Boston-based singer Jess Harlen made her debut performance in Hawke's Bay yesterday and will tonight learn of her fate as a finalist in three music-award categories.
The Palmerston North-born artist is among 15 finalists at this year's National Waiata Maori Music Awards, with the awards ceremony at the Hawke's Bay Opera House in Hastings.
Ms Harlen, who performed at the Te Koanga Fashion Show last night, was a finalist in the Best Maori Urban Album, Best Maori Pop Album and Best Female Maori Solo Artist categories, where she was to contest the title with Hawke's Bay singers Toni Huata and Kirsten Te Rito, as well as Tauranga's Ria Hall and Auckland's Ahorangi Winitana.
"I was just over the moon to find out I was a finalist. And when I found out, I just wanted to get there as soon as I could because coming to Hawke's Bay and being part of such a professional production is more than what I could ever ask for," Ms Harlen said.
"The opera house is stunning, it's breathtaking and full of character. It just gives you the feeling that really important things happen here, it's an iconic place."
Her East Coast Ngati Porou iwi connections come through her father, so she had family in nearby Gisborne as well as in Palmerston North, where she grew up as a youngster.
The 27-year-old moved to Boston a few years ago, following a friend who was granted a scholarship to study in the US. Her brand of music, which has kept its unique Kiwi flavour, is winning the hearts of new American fans.
"They are really surprised by the genre because it's very specific, it has a New Zealand sound to it with that guitar and rhythmic strumming, with subtle hip-hop beats in production. I don't think there's anyone playing that kind of music over there but they've liked that style a lot and each time we play more people come along to listen."
She had already released two albums and planned a tour in Australia at the end of this year and would then focus on New Zealand.
"Hopefully these awards can help me network with people as me priority is to come home and play shows in New Zealand to get my music out to the iwi.
"My aunties and uncles always ask me what's it like living overseas but when I come home it's like a golden empire here, there's so much mana, everyone has their whanau and there's nothing else that feels like that."
The awards ceremony starts at 7 o'clock tonight at the Hawke's Bay Opera House, Hastings.