February/March 2017

by Dave Dobbyn

Nadia Reid: Turning Towards The Light

by Dave Dobbyn

Nadia Reid: Turning Towards The Light

It’s little more than a year since the last glowing international reviews of Nadia Reid ’s PledgeMe-funded first album, ’Listen To Formation – Look For The Signs’, were published. Though not all included a rating, it’s no exaggeration to say they averaged four-out-of-five stars, an incredibly resounding endorsement for a well-backed album of any genre – surely near miraculous for a crowd-funded and self-released, folk-oriented Antipodean debut. Numerous reviewers praisingly likened her to Laura Marling, Gillian Welch and Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval.

nadia reid dave dobbyn silke hartungReleased here late in 2014 and promoted to the northern hemisphere a full year later, US and British music press were matched in their enthusiasm – the likes of Pitchfork, MOJO, Uncut, The Guardian, BBC 6 and Sunday Times all praising her ability to write honest, introspective lyrics and a self-assured voice that combines intensity with intimacy.

Britain’s Guardian found a ’… preternatural ability to translate internal weather into chords and words,’ Pitchfork confirming, ’… she shapes her words into characterful, sticky hooks, which feels rare for this genre of music.’ Nadia Reid’s impeccable debut will maybe set a wider orbit in motion’, predicted Uncut, while Folk Radio UK remarked, ’New Zealand native Nadia Reid is the real thing, a fact that her debut album backs up in spades.’

As she prepares to launch her sophomore album ’Preservation’, this time backed by Australian and British labels, Nadia admits to still being surprised at the strongly positive response and the wide-ranging performance opportunities that resulted from her first album. As she told Paste magazine her sophomore is going to be more gritty. “Not so down and out on love but a bit wiser. It’s certainly folk driven, but the themes are a nice progression.”

No stranger to what makes for a great song himself, Dave Dobbyn, is among those who have publicly lauded her, selecting her song Call The Days as a favourite in a recent Radio NZ National Matinee Idle appearance. We asked Dave if he might like to talk with Nadia about her new album on NZM’s behalf – and are both pleased and very grateful that he jumped at the chance.

Dave Dobbyn Interviews Nadia Reid

From the moment I first heard Call The Days As They Were Known from Nadia Reid’s first album, ’Listen To Formation – Look For The Signs’, I’ve been moved by her music. Her songs were transporting. I would stop what I was doing and listen intently as if the world and its noise had at last, shut up for a change. For me, that welcome suspense continues with the release of ’Preservation’, Nadia’s second album. It is without doubt a work that should grow her global audience.

Seeing her perform live, I was spellbound by the way she surfs the notes and they all feel so right. There’s a spirit to it, an economy, pure and lovely, that sometimes belies the turbulence of the lyric.

So it was with pleasure that I met with Nadia at the offices of NZ Musician to talk about the writing and recording of ’Preservation’ in advance of the album’s release and a day ahead of her departure for a tour in Europe.

Recorded and produced by the artful and prolific Ben Edwards at The Sitting Room in Lyttelton, these 10 songs hold together so very well. That’s not surprising, given the depth of Reid’s songwriting and assured performance, coupled with her superb team of dedicated players.

Asked about recording, she spoke of the bond she had developed with her band and producer, the ease with which they worked and how she felt transcendent in performance during takes. She said that easiness was an ideal situation for an artist to be in – at home in a studio with your trusted crew. This resonates with me. As an artist I have found great relief in the chemistry that frees you up to perform, unshackled by anything that would distract from making the best possible recording of the songs.

Was it a nervous process for her?

“I met Ben [Edwards] when I turned 18 and I moved to Christchurch,” she recalls. “He is beautifully mad. He makes anyone feel comfortable. I actually made an EP with him when I was 18. I had no idea… I was so new to everything and nervous about playing in a band. He was really passionate about working with me. We built a great friendship, so by the time I came to make the first record I knew him so well and trusted him so much that there has never been any anxiety for me.

“When I go into other studio situations, which isn’t very often, I can feel uncomfortable and nervous. I feel totally at home with Ben. The way I like to work is to be in the room with the band and to be playing live. I’m really not a perfectionist – I’m not someone who wants to do a million takes. I’ve got maybe three or four takes and the first couple are the best and it is all about feeling… just a feeling”.

Recording can be a fraught process. It often needs to be as solitary and private as songwriting itself. There is a natural threshold that you have to step over and a welcoming room always sounds good. This record sounds like everyone has hit their stride in terms of choice of songs and how they hang together, and the production style throughout is really consistent. Here there is a sense of committed unity in serving the songs.

’Preservation’, the album project, was born from a shared generosity of belief that is abundantly clear here in the music. Nadia’s players are Sam Taylor on electric guitar, Richard Pickard on bass and Joe McCallum on drums.

Throughout the album the dynamic live feel has been captured to glorious effect. This underpins Reid’s soaring voice. With Sam Taylor’s fluid and melodic guitar work creating a wall of harmonic chiming textures, a joyful unfolding backdrop for Nadia’s moving vocal deliveries. And all over a solid, certain rhythm section.

“I’m so lucky to play with these three musicians, all jazz trained, who are so sensitive musically and so in tune with me as a person,” she says.

I can hear Nadia and Taylor’s guitar playing are intrinsically linked, and his treatments and atmospheric work are beautiful, such a complement to her voice. I commented that she has my favourite guitarist in the band…

“Did you call him a NZ great on National Radio?” responded Nadia. “It’s totally gone to his head. It’s a running joke at the moment!”

