Bilingual singer-songwriter Nina Cobham discusses her debut EP, 'what colour does this feel like?', shout outs from Demi Lovato and the ups and downs of youth.
Living between the outskirts of Leeds and south of Spain, emerging singer-songwriter Nina Cobham submerges her music into the cultures she has experienced, offering a bilingual approach laden with soothing soundscapes.
From the dreamy escapism and detailed songwriting of her lead single “interested”, to the language-blending and melting productions of R&B in “too much”, the 20-year-old is becoming a rising star to watch. On her debut EP, ‘what colour does this feel like?’, Nina’s soft and delicate vocals reflect on youth, relationships and more.
Now amassing over 15 million streams on Spotify alone, Nina Cobham has been garnering a global fanbase from her bedroom. Her next steps will surely be watched by many.
Congratulations on the announcement of your debut EP, ‘what colour does this feel like’ – how excited are you for people to hear your first ever project, and what can fans expect?
I’m super excited. It’s a four-track EP, so it feels quite small. But it feels like a good place to start. This year was more about consistency. For me, I wanted to be able to not necessarily drop in bulk, where as soon as we’re feeling the end of that time, we can drop something else. It took a while to create because of where my mental health has been at during the pandemic. But I feel people can relate to it, and I feel this was a good time for it.
The whole concept of it was movies and living life through movies. I was already quite inspired by movies and soundtracks before lockdown. That was my comfort thing because I have quite bad anxiety. I fall asleep to Friends or David Attenborough playing for the 500th time. Then I found a kind of fixation on that during the lockdown, which really intensified. So, I had movies that I’d watched over again, and it’s that escapism after being stuck in this house. I moved back in with my parents, and I love my family, but also, I’d moved from living by myself for two years. It was meant to be for four weeks when Manchester was bad. A year later, and I’m still here.
It’s that feeling of sometimes wanting your own space, right?
Yeah, I adore my family, I adore them so much. But then there is a time where you’re sat there, and you’re like: why do I adore you as we’ve been in the same house. Also, recording in my parent’s house felt like being 16 again. I dropped out of uni last year as I hated it, and my dad thought I finished the year. So, in summer, he was like: oh, well at least finish the second year. I was like: no, I dropped out halfway through. He was like: pardon. I moved out at 17 and then moved back, just about to turn 19. After living alone for two years, it was just ridiculous. I used to record in this room when I was 16, and it makes me feel like my younger self again. Sometimes I act like my 16-year-old self, and I’m like: whoa, calm down a little bit.
The name of your project draws connotations of synaesthesia – is this something you experience?
I don’t have synaesthesia. But I had written thinking: what colour does this feel like? The note is above my desk in my room. It was because I have conversations a lot where every song I listened to, I’m thinking, what does this feel like? What kind of warmth does this feel like? What kind of colour does this feel like? What movie scene will this fit? And so, I was talking to my friends about it, and creatives seem to do it a lot. It’s not synaesthesia, but it’s where we collide worlds, where we’re thinking what will the music video look like for this. For me especially, it was what soundtrack would this be part of, what movie scene would this represent, and what colours would that bring out? Then as I started talking to more friends about it. I was like: I need to write this and be mentally prepared every time I’m experiencing something. What colour would this represent? So for example, “Mañana”, featuring Xadi, felt blue. He was like: I just got the artwork done in blue, and I was like: yo okay. It’s not a physical thing, it’s more of a mental-emotional aspect where I think we grow up socially.
I did a lot of art and graphic design when I was younger, and we’ve been brought up to know about the connotations – red means danger and all that. So, I feel as a creative that comes out later on. At the start, I wasn’t even consciously thinking what colour does this feel like? But when I was questioning everything that I was making, I was like: oh what colour would this be? In asking that, what emotions does this feel like? Because I have found it hard to distinguish what my emotions have been on a daily basis. It’s been really extreme, one or the other. It got to a point where it’s: what colour does this feel rather than what emotion does this represent, because some of the songs to me sound sad. But in “interested”, for example, the lyrics are sad, but to me, that represents terracottas and warm colours. A morning in Spain when you wake up in summer. Colours are just so part of everything that we do. I don’t physically see synaesthesia, but I think it.
