The announcement that superstar Brit singer/actor Harry Styles will be playing Auckland in March next year warranted 6pm TV news coverage, with grateful, almost tearful fans expressing their joy. Those lucky fans will also get to see a talented Kiwi artist performing alongside Styles, as Naomi Ludlow, aka Ny Oh, has become a key member of his live band. Very much an artist in her own right, she has just recently released an EP titled ‘Ny Oh’s Garden Of Eden’, the fourth from her creative folk project. She talked with Nur Lajunen-Tal.
In the summer of 2022, Naomi Ludlow had a bizarrely unforgettable experience.
“I just came back to Aotearoa for New Year’s, and it was the first time being home,” says the artist known as Ny Oh, who spends much of her time overseas.
“I was there in February, and my great uncle, he lives in Napier, and he booked me a gig at his local pub without telling me! And I’ve just come off this insane tour, I’m very tired, the last thing I wanna do is play a gig. So we pull up to the pub and he says, ‘Oh, get your guitar out!’ and I was like, ‘What’s going on?!’
“He’s like 97 years old, so when we get into the pub he goes and finds himself a seat, and orders a Guinness. The pub owner comes up to me and is like, ‘Cool! So you’re here for the 1.30? That’s great! We’ll just set you up over here.’ And I was like, ‘Wait! What’s going on, what’s going on?’
“They had no sound system, they had nothing. It was just me and an acoustic guitar in the West Shore pub in Napier. You could hardly even hear me because everyone’s like, eating lunch… I just had a beautiful moment where I was like, ‘This is why you play music though. Because you’re only playing for yourself. You play music because you love to play music.’ It was a really, really beautiful reminder, actually, and I’m very thankful to him for that… He put me back in a funny situation that I hadn’t been in since I was maybe 15, and it was just really humbling, and I loved it!”
This genuine love of music has taken Ludlow places, and many places – frequently moving between time zones and musical styles, she’s had a lot happening in her career recently. On March 11, 2022, she released an EP, happily titled ‘Ny Oh’s Garden Of Eden’, the fourth release of her folk-based solo project. She is also a member of an emerging experimental outfit known as Neon Gru, but in the sense of going places, Ny Oh plays guitar in Harry Styles’ backing band. Yes, that Harry Styles. All of which goes to show that hard work and a bit of risk taking pays off. Ludlow has been at it since an early age. Born in London, to an English father and Kiwi mum she moved to New Zealand when just three.
“I grew up in Tauranga. I’ve always loved music, and when I was 17 I moved to London to start trying to build a world of music around me… I’ve always had a passion for songwriting, and I guess I wanted to experience a bit more of life. You just know you have to deepen your understanding to deepen your music… ”
Initially, her move to the UK was to study at London’s Institute of Contemporary Music Performance, but the city quickly became her home away from home, a place where she’s very much learnt to stand on her own two feet.
“I really enjoyed travelling when I had some money, and I would sort of like, just get enough money to travel somewhere and then busk there until I had enough money to move on.”
By now 27, Ludlow’s current feelings toward travelling are a little more complex.
“Even that can get a bit disillusioning in the end. You realise you wanna travel to all these nice places, and you get there and it’s all just like, rich white people ignoring the culture they’ve come to see, and just doing their same life somewhere else. And also people travelling to see and steal and take more from other cultures, which doesn’t really sit well. So the travelling kind of wound down a bit for me and it was like, ‘Okay, if I am going to go somewhere it’s going to be to help, or aid in a movement or in a protest… you know, something that I can help with.”
Ludlow is first and foremost a singer-songwriter, but in recent years has also developed a rewarding career as an accompanist for others.
“I think I was like 24 or 25 when I went on my first tour playing in someone else’s band,” she says. “His name’s Johnathan Wilson. He’s an American producer and artist, and I’ve always been a big fan of his music, and so I just badgered him online, basically, until he said I could come! It wasn’t really something I’d seen myself doing, but I’m always up for giving things a go, so I did that. And that’s how I ended up getting the Harry [Styles] gig that I’m on now.”
At the time we are speaking Ludlow is in San Diego, preparing for Harry Styles’ appearance at Coachella 2022. An important gig but far from her most brag-worthy performance with the group, having appeared with him on numerous television shows, like Howard Stern’s show in 2020 when they performed Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer (10M+ Youtube views), and being on stage for Styles’ 2021 Grammy performance.
“I learn a lot, and it’s a job that allows me to grow in my own craft, and I’m very thankful for that,” Ludlow muses on the experience of being in Styles’ band. “It’s funny being a solo musician, and then all of a sudden, getting a perspective of what you do from the absolute top side of what you could be doing. It’s made me look deeper in myself, and it’s helped me refine what I actually want from life, and what I wanna do with my time. This experience is very special and I feel very privileged to have this job and have this perspective.”
