We met trumpet and tenor-sax players Sheila and Nubya at the National Theatre in London to talk about their all-female jazz collective Nérija, and their newly-released self-titled debut EP.
Having seen them perform at various gigs across London over the past year, where they introduce the band in just a sentence or two, it’s great to finally hear them talk at length about their influences, their wish list of collaborations, and their plans for the future. It was really hard not to fangirl such dope musicians who we’ve seen play alongside jazz legends like Ernest Ranglin, Tony Allen and Soweto Kinch at the Barbican, at Jazz: Refreshed gigs in West London, at the Garage in Islington and at Brainchild Festival over the summer. Their sound and vibe channel a long history of jazz music, fusing different styles, rhythms and tones. They’re part of a generation of jazz musicians who have grown up listening to R&B and hip-hop alongside classical jazz, and they allow these influences to seep into their tracks.
Skin Deep will be collaborating with Nérija to curate a night of conversation, live performance, and collective listening of their EP and some new work on the 15th December 2016, as part of Skin Deep Sonic Transmissions – a series of exploratory live public listening sessions with musicians, DJs, artists and music makers about politics, music, identity and style, offering an alternative to the way we usually experience music and sound.
In the meantime, have a read of our conversation with these badass musicians.
Skin Deep: What was the last album you listened to?
Sheila M. Maurice-Grey: Solange’s A Seat at the Table.
SD: Yes! We’ve had it on repeat for the last three weeks. There is not a weak song in the album.
Nubya Garcia: It’s powerful, honest, and she didn’t rush it. She’s been writing for it for the past four years.
SMG: As an album, it sounds like it’s all been written for now – it’s so relevant. I’ve also been checking out a lot of West African music recently, like Ghanaian artist Pat Thomas’ new album Coming Home.
NG: The last album I listened to was on the way up to Nérija’s Marsden Jazz Festival gig a couple days ago: Lionel Loueke’s Heritage. And the last instrumental album I listened to (in the same sitting) was by Theo Croker, who’s a trumpet player based in the States but who also spends time in Europe and Shanghai. When I can I really love to do this thing where I’ll have a record by my decks for a couple of weeks, just to absolutely rinse it at every opportunity when I’m home and get really into it. That album at the moment is Fertile Ground’s Seasons Change. They are a neo-soul band from the 90s and I am so unbelievably gassed about them.
SD: So tell us how Nérija started out.
NG: Oh man, let’s rewind a little bit. We met partly through hanging out together at workshops put on by Tomorrow’s Warriors at this venue the Spice of Life in Soho and at the Southbank, partly through jam sessions or gigging and partly through studying together at Uni.
SMG: Yeah. The Warriors had an initiative to encourage more young women to play jazz, which played a big part in helping us get together and look for our own gigs.
SD: Who chose the name Nérija?
NG: We all brought names to the table, and Cassie’s, who plays alto-sax, was the one we all liked.
SD: What does it mean?
NG: It’s the French interpretation of a Hebrew word meaning ‘Lamp of God.’ We all responded to the way it sounded rather than the meaning necessarily – we’re not all religious, but the name sort of connected to us.
SD: So it’s been a journey from Tomorrow’s Warriors to Nérija in its current form. What made you want to put out your EP now and what was the process of creating it?
SMG: We’ve been playing this music for a while now. Some of the tracks close to two years.
NG: We came to the decision that we needed to record this and move on. It’s not like we’re going to forget these tunes, but it’s a really sure way of saying: this is where we are now. We’ve already started writing for our album, and it’s completely different. We’ve changed the way we play together.
SD: How has the way you put your music together changed?
SMG: We decided to write it together.
NG: Getting all seven of us in a room together is very difficult. But when we are, the dynamic is so interesting.
SD: So it creates a different kind of sound?
NG: Yeah, you get time to think. A couple of times on stage we’ve just been like: groove, go! And we’ll have a jam in between two pieces. That creates something incredible. But if you take that as an idea and put it into a rehearsal room, you can stop and start and change ideas. It’s the difference between composition and improvisation. When you write a solo or study out over a tune, it lengthens the amount of time your brain has to think and create. You can create something in the moment, but if you can take that creation and make it better, you have the best of both worlds.
SD: How would you describe the sound of your EP to people that aren’t familiar with your work?
SMG: It’s the weaving of different threads.
NG: We were very hyped about the tune we wrote a couple of days ago. Not enough people get gassed about their own shit. It’s not in an arrogant way at all, it’s more about self belief and pushing yourself and your band.
SD: It’s true. Especially in the UK, it feels like musicians and artists don’t hype themselves up enough.
NG: One of the main reasons we put this EP together was to get a snapshot view of where we are right now, and move forward. We had three of four recordings up on our Soundcloud that we got done for free. But they sound so different to what we’ve just released. I mean there’s two years in between that recording and our EP. There’s so much possibility in our ideas, our careers, in potential collaborations. We’ve got lists for days. This EP has given us fire in our bellies. To hear the response and get the support that we have is amazing.