What can you tell us about “interested” in terms of the story, and how does it entwine with the rest of the EP?
“interested” was the first one that I wrote for the EP. I’ve written over 100 songs this year, and none of them really made it. But this one I wrote last March – it started before “sola” came out. I’d first moved back into my parents’ house. My dad had his nylon string guitar out. It was his first guitar, and I thought I’d have a mess around with that. I find that summer weather influences the type of music I want to make. You can hear in the three other songs that they were made over winter because there were more red and dark colours. “interested” came together easily on my end. Then I was really protective over it as I didn’t want anyone else touching it for months because I’ve done so much of the parts. I’m a bit of a perfectionist, so I was like: it needs to be working with the right person. In the meantime, I put out other songs. “Sola” was already set to come out, and that went crazy. I shut down a little bit. I then started working on “interested” on Zoom because I found that less invasive. The person I worked with, Jack in New York, made it so comfortable, and he didn’t tread on any of my ideas. So, everything I was saying he was doing and adding in his own little things that weren’t invasive into what my ideas were. It’s the one on the project that I’m most sentimental over. It took me months to let anyone to touch it. The more I held onto it, the more protective over those ideas I was. It also needed to come out – it couldn’t have come out because it would have been a summer song in December.
Your EP revolves around escapism and is inspired by coming-of-age movies, with each song reflecting a different season and a different time of day. What was your reasoning behind this, and how did it feed into the project?
I feel it wasn’t a conscious decision in the early stages when we first started talking about doing an EP. I was like: I have no idea what songs I would put on that, but I wanted to have a cohesive thing. Even before I started putting out singles, I wanted to release an EP, but I couldn’t just drop it out of nowhere.
I was watching so many movies and was inspired by the little lyrics of them. “interested” was done first and then “too much”. Then “por razones sentimentales” with “predictable” last. So, once I had them all done, the order they came in represented different times of the day, different cities. But the different times of the day were more the moods of the songs because I knew “too much” was the night, the party, the end of it all. I wanted that to be the last one especially. It was made alongside the first one. I wanted everything to be joined, and I knew “interested” was the morning one. Then “por razones sentimentales” became the proper coming-of-age one, riding in a car doing stuff that you can romanticize. “predictable” was the one that seemed too depressing to go on to the EP, and my manager said no, you can put it on there, so it wasn’t a conscious process. But I knew I didn’t want an EP of songs that sounded like “interested” or “too much” – it needed to have a variation that sounds like me because I like different kinds of music.
Overall, the process was watching these movies and then coming up with the lyrics. “predictable” and “interested” were the ones that I worked on mostly in my room, and then I got Jack on board with it. “por razones sentimentales” was a different song originally that was called “Paris”, and that was another reason why it needed to be about movies and how overly romanticized Paris is. It all fell together and made sense.
What were some of the coming-of-age movies that inspired you in particular, and why?
We say coming-of-age movies; I watched 10 Things I Hate About You – always one of my favourite movies. I wanted to be Kat so bad when I was little. It was also a lot of romcoms as well, such as When Harry Met Sally – a good variation to be fair. There was School of Rock, and I think I’ve watched the whole coming-of-age and romcom section on Netflix.
I clung to my favourite comfort movies. I found myself regressing as well. I watched a lot of Disney for the first time. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched 10 Things I Hate About You in the past year and a half. I even watched my dad’s favourite film, The Princess Bride, because I remember watching it when I was little, and I thought this isn’t as good as I remember it to be. I’ve just outed him; he would never admit this is his favourite movie. But any kind of movie that you can think of where they go on long drives or they are hanging out of a convertible, I’ve watched it. My life for the past year and a half has been films. I could be such a good movie critic – Netflix should hire me.
