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Sacha is pictured at a fun photo shoot with Charlie Jackson. (Make-up – Michelle Frances Thompson.)

Music has always been part of life for Sacha van Beek, a.k.a. Sacha Vee. As a child growing up in rural Reefton and then Christchurch, she remembers humming along to her parents’ Frank Sinatra and Natalie Cole records.

‘My grandpa, who was from the West Indies, used to come around all the time and play piano too, calypso style,’ she fondly recalls.

At school she was naturally drawn to choirs and other music groups. Dancing and sports were passions too but singing ultimately won out. In her teens she was invited to sing with the St Andrew’s College jazz band and, at 16, won a national award as Best Jazz Vocalist. It was a pivotal achievement.

‘I realised at that moment, when I won that award, that “oh, maybe this is what I can do”. I was getting good feedback about my singing and getting cool opportunities. I got the award and thought “this feels right”.’

There followed years of academic training – a Bachelor of Music in Jazz Singing followed by a Masters of Music Therapy – before the release of her first self-titled EP in 2010. This is when things really started to happen for Sacha … a TV spot on Good Morning, invitations to sing at leading jazz festivals around the country and interest from Tokyo-based music label Sweet Soul Records (SSR), which re-released her EP in Japan in May 2011.

That same year, Sacha was invited to audition for The Voice of Holland, a popular Dutch television show watched by 4.5 million people every week. Of Dutch-West Indian descent, Sacha saw it as a great way to gain some international experience while exploring her Dutch heritage and so went ahead with the audition. She proceeded to blaze her way through the competition and wound up a top 10 finalist. In turn, this led to an opportunity to work with some of Holland’s leading producers – Killing Skills, I.N.T. and Chef Red – who together produced her second EP Rising One. (Released by UK-based label BBE Records in 2015, it features the hit single Hey Sugar.)

Looking back, Sacha recalls it was a tough decision to fly off to Holland for the audition because it meant having to turn down a chance to take part in a Fly My Pretties New Zealand tour.

‘That would have really helped officially put me on the map in New Zealand. I went on to have an amazing international career but I do sometimes wonder now what would have happened if I’d gone on tour here instead. It can be really hard knowing which decisions are the right ones!’

The exposure on The Voice of Holland certainly propelled her into the European spotlight. She followed up the show by touring with influential Dutch saxophonist Candy Dulfer (famed for her collaborative work with Prince). She’s since performed at festivals around the world and supported many headlining names from Boney M to Jhené Aiko.

Through Killing Skills Sacha got her entre into the hip hop side of the industry, writing, recording and performing with prominent Polish hip hop artist O.S.T.R. It was an enormously successful career twist, bringing the pair more than 40 million views on YouTube, three platinum albums and Poland’s hip hop album of the year in 2017.

‘I got swept into hip hop and had three summers’ worth of touring with O.S.T.R. Everywhere you go with him there, he’s like a god. He could run that country – he has this amazing ability to talk to his audiences … It was bizarre arriving in Poland and being picked up by the crew. I’d have no idea where we were going or how big the audiences were going to be. Sometimes I didn’t have time to prepare before the gig. I’d literally be getting ready on the bus … One of the shows was near the Ukraine border, where there had been bombs going off. We turned up to find a crowd of 10,000 people waiting for us. I’d been told it was going to be a small gig!’

Sacha has also worked with another top Polish artist, Hades, with one of their releases reaching number one
in Poland.

Alongside all of this, Sacha got signed by Downtown Music Publishing (DMP), a music publishing agency, propelling her into the world of EDM (electronic dance music) and was also picked up by Red Bull Music Amsterdam, leading to collaborative work with electronic producer Wantigga (a.k.a. Jonathan Tan). Other productive collaborations have seen her work with Jengi Beats, Benny Tones, State of Mind, Pacific Heights and K+Lab. She’s also channelled a passion for teaching along the way, delivering workshops both here and internationally.

In 2016, Sweet Soul Records released Sacha’s debut album Luminous in Japan, which reached number three on the New Zealand Heatseeker charts. (Wantigga’s smooth work can be heard on Stonecold, one of her hit singles from that album.)

‘I’ve had to think a lot about what kind of singer I am. You need to have that specific vision. I’m a soul singer, but hip hop, neo-soul, funk, jazz and EDM can all fit under that umbrella.’

Amazingly, Sacha has never had a manager. One of her more courageous decisions was to find a way to tour independently of a band, through learning how to use sequencing and digital music platforms such as Ableton Live. She brought that to a big stage for the first time in 2016, opening for Jhené Aiko at the Michael Fowler Centre in Wellington.

‘It was probably the scariest moment I’ve ever had, relying on technology and not a band … I then did a world tour with that, visiting SSR in Japan and going through Holland.’

Two years ago, Sacha decided to move home and is now sharing her wealth of experience, serving as a music mentor for the New Zealand Music Commission and through her role as Head of Songwriting at Ara Institute of Canterbury.

This year, she has launched SOLE Music Academy in Christchurch as her personal vehicle to help a rising generation of talented young singers and songwriters find their own pathways into the music industry.

‘I’m 33. I’ve just got engaged, bought my first house and started this business, so it is a huge transition. SOLE is my focus right now. I looked around at what was missing in Christchurch and realised it was that bridge to the industry. The concept behind it is to find those people with the most potential and passion, put them through an artist development programme and put together a plan for them, setting achievable goals.’

Along with artist development, SOLE offers individual and group sessions in singing and songwriting. In many ways, Sacha sees the academy as a way to provide young artists with a reality check.

‘Their mind-set is so important. A music career is really hard and it’s not just about singing. You’ve got to understand your music vision and work towards that and be ready to take every opportunity that comes your way.’

Meanwhile, Sacha continues to forge her own career as an artist. This year she has been revisiting her jazz roots, performing favourite jazz standards along with new material written by Ara’s Head of Jazz School Tom Rainey. As well, she is maintaining an international presence, including a new release this year with Canadian artist Sticky Buds (Lovin’ Easy) and another release coming up soon with Dutch producer Moods.

Christchurch is richer for this talented woman, whose career will assuredly continue to inspire and empower those around her.

[ WORDS Kim Newth, IMAGES Lucy Hunter-Weston ]