Definitely not sitting back and just enjoying the ride, Ny Oh’s solo project continues to develop alongside her other musical endeavours. The new EP, ‘Ny Oh’s Garden Of Eden’, is still driven by her acoustic guitar and confessional songwriting, but is more production focused and confidently presented than her previous releases. The quality has, apparently, been hard-won.
“‘Ny Oh’s Garden Of Eden’ has taken me maybe six or seven years of re-recording,” she admits. “I write songs that I then have to grow into! Songs that are like spells or wishes, or things we hope to see in our own lives, and so I think the recording of them took so long because I had to grow into the confidence of bringing them to life…
“It starts off as us trying to lift ourselves out of dark places that we’re in, and then you give it over to the world because it’s done the thing it needed to do for you, and so it’s nice when it resonates with people.”
The EP’s five tracks were completed with an all-female team, an intentional move.
“I wanted to experience a studio situation with only wahine. That was really important and something that I hadn’t ever done before. It was a special time, and I think for all the other wahine in there as well. We were all kind of having beautiful moments of realising, like ‘Wow! This is so rare! We never get to do this!’
“There’s a lot of women in the music industry, it’s just, you know, we’re always the only one in a room, in the studio. That’s how ‘Garden Of Eden’ came around, and I worked with the amazing Fiona Roberts at Strong Room Studios. She really helped me bring it to life, and my friend Johanna Kivimagi, who did incredible arranging.”
The EP opens with Songlines, identifiable in this part of the world by the bird song and bassy drone, emulating the sound of a didgeridoo. The second track is Australia, a plaintive, expressive ballad which showcases Ny Oh’s vocal prowess and evokes strong outback imagery.
“Australia is obviously self-explanatory,” she smiles before revealing its quite extraordinary genesis. “I did some traveling there in 2016… just seeing firsthand actually what is happening out there in the outback, with all of the different exploitation of minerals and resources, and how that affects indigenous communities and any small towns out there. So I wanted to write a song that spoke to that, and I had a beautiful visit from an Aboriginal man. I was sleeping on a cemetery ground which had been turned into a farm. So I woke up one night and it was like an apparition of him in the doorway. It was a very special moment and I felt like I had to take the spirit he was sharing with me and put it in a song.”
Ambient instrumental opener Songlines is intended to set the scene for this story.
“When we came to recording Australia, I was finally happy with the production, but I wanted to set the scene a little bit more, and help get people into a space of receiving the message of it.
“I just wanted it to feel like you were coming out from under the ground and into the world, and viewing it for the first time with more of an open heart. The title, Songlines, is one of my favourite books, by a writer called Bruce Chatwin. He was an early anthropological travel writer, and he was around in the 1940s and ’50s. I really appreciated the approach he took in trying to understand the other cultures that he visited… from what I’ve read anyway, it didn’t seem in a taking way. It was more like, ‘How can I understand, and how can we together understand the world more?’ He called the Aboriginal dreamtime, and the journeys that the Aboriginals took, he called them songlines. So I just wanted to pop that in there!”
Slow-paced piano ballad Only Lovers On The Late Night Tube also has a lot of personal meaning for Ludlow.
“That is a song that took many years of rewriting, and I’m sure it will change again and again,” she smiles. “I first wrote it when I was very lonely, and I was watching people in love on the tube, but I have rewritten it in times when I’ve been in love and watching the lovers on the late night tube! And so the song has kind of become a safe place for me. I recorded it that way, with only just piano and vocals, because I didn’t want to deter from the simple feeling of being held and coddled by this train, in any kind of state that you’re in. Because I think that’s what London is sometimes. You imagine this grid of trains underground,and you’re always held, even if you’re on the street, there’s something always moving and vibrating around you.”
Her EP release comes almost exactly a year after Neon Gru’s first EP, ‘I Am A Bird’, was released in March, 2021. Describing the six-piece band as “… a sort of proggy, indie, jazzy, souly, weird, genreless-maybe, group from London,” Ludlow reveals they’ve actually been working together for quite some time.
“We have spent the last five years holed up in different studios, writing, writing, writing, recording, recording, and we’re finally starting to get those songs out,” she says excitedly. “We just played our first gig a few weeks ago in London and it was so special, and so much fun! So we’re working on our first album, and there’s some singles coming out really soon that I’m really proud of and really stoked with!
“It’s really fun to just flex different songwriting muscles,” she continues, her enthusiasm for Neon Gru evident. “When you’re writing with yourself, you’re very much in control of your own space and the space that you wanna write and create in, and then when you’re in a room with three people, or six people, and what that process looks like, you have to just surrender to it, and everybody has to just surrender to it. It’s fun and it’s very special to find people that you enjoy doing that with. It’s alchemy of humans, and I’m fascinated by it. I want to write songs with everyone because it’s like you learn so much every time.
“I’m so blessed I’ve been able to create this web of beautiful people all over the world, and help connect those people. My vision of the future is just more of that… and being able to draw the spindles of that web back to Aotearoa, because it’s such a special place.”