Well it’s true. I saw the pair perform at the APRA Silver Scrolls when they sang Lydia Cole’s Dream and they owned it. His guitar playing was phenomenal. That’s all they needed to really hold the room (Vector Arena), just the voice and the guitars.

There are many great guitar hooks on the record, layers of them interwoven. I love the fact that Reid has embraced this kind of folk that speaks of truth and life and loss. She uses three-to-four chords, interesting inversions, ripping and jangly guitar, open chords. I love the drone effects and harmonics at that folk core – it’s an ancient timeless sounding thing that suits her voice perfectly.

And where Ben Edwards has balanced her vocals in the mix is really great. The groove they get where they surf the dynamics and the tempo is fluidly moving around the vocal. From the wall of sound of The Arrow And The Aim to a plaintive vocal and acoustic of Reach My Destination or Hanson St Part 2 (A River), there is pure craft on display throughout this set of true gems.

I ask what acoustic guitar she uses?

“At the time of recording I was playing my old Crafter, Korean-made, that I was attached to after 10 years of playing. And they gave me two new, exquisite guitars that are very similar in character and beautiful wood,” she enthuses. I suggest she would feel at home with any guitar.

Was there a whole crop of songs that she harvested before she went into The Sitting Room, or was it a work in progress?

“I think I just had maybe the 10 songs. Preservation was the last song I wrote and I finished it in the studio and although I had another album title it became the title track.”

Right On Time sounds a bit like a single to me.

“It’s a little bit poppy and a little bit cheesy and fun!”

So Richard [a song about what seems like an emotional, drawn-out break up and finding yourself and your freedom as a result] is real?

“In the past I’ve used false names, so this time I was just being true to the song and the process of writing. Not an ounce of me wanted to hurt him and part of me was thinking, ’Am I going to get bad karma?’ But all the best songs in the world are written about people’s ex-lovers. He’ll be fine,” she laughs.

nadia reid justyn strotherHanson St uses elements of a traditional folk song, with its sparse arrangement and timeless lyrics. Using images taken out of nature – a river, the seasons, growing, cold temperature – it evokes the aftermath of a break up, the regret, but also acceptance of the change and subsequent pain involved.

“I wrote that at the same time as Call The Days, so it’s Part 2, and I think of them as almost the same song. I lived there in Wellington.

Now I don’t live anywhere really… but my things are in Dunedin.”

How does it feel looking back at previous recordings?

“A couple of years go past and you play it and you think, ’Oh my lord, that’s intense.’ That’s the beauty of capturing a moment of your life and creating it into art and you are growing and changing and you don’t feel those things any more.”

I’ve read some of the glowing quotes, wonderful reviews of her music and performances from The Guardian and Pitchfork or Mojo, and they all talk of her confidence and how surprised they are. I’ve just turned 60 and facing ageism. Is there a hint of ageism in their praise, I ask, that they should be surprised that you are young (she’s 25 right now), standing exactly where you want to be, doing exactly as you would wish?

“People want to know why or how I got my confidence and are often surprised at my age,” she agrees. “I guess I don’t feel that confident all of the time. I’ve felt pretty certain about the performing side of it, writing songs, for the last couple of years. But then in and around that, the other bits of being a musician are terrifying on a daily basis. Every day I think about going and becoming a schoolteacher or getting a 9-5 job. And I really don’t like flying. There’s a point in which it’s your hobby becomes this thing that has to generate income or be successful.”

I heard her mention “being wired differently” in a Kim Hill interview. Everyone who writes and performs has different wiring – airports, bright lights, all triggers for panic – so you’ve got to navigate all that as well. I’m fairly anxious until soundcheck, then a siesta, then back to the gig but every other aspect of it can get to you. The excitement can be scary and it’s only when you are on stage and fully present that at last you can release the nervous energy.

She’s grateful for the goodwill from band and producer.

“I love that it has always been about the music for all of them.”

Nadia had talked of her biggest concern being how to pay for everything.

“My friend [and fellow songwriter musician] Anthonie Tonnon is really good at budgets and money, so he’s helped me. ’I’ve made you a budget,’ he’d say and I was resisting and now it’s like – he’s a genius. I’m still taking care of everything over here.”

Picked up following the local release of her debut album by Kiwi-friendly Australian record label Spunk, Nadia is now also signed to newcomer Brit label Basin Rock. ’Preservation’ will be just the label’s second release. Earlier touring through the UK also led to a management contract with Manchester-based Andy Moss and David Cooper, which made organising her February 2016 European tour a whole lot easier.

“We toured in Europe last May, my first time over there since I was a child. I was hit by this massive revelation of how much music has comforted me through so much of my life, which I think I was taking for granted. Things began to shift with being over there and then you get the management, and the publishing and the lawyer, and then it starts to become this serious thing. I’m with a new label there, Basin Rock. I love their work and their design aesthetic.”

I love Nadia’s live performances, most of which are just her and guitarist Sam Taylor who is currently travelling overseas with her. I find myself thinking, ’What’s her voice going to do now? Where is she going to go with that wonderful melancholy?’ And after experiencing the song I have that big sigh of relief. Now, listening to the new record, I’m moved by the great balance instrumentally with her pitch-perfect delivery. After every song there’s a kind of landing you have to make to get your breath back, reminding me of the power of art and what it demands of you.

It’s really exciting that Nadia is launching this new album and will have plenty of gigs under her belt upon her return to tour NZ and Australia in late March/early April.

“Yes… nothing like back to back shows to get your fingers blistered up!”

I suspect her fingers and her wonderful, inspiring voice will be very busy for many, many years to come.