Nailah Hunter, Heal Thyself

The L.A.-based artist grows into new territory with Lovegaze, her new full-length that was borne from a period of personal and global strife.

Music Features Nailah Hunter
Nailah Hunter, Heal Thyself

It feels fitting that most of the songs on Nailah Hunter‘s full-length debut Lovegaze fade into being like the brewing of a massive storm just over the horizon. The creation of the album, her first for new label Fat Possum, came in the wake of a period of strife as she dealt with some personal trials and as she watched the world at large seem to eat itself alive. And it feels reflective of the place where it was recorded, a small village on the coast of the U.K. where Hunter decamped for a stretch to seek out fresh inspiration for her music.

The songs that poured out of Hunter, through her rich voice and the now-familiar sound of her harp, feel loamy and warm, a deep dig below the surface of her already dense previous efforts that were filled with more magickal sounds and sentiments. On Lovegaze, she centers her voice in the frame, calling on her training as classical vocalist to express the passion of her marriage, struggles for acceptance and the horrors being wrought on minority groups across the globe. The glistening tones of her harp and synths are still present, but are colored in darker shades through a smart use of programmed beats and her multi-tracked harmonies.

Hunter was kind enough to spend some time speaking to Paste from her home in Los Angeles about the creation of Lovegaze, the evolution of her art and the personal and spiritual growth that comes with it. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.

Paste: You’ve been in California for much of your life, living around Los Angeles. Do you feel that that informed what you do as a musician and an artist?

Nailah Hunter: I would definitely say that that’s true in terms of just the natural environment. When I think about the biology of the area, I think about wanting to make music. It inspires me endlessly. And I think there’s a mysticism about L.A. in general. I definitely read a lot of books as a kid that tied magical realism into the L.A. landscape. One person to shout out is Francesca Lia Block. A very particular way of framing the city, but it definitely resonates to this day.

But to record this new album, you went to a small town on the English Channel rather than working in your hometown. Can you talk about where that was and why you chose that spot?

The area is called South Sea, which is a little part of this larger town called Portsmouth. My manager lives there. She had just moved there from London at the beginning of the pandemic and got this lovely house right by the sea and set up a studio in there. It felt like the perfect place to hole up. I’ve also always dreamed of having a writing camp situation in that part of the world, on the island, because it has been a source of inspiration. It inspired this feeling of longing in me very, very long ago as a child. Since I’m from here in California where we don’t have rain or seasons or anything of that nature, it does it for me every time. It makes me feel like I have been sent somewhere else. I’m really inspired by the gray and the way the sea there is not necessarily about swimming all of the time — even though I know they do it. It’s more emotional and pensive. I also think that that side of the world — anywhere in the U.K. — it’s really easy to tap into ancient human lore. Obviously we all know that the origins are in Africa, and that’s a whole other way to frame this. But it felt like something I needed to explore.

I definitely hear that in the new record. There’s that mix of the ancient lore you’re talking about. The Arthurian legends are mentioned in the bio and there is Egyptian mythology and Biblical references coming through as well. Am I reading that correctly?

I feel like that’s always at play. There’s always one more Biblical reference. I have no idea what’s hidden in me that just pops to the surface. That comes from my church background. I think a lot of people when they hear what I do, see what I do, hear what I’m interested in, they assume that I had this really scary upbringing in the church — like in some sort of fundamentalist way.

Working on the coast, did you find that you worked better having an isolated experience and getting away from the distractions of home?

Well, this was a great trial. It produced a very particular thing. This album is singular in sound and feeling in a way that I don’t think I could have produced if I was just here in L.A. working on it in my day to day. I think that’s really cool in a lot of ways. But also as we continue to create, we continue to learn about ourselves and what works best. I think there is an element of, “Okay, the day to day is part of why I make music. So what would it have been like working on those songs in a less isolated capacity?” I wonder you know?

As it says in the bio, the album came from this period of global and personal strife, which I think we can all relate to. When it comes to the personal stuff, is that something you can talk about?

I was going through a really hard time with family. I had recently been married and I had a really, really hard time with my partner’s family. There was a lot of deep-seated racism. They are Mormons and I am a Black queer woman. That friction bubbled up and it made me feel really isolated and really hopeless. It’s hard when there’s so much love surrounding a thing, but then the pain is mirrored right back. When I first started writing the songs on Lovegaze, I was dealing with a lot of anger and disillusionment surrounding that. That was also right after the world had opened up again. I was thinking a lot about bushcraft and in a prepper mindset in a way. I was in a, “Well, what are we supposed to do?” mindset, and I think that comes through on a lot of the songs.

I think the pandemic really opened us up to see how vulnerable we all are and how poorly we can respond to trauma. As much as we tried to deal with it all on a personal level, on a legislative level, it didn’t go so well for many folks in the U.S. Are you still married at this point?

