- Words Phie McKenzie
After years of songwriting behind the scenes and an uphill battle to get her voice heard Nadia Nair is finally breaking out.
When Nadia Nair took to the stage at The Great Escape, she seemed genuinely touched to be performing alongside an all-female line-up. Perhaps it was because it was the first time she had been on an all-female line-up, maybe it was because it was the first time as an artist she didn’t have to resist anything; being included on the line-up was easy for her.
Alongside new MC Flohio, Mina Rose and ‘teenage witch’ Suzi Wu, the soulful Nair was one of four experimentally-minded women that would round off the three-day event at Notion’s stage. On stage with her guitarist, she treated the crowd to some of her new music and a hypnotising rendition of her comeback single, ‘K’, bringing in a crowd of devoted listeners that came down to hear her extraordinary voice.
On the phone a few weeks later, she’s still humbled by and interested in the idea of an all-female line-up, the first and only time in her career she’s been involved in one. “I don’t know how the UK feels, I can only compare it to Sweden. I felt like that night was so refreshing” she muses, only an hour or so after landing back in the UK to play Bushstock Festival. “I haven’t done anything like that in Sweden, that was a huge step for me.”
The Gothenburg born singer-songwriter-producer will be back and forth the UK this season for a run of shows to promote her new material. For Nair, playing British stages gives her a chance to mix with other types of artists and to be seen by new audiences, free from being typecast by her sound. “When I perform in London, I can get booked on a stage and share it with so many different kinds of artists” she explains. “We share a stage together, and it doesn’t matter if one sounds different to the other, there’s inclusivity here. But in Sweden in general, it’s fun, it’s a fun crowd and all, but you usually get booked on a stage with more similar artists to yourself.”
Experimental and fearless, both musically and on a personal level, Nadia Nair discusses the progression within the music industry and breaking away from its typical traditions. From choosing to be independent through to the frequency she releases her music and visuals, Nair herself has not followed a set path in her career. An artist that has often been seen, in her words as ‘under the radar’, Nair grew up playing in bands as a teenager, before getting into production and beginning her solo career. Having released her first project, the deep and powerful Beautiful Poetry independently on her Naboobia Records, and written for other artists such as Skip Marley, Kindness and Steve Angello, she’s garnered a reputation as an artist that works behind the scenes and something of an undiscovered gem. Nair insists this nomadic moniker is not a name she’s wanted to wear, though realistically she doesn’t care for labels at all. “I don’t know what [‘under the radar’] means but I haven’t cared much about labelling myself,” she says. “I’m a very fluid person, and I’m always being creative whether that’s writing for others or writing for myself I go with what I feel in the moment.”
Following the release of her Beautiful Poetry LP in 2016, she’s released a handful of songs, last year concentrating on the visual accompaniments to the emotive ballad ‘Fingers Through My Hair’ and the blissful ‘Forever’. “That was an in-between project that I did between the album, and what I’m doing with ‘K’” she says. “I feel I want to work visually and not just musically” she adds. Lead by her own intuition over trends and targets, she’s managed to create the kind of art she’s not only proud of, but which feels like it represents her as a multidimensional artist. It’s a process she says when she started out she wouldn’t have been able to do with a label.
“I have had a lot of interest in labels since way back,” she explains, “but it’s never felt right, and they have not understood me. ‘We love this, but we want to change that and that and that about you’ and I’ve felt like I don’t want to be part of this big puzzle where you go in and change things, and it doesn’t feel authentic anymore.”
Having put out one album without label interference allows Nair to be in the unique position of knowing what’s right for her brand – even if it was initially a more difficult choice to make. “The process was longer because when you don’t have the financial backing that a lot of people on major labels do,” she recalls, “and when you’re doing it on your own, it’s so straining and stressful, so it took two years to complete it. I was very stubborn, like ‘I’ll have it out in two months, you’ll see’. I tried to prove people wrong.”
The environment and the climate in which you make your art undoubtedly has an effect on its result, and for Nair, being a young artist trying to finish an album with no backing shaped its tone. “Of course, in two years a lot of things happen to you inspirationally,” she says. “In that time when I was struggling financially when I was writing. I call that album more introvert, more introvert energy, a trip into myself, my thoughts, what I was feeling. It was way deeper. It felt centred around me and thoughts about life and love and the death and destruction of things. I was obsessed with that album. I know you can’t see it on Spotify but on the actual printed version of the album, I have a skull on the CD, it’s nowhere else. I wanted that skull because I saw that as the essence of the album.”
Nair’s early introduction to music came through learning to play the violin, and strings are still a source of inspiration she continues to turn to today. The melancholic new single ‘K’ was in fact inspired by the sounds of Indian strings she found on old tapes and wanted to base a song around sampling strings. Despite her classical roots, pop music has also had a huge influence on her as an artist, and she recalls listening to Rick Astley on headphones as a baby and being moved to tears by Sinead O’Connor’s weeping face in the video for ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’. It’s pop’s sentimentality she seems to have drawn from in her more recent releases, both in her poetic lyrics and in the delicacy of her sound, specifically in tracks such as ‘Forever’ and ‘K’.
“There’s more extrovert energy” she explains of her new material. “Rhythmically it’s quicker, mid-tempo still but I feel the energy is very outward, extrovert. It springs not only from inside me but also from what’s going on inside me in the world, or my experiences. I think it’s much more unapologetic.”
Not only as an artist but also on a personal level she’s in a place she feels more comfortable, she’s less apologetic in herself too. Being from Malaysian-Indian heritage, specifically growing up in Sweden, she’s often been frustrated at its racial inequality which hasn’t been easy to speak out about in her career. “I feel like I have gone through a journey” Nair explains candidly. “At the beginning, I was very vocal when I was a kid, but I used to get into trouble a lot or at least for voicing injustices. Me being mixed [race] I did get to encounter a lot of racism. It has been tough pushing through the stereotypes and claiming white spaces, especially in this business. It came to a point where I kept quiet for a while because it was too painful to voice it.”
When so few people speak out for others suffering mistreatment of any kind, it can often feel isolating and like the weight is left on only you to speak up. As a woman of colour with a platform and voicing injustices, she admits that she has felt accountable for others too. “I felt like it was expected of me to voice pain all the time, so I did a lot of soul-searching in that time because I found that hard to forget. Because with a voice comes responsibility also with a voice comes many voices in a way.” However, she adds “You need to want to talk about it. Silence, it is more comfortable of course, but it’s not going to get us anywhere.”
Thoughtful and reflective throughout the conversation, it’s evident evolution is not only a crucial part of Nadia Nair’s story but a process she continues to strive for continually. Having done her soul-searching, established herself as a solo artist without having to compromise her art, she’s become one of the most exciting performers to emerge from Sweden in recent years. She may have been under the radar before, but there’s a real strong chance you’ll know more about her very soon.