When your first album sees you described as the savior of folk music, how do you turn around and make a second album that’s even better? Nadia Reid talked with Calum Henderson about her new album Preservation, released yesterday.
For months after Nadia Reid’s debut album Listen to Formation, Look for the Signs came out, it seemed like nothing was going to happen. The Port Chalmers-based musician says she kind of just accepted that was the way it was: “[for me] it was more about that feeling of creating something, seeing a project through.”
The project was a long time in the making, crowd-funded and eventually self-released in late-2014 after being turned down for NZ On Air funding (“Making Tracks, which is enough for a lot of bands to fund a whole album”) and not getting any bites from any of the record labels Reid approached with the finished product.
“So I got it pressed myself and then sent it away to these 100 or so people [who had funded the release] – wrapped it up and hand-posted it all off.” While the album got a positive response from those already familiar with her music, it had seemingly failed to break through to a wider audience.
But then a copy landed on the desk of Aaron Curnow, the founder of Spunk Records in Australia. “He emailed me and said, ‘I can’t stop listening to it – I didn’t want to put out another female folk artist from New Zealand but… blah blah blah blah … Can I put it out?”
The label, which has also put out records by Tiny Ruins and Reid’s childhood friend Aldous Harding, released Listen to Formation, Look for the Signs in Australia in March 2015. “Which was great, because they had all this infrastructure to support a proper release. I had done everything in my own way and then they came and did it all a little bit more efficiently.”
Even then, nothing much seemed to change. “It was just like this release and I played a few shows [in Australia]. But then this guy Andy [Moss], who’s now my manager – he runs a record label called Melodic Records and they distributed it in Europe and England. And that’s when all the reviews started coming in.”
The album was released in the UK in December 2015, over a year after its initial New Zealand release. “There is something about melancholic folk singers that they really like. My music goes down quite well there.” The reviews in the hallowed pages of publications like Mojo and Uncut were very positive.
“And then in New Zealand, everyone suddenly goes, ‘Oh, yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah, she’s a New Zealander,’ and I’m like, ‘Well nothing’s actually changed’. The record hasn’t changed, I haven’t changed, it’s just now Mojo and Uncut and the Guardian have all really understood the music and written about it.”
It’s a story as old as the country itself: the New Zealand artist who has to make it overseas before they receive the recognition they deserve at home. “All of a sudden … Well, I just felt this massive shift of a lot more people becoming interested.”
To those New Zealanders only just beginning to pay attention – people like me – it seemed like Nadia Reid had arrived out of nowhere with this immaculate, perfectly-formed debut album. Of course, this was not really true at all. She has been writing songs “I guess since I was in my early teens… but I’ve probably gotten better.”
Reid’s first live performances were blackboard concerts – “basically like open mic” – at Whare Flat and other folk festivals around the South Island. “It’s a really easy audience to start off with,” she says, “it’s just this big gathering of a whole lot of people and you all camp, there’s a big marquee with a stage, and people just play music all through the day and all through the night. There’s a lot of folk music and lots of children.”
In 2011, after finishing school and moving to Christchurch, she recorded an EP called Letters I Wrote But Never Sent, which is now long out of print (or the modern equivalent, taken down off Bandcamp). “It’s a really young version of myself and it’s just not something I can relate to anymore,” she explains. “It doesn’t represent me the way I want it to, whereas I think the two albums do.”
Still, the EP is an important piece of the story because it brought Reid together with Ben Edwards. The Lyttleton producer, who has also recorded successful records for artists like Tami Nielson, Aldous Harding and Marlon Williams, has been behind the desk for both her albums to date.
As well as Edwards, the main band members – Sam Taylor, Richie Pickard and Joe McCallum – have also remained the same since recording the first album. “They all went to jazz school [in Christchurch],” she explains. “We have a connection and a relationship and a trust – I don’t ever really tell them what I want them to do, they generally just hear [what I’m playing] and play their part.”
The band play a bigger part on Preservation, but the focal point is still Reid’s uncommonly assured songwriting. She says she didn’t feel any of the pressures usually associated with following up a successful debut album. “Oh no, that’s a lie, I did think briefly about the whole follow-up and will it be as good, or… I thought very briefly about it and then I just stopped thinking about it.”
It would have been easy to be daunted by some of the hype around the first album. An interview in Billboard after it was released in the UK was headlined ‘Nadia Reid, Otherworldly Voice of New Zealand, Is Saving Folk Music’. “I didn’t really think about what they were really meaning there,” she says. “I never really thought too much about it, ‘cause it’s so full on.
“Sometimes people will say something really nice about me and in my head I’m like, ‘Oh my god, they’re lying.’ I mean that’s fucked, it’s ‘cause I’m a little bit mental. But I think you can’t take it too seriously all the time. I think I’ve just got to keep doing what makes me feel good and happy and not get too involved in the negative and the positive.”
Preservation was recorded in the middle of 2016. “It was all about feeling ready and having enough songs to make another album and really wanting to make another album. We just did it the exact same way we did the first one and I think the natural progression of time and experience and different life stages just allowed the record to sound different – not better, just different.”
The difference between the two albums is maybe best represented by their covers. Both are head-and-shoulders portraits, but the first one is black and white, the second one colour; in the first one Reid’s gaze is to the right of the camera, the new one she’s looking straight down the barrel.
Musically, it’s the same deal: deeper, brighter, more confident. They’re songs that look you in the eye. Preservation is the kind of record that gets plays on repeat, that hooks you for weeks on the tiniest things – the phrasing of a certain word or the perfection of a particular guitar line.
“I feel really good when people respond in a way where they’re like, ‘I find this music really healing’ or ‘This music really helped me through something,’” Reid says.” Like… the other day, this girl was like ‘I listened to your album while I was giving birth.’
“Music is deep, it provides a lot of comfort, it provides joy and deeper understanding of the world. So when it does its job, I feel really happy about that.”
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