Friday, August 17

The Inimitable Freedom of Nadia Nair

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Swedish artist, Nadia Nair resists classification. Her work strives for something indescribable, bending genres and melding influences from soul, rock, and classical Indian traditions. The result is stunning. Music that grabs at your heartstrings, pulling them along with the emotional cadences of the songwriter’s honeyed voice.

When we heard she was previewing her next album with an acoustic video to her single “K,” we were curious to learn what else the artist has been working on. Nadia is defined by her creative curiosity. You see it in her desire to be a part of each and every aspect of her music, from the production to the visuals to the running of her own record label. Her gracious dedication of time and consideration to each question asked, recalls the intensity and emotion that lies behind her music.

Kajal sat down to speak with her on an early Monday morning, reaching her on a cloudy Gothenburg afternoon in her apartment. Midday light streamed through her window, landing softly on her face as we spoke about creativity, inspiration, and the need to be free.

Kajal: I want to start by congratulating you on the release of your newest single and your latest video. Maybe we could talk loosely about what you’ve been doing since you released Beautiful Poetry. What’s been inspiring you lately?

Nadia: I wanted to put out music and be very much in control of that music. I was getting a lot of interest from labels who wanted to sign me. Publishers wanted to sign me to write music for others. But I felt like there was always a lot of buts. There were always a lot of, “But we would like you to do this, we would like you to do that.” I took endless meetings. Everyone was so enthusiastic, but there was always an obstacle in the way. I felt like, “Oh shit, I have to compromise myself.” I had to weigh what would take more time: to do it on my own or to have a label sign me.

Today, I don’t know. I don’t know what would have taken more time. Sometimes I feel like going your own way and releasing it under your own label is the longest road. And it was a long road. I was super naive. I was like, “Just watch me. I’m gonna do an album in two months.” I was like telling my friends and stuff. Everyone was like “Good luck.” And it took two years because I had to finance it myself. I had to learn what it was like to be my own label competing with other major labels. I didn’t have the same muscles or anything.

Could you talk about the things you’ve learned in that process of becoming your own label? What is it like  doing logistics while simultaneously being an artist and working creatively?

Yeah, creatively I was super free. That was the best part about releasing an album on your own. I could choose exactly which songs I wanted, how I wanted to sound, but I did feel very limited or held back by finance in that way, I also realized – I mean, it’s sad how such a beautiful, creative art also needs the finance and the muscles. You might want to do it without that muscle but, like, everything from doing music videos – I mean, you need a budget for that. Or even doing live shows, you feel like, of course I’m gonna get paid to perform my music but then you’re like, “Oh shit. Okay.” When you’re in that position people try and exploit you by saying that you need the exposure. That’s the word you always get as a bait – the exposure! You’re one of a kind. You’re a brown woman doing music like this on your label in Sweden. Oh it’s all so rare and all such a fairytale.

That is so much so the case. I feel like everyone I know who is working creatively, especially people trying to do more avant-garde work or experimental work, things that aren’t really part of the industry yet, tend to be creative people with the idea that I’m making art and the art will fulfill me on its own. The sad reality is that no one will pay us to “experiment” until it is adopted into the mainstream.

Yeah exactly. And then you have to be like, well how will this become mainstream. It’s a circle of – it’s like being in a hamster wheel.

What do you think gave you the strength to continue doing the work even amidst the struggle?

The strength was the music. The freedom. I was addicted to the freedom. I was like, damn. Because I saw so many other artists struggle with that freedom. They would be like, “Oh my label wants me to sound like this.” My label wants me to sound like that. And I was just like I have no label telling me how to sound. That was sort of what got me going. And to be able to choose who I wanted to work with. Like, I chose to work with friends who are musicians and artists themselves. And we can connect on such a respectful level, I feel. There was no fancy label that would decide for me who I would work with and how I would look. That’s what got me going. I would tell myself, “Okay, Nadia, you’re free. You’re free. You’re so much more free than others. And if you want to go to Malaysia for a year or wherever in the world to not do music, you can do that too, you know.” It’s just that freedom. It means a lot.

How did you end up making it work. Did you work side jobs while you were making music?

Yeah. I was working side jobs. Yeah, I got fired from some because, I don’t know. I haven’t found my perfect side job yet [laughs].

It’s hard to figure out the hustle.

It is! So hard. Especially when you’re a musician. Because also you have to go to your boss and be like, “‘Hey, so I have a gig that day. Can I take time off? Can I switch shifts?”