Do you usually use film as a point of reference when creating music?
I do it a lot. I think it’s because I find it hard to separate emotions. So, what happens is they all cluster and, during lockdown, it was that thing of I’m not experiencing anything right now. So, it’s hard to gain inspiration by doing nothing and drawing off memories. I say that, but then I was depressed before lockdown. It’s not like I did that much anyway – I prefer to stay in. So, for quite a few years, it’s been a good point of reference, and they can kind of blur where I have experienced this to an extent, but then it’s dramatized in movies. So, I can take that step further and even imagine this could happen to me. I want a love like in the movies. I want friendships like in the movies. I over romanticize everything to get through someone hurting me. Nothing matters.
I find it hard to stay angry at people, and I found the same when I was watching movies, seeing how they were angry, for a second, and then in a different scene, they’re not anymore. It was almost a relief because I don’t hold anger well and watching movies where it’s like that means I can do it. Maybe it’s not healthy. If I go to a therapist, they might say don’t switch your emotions off. But it’s almost become this conflict of, if I’ve watched Friends so many times, I’m not a big fan of it. But also, you feel you get to know the characters. I found it hard to answer texts. I must have offended so many people this year because I’ve found it overwhelming, where my only method of contact is to refer, and I hate my phone. I hate how it makes me feel. So, I’ve hurt people by not answering them. But then, watching these programmes, it’s like you feel you know them, or you can relate with the people.
It’s that escapism from reality and society in everyday life.
Exactly. I turned my phone off a couple of weeks at a time and binged movies. It’s got to a point where we’re doing anything that we can to survive right now, even now, when things are opening up. I’m kind of worried about things opening up now, where it’s gone from being uncomfortable being trapped inside to the opposite where now is comfortable because this is where I’ve got all of my comfort things. This is where I’ve got all my DVDs and everything that I want to do. Also, I’ve somehow got back to collecting CDs. When I was little, when we lived in Spain, we had a massive CD and DVD collection. My basement is ridiculous. I keep telling my dad that we need to get rid of some.
We’ve created a universe where the house hasn’t changed. But we’ve had to make it more versatile in the sense of creating hobbies to do inside, creating escapism – this room has never felt bigger. This is crazy because I also could do with a change of scenery. I switch rooms in the house and have somewhere else to work. I’ve had to make this house into a massive universe. And I think expanding that when you watch movies or some people play video games, whatever it is, you’ve expanded it because you’ve created with your imagination.
Overall, what was the starting point of the EP, and how would you break down the creative process?
It was a lot of different processes, which is very representative of me. After all, I’m a mess and all over the place. But I’m an organized mess – so it’s alright.
There were three different processes at the start of the lockdown. I’ve changed so much this year as well. What I’ve wanted has changed so much. So, at the start of lockdown, I was so overprotective of “interested”. I didn’t want anyone else touching it. If I could do everything myself, I would. I’m a control freak. I don’t want people touching stuff. Then it kind of got to that acceptance, where I was working with Jack on other stuff, and I thought you’re so talented and careful. You take time. I can trust you with my work because I know you respect it. Then “too much” was the second one. As I said, Oscar is the only person I’ve ever worked on lyrics with. That is a no-go area, but we clicked really fast. We did a Zoom call first, and then when I went to London in September, maybe October, it was so natural. We did “too much” in two days of sessions, and I think we also did four other songs. He’s the only person who I might still let touch either. So that in itself was a completely different experience for me because it was the first time doing a co-write. For “por razones sentimentales”, Jack came up with the piano chords – the original demo sounded very different. Then we were like: more Monte Booker vibes on the keys, and he just did it. Then there were different aspects of the sound, for example, there was a pap sound like an indicator of a car, and having that kind of soundscape was nice to see. I’m really bossy when it comes to soundscapes and how I want them to sound. So, he went away and did that, I wrote the lyrics as we went along, and then we took things out and blended it all as it happened. It had a feature on it originally. When it got past Christmas, I got back into that space of needing to focus on my stuff. It’s really stressful getting too many people involved. The feature was sick, but it was not what I wanted.