Yes, still married and so much has healed. The whole thing is transformed within the family situation. In both family situations. I was also dealing with something with my brother. He was going through mental illness in a really scary way. At the time, like the week that I left for the U.K., he was freshly homeless. And he’s my little brother so there was a lot of guilt. He was calling me during the sessions. So, yeah, just very, very fraught, but now it’s all healed.

It’s interesting to hear that because you get some sense of that in the lyrics of Lovegaze and the tone of the music, but i wouldn’t have guessed that things were as fraught as they were. You may hear something totally different though.

I think there was this mission to turn what I had been doing on its head because I was feeling so disillusioned. I was like, “You want me to play harp? Fine, I’m going to make it so scary and so uncomfortable for you.” That’s what I was going for. I was going for the grit of humanity, trying to capture that grit. But within that grit is the ethereal, ephemeral animus that makes being on the planet make sense.

As you are working on lyrics and music are you, for lack of a better term, going where the muse takes you or are you directing it? Do you keep a firm hand on the wheel?
For this record, there was a lot more improvisational lyric finding, if you will. It would be a lot of me just stream of consciousness letting things fly out and then going back and saying, “Okay, which phrases worked, which phrases didn’t.” That was a really fun process. It almost felt like being taken over. Like possessed in a way and then I would wake up from the possession and be like, “Okay, what all went on? What can we take from that?”

There is this wonderful mix of moods throughout Lovegaze as well: the pain and the strife of what you were going through and then something like the title track which is this really lovely, sensual, excited thing. Was it important for you to have that balance of elements — the light and the dark?

I think that “Lovegaze” is like, why are we still even trying to do anything here on this planet. This is a scene that has gone on in every fallen civilization. I read this thing the other day that the Earth is littered with the ruins of so many different civilizations. The point of the Earth is holding all of our little things and that’s also not the point. And love is the point and nature is the point. I think for “Lovegaze,” it was the track that I came to the drawing board with wanting to find the sensuality in nature and how that’s mirrored in a love relationship.

I think often about how it feels like we are coming to the end of our modern civilization but, even with our knowledge of the past, we still have the hubris to think that, “Oh, that couldn’t happen to us.”

Exactly. And why not celebrate that it will happen to us. That celebration is actually paying respect to what it means to be human. We’re all going to go. This is all going to go. We live more fully and love more fully when we can acknowledge that.

You’ve talked in the past about the healing qualities of your music. And it felt like the music you were making was much more outward looking, seeking to heal others. Lovegaze, on the other hand, feels like you’re looking more inwardly, looking to heal yourself this time around.

Yes, definitely. It’s been really interesting to see the response. One of the elephants in the room is that this is a vocal-led project, and being vocal-led, it is, in and of itself, an act of healing for me. I went to school for voice and got my degree in vocal performance. I love that stuff so much, and it’s still part of my whole thing. But there was a framing of my voice in this like, ‘Okay, did you pass of fail? Have you met these expectations? What did you learn? How did you transform in this institution?” It left me feeling like, “What am I even doing? Why did I do this to myself?” The voice is such a personal instrument. Growing as a singer technically is an important and cool journey but what happens in relation to yourself? I feel like school doesn’t necessarily teach you that. That definitely got me confused about my voice. There was a time when I first started when they were like, “Why are you trying to sound like Billie Holiday?” I was like, “I’m trying to sing from myself.” So, okay, I’m not gonna sing like Billie Holiday, which means muting what feels good in my body. Instead I’m going to emulate what my classical voice teacher is singing when she’s singing Purcell. And that’s cool. There’s merit in that. But does it connect in my body? That was my struggle. I feel like the journey for anyone who calls themselves a singer is being able to integrate all of the things that they’ve learned technique-wise into that other thing that’s like, “This is what your voice does when you’re not thinking about technique.” This album feels like me scratching the surface of that. It’s gonna be a lifelong journey.

Classical training and music is so much about what’s on the page and recreating these pieces that have been around for centuries, whereas jazz and the music that you play includes so much improvisation. When it comes to something like playing live, are you leaving yourself room to improvise and let your material change and evolve as you go? Or do you try to keep it as close to the recorded version as possible?

The live set is what keeps me going, and it’s also the thing that makes me feel like, “What am I even doing?” It never sounds like the recording. In the past, when I was doing instrumental harp stuff, It often didn’t sound like the recording because I was doing instrumental improvisation. With these songs, there’s beats, there’s strings, there’s all the other things that feel pretty integral to the music. The whole live set is basically me trying different configurations and seeing what feels the best. I did find that when I performed with tracks, it felt really good.

You’ve talked a bit in the past about growing up in the church and how you moved way from that faith in your teen years. You’re still close with your parents it seems so what do they think of your music and your art?

It’s really sweet. My parents are so supportive. They’re just like, “Okay, look at you, girl. Do your thing.” My mom, who’s a good Christian woman and goes to church still, she listens to Spells for her meditations. I might not give my parents enough credit. They’ve always been on the more progressive end of that stuff. They always joke like, “It’s all going to lead back to you becoming a praise and worship leader.” But they’re pretty chill about it.

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