the Neilson Family Band — which a young Neilson toured with across Canada when she lived in the country — her father was only able to record the melody for the verse. Neilson later finished what sounds like a last promise made between father and daughter.

It’s that goosebump-inducing soul that hooks you into Don’t Be Afraid, and  Neilson's fiery voice leads you through the 11 new tracks, grieving an immense loss while simultaneously lifting you with its vibrance. The track that follows “Don’t Be Afraid,” “Holy Moses,” is fire-breathing gospel, while “Lonely,” a ballad featuring fellow Kiwi Marlon Williams, brings the twang back to Neilson’s aching, elastic voice. “So Far Away,” the next in line, picks it back up, marrying Neilson’s brand of soul and country to create a toe-tapping tempo that was picked up for the ABC country soap Nashville.

The followup to Neilson's 2014 album, Dynamite!, Don't Be Afraid was originally released in New Zealand last year — the country Neilson now calls home — and this marks its debut in North America. Recorded in Ben Edwards's Sitting Room Studio in Christchurch, the tracks were recorded live off the floor, a sound you can feel in both the slower, quieter pieces and in the barn burners.

The album ends where it began, circling back to the demo Neilson recorded of her father laying down the melody for the title track. It’s a heart-wrenching minute of sound, a quiet close to an explosion of a record, and a beautiful tribute from one of the best vocalists you’ll hear all year.

Don't Be Afraid comes out Sept. 16, and you can pre-order it via Outside Music. Listen to the full album a week in advance, above.