Eventually, they get tired of it. But yeah, I had to do that. I’m really thankful in a way to live in Sweden because we have a lot of scholarships. We have a lot of support from the government, you know, financially. I applied for a lot of grants. If I hadn’t got that, I wouldn’t have been able to make the album, to be honest. A lot of that and also a lot of friends and family actually chipping in and helping financially with stuff now and then. You know, really believing in it. And they really wanted to see me continue with my passion. I have them to thank for so much.

Your music videos show you have this tremendous visual sensibility. You also have this interest in fashion and choreography beyond your interest in the written word. What brought you to music specifically as a genre – I know you said you’ve been a musician since you were a child – but also what do you think you’re picking up from different art forms?

I think the older I get, the more I pick up from different art forms. Ever since I was a child, I always daydreamed. That was always my blessing and my curse. People around me thought that I always had a headache. Because I was very lost in thought. And I was very slow, as a kid. Because when I was being creative in my head, I was not only feeling a song or writing a song. I was exploring different art forms in my head. I needed to get that out, not only through music.  I played the violin but all of a sudden I needed to play the guitar. I needed to play the piano. I needed to paint. I watched my mother. She’s a painter. I watched her paint and I thought, I’m going to do that too. Like any way that I could express myself I think – sometimes I wonder why it is.

Is it just the fact that I’m artistic? Which a lot of people have described me as. Or if it also has to do with my social issues, as well. Like being – I mean we all have our own stories. And mine has always been that I’m a minority. A mixed girl. I mean growing up in predominantly white areas and always having to explain myself. No matter where I go in the world, I’ve always felt like a foreigner. I feel like people tend to want to box you. I mean that’s how humans work a lot. They feel safe when they have things to touch on or things to describe you with. When I felt like I couldn’t describe myself. I was like, “I found this sacred place where I could be that way. Where I could be whatever I want to be without the limitations of having other people racially profile me or stereotype me.” And that was music. And art in general.

Do you have a specific process to research things for inspiration or a particular way you find new artists to reference?

I know I’ve said in some interview that I don’t tend to listen to much music while I’m creating. I get distracted. I’m a bit of a sponge. I get inspired by so much. But I definitely feel like – I don’t know who said this. I think it was Sevdaliza in an interview. Have you heard of Sevdaliza? I saw a really interesting interview with her. I’m not going to quote her exactly. It was something along the lines of her not having listened to a lot of Persian music growing up, but that when she is creating something, she can like feel something ancient or something which ties her to her roots in it. She was amazed how that can be like something in your bloodstream.

I can recognize that. Because, yeah I did grow up with a lot of classical Indian music around me. My mom was a bharatanatyam dancer when she grew up and she listens to a lot of Mayali and Tamil tapes. Yesudas. I remember I’d always feel something. I’d love it. I had a period growing up where I was ashamed of my culture. I was being teased for a lot of things that had to do with it. So I would shy away from it for awhile. And then when I started creating music I was more inspired by what was on the TV and sounding like stuff that was out there. There weren’t people who looked like me. There weren’t brown artists and the music I was inspired by was a lot of black music and a lot of rock n’ roll. My dad fed me with Queen. Which is pretty funny that only now do I know that Freddie Mercury has an Indian background as well.

When I started writing music people wanted to put me in boxes. People would never guess that I had Indian ties. But when I listen to my music and I listen to the music that my mom plays I do hear the connection. I think the older I’ve gotten – now I’m taking Hindustani lessons to explore my voice and see how it works with that. I find that it just melts and flows so naturally into it. Even if I have not mastered it and probably will never, I can hear the influence of both my mother’s and my father’s backgrounds in what I do. I think what you grow up listening to absolutely has an effect on what you choose to create. But I also think that there’s something  within me that ties to my mom’s side that is just natural.

I think what gets me is that so much of the history of brown people is a history of movement and being uprooted from where you’re from to move to a new place, having to create a new identity. Indian peoples have been uprooted constantly over the last century.

That’s the thing. But then we all have this beautiful tie to our culture. There are these strong roots within us.

The culture becomes one of adaptability and flexibility.

It does. And I think it becomes so important to show that. Especially because – I don’t know how it is over there – but our culture is so, like all minorities, stigmatized and stereotyped. But it’s funny because how many people are on the Indian subcontinent. Like trillions? And yet we’re a minority. I’m always in awe of how generalized we are. Especially by the commercial media in the Western world.

Photo by Natalie Lennartsson

How do you think that discrimination looks different in a seemingly liberal space like the music industry? I think people who you work with would probably say that they’re not racist, that they’re progressive, whatever that means to them. How do you experience it differently?

Oh wow, yeah it’s so interesting. I feel like there are so many eyes being opened in my industry right now. It’s a lot going on over here, especially with the #MeToo movement. There’s a lot happening now regarding that. And then intersectional feminism is so new here in Sweden. A lot of people haven’t heard of it. And getting that into an industry that has always been so male dominated for so many years. It is a tough nut to crack. And it is interesting. There is a lot of interesting psychological analysis to do [laughs].

