New York singer Nakaya chats to Roundtable about star signs, song-writing and giving yourself the space to grow.
[This article was originally published in Issue 01 of Roundtable Journal]
When singer-songwriter Nakaya picks up the phone, her American drawl pours down the line, oozing warmth. She’s immediately relatable, projecting the same intimacy in conversation as in song. Currently in her final year at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University, Nakaya is making dreamy music in her spare time.
NYU formalised Nakaya’s approach to music for the first time. Growing up with a hip-hop producer Dad, she was exposed to an eclectic range of music, to say the least. From Fela Kuti over breakfast to Led Zeppelin on cleaning day, her childhood influences transcend eras and genres. All this feeds into Nakaya’s music and her creative process. “I, kind of, self-started my way through music,” she reflects. Whilst her fellow students had classical training, Nakaya taught herself to play the guitar by watching YouTube tutorials. “Without the constraints of numbers and technicalities, I can really focus on what I want.” The sound she’s fostered is intangible, best described not by genre but by a feeling or a colour. Nakaya muses on this: “I guess Dear Skin is kind of pastel purple or soft pink, but Lose It Too is more of a dark blue.”
Music theory is important, yes, but more than that Nakaya trusts her ear. And why wouldn’t she? Her knack for knowing ‘what sounds good’ has earned her acclaim as Artist to Watch in both Highsnobiety and V Magazine’s R’n’B 2016 lists. Even more impressive, her songs have garnered over half a million plays on Spotify so far.
Nakaya describes her music as ‘soulful folk’, but the beauty of her dreamy ambience is that it transcends genres. Her influences include Sade, Norah Jones, Lianne La Havas and Bon Iver. It’s no surprise that she can’t be shoehorned into a single box. She has the space to grow and evolve organically as an artist. It’s important that “I’m meshing other genres together”, she notes. Even between her debut EP, Out of Breath (released in 2015) and Lose It Too (released in June), there are subtle changes in Nakaya’s sound. Her new music is more confident, a complex offering with added texture and a strong acoustic base. Yet the transition is a smooth one: it’s still essentially Nakaya. It’s the same deep, raspy voice that carries the listener through pastel mornings and ethereal nights.
Nakaya’s song-writing process is as varied as the music she makes. Her creativity is erratic and often strikes when she least expects it. The paradoxical beauty of being an artist is that “it’s everything and almost nothing at the same time”, she muses. Dear Skin took a mere ten minutes to write, whilst Colored Lines was a six-week haul. Being a Virgo, thus a major perfectionist, makes things tough: “sometimes, it’s like word vomit and it’s just there. Other times, I have to seriously hack away at it and revise, revise, revise. The hardest part is knowing when to stop – when it finally feels right.”
Nakaya’s songs are always piercingly honest: she flits between writing about her feelings and her personal experiences. Her music tackles struggles with self-confidence, identity and heartbreak, making songs like Mother and Dear Skin deeply relatable. Her focus on “self-love, not romantic love” makes Nakaya an artist who empowers listeners. The details in her songs may be specific to her life, but her themes always convey a broader human experience.
The 21 year old singer-songwriter credits her time at NYU as “the best thing that’s ever happened to me.” It’s here where she met cinematographer Peter Pascucci, who worked on the video for her latest single Lose It Too. NYU is also where she first stepped foot in a real studio, and recorded her first EP.
So what’s next for Nakaya? She’ll be graduating later this year, filled with a renewed sense of confidence and creativity. There’ll also be lots of gigging around New York and other cities. The big question is, will there be more music? “Of course”, she beams “in the next few months hopefully.” Oh, and a little bit of self-exploration too.