Henry Oliver talks to singer-songwriter Nadia Reid, who plays Wondergarden festival in Auckland this New Year’s, about the highs and lows of her year, the rigours of touring, and being accepted by the music industry.
It’s strange now to think back to 2014 when Nadia Reid struggled to find a label for her debut album, Listen To Formation, Look For The Signs, which she had paid for with a crowdfunding campaign. In the three years since she has become one of the most celebrated musicians in the country, touring relentlessly and releasing her self-assured and internationally acclaimed (#2 on MOJO’s albums of the year!) second album Preservation somewhere in the middle of it all.
I went to see Reid perform on what was meant to be the last night of her sold out New Zealand album release tour in April. She was obviously sick and told the 400 people in the crowd she’d been in the A&E a few hours earlier, but that she was going to “do my very best for you”. She started slow and quiet, but her third song – ‘Right on Time’, a highlight from the new record and about as upbeat and loud as the album gets – proved too much. The chorus, where her vows lengthen and lift and fall, became clipped as she stepped back from the microphone after the initial syllables left her mouth. She looked pained, psychically and mentally. And as the song came to and end (I think they finished it, but can’t recall exactly), it became obvious. This wasn’t going to work.
Those three songs became one of the most intense shows I saw this year. She left the stage and, a minute or so later, walked back to the microphone and, through tears, told us she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t go on. She couldn’t sing her songs the way her songs need to be sung. “This is awful,” she said. But the audience were with her. The applause was as loud as it was warm. I never knew a clap could sound so caring.
She tried rescheduling the show on the spot, talking to the bar staff while the audience as there. “Wednesday? Can we do Wednesday?”
The first postponed performance was cancelled due to Cyclone Cook keeping her bandmates from flying out of Wellington. I couldn’t make the next date, and haven’t seen her play since. But I felt like I really saw something that night. So, when I met Reid for coffee while she was recovering from her months in Europe, I couldn’t help but ask about the thing she probably least wanted to talk about – the night she tearily told a group of strangers that she could do the thing she loves to do, and the thing that they love her doing.
So last time I saw you, you were cancelling a show in front of an audience at the Tuning Fork at the end of your New Zealand tour.
Yeah, I was reflecting on that recently. I remember having an interview with [Dunedin music legend] Roy Colbert, who’s passed away and was this amazing hero. I was interviewed at his home and he asked if I’d ever had an onstage disaster and I said no. He said, “Maybe you never will.” So when that happened, I was like, “Roy this is my onstage disaster.” That was crazy.
I got a similar amount of sick when I got what I thought was pneumonia and we were playing at Green Man Festival in the UK. I was texting my manager on that day going “It’s not looking good… It’s not looking good.” I was so sick, I was taking codeine and Valium and I was breathing steam. And then… it was literally magic. I got up and I thought, “this could go really bad.” There were like thousands of people – the biggest crowd I’ve ever played to – and magic happened. I just remember walking out onto that stage just being like “Fuck, I can’t…” It was fucking the most frightening moment. It was all coming back to me. But it was magic.
The thing about that Tuning Fork show was that it was a real experience. It was an emotional moment. You were very emotional. The crowd was very warm about the whole thing.
I just remember feeling so gutted because when that show eventually happened it really wasn’t the same. It was kind of a shit situation. It was a shame. I remember having a really bad feeling before and the guys saying “Yes you can. You can do it. You’ll be fine.” So I just did it and… That was the most terrifying thing that could happen so now every gig where that doesn’t happen is great.
It’s like when we played in Newcastle in Australia, which is the worst place in the world, I nearly got punched by this woman after a show because this lady had told this other lady to shut the fuck up in the middle of our show and afterwards she came up to me and it was just awful. So now every time that doesn’t happen, it’s like “This is great!” Because nothing can be worse than that.
So it’s given you something, like a baseline to compare everything else to…
But I’ve learnt that I have to take care of myself, which I wasn’t really doing. I was doing about three people’s jobs and trying to do it all myself and I got sick because it was too much. So that was a great lesson. Health is really key. It never dawned on me like that.
