It’s the day after Independence Day, and Australian Fatai is in the thick of applying for an extension to her Visa. It surprises even the singer-songwriter that she has now lived in the Chicagoland suburbs for more than three years.
“When I get off the phone, I’ll be working on that,” says Fatai, who will perform at Outside Lands on Aug. 10.
Fatai, born Fatai Veamatahau, first had a brush with success with her soulful R&B covers that she posted on YouTube, including everything from Sia’s “Chandelier” to Disney musicals. “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” was such a viral hit that she was later asked to professionally re-record it for a compilation record. She was then a semifinalist on the first season of The Voice Australia.
But it was an email solicitation from a Chicago-area megachurch to sing for its congregation in 2015 that brought the 24-year-old to the United States. The artist, whose family emigrated from Tonga to Australia before she was born, was raised in the faith, and her father was a pastor. The opportunity definitely struck the artist as unusual.
“I was doing music full time and touring around Australia and New Zealand. I had no idea you could sing at a church and get paid,” she said. “Churches were different back home than in America.”
Willow Creek Community Church had discovered her not through her appearance on TV shows but through word of mouth, and her Sia cover online. Fatai had just released her debut EP around that time and didn’t think about the offer to try out for the position at first.
She reconsidered a couple of months later when the church contacted her again, just as Universal Music had cut her loose from her contract that she got after The Voice.
“God had shut a door,” she says. “This door flung open days within each other. So a couple of days after that phone call with Universal, I was on the plane to Chicago to audition for some random church in Chicago, Illinois—or not even Chicago; it was the suburbs.”
She didn’t get the job, but the church invited her back a few months later as a part-time contract singer. This allowed her to focus on her own music and tour in the U.S. while collecting a steady paycheck at the same time.
“Two months turned into nine months, turned into a year, turned into three years. And here I am,” she says.
Fatai doesn’t think of herself as a Christian artist, but rather an artist who happens to be a Christian. The oft-blue-haired songstress and talented guitarist doesn’t shy away from her faith, either. Growing up, her parents didn’t force religion on her, and it’s something she came to on her own.
Her family moved to Australia 29 years ago when her uncle was diagnosed with leukemia, and the treatment options on the Pacific island were insufficient. She grew up listening to her family’s native music as well as gospel. She’s been singing since she was 7, first in choirs and then by herself. Her sound blends smoky R&B and soul with her jazzy guitar playing.
Comparisons to a guitar-playing Alicia Keys are not far off.
She hasn’t released music between her 2015 EP, Undone, and her March 2019 single, “The Road Less Traveled.” The song, which leans heavily on Chicago blues as an influence (and features Chicago musicians), tracks the choices she’s made in her life and her music career.
“In short, I think it speaks to integrity; that being a really important thing to me,” Fatai says. “I find myself on the road less traveled in many areas of my life, whether it’s relationally within my family and friends, and leaving Australia, coming to Chicago, or quitting school when I was 13—my life has always been a series of going against the grain and breaking the rules. It has also been this road of loneliness. … The road less traveled is the road is the one that is longer and takes more work, instead of the quick fix. It requires more blood, sweat and tears. But I get to keep my integrity and not compromise who I am.”
Fatai plans to be back in a studio next fall, recording her next body of work. In the meantime she’s been able to work on her live performances; a spring tour, her longest so far, included a couple of backing musicians for the first time.
The tour included her third performance in San Francisco, at Neck of the Woods, a club with which she’s formed a personal connection. The city reminds her of her home in Melbourne both in terms of the coastal setting and the weather. With the people who attend her shows in the Inner Richmond club, she’s found a family of sorts with fans that come every time she returns.
She doesn’t preach at her shows—unlike her day job—but she does work hard to make each attendee feel personally welcome, and that’s a shared trait of a concert and a church service.
“My shows are like a conversation that I’m having with humans,” she says. “It’s face to face. Most of my shows are very intimate. … I love looking in people’s eyes and breaking that barrier between artist and fans, making it like family. My parents raised me around the values of family, community and unity. That naturally bleeds out when I’m doing a show.
“I’m like, ‘Let’s hang out! I know you like my music and whatnot, but let’s have a conversation. I want to get to know you, you get to know me, and let’s build each other up.’”
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.