RNZ’s new documentary series follows Crescendo, an Avondale-based music production and recording studio. The studio, which bears the slogan ‘hānga tātou waiata pai’, is a social enterprise that returns its profits to a mentoring programme for rangatahi called Crescendo Te Urunga. Throughout the eight-part series, the doco follows six emerging artists from the programme as they work through a journey of self-discovery and plan a big gig at The Tuning Fork. In the lead up to the documentary’s release on the 12th of April, I realised a pretty familiar face was popping up in the promo.
I first met Iris in high school. In the time since, our paths have crossed many times. We played second-string football on Wednesdays, challenged our sleep schedules two years in a row with the 48 Hour Film Festival, and celebrated each other’s 21st birthdays. In my memory, Iris’ melodic voice scores so much of that coming-of-age wonderfulness. Her indie, folky sound quite literally took centre stage, under the name Iris G. She played Avondale talent shows to roaring applause. She volunteered tunes to short films we would scrape together after school. And then, in 2016, our final year of high school, an 18-year-old Iris won Smokefree Rockquest’s solo-duo category. Shortly after, Iris faced a traumatic event that would cause her to lose her voice for a long period of time. Throughout The Collective, a small part of Iris’ journey as a survivor of sexual assault is chronicled, serving as a meaningful point of connection for those who have endured the same trauma.
In the documentary series, Iris works on an R&B song called ‘My Body Is Mine’. She explains the meaning, saying “it’s about women empowerment and reclaiming your body after going through sexual assault.” She discusses the difficult details of a sexual assault committed after her Rockquest win and elaborates further on what the song signifies for her, “Taking back the power is what I want this song to mean… For me saying ‘My Body is Mine’ is because I felt like my body was stolen from me and I didn’t get a say in what my body could do. So, it’s me reclaiming that power again.”
In our intimate kōrero and catch up, the weekend before her debut, Iris G delved deeper into her journey with music, the relationship between her song and wider activism, and recapped the experience of filming the docu-series.
It’s a busy time! You opened for Elemeno P at The Tuning Fork on Friday, The Collective docu-series comes out tomorrow, ‘My Body Is Mine’ is out tomorrow, and you’re playing at the Rally Against Sexual Violence next week… how do you feel with all of that going on?
It’s pretty intense. I had no intention of ever releasing music. I worked on an EP for three or four years and then suddenly it’s all happening in one week. You have to battle all of these self-doubts in your head of whether you’re ready for all that. What I keep reminding myself, with the single being called ‘My Body Is Mine’, is that I’ll get strength from the survivors who it’ll impact and from my ancestors who are backing me. That helps me feel less scared.
Do you feel that the single is grounding in such a hectic time? Since it’s about your physicality?
The title itself, ‘My Body Is Mine’… I wrote it as a mantra. It reminds me that I don’t owe anyone anything and I’m in complete control of myself and my body. I think in that way it’s a good way to ground myself and remind myself of my purpose.
You’re playing the rally next weekend… I even remember your music being intertwined with politics and activism in high school. How do you view the role of your music within those spaces?
When we were filming the doco I had just gotten re-triggered and I had to come off work for a few months to get my head right. Honestly, I was really suicidal. It was then that I really appreciated the power of music, especially because my body felt so… I felt like I wanted to rip it off. But when I listened to music it was like everything else disappeared and I was present. I felt at home in my own body. I think that’s what I’ve always wanted to do, help people, not escape, but return to themselves. There are so many distractions within society, trying to keep us from knowing our true selves and knowing how we actually feel about things. Music is a way that can come out. And it’s a universal language! Everyone can feel empowered by a track.
Can you talk about your journey with the single since you first began writing it? I remember seeing a short chorus on Instagram years ago…
I started it in 2018, with the chorus. When I was writing the verse I ended up just leaving it alone. It’s hard to write about sexual trauma without it sounding romantic. I listened to the lyrics and it sounded like a love story. I couldn’t release a song where people might misunderstand what I was saying. Crescendo, a charity that works with rangitahi to make music, approached me and explained that they were making a documentary series with BOXED media. We basically had six weeks to write and record a song, and then perform it at the end. I had to tell my story, which is all about being a survivor of sexual violence, so ‘My Body Is Mine’ is the one I wanted to do. So it wasn’t really done until last year. It took me years to finish that song. During that month of filming, I was doing so much therapy. But because I was doing all of that work I was finally ready to finish that song. I was finally healing that part of me.
After such a long journey, what is the experience of playing that song live?
It was so hard rehearsing it for that big gig in the doco. My dancers touch me, and I remember that I would cry because it was so intense. I always said from the start that whatever temporary discomfort I was in would be worth it for the survivors who were going to watch it, and know that they weren’t alone. Now when I perform it I don’t feel any discomfort. I feel strong and I feel proud of how far I’ve come and strengthened by the women that are in the crowd.
So throughout the production process, the audiences were always in your mind’s eye?
Always. I was crying all the time during filming. Every single day I was talking about what happened to me. It was really difficult, but I kept going because it would mean a lot to so many people. It’s something that people don’t talk about. I felt obligated, like it was my duty.
I had a near-death experience in 2019, where I nearly drowned. I actually told God I was content with the life I’d lived. And then I ended up on shore, and I was like, aye? I was ready? I took that really hard and struggled to see what my purpose was, and why I was saved. The more I was doing this stuff, standing up for women’s rights… My dream is to end sexual violence in New Zealand. The more I’ve been doing mahi around this space the more I feel like I’m serving my purpose. That’s what keeps me going.
What do you hope people take away from the doco?
I am terrified because I cry so much in it. I don’t want people to watch it and think of survivors as being weak. That’s my biggest fear, that there will be negative comments about it. You know, things that survivors are used to hearing… “You’re being overdramatic,” or “You’re overexaggerating.” My hope is that the doco makes a change with the perpetrators who do it and with bystanders who don’t understand the gravity of it. My focus during filming was always about survivors, so my hope is that they feel inspired and that they know that they’re not alone. I’m optimistic, I’ve seen a few episodes and they look amazing.
How do you feel like the direction of the music has shifted over the course of your journey more widely? It sounds so different to what I remember…
I definitely went from folk and alternative rock to more of a hip hop, R&B influence, alternative pop sound. It’s really sad, I made that transition after Rockquest after I had won for that folk sound, it was just a few months later that I was assaulted. I was under so much stress and trauma that I lost my voice. I had to go to hospital and do a bit of rehab. I couldn’t sing like I used to. My voice became a lot weaker, and, even as a person, I just retracted. I tried different genres, pop for a bit, and then eventually fell in love with R&B. Softness isn’t a weakness in R&B, unlike rock. With R&B, my weakness became my strength.
And how have you found the reception so far? With people hearing little inklings online and seeing it at shows?
It’s been so lovely. At Elemeno P someone yelled “marry me” and “fuck me” while I was on stage. I played at the pro-choice rally, fighting for reproductive rights, and I did a baby version of ‘My Body Is Mine’ but changed the lyrics a little so it was more relevant. There was a woman crying at the front because I spoke about my experience with sexual assault. After the protest I got so many DMs from women asking when I would be releasing and how much it impacted them and made them feel strong. I might lose a few people but I’m gonna gain supportive people, survivors, who I’m doing all of this for. It’s their opinion that matters to me.
Watch Iris G in The Collective, out now on RNZ and stream her new single ‘My Body Is Mine’ on YouTube and Spotify. Iris G will play GRRRLFest from 14th-16th of May.