Then lastly, “predictable” came after Christmas. I got into a bad place again. I think it was a mixture of seasonal depression but also the fact that the country was down again. I’d had so much hope to get out of the country – I needed it really badly. That was the one thing, naively, that I was holding on to for the whole time. I think people must think I’m cynical, but I just don’t trust the government. I feel a lot of us don’t. I know we got to have hope, and I know they’re predictable. He announced all the borders shutting for the first time, and I was like: you’re having a giggle. I messaged my manager, and I said I’m going to be out for two weeks, you’re not going to contact me, send me a letter or something. My parents were like: is there anything we can do? I said you can just leave me in my room for two weeks, honestly.
There are seven different versions of “predictable”, it could have been a 15-minute song because there are so many verses where it’s almost like a vent of everything that I was feeling. And then it turned into this comforting song because originally, I didn’t want it aimed specifically at the government. But it was so predictable how the ending was, and it turned into something where it’s comforting because I know what’s coming, and nothing can surprise me. I found out after, that it’s quite a common thing for people who struggle with worrying to re-watch something where they know what the ending is because nothing can shock them. There’s no tension, nothing is surprising.
I’ve fallen asleep to things I’ve seen 100 times; it’s comforting to know that the end is predictable. I turned the news off because it was predictable in a bad way. Then I was watching movies that were predictable in a good way to counter it. I think every single one was a vent of my emotions, offloading my emotions at the time because all of them have a theme of worry, but twisted in a comforting way. “por razones sentimentales” was about me romanticizing everything, and “predictable” was about finding comfort in the ending – which ironically is the start of the EP. All four of them were created differently. I did most of the sound design in “predictable” and needed strings on it. Jack came in and was like: I will do what you need me to do, and I will try not to invade it. Three of them were done with the same person, and all three of them were done in such different ways that the process also opened to me. It made me realize I can work in so many ways because I thought I was a one-trick pony and can only write by myself, only do the demos, and then get someone in. It became four different ways of creating music.
You often combine a softly sung, bilingual approach in your songwriting with contemplative, dark soundscapes. What drew you to this particular sound? Do you intend to change this or stick with it now you’ve found your pocket?
I think it varies per song. I always want to try new things. I love the soundscape to a point where I sit on my computer, and if someone else is doing it, I’m like: can we make it sound like this? If I’m doing it, then I just create it. I’m an amateur, so I’m still learning. But the people I’m working with know what my pocket is right now. I always want to incorporate that because I love anything that feels like it’s surrounding you – so, if I put my headphones on, it feels like this soundscape is all around me. It’s comforting, and that kind of soundscape was something that I’ve been aiming for, for a long time. I think it will evolve, and then it will be another version of that. Or I think, it’s my pocket, but it’s going to grow and do its thing.
How did you kick off your career, and what were your key influences growing up?
I moved around a lot whilst growing up. My dad’s Northern Irish and my mum’s Mancunian. The family that I’ve got over in Spain has been my family before I was born, they were friends with my parents. And they’re not blood, but they’re family – they are my aunts and uncles and cousins that aren’t blood-related to me. But I treat them as such, to treat me as such. It was through a church, and the village has had my upbringing in their hands.
