London. 29th July 2010. John Parish has just finished playing a gig at the Water Rats with his band.
He’s one of the most respected producers in England, has co-produced among others PJ Harvey’s albums including the seminal ‘To Bring You My Love’.
A shy, twenty-something girl with long, black hair approaches the band. She buys a vinyl, gets to talk to John, one of her favourite artists growing-up. She hands him a CD of her songs, never really thinking he would come back to her.
But he does come back to her, after listening to her intoxicating, soulful voice in a floating world of guitars, banjos, strings and haunting words.
This girl was Nadine Khouri.
“I was thrilled because I was such a huge fan of his work”, recalls Nadine happily with her silky voice, sitting by the canal in King’s Cross. “He asked me to sing on a track meant for a film at the time. I was pretty awe-struck and nervous when we recorded it!”
John then went on to produce Nadine Khouri’s new album to be released later this year.
It hasn’t been all easy for Nadine. Born in Beirut, she fled the civil war with her family aged 7 to live in London. She lived in New York when she was 18 to study before moving back to the UK to be closer to her family.
Loss, displacement and love are some of the major themes in her songs.
“I travelled so far I forgot who I was before” she sings on A Song to the City with her trademark, unique delivery of the same calibre of Lou Reed, Patti Smith or Bob Dylan.
“On a Song to the City, I was quite confused, I didn’t really know where I belonged”, she explains. “When I made the new record, I felt I was finally coming home to something. The new album is about a return to the self.”
The new record, including the beautifully soothing The Salted Air and You Got a Fire, displays a more stripped down, minimalist, live sound.
“We recorded this album almost entirely live. No metronome, very minimal edits… Just playing. It was a bit intimidating in the beginning in the studio, but I think I like this live approach better.”
It’s hard to describe Nadine’s music because labels don’t really apply to her songs. You could mention space folk, atmospheric and alternative rock, or site a list of influences she’s been listening to from Jeff Buckley, Sparklehorse, Lou Reed, Lhasa de Sela, Nina Simone or 60’s rock’n’roll her dad used to play at home.
But in a nutshell, her songs are as airy as clouds and as stirring as waves. They breathe with a fragile subtlety that some artists would struggle to reach in a lifetime.
When did she start writing songs and realised she wanted to be an artist?
“I always wanted to play the guitar. For a long time, I would always ask my mum every Christmas and every birthday if I could have a guitar.. When I finally got one…It was the best day of my life! I just taught myself to play it more or less. But I probably started writing songs when I was 15. This was when I realised you could write lyrics and you could sing and you could also play guitar at the same time without being in a band necessarily. Just writing songs…That was exciting.”
Paradoxically, being a songwriter hasn’t always been her childhood dream. “I’m going to tell you a secret…My dream was to be a cartoon artist. That was my thing…I was obsessed. Then I discovered music and it was all downhill from there.” she jokes.
It hasn’t exactly gone downhill for Nadine. The young artist has been playing London’s most beautifully intimate venues, from the Union Chapel, Cecil Sharp House to the Royal Festival Hall. Live, the whole audience is suspended to her lips as she creates a fragile and captivating atmosphere no one wants to break. Does she test new songs live before recording them? “Totally, I have been playing the songs live for some time before recording them. The singing takes shape live; so the songs become more comfortable or familiar as I go along, like filling a new pair of shoes.”
For a second or two, traces of Middle-Eastern roots appear in her singing. Has she been unconsciously influenced by the music of her country of origins? “I don’t know”, she replies, perplexed. “While I sometimes listen to it, Middle-Eastern music is not something I taught myself how to play. I don’t say to myself, I’m going to sing this way or that way…The singing is definitely not conscious. The lyrics are, because I spend a lot of time thinking about them and putting them together.”
Her lyrics are sharp, personal and timeless, and do stick to mind like great lyrics do. It doesn’t come as a surprise she loves reading T.S. Eliot, Pablo Neruda, Verlaine and many others poets.
Does she ever feel shy showing something so personal to someone, particularly the people she sings about?
“Well…I don’t say anything mean!” she laughs. “A really good piece of advice an artist gave me was to try to go from the confessional and take it beyond your experience so that it’s not just your diary, therapy but more of an artistic, poetic thing. It’s something I learned, I try to take it somewhere maybe more interesting than the original story, where as when I was younger, I didn’t think twice about it.”
What was the best advice she was ever given as an artist?
“A Lebanese producer once told me: Have fun with what you’re doing. Don’t forget to have fun.
You can so overthink stuff and wonder what the hell you’re doing it for.
But when you have fun… People can feel it and they can hear it. “
Nadine stops talking, stares at me then ask: “Are you cold?
-I’m ok. Are you cold?
But we’re both shivering, and it took us an entire hour to finally get ourselves to move inside. It’s a chilly early day of April, and fooled by the clear sunny sky, I had cruelly suggested to sit down by the canal for the interview. Nadine had forgotten her coat, but she was so accommodating and gently adapted to the extreme meteorological conditions imposed by the lovely British weather, although by the end we both couldn’t move our fingers. She also arrived 15 minutes early, and offered me a chocolate cake because I offered her a tea…. Any person who offers me a chocolate cake is generally kind by default. But describing Nadine as a kind, thoughtful and considerate person would be an understatement.
Nadine Khouri’s next shows:
13th June – Antiga Fàbrica Damm, Barcelona
6th September – Woodburner, London
11th September – Sc4m Festival, Winchester