You don’t think of health and an important part of music until you’re doing it in a way where there’s this expectation. You’ve sold a lot of tickets or you’ve got ten people to pay. That’s only just happened to me in the last 18 months where it has become a business and if I’m sick, everything is fucked up. Even on this big European tour, which was probably a little bit too big, if I’m sick it’s not going to happen and we’re not going to get paid or people are going to be disappointed.
How long were you away for? It seemed like forever…
Two and a half months. I was like, “Who the fuck thought this was a good idea?” Then I realised it was me. I told my booking agent “Give us everything you’ve got.” So I created this thing. There’s no-one else to blame. But it was good. It’s good now.
How did it feel to have people knowing and responding to your music in so many places?
There’s a kind of awakening that happens. This was the third tour over there and it’s really surreal that music can carry that far. That there are people in fricken Norway who are fans and it’s made their night. So every time I had that sense of tiredness or I didn’t want to do it, I’d always get something out of it. Like someone would say they’d travelled three hours to see me, or that song really helped make a big decision this week. It’s become this responsibility.
You work in a way that’s quite flexible. You can play as a full band and yet you can travel the world as a two-piece, which is so efficient compared to like four people lugging kick drums and bass amps all over the place.
It’s the only way to do it at this level financially. And it’s also great that we have a set up like that with two people. It’s easier than four people. And that both of them work, that I don’t have to have the band. I think I’ve found quite a smart way. Though the next tour of Europe will probably be with a band because it adds another dynamic, but it’s taken three trips over there to get to that level.
Do you like touring?
The thing I like about tour is that when you’re on the tour, your whole life is just the tour. It’s this rhythm. And all the other life stuff, you’re able to step back and look at it from a distance so it’s a really good time for me, a time of reflection and making goals and making changes or planning – getting distance from normal life. And I always come back feeling changed.
Every tour I’ve done, I’ve always grown. Then there’s always this moment of coming back and I’ve given up my room, I don’t have a home, I’ve got four weeks of nothing, even though I was really craving doing nothing. It’s the opposite of certain. But to be doing this as a job or a business or whatever is so great. It’s a really cool feeling. It’s not comfortable all the time but it’s really fulfilling.
It is surprising to you that you’ve been able to turn your music into a career?
I never had an idea in my head. I never imagined my life as it is now. It’s not as if this was the goal, but everything that’s happening feels really natural and right. There’s nothing wrong feeling about it. So it’s not surprising me, it feels like the right thing. But it wasn’t planned. All I knew a few years ago was that playing music came easy and it was an easy way for me to pay my rent and it was a way for me to exist in the world that was healthy. And it was fulfilling so I just kept doing it. And I didn’t stop doing it.
I got this question over in the UK: When did you realise this was your dream? And I thought about it and this wasn’t my dream. And to be my honest, it’s not actually that ideal. Without getting all hippy-dippy, I feel like many people want to be artists and sometimes it’s not actually up to us. And I see it a lot with people that so desperately want this fame, they want to be a musician, but it takes a whole lot of things at once. It takes hard work, it takes a certain level of talent, and then it’s just something you don’t have any control over. So I actually feel like it’s kind of this calling. I mean, I have the choice to stop, I have the choice to do something else.
With your first album, you’d made this record and it was hard to find someone to release it…
It was really hard.
Now, a lot of people must listen to that record and hear something they didn’t hear before. Some people must be kicking themselves. It seems crazy now that it was hard to find someone to release that record.
Yeah, I know. It’s this weird feeling But it couldn’t have happened better for me. I think if I had been given everything from the get-go, it would not have done very good things to me. Like I see these artists that get swept up from the very beginning, before they’ve even toured and it scares me – to just be given everything instantly is dangerous. Because you’re going to have to come down from that.
What does it feel like to have gained recognition from the New Zealand music industry? This year you’ve been nominated for a Silver Scroll and a few New Zealand music awards.