The reason I started including Spanish was that we went back three years ago, for a holiday. That’s how long ago it’s been. It’s been two years since a holiday, oh my days. We went for tea, sat on the balcony, and I had released a couple of songs on Soundcloud at that point. I must have been 16, or maybe I was there during my 17th birthday. We were all talking about the songs, and they said they’re so good. Then Tomas and Malina – so Malina is one of my aunts, very much part of the family, and Tomas and my dad worked close when we lived in Spain – said, but you don’t do music for us. You miss us out. And I was like: What? And they were like: well, you only do music for the English people. I said, I can include Spanish if you want to. Well, yeah, we want to understand it. They were joking but they were also being serious. That was the mental note I made of wanting to be inclusive of my English family. Here’s my blood. And, my Spanish family, who are equally as supportive. They’ve had equally as much input in my upbringing. These were the people that, while I lived over there they stood in for my family in England. So, they’re making jokes about that, and I was like, actually, why don’t I do more inclusive stuff. That’s when I dropped “te extraño pero” a few months after, and they were like, yeah, you did one. And I was like, okay, I can see you like it. It didn’t start because I was like, oh, that could do really well. It started because I wanted to include my circle. And I didn’t think at any point, it was going to take off. It was one of those things that if someone I care about wants this, then it’s going to get done.
My dad did a lot of music growing up. I said before we were in a church, and my dad was a pastor in Spain. So that was always really musical being in Spain. And even before we moved there before long term, we’d go out from when I was four months old and go out for three months at a time to see the family there and whatever. So, there was always that musical influence from there. And my dad was always playing the guitar, always playing music in the car. When he was 17, he worked as one of the people when tapes were submitted to the label, he’d listened to them. And that’s why we’ve got so many tapes and CDs in our basement.
From an early age, he was always doing music. My granddad was also into music. And then when I was in living in Spain, we got a keyboard, and he was influencing us to learn the keyboard. I used to make up stupid songs and whatever. He also really wanted us to learn the guitar, and I was like no. But then, when I was around 11, I started learning and writing with the guitar. Then when I was 14, there was a woman who was a Christian singer. She knew my dad, and she knew I wrote songs. So, she asked if I wanted to go on a little tour in Poland with her. I can’t remember how long it was, but I think that was the point that I was like, I have no plan B. As small as it was, it was like 100 cap venue tops each place. I think some of them like 50. But then at 14, you’re like, this is insane. After that, I started putting on my own gigs with one of my friends when I was 16 in Manchester. We would promote them, organise them, run them ourselves, then split any profit.
I then moved to Manchester at 17 to start a degree, hated it. I was really depressed, but then I made my bed because I’ve missed the start of college. My parents were like stay the first year, and then you can leave, and I was doing my music on the side. If things took off a little bit more, I would have dropped out. But I then started the second year, and straightway I was like, yeah, I need to talk to Student Support about leaving because I can’t be here. I sat through three months in the first term, barely went into sessions, and I was like, dude, I need to drop out. And he’s like, try and hold on, try to make it through the second year because you’re not allowed to drop out of education until you’re 18. It got to after Christmas, COVID started happening, and I was like these guys are stupid for thinking I’m coming back.
I remember I went in, and I was like, I need to drop out, haven’t been in since September because I’m just in bed as it was bad, and it was affecting my music. Whereas in the first year, I could skip and go and do my music, do gigs, and make money. But the second year was an actual slog because it was affecting everything. And he’s like, oh, we’ll just have to think about it. Then second term came, hadn’t been in for weeks, and I already asked them three times about dropping out, and I sent them an email, like ah now’s a great time for me to drop out and they were like, make it to the end of the second year. I was like, no we’re not having this conservation anymore, this has been happening since the start. We’re not doing it. That was the whole process, and thankfully after I decided to drop out, I think God knew, the universe knew that I was struggling so much that year, it was like “Sola” is going viral. And I was like, this is amazing, I’ve got this and focus on this now. This was exactly what I needed for me to drop out last year, but the timing of it was perfect.
It was fate, right?
Honestly, I only went to uni to live in Manchester, and it was fate. I consciously decided to drop out and I was ready to start the process of it, but I kind of just needed the sign. Then this happened, and it got on a couple of playlists, then it got to about 100,000 streams quickly, and I was like, you know what, this could happen.
I started music when I was seven, that’s when I wrote my first song. I wanted to do so many things after, from being an author to working on a film score, but then I was like, I can’t achieve music, so this isn’t going to go down. Well, it is really [laughs]. I’m just a product of my upbringing and different people that have inputted into my life, from the languages I speak to the music that I create and the influences I take from it.
