The songs that stay with us have an enduring quality that lift them beyond genre, they may be essentially pop but they are inherently something else; they tap into real feelings, they walk the fine line between ticking the contemporary box but at the same instant making a nod to everything that has come before.
Music reflects our lives and the songs that seem to endure are the ones that we can all find something of ourselves in. Whilst melody and earworms are important, it is widely accepted that the ability to connect is the thing that matters most.
As we come out of a pandemic, hopefully, and restrictions are lifted, artists are getting back to what they do best, writing, playing and connecting with their audiences but for the first time in a very long time, with the lockdown we have all endured, we all have something in common and Marie Naffah’s new EP and her current output of music has that in mind.
There are many artists out there making music but when I went to see Marie play live at the incredible St Pancras Old Church and listening to her music and seeing the way that she communes with her audience, it was immediately clear to me that I was in the presence of an old soul, someone who has found the way to tap into the contemporary in a nostalgic way. The chance to see her play in this venue seems like a match literally made in heaven and the chance to ask her a few questions about her music one not to be missed.
This week has seen the release of her breath-taking single ‘Angie’ and video which was shot in NYC and Amsterdam by Holly Morrison who Marie says “is a master at capturing a feeling in visuals”; she describes this work of art thus:
“‘Angie’ is about internal chaos, pent up energy and eventual release. It has been unreal to see it play out on screen”.
Speaking of the track itself, Marie says:
“’Angie’ is about accepting that sometimes it’s easier to be sad than pretend to be happy. The song says ‘that’s ok- you be upset, I’m here’ it can be scary sharing something so raw, but I think that fear is good- it means something. I’d listen to Leonard Cohen in the studio and remind myself that softening the blow doesn’t necessarily make for good music. These songs are the product of a hard two years. I guess everyone’s felt it in some way, so I hope it resonates with people”
The new EP ‘Trains’ will follow soon on May 27, and I hope reading Marie’s interview will encourage you to search out this singer and her work. Personally, I can’t wait to hear the music she has to release.
EP: It must be super exciting to be able to play live again. Not only from the point of view of allowing people to hear the music that you have been busy writing but from the communion aspect of bringing people together to experience the joy that is live music. I was lucky enough to come to see you and your terrific six-piece band light up St Pancras Old Church last week. Never has a venue better suited an event; it somehow felt like an event that required a congregation as much as it required an audience. There was a soul, an almost spiritual feeling of coming together. Did you feel that at all?
MN: What a wonderful way to describe it! Yes, you know what – I felt it too. I love how much my fan base feels like a proper community – we’re like a giant family! I think church-gigs can lend themselves to a special sort of behaviour from the crowd. People feel lucky to be there. There seems to be a glitter that sprinkles over the entire event. I felt that on Friday night and I won’t forget it in a hurry.
EP: You haven’t long finished your NME and Squarespace inspired tour. Having won the chance to bring your idea to life you toured 50 free gigs in 50 days in an initiative that had at its core kindness and communion, playing music in all sorts of settings. After the enforced solitude of the pandemic and its lockdown of so many freedoms, did you enjoy the celebration of returning to live music? Did you find the event as life affirming in reality as it sounds as a concept?
MN: I cannot tell you how great a feeling it was to play live again! Performing to crowds is where I find my purpose – my power. Without gigs being possible during the pandemic, I found it difficult to grasp the point of it all. I missed the dialogue, the spontaneity and the connection. 50/50 gave me that chance to reconnect (fifty times over!)
Not only did I fall back in love with the spark of live music, but also the people that came with it. Fans opened up their homes, hearts (and wine bottles!) for me. They showed me their worlds. I feel closer to them as a result, and that for me was pretty life affirming.
EP: Your new EP ‘Trains’ was written during the journeys you embarked upon in the completion of this tour. From what I’ve heard, it sounds more melancholic than the music you’ve made before and seems like some of the most soul baring music you’ve made. Is this a reflection of how lockdown made you feel; was that a time of introspection for you?
MN: The Trains EP is definitely a product of a more melancholic time. Like anybody during lockdown, I had my frustrations and I was bored. Generally speaking, I like to use songwriting to untangle the wires in my head, so it feels counterproductive to filter myself. I want the feelings to fall out of me, making the experience for the listener as direct as possible.