What was important to me about the Silver Scroll was being nominated in such amazing company and I was really proud to be part of the first all-women finalist [line-up] and to be nominated with my friends. That recognition really is a nice feeling. But a competition is just really not about the ‘best’. For the last few years, the winner of the Silver Scroll hasn’t been the winner that I would have picked. It’s something that I don’t think I could really be a part of again – or I could be a part of it, but I’d really just distance myself from the whole thing.
Tell me about playing Jools Holland, you said before that it was harrowing?
I didn’t really know anything about it. I knew that Hannah [Aldous Harding] had gone on it and once it got confirmed, everyone in England was like “Oh my God, this is a really big deal. Everyone watches this, he’s like blah blah blah…” And I was just trying not to listen. I was acting like it wasn’t happening until we went there and I also didn’t realise it was live to air. Literally, live. That was scary. But it was great.
Is that harrowing part of it anxiety about your performance?
Yeah, it was kind of interesting because before that I was like “Nothing makes me nervous anymore, I don’t ever get nervous when we play. I don’t feel anything.” And then I did that and it was a bit of a wake-up call. That made me really nervous.
Do you get a better performance, being nervous?
No. There’s a difference between an adrenaline which is helpful, and then there’s just sheer terror which is when you get cotton mouth, which is what I had. The adrenaline is good but the nervousness just makes things a bit shit.
I was interested in your Instagram – it was a really funny way to document your tour.
I’ve slowed down a little bit actually. I’m detoxing probably. I started doing it because I was really bored and kind of crazed. Actually, Anika Moa really inspired me. And then I just started out of boredom.
It turned into this weird documentary about your guitarist.
Yeah, he’s like my subject, eh? He started to film me but he doesn’t do anything with them which is really sad. Because we’d meet up in the morning at like quarter-to-six or whatever and I kind of have this hour in the morning when I can’t talk, I have to put my headphones on. And he knows this and he’d do this thing where he’d film and ask me intrusive questions and there were a couple of times where he caught me being like “Fuck off! Seriously, Sam I’m not joking, you need to respect my space right now.” And I’m so serious and angry and it’s quite hilarious. So we were thinking of collating that and publishing it.
It’s funny, because the videos are witty and light-hearted, but your music’s not very witty or light-hearted.
Yeah… I like to keep things kinda light at some of the shows. It can’t be all too intense or serious. I’d say that those Instagram videos are quite accurate depictions of how I am. I’m not pretending.
I was telling someone in our office about ‘moral check’. Nearing the end of the year, energy gets low and sometimes it pays to check in with people.
When you’re travelling with people, literally sharing a room and then sharing a car and sometimes the way to gauge how someone is just to ask “What’s your moral, out of ten?”
What’s the lowest you got out of ten?
It would have been in Oslo, that was like a two out of ten. That was when I was trying to cancel the tour, cancel everything. I’m 99% sober on tour and sober in life and for some reason, I was like, “I’m going to have a margarita and a Valium.” It was a night off in Oslo and we were staying in this horrendous accommodation. It was like a hospital room. And so I had the margarita and the Valium and was like “OK, this is great, this is just what I needed”. And the next day I had this horrendous panic attack as was walking around. I went and sat in a church, just trying to get out of it. I ended up calling a friend in New Zealand at 4 am, just being like “Help me. I have to end the tour, I want to come home.” In tears, y’know. Then I got back to the hotel and talked to my tour manager saying I needed to end the tour. He was like, “I think you need a big sleep, Nadia. And you’re hungry and you need a cup of tea.”
I was like, “Don’t tell me what you think I need! I want to cancel the tour and I want you to let me. And I want you to not tell me not to.”
Sam was in the room and I was hysterically crying and yelling. Sam had done a lot of counselling courses and he came and sat next to me and said, “Nadia, what’s really going on?” And I told him. And there were tears. And I calmed down and I played the show and I said, “Okay, I think I’m going to finish the tour, guys.” I just sorted myself out.
So that was two out of ten. It didn’t get much lower than that.
Nadia Reid plays Wondergarden festival in Auckland on 31 December 2017 and we’ve got a double pass to give away thanks to Spark. To win, email firstname.lastname@example.org with your favourite Nadia Reid song and we’ll send it to someone on Friday.
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