At only 19, you have already caught the attention of Christina Aguilera and Demi Lovato. What is it like to be recognised by the heavyweights, and what do you dream of happening next?
Don’t – because I cried. With Christina Aguilera, when I shared that with my friends from Spain, they were like, ‘are you are kidding!’ Same with Demi Lovato, it was such a massive shock. I watched Camp Rock so many times when I was little, and I was convinced I was her. I must have been the most annoying kid to all my friends, I kept telling them that I’m going to be a musician like Demi Lovato.
With Christina Aguilera, it was like, you’re a real-life person, and you’re posting about it! And maybe it was a team member, but she was posting about it so much. I thought to myself, this is her, and I lost it – my sister has got a video of me screaming. And then Demi Lovato, she said something like, these are the songs that me and my friends sent around, and I was like, oh my god.
Also, these are people I idolise a lot. They are icons to me, especially in the Disney Channel era, that being the only thing we could watch in Spain. I think that was only the kid channel we had. And then that happened. Everything felt so surreal. I’ve been working for this since I was 14, and I just turned 20 two weeks ago, so to have this happen before my 20th birthday, after working so long for it, was amazing.
The whole time I’m like, why do you want to talk to me? I promise you I’m not as interesting as you’re making me out to be.
It was the fact it was people, not just numbers on an app – which I’m so grateful for, but humans are connecting with my music. I have had so many DMs from random people around the world. And then to have it on the next level where it’s celebrities that I look up to, who are also listening and sharing it, is crazy.
From that point, I felt all the impossible things that I wanted to do weren’t impossible. I’ve got people who I don’t know somewhere in Indonesia messaging me, to Christina Aguilera and Demi Lovato in Hollywood, and I wonder, should I start asking cheeky questions? Do we think we could get a feature with this person?
If you don’t ask, you don’t get.
Literally, that’s what my Dad said. He’s like, ‘the worst they can say is no’, and I was like, Dad, I’m not messaging Demi Lovato. And he’s like, ‘the worst she’ll do is not answer’.
It’s just opened up my mind that there are people I want to work with. People who have maybe heard of me, that’s insane, and it’s a bit crazy. Nothing in life is real. This is all a simulation. I’m living in my own movie.
Finally, what is next for Nina Cobham, and what are you most excited about for 2021?
I think a lot of people are excited about gigs. I have not gigged in such a long time, I’m not sure how I feel about it. I’m sure it’s going to be great. I’m getting so immersed in creating, and it comes in waves of creativity. But I’m looking forward to moving into my own space, setting up my own little studio. It’s great here. I’m so grateful for this room in this house. But also, I’m excited to release more music. Getting to this point of releasing the EP is sick because I’ve been sitting on it for so long. Now I’m like, what’s next? What’s the video going to look like? I also want to release another project this year.
I personally want to start accepting that people are interested in what I’m doing. All of the signs are there, but still, somewhere in my head, I’m like, ‘oh, yeah, but if you release this, then no one is going to listen to it’. Like why? Why do I think that? Also, around the EP, I’m excited because we’ve got a video for “too much”. We got one of the drafts back, and it’s very exciting. I’ve also got a couple of live sessions, and I’m just looking forward to getting out of the country. I think I’m going back to Spain, to see my non-blood family and eat food with them. That’s at the top of my list. I need to message them all and have a massive party. That whole escapism dream is getting closer and closer.
I’m excited about a bunch of stuff. I don’t know whether it’s because the sun’s out, or maybe it’s because the EP is coming out. All of this was getting started before the pandemic, but it properly jump-started during the pandemic. So I’ve not been able to do some of the creative stuff. Not even just gigs, I mean video, and we had video ideas for “do you come here often?” and “lo que paso” that we couldn’t get done because of the lockdown that happened in January again. It feels like a long time coming. And sometimes I feel like I’m behind on things, literally just turned 20, I need to calm down.