Iva Lamkum sits at No.5 on MTV Iggy’s list of “13 Real Divas from Around the World,” but the 27-year-old Wellingtonian is about as down to earth as they come. She greets Amanda Witherell – a complete stranger and writer ready to grill her about her life – with a full-on hug.
“I’m not glamorous,” Lamkum insists from across the table at Perret’s Café where she sits wrapped in a stylish wool coat, her long dark hair pulled high into a bun, blush pinking her high cheekbones. “Iva the Diva – please don’t say that. I’m just an ordinary musician.”
She resembles any workaday Wellingtonian striding through the CBD, which she is – toiling five days a week at Nursing Council NZ, where she’s worked for about three years.
But her evenings and weekends are spent performing in clubs and assiduously writing and recording songs for her first album Black Eagle, a long anticipated release since her self-titled 2008 EP hit the streets with a splash – her track “White Roses” landed on APRA Silver Scroll’s 2008 top 20 New Zealand songs.
She caught the ears of Sola Rosa’s Andrew Spraggon and they collaborated on the song “Turn Around” for the 2009 album Get It Together. This year she was a finalist for the Pacific Music Awards with a single from Black Eagle, “Raise Your Glass,” which has the sass MTV Iggy must have noticed when listing her: “For those who miss Amy Winehouse’s alto blues pipes, try the New Zealand-based, Samoan/Chinese singer Iva Lamkum on for size. The (vocal) resemblance is uncanny.”
“I was shocked,” she says, laughing. “How does he even know me? I can understand the top 20 New Zealand charts, but to be in the top in the US?”
“When the word ‘diva’ pops in my head it means demanding,” she says. “I need some food before I go on stage, but that’s it! That’s the only time I become diva-ish.”
In fact, the lifelong lover of sports once dreamed of playing netball professionally and any claim to fame she imagined involved the 2012 Olympics. “When I grow up I’m going to be the best athlete,” she laughs. “Either that or go in the studio.”
Music didn’t get serious for her until after she left school and started gigging. “People were jumping in to support me,” she says. An EP came quickly to fruition after meeting bass player Caleb Robinson and getting a boost from his family. “That’s when I realised I should take this seriously.”
She let others take the reins for the EP and though she was encouraged to do a full album, she strayed from the studio for about a year. It took another three years to pull the songs together for Black Eagle, a lapse she attributes to “troubles.”
Black Eagle’s title track refers to the bird’s ability to fly above a storm. “It was fitting what I was going through,” she says. “All my lyrics are pretty personal.”
Backed by Robinson on bass, Darren Mathiassen on drums, James Illingworth on keys, and Andy Mauafua on guitar and including a cast of guest singers, the sound ranges from soul to hip hop to reggae, giving the album an eclectic feel, but still grounded in Lamkum’s rich voice.
Lamkum herself sounds more grounded than ever, ready for a national tour and hinting at more material waiting in the wings. “It was time to take the wheel. I’m taking control of my bus, but not in a diva-ish way,” she says. “I know what I’m doing now. If someone said: here’s $1million, but we want you to sing pop songs, I’d say hell no. I know where I stand now.”