I don’t know exactly what I can put my finger on. There’s a lot of situations. For instance, when people describe my music over here, it’s very like, “Oh, it’s so difficult.” It’s easily exoticized because you’re doing something different. But at the end of the day, when you look around and you listen to what’s played on the radio, everyone is doing something different. Everything is doing something that is hard. I’m not one of a kind for making this kind of music. So that’s why it’s interesting how people describe my music over here. It goes hand in hand, I think, with how I look and who I am. The fact that I am a part of a minority. As soon as something new comes into the picture it’s like people…also the comparisons. People have calmed down with it but back in the day, they’d be like, “Ravi Shankar, M.I.A., Seinabo Sey,” and these are all artists that I love a lot, but its like –

Why are these the comparisons?

Yeah, why those? That people randomly pick people to compare you to rather than listening to how you sound. It’s more about how you look.

It’s truly funny to compare you to M.I.A. You couldn’t sound more different.

Yeah, yeah. And I mean, I won’t lie. When she came out in 2004, I was so over the moon to have someone who was brown representing me. I was almost like okay, I’m gonna be like her. Which is, you know, what happens. You probably have a lot of white women who want to look like Madonna. That happens. You feel empowered. You feel inspired. But I’m 30 years old now. I’ve come far from that.

M.I.A. will forever be my idol. I love everything she does. I do. Hands down. But that does not mean that I sound like her. And even if my song has a sitar and she has a song with a sitar, it’s like yeah, maybe I got inspired by that song. Just because we’re both brown, I am not M.I.A. You’re portraying me that way to make it easier for you. It’s all about making my music so comprehensible and make me marketable and accessible. Being able to describe me in a few words without taking them time to do their job and actually dissect me properly. Give me the time and that space and that respect because I’ll give the time and the space and the respect to the music. It’s not to be dumbed down into a single sentence. I’m more complex than that.

You may have answered this in part, but what drives you to create? Do you feel like there’s something tangible you’re pursuing when you’re writing or producing?

It all comes down to memories and experiences. Music is my only outlet and that is what drives me. I have a way of expressing what I’m going through. That’s a blessing for me. Before, I would see it as a pressure for me. Nowadays, I see it as a blessing. And sometimes I write. I write a song like ‘K.” But somedays I write really shitty songs and somedays I don’t even perform well either. But it’s okay. Because you know, just because you’re an artist does not mean you get it right every time, you know?

It’s so typical to be like, I can only write and be creative when I feel like my best and I write my best. But it’s actually when you write your shittiest things. I can sit down and write the worst lyrics or sing terribly and be like, I trust the process. It’s gonna be better. But I need to get this out of my system. And I think, to be honest, as I get older I am trusting a higher power even more to guide me and to be like, yeah, you have your time. The time is right when the time comes. It’ll all come to me. I’ve become a bit more spiritual or religious. I’m putting my hands in a higher power to be like, this power will solve itself. That’s what makes it easier to be creative.

Can you talk about what’s been rewarding for you with the release of the last album and your newer work? What are some of the things you’ve been grateful for?

Oh wow. Moving foward, I’ve become a lot more visual. A lot more daring visually. Learning about the business and having done it on my own has taught me a lot too. That’s really important even though I am a creative person. Now I have a lot more people, thankfully, who understand me and who work with me and around me. I have a lot more luxury to focus a lot more on the creativity and that itself has made a lot more things happen for me and has changed a lot.

I’m just going to continue. I’m a very flowy person. I can’t just be like I’m going to release an album then and there. Thankfully now I have people around me who are a lot less flowy that way, and they can be like, “Nadia you should release something now.” So hopefully, I’m gonna get a couple of singles out soon.

That was my last question. What’s next for you? What’s going on with the next album? How are you thinking through all of it?

I am working on an album. I have so many songs I’ve written for others and for myself. It will build up into an album eventually. I am hoping and I think it will come out at the beginning of next year. It always gets delayed and what not. I have a hard time completing something because I am a bit of a perfectionist.

Things take time. But people don’t see what I’m doing. I don’t always share the process. I’m not very comfortable on social media. I use it more as a tool for expressing my art rather than expressing my process. I’m very private that way and that’s what I did between Beautiful Poetry and now. I spent a whole year doing visuals for two separate songs and I had no thought or idea with it. And I think that reflects how I like to work. I like to work visually. Song by song. And just release it when it feels right. Hopefully there will be a couple more of those releases and then eventually that will collect together into the one album. Or I’ll find another way to do it. I don’t know.

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