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Nina Smith on Her Long-Awaited Debut Album White Feather

8 November 18 interview: Dan Lyons
photos: Samuel Kirby

After years of writing and recording, Nina Smith is releasing her long-awaited debut album, White Feather. Slick and beautifully produced by Yoad Nevo (Sia, Goldfrapp), the record is emotional, with classic r’n’b sprinkled throughout for good measure. We grabbed Nina for a chat and a congratulations…

What’s changed in the time between the This Love EP and the new album?
I’ve had time to define the musical direction I want to take since meeting Yoad. I’ve developed patience, slowed down, and focused on what I want to say. Love used to be a predominant theme, but there were other subjects I needed to talk about.

I’m also more concise with my songwriting. Yoad and I spent a lot of time making complete songs; no one ever said “Let’s do a middle eight here because we have to.” Every song sounds like a single. I wanted it to be like an r’n’b record from the nineties, even the 2000s.

What artists have influenced you, r’n’b artists in particular?

Some songs reference Massive Attack, some reference Timbaland productions; it’s really broad. We listened to how NAO mixed her bass, or how Justin Timberlake layered his vocals and beatboxed on his tracks. Generally though, it’s about the genre rather than particular artists.

I understand the album took some time to make...
I’m in Nottingham and Yoad’s in London. I’d get the train down, complete a track that day, and come home. Before I knew it, three years had gone by. Yoad likes to create there and then. I was very grateful to work with him, and the studio we work in is out of this world; I’m constantly asking myself how I’m allowed to be there. It’s like something from a film.

I didn’t get frustrated with the travel either; I used the time to write for other people. Together with Yoad, I’ve written two other albums for successful international artists. It’s quite bad of me but, because of my busy lifestyle, sometimes I’d finish a song on the way to a client. It’s really reckless, but diamonds are formed under great pressure.

How has writing for other people developed your own songwriting?
When you write for other people, you don’t feel as precious about it, and that feeds into your own stuff. I started to relax a bit more. The main thing I developed is being able to write a song in four hours. At first I was scared of the time constraints but now I rise to it and enjoy the thrill. Everything's to the clock.

Time seems to be a big subject; the song Time itself comes across as very personal. Are there any themes that run through the album?
The overriding theme is fear; every song links to it in some way, whether it's in education, moving on, passing away, time or getting older. There’s a lot to do with not appreciating time, whether that's time with my father, or the time before we get older and start losing the ability to do things. I've referenced that in Remember Me, and in Dreaming, which is about my lack of a relationship with God; does it mean I've got nowhere to go when I pass away? It's quite an emotionally deep album, but we wanted to paint it in a light, fun way to remove the taboo, because these subjects are hard to talk about.

What was the dynamic like between Yoad and yourself during production?
Yoad is very laid back, and I'm not. Sometimes I can be emotional about my art form but recording is about striking a balance between both our creative visions. During this process, we were developing our own friendship and that can take a long time, especially if it's irregular. Plus, how do you speak the same musical language as somebody who has a lot more experience than you? That was a really big part of this album: mine and Yoad's relationship.

It's quite an emotionally deep album, but we wanted to paint it in a light, fun way to remove the taboo, because these subjects are hard to talk about

What song on the album do you feel is the most personal to you?
My favorite is Live Forever. It’s got a snippet of my dad in there, from a 2003 phone-call recording of my little sister reciting the alphabet. At the end of the conversation, my dad spoke. My sister and I found it years later and burst into tears. I always wanted to put it into music, but couldn’t figure out how. Live Forever is perfect for it; I'm talking about making the most of your time, not being an arse, and answering those phone calls. In the song, he says “I’ve gotta go” and that’s a bit haunting.

Are you still in touch with Community Recording Studios (CRS) in St Ann’s?
Yeah, but more as family now. I was at CRS for so long, and it formed my early musical development. I send young artists to work musically with Nick Stez, and Big Trev still lends me equipment for visual stuff. There’s also Inspire Youth Arts, who support me in working with younger musicians across the county. I'm able to eat, survive and have a roof over my head by doing something I love because of them. Both CRS and Inspire Youth Arts have helped me a lot.

Do you have a big hand in the visual side of things?
Yeah, me and Jamal Sterrett have worked really closely together over the last year on developing a short documentary that’ll be out around the time of the album. It's more of a visual story about different songs and my upbringing. We focus on fear, and my career challenges in the music industry. We’re even including some old VHS clips of my dad from 1991; editing it all together has been cathartic at times.

Can you tell us more about your record label First Light?
When you just asked that, I got more excited about it than my own music. The youth label is part of Inspire Youth Arts who’ve supported it, funded it, planted the ideas with me and let me run with it, which I'm very grateful for. Because it's not-for-profit, a lot of artists want to work with us because we're not taking anything from them. We're about to sign our sixth artist, and they’re all so talented. I’m really lucky. It would be nice to have a rapper, producer or DJ for next year. I can only see it getting better. It's a lot to manage, but I've got the right business support and financial backing.

Lee from The Elementz was diagnosed with stage three classical Hodgkin’s lymphoma earlier this year and you’ve played a big part in publicising the #WithLeeWeFight campaign...
Lee is a good musical friend of mine and CRS’. We've known him for a long time. I was spending a lot of time with Nick Stez when we heard the news. It really shocked us and it was actually Nick who said that we have to do something about this. We succeeded in rallying people up. That's the thing that touched Lee the most; we were asking for money to save somebody's life but, in turn, brought the whole music community together. Although it’s a bittersweet cause, there’s a silver lining to the campaign.

Is there anything special planned for your release show at Rescue Rooms?
I aim to do a champagne moment and the light show is also going to be really amazing. There's also going to be a special performance, where The Kanneh-Masons will be joining me for our collaboration in Time.

Nina Smith’s debut album White Feather launch takes place at Rescue Rooms on Wednesday 14 November, 6.30pm. Tickets are £5.50. White Feather is released on Friday 9 November.

Nina Smith website

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