There is very little hiding in this record. I think I was almost testing my bravery as a songwriter. So many of the artists I admire (Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan) write so rawly and that’s often the stuff that gives me shivers. I wanted to give that a go. I do think that having the pandemic as a shared experience made it easier for me to be so honest, it felt good to know that most people would relate in some way.
EP: Your last EP ‘Golden State’ couldn’t be more different with its escapist images of sunsets in California and its wonderful evocation of one of my favourite drives, the Pacific Coast Highway. The journey from the Hollywood escapism of ‘Golden State’ to the almost cinematic framing of times of reflection encapsulated in ‘Trains’ is stark but in some way is brilliantly illustrative of the many facets that make up our personality and how it is shaped by our surroundings at certain times. Was this a conscious decision to create this crack in your personal mirror, two sides of one personality or has there been a real shift in your emotional equilibrium. If so, how much has music helped you deal with these two extremes?
MN: I love your description of this – I might have to steal it!
You’ve hit the nail on the head really. I want to be able to satisfy a listener’s range of emotions. We’re complex beings, and I’d love for my music to cater for those intricacies. I want to kind of say ‘I’m here for you, whatever mood you’re in.
EP: Not long ago you released a super version of the classic ‘Natural Woman’ on International Women’s Day in aid of the super charity LOOK UK, who provide help to empower visually impaired and blind young people, with Celine Love, Fox Gunn and Viia, three brilliant London artists. Having watched you play, it was amazing to see your excellent keyboard player Kevin, who was visually impaired, and witness the incredible relationship you had with him on stage. Why is this cause so close to your heart?
MN: Thank you so much! I’m so pleased you enjoyed the project. It was amazing to team up with such talented women for a great cause.
The empowerment of visually impaired people, especially when related to music, is really important to me. When I was 18, I wrote a song called ‘Blindfold’ which was based on a conversation with my grandmother who became blind as a result of AMD (age-related macular degeneration). I wrote the song fully blindfolded and performed it at every show. I later teamed up with a group of six blind and visually impaired musicians in order to record the track which formed part of a short documentary that sought to raise awareness and understanding for the issues surrounding visual impairment and sight loss. Those musicians taught me a lot, and it led me to give a TEDx talk entitled ‘Making Music With The Blind’ which was a fantastic experience. I’m no expert on sight-loss but I think I learned to think more about inclusivity in the music industry. The greatest gift of that project was the people I met – namely Kev, the greatest pianist I have ever come across. We’ve been playing together for over five years now and he knows my performance (and stage chat) better than anyone.
EP: For me, you seem to inhabit a space that is somewhere between lyrical poetry and music with your insightful and honest lyrics, you manage to be both contemporary and yet nostalgic. Is this something that has developed since you were named MTV’s Unsigned Artist of the Year, or is it something that has developed from your musical and life experience influences?
MN: I really appreciate you saying that. One of the biggest turning points for my sound was a trip I took to the East Coast of America sometime after winning that award. I recorded some songs in Indiana with some really talented musicians who reintroduced me to Blues, Americana and Bluegrass music. I came home with the wish to infuse my London Indie Pop with some kind of old-school soul. I wanted to blend the sounds of Florence and The Machine with those of Janis Joplin. I am constantly trying to tread the line between timeless and contemporary.
EP: Was the MTV award a blessing or a curse in that it must have applied a little pressure but at the same time raise your profile? Is it important to you to retain creative control of your musical direction?
MN: I will always be grateful for that award. As an unsigned artist, getting to share the bill with the likes of Sam Smith and George Ezra is something out of a dream. However, I was young and less sure of who I was as an artist. I knew fame didn’t dazzle me enough to compromise my authenticity. I learned that finding the right team of people was incredibly important. For me, I’ve now found those people who allow me to retain complete creative control and let me be exactly who I want to be. Shout out to Frictionless Music!
EP: Finally, with the new EP on the horizon, can we expect an album this year or are you going to concentrate on live performance, having been away for so long. Where can we expect to see you play and how can we keep up to date with the exciting times ahead?
MN: There’s definitely more music on the horizon! I’ve got some lovely intimate gigs lined up, namely a Community Sessions show at The Finsbury in London on 15th May and also 25th May at a trendy members club Vout O Reenees.
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