Nadia Reid has an evident penchant for giving meaningful titles to her song collections, her new album ‘Listen To Formation, Look For The Signs’ following ‘Letters I Wrote and Never Sent’, the EP that introduced her back in 2011. Catching up with her in Ponsonby, Michael Cathro looked to link her southern upbringing and subsequent northward drift with her developing songwriting persona.
When I meet up with Nadia Reid at a quiet Auckland café she has already been there for three and a half hours, wearing out the keyboard on her laptop organising album launch-related things. Doing all of the big things, the little things and the forgotten things that make up the self-release of an album.
Ponsonby is around 1500 kilometres from Reid’s home of Port Chalmers, which is about a 10-minute drive out of Dunedin towards Aramoana. Chick’s Hotel, one of Dunedin’s jewels, plays host to a raft of talented musicians, and like the rest of Port Chalmers bears an unquantifiable, ageless charm. Certainly port-life is a part of Reid’s marrow, and naturally that must bleed into her songwriting. But how does someone find their way into being a writer of songs? It seems such a strange thing to become.
“I don’t know why you’d choose to do this. I don’t remember consciously choosing it! I think I started doing it in high school to try and cope with a few things, to process emotions and feeling. I used to go to Whare Flat Folk Festival with my mum. We’d go there every New Years, my mum has always been musical and played music. I met Hannah Harding one year at Whare Flat and I started to learn guitar and it became this weird hobby.”
Five years ago Reid was playing shows in Dunedin bars and cafés, as a high school student, before making the move to Christchurch when she was 17.
“Hannah had moved up to Christchurch and was playing in The Eastern. I went up a few times and managed to connect in with a bit of that scene. It was also a leaving home-kind of thing. Tim Moore who runs Goodbye Blue Monday was a big influence and help for me.”
Moore produced Reid’s 2011 EP ‘Letters I Wrote and Never Sent’, along with Ben Edwards and Reid herself. It includes the track Rise And Fall, which featured on Gerard Smyth’s documentary about the Christchurch earthquakes, itself titled When A City Falls.
“I think the earthquake was a really weird time. The EP was recorded five months after, so everything was really still fucked up. In a weird way it made me a lot more pro-active. It made me put a lot of things in perspective. A lot of people want to talk about that and how it affected artists, but I think it’s just like anything else, like having someone die. It was a traumatic event.”
Reid uprooted and moved first to Auckland in 2012 before relocating to Wellington – heading back to Auckland again in October of this year
“I find that if I get too comfortable living in a place, I need to change. I find that quite inspiring.”
That’s a lot of experience to squeeze into a relatively short amount of time but Reid’s songs have always presented themselves as having an ageless quality. She might have lived a hundred different lives. Her voice is mournful, dynamic and extremely powerful. She is able to exercise incredible control, seamlessly dropping out of falsettos into the lower parts of her register leaving live audiences agape.
Her new album, ‘Listen To Formation, Look For The Signs’, was made possible by a PledgeMe campaign that Reid explains was primarily due to financial desperation.
“I had mixed feelings about doing PledgeMe. I never thought I’d do anything like that. I had this recording time booked and I’d been talking about doing this album for around two years. I needed to make some money and I thought if I could just set something up so that people could pre-order it… they’re buying the album, I’m just getting the money in advance. I spent a long time wording how I wanted to present it to people. My worst fear is trying to drag something through the mud. I don’t ever want to be a try hard. I want to play music and write and make albums but I only want to do it if it comes really naturally, I’m glad I did it. I’m still incredibly in debt.”
Reid is somewhat dismissive of her earlier EP, ‘Letters I Wrote But Never Sent’, indicative of her forward focus.
“It feels like it doesn’t reflect me any more. I had never been in a studio and I was so green. It is what it is, but I think you’ve got to always be changing. I’m glad the sound is different [on the new album]. I don’t know how or why. I’ve sort of gotten older, it’s not so teeny heart-breaky, but it’s still melancholic.”
Melancholic is right, and there is definitely that maturity that has always seemed to belie her years. On ‘Listen To Formation, Look For The Signs’ upright bass and carefully-placed, beautifully executed guitar swells and stabs support the songs, as in her live shows.
“We let the vocals be a little bit more prominent. A lot of the vocals on the EP were a bit drowned out. Some of the songs are more sparse, just guitar and voice. Some are rockier and there is electric guitar all over it.”
Those rockier songs are well placed among the melancholic moments on Reaching Through and Seasons Change. A rollicking, distorted re-imagining of Holy Low in Holy Loud creates a roaring album finale. As well as Reid’s vocal and acoustic guitar, the record features Richard Pickard playing double and electric bass, Sam Taylor on guitar, and Joe McCallum’s percussion. It was recorded over 10 days in Lyttelton, produced and recorded by Ben Edwards.
However transformative the experiences of lives within a lifetime or the infections a place has upon a person, it seems the boat home will always harbour a sense of connection.
“I feel really creative when I’m back in Port Chalmers. I feel I’ve come back home and I feel inspired to write. I think place is a very important thing for me, where I am.