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Culture, Music

Namvula at The North Wall

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Namvula BBC Music nuyc98

Courtesy of BBC Music

Described as having a diasporic upbringing, singer-songwriter Namvula is also a gifted photographer and was co-founder of Film Africa, a London-based celebration of African cinema and culture. She now lives in Oxford where she will be performing later this month at The North Wall. Her critically acclaimed debut album, Shiwezwa came out 10 years ago and her most recent release, All Shades of the Sun, ‘places under a musical lens the urgent issues that confront us’ through the medium of her pure and haunting melodies.

What led you to music?

Music is always something that I have done. I started playing the piano when I was around six and then my dad brought me a guitar and I taught myself how to play and started writing songs in my bedroom – I was very much a bedroom singer songwriter for many, many years. There came a point in my life where I was trying to decide between photography and music and I chose photography because I figured I could make more of a living but all of my circle were musicians and I once read something that said if you are constantly aching to be doing the things that you’re surrounded by, maybe you should actually be doing that thing.

Your music is described as inspired by both your Scottish and your Zambian heritage. How does that play out?

In my first album I was very much exploring my roots, so I was doing a lot of research around traditional folk music on both sides of my heritage. I’ve never lived in either place so I think I was really trying to place myself and my understanding of myself using music. I went up to the Borderlands and was spending time researching traditional folk songs from the north and I spent a lot of time in Zambia researching folk songs from there. The album that came out quite obviously showed my different interests and where I was trying to focus my musical energies.

I think as I’ve evolved as a musician those reference points have become less literal and less direct and as I’ve also settled into my skin as myself, as a human: I’ve also let go of a lot of the need to belong directly to one or the other. It has allowed me to interpret things much more freely and take what I want from various cultures, various heritages, various musical languages.

Your latest EP, All Shades of the Sun looks “the urgent issues that confront us including right wing nationalism, the climate crisis, Black Lives Matter movement, consumerism…etc”. How have you managed to channel this into something so creative and beautiful?

I am often frozen at the scale and the magnitude of what we face and I think these songs are the most difficult project that I’ve done. I was really propelled by the fact that I’m a mum; I’m bringing my kids into a real shit storm, you know? Like, we have destroyed the planet, we have no idea what there futures are going to look like, the kind of capitalist system that we are living in is not tenable. It’s not sustainable, its an exploitative system, and you know I’m bringing up two brown kids in this climate.

It’s still in progress; I started a series where I interviewed people who I think are able to look at the world in a different way. Who aren’t overwhelmed to the point of apathy, to the point of thinking ‘my little contribution doesn't make a difference so what’s the point’. I’ve started asking people who I admire – who I believe walk through this world facing problems with energy and keep fighting for things that are important – ‘what keeps you going?’ That was one of the very central questions of a couple of my songs. I find energy in that, and I can find some way to contribute and not sit apathetically with my head in the sand and think my little action is never going to do anything; I’m going to put my tin in the recycling and that’s all I can do. 

Do you construct your music around a narrative or does the narrative emerge?

So, the second album is looking at the arc of female hood and and when I looked at the songs I was writing I was like, ‘hang on I’m writing about the same thing in multiple different ways’. So then I was able to finish writing that album with that clarity. It was kind of a river that I was swimming in and I didn’t realise the current was taking me in a certain direction until I stepped back.

With [All Shades of the Sun] I think it was much more conscious: these are things which are bothering me, sitting inside my heart and I need to get them out of my head. There’s a second EP coming out which is much more about memory; how we remember, how we are shaped by memories, how we love in memory. I think that was also quite intentional. My grandma, who was 105 or 106 when she died, had lost all her short term memory but could remember with utter clarity her childhood and her adolescence and early 20s. I was thinking, who do we become when we lose parts of our memory?

Image credit: Lucie Evans

You talk about life's beauty and ugliness. I’ve been really struck by your beauty, how your present yourself  in your videos. Where does the ugliness come out?

That’s a really interesting question. I feel that I definitley have struggled with this, like branding and identity. In the videos I’m always constrained by finances – it’s very much my friend with a camera and me with some mascara. I have these grand ideas of the way that I’d like to present my music, maybe more nuance in the sense of allowing more of a complex story to be shown, but because I’m constrained by budget I can’t really show that complexity. I try to be a bit more honest on social media, or show a bit more of a light and dark in terms of struggles – especially becoming a mother and trying to stay creative.

I want to able to portray much more honesty in my work. I think I’m quite good at looking at the darker shades in the outside world but maybe not at exposing myself – but then, at the same time, I dont know whether we need to do that. I don’t know whether I’m that person to talk about everything to people who don’t know me. Some people are very good at creating an aura but I think I’m just not like that. I’ve always spoken my mind. I think I would struggle to be something mysterious. I don’t have an alternative persona that I can lean into. 

That speaks for the truth in your music. 

There are some artists who I really admire, and I love their music, and I look at their social media and everything's beautifully, aesthetically presented but my life has always been a juggle between continents, trying to figure out who I am, where I belong, what career I'm going to have and where I’m going to spend my energy…I think that also has its place. Artists who present this very nice exterior, you view it like you would art; it is a thing that is being presented to you. In the same way we might enjoy beautiful cinema or a beautiful piece of photography I think this is how we can view the beautifully presented artists. We can also lean into the messier stories, like mine. 

Namvula will be at The North Wall on 23 March 2024 thenorthwall.com

For more information and to discover her music, visit namvula.com

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