SMG: Releasing the EP has opened my mind to how many people have been watching us, and been engaging with our music. Like even my cousin sent me a message saying I’ve been playing your music over and over again. It means a lot to hear that my family members have been listening to my music. I didn’t realise.
SD: Your sound channels the long traditions of jazz music, seamlessly fusing different styles and rhythms. ‘Valleys’ is a great example of this, fusing many ideas from South African Township to New Orleans Jazz. In many ways, Nérija’s sound is a brilliant example of how the tradition lives, but also how this new generation of jazz musicians are working across disciplines. They are as fluent in hip-hop, R&B and rap as they are in the sounds of Coltrane and Mingus.
SMG: It’s people like Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis who have paved the way and I think it’s important that we stay true to ourselves. I listen to R&B, and I’m not going to change that when I’m playing jazz. I want to play music that represents me.
SD: Your music is a weaving of histories and sounds.
SMG: And if you look at the band itself, we all come from very different backgrounds. Some of us grew up in London, but on different sides of the city. So we’ve all had different experiences. Inga is from Germany, Rose is from Lincoln, Lizy’s from Surrey.
NG: It’s interesting to think about the sound we’ve created from what we’ve listened to whilst growing up and what we’ve picked up along the way. Jazz ties it all together.
SD: Do you think it is the inclusion of these different genres that’s changing jazz music and its audiences?
NG: Yeah definitely. I think one reason (of many) jazz audiences are changing is how accessible and affordable jazz gigs are. As well as the type of venue, you’ve got jazz inspired music that’s being played outside your typical ‘jazz venues’ – Scala, The Village Underground, XOYO to name a few. I think this is bringing a different crowd and also allowing you to reach more people! Then you’ve got smaller venues and nights that are supporting incredible music and keeping it affordable, which brings in a younger crowd in my opinion. Look at Jazz: Refreshed – they have been putting on amazing gigs for years and supporting musicians, bringing it to new audiences. I think that Nérija is inviting people to have a different understanding of jazz. We don’t play the traditional bebop or swing.
SMG: Music is always evolving. We should never stay in the same place.
SD: Do you think the idea of jazz (particularly instrumental jazz) as a predominantly male territory is beginning to break down?
SMG: Yeah I do. I believe that having a female band has impacted the younger generation. I have noticed so many more female musicians – from the older generation – that I’ve never noticed before, who come to jam sessions. I do feel we’ve had an impact.
NG: Yeah I think it’s slowly starting to break down. Though I get this all the time: someone will still ask my name and then ask if I sing. I want to know: why do people think women are only in this industry to sing? If you look through history, female jazz musicians have always been there, they just haven’t had the same recognition.
SMG: Musicians like Cynthia Robinson – she’s a trumpet player.
NG: Or Nina Simone before she started singing. She didn’t want to be a singer. She wanted to be a classical pianist.
SMG: I also mentored an all-female band for about nine months. We were aiming to enter a competition – Music for Youth – where the prize is to play at the Royal Albert Hall. I remember at the beginning people saying: you’re not gonna win, but just do it anyway. There wasn’t belief that we could do it. The amount of effort that the band members put in, and the commitment to rehearsals… We didn’t sleep the night before the competition. It was the adrenalin and nerves. But we won the competition and played at the RAH.
NG: Sometimes you just have to ask yourself: what do you want to do right now? I really believe in being able to do whatever you want. There’s nothing stopping you right now.
SD: Is this kind of confidence that is coming through on your new track?
SMG: I think that’s come from the diversity of musicians in London, the different backgrounds who are not afraid to speak their mind.
SD: Who are your biggest influences, past or present?
NG: John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Sonny Rollins. Those are just saxophone players – my list is long! Right now I’m listening to a lot of Flying Lotus, Mala and Charles Lloyd.
SD: What’s coming up next for Nérija?
SMG & NG: Putting together an album.
NG: Writing lots of new material. Picking bits and fusing them together. We want to do more of the same really. Gig more, write more, work with some other people, collaborate with artists and bands.
SD: Where do you want to play?
NG: Japan. We had a conversation about doing a residency in Japan, because there is an unrivalled love and appreciation of jazz music over there. You are fully looked after. The places we gig here in the UK are lovely, and we get on with everyone. There are some amazing people working really hard at the moment in London in particular, making things happen. But if someone says ‘exposure’ to me again, I’m gonna slap them. I hear it weekly. It makes me sick because I don’t know when art got so under appreciated. Art keeps people happy.
SMG: There’s just so many of us in one place, trying to hustle for the same thing.
SD: When and where can Skin Deep readers hear you play next?
NG: We have our EP launch on the 17th of November, as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival, at Foyles Ray’s Jazz. On the 19th November, also as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival, we’ll be playing at Cadogan Hall, supporting MCA Power Trio.
Listen to The Fisherman below and buy Nérija’s EP here.