In Conversation with Nicky Schrire

Earlier this year, Nicky Schrire, broke her 10-year long silence with the release of her third studio album titled, Nowhere Girl. Through her crystalline voice, the South African-British songwriter and vocalist takes the listener on a world tour of the places that shaped her and influenced her music. Being a product of the golden era of UCT’s College of Music, alongside the likes of Bokani Dyer, Shane Cooper, Lwanda Gogwana, Nomfundo Xaluva and Mandisi Dyantyis amongst others; it comes as no surprise that Nicky, much like her peers, has found her feet in what can be a tricky industry and continues to create sublime music that is indicative of an academic musician with a fine ear.

Nicky has reinvented herself both in music and personally with her new found home in Toronto. After [finally] aligning time zones, we got to chat with the jazz musician about her life between countries, music, and the experiences that breathed life into Nowhere Girl.

Image by Matt Griffiths

Before we get to the music, I’d like to pick your brain on the topic of digital streaming platforms. There’s an active debate about the model, what’s your take on it?

I’m not a high earner and I’m not a high profile name so it doesn’t affect me negatively. Yes, I would love to generate an income from my music and there are other streams to do that, like copyright and performance royalties. And I do get a little cheque from those and I think to myself ‘oh wow this works’. Would it be nice if this was happening with streaming too? Sure. Is it going to make or break my ability to pay rent? No, because the amount that I earn anyway for copyright and the likes is a pittance. I think for big names it might feel exploitative; I’m small fry and to be honest it’s been a decade since I last released an album. The streaming platforms were not what they are now ten years ago. My Spotify listenership has gone from 86 listeners to over a thousand listeners in a period of two to four months, which is fascinating for me. I’m more focused on getting the music to people’s ears. If they want to go and buy it on Bandcamp, thank you very much; but for me, streaming platforms are just a means of taking care of the initial introduction.

Before Nowhere Girl, you last released in 2013. What happened between the space and time?

Lots of space and lots of time (laughs). I moved 4 times within the last 10 years. I moved to New York for graduate school and lived there for 5 years. I then left New York and moved to London, which is where I was born, and lived there for a year. While I was in London I realized that I did not want to spend most of my life in pursuit of success and forfeit having rich relationships with my family and friends. That’s when I decided to move back to South Africa and lived there for a few years before moving to Canada. I have been here [Canada] for 3 years now.

You were in SA living with your family and friends, what then drew you to Canada? Did you know then that it would be a good place to grow your career?

Not my performance career, no. My husband and I moved to Canada in pursuit of job opportunities in general. Once we were settled in, I discovered that the Canadian art scene has a very strong and supportive community. There are a ton of funds that one can apply for to advance their craft, and that’s something that enables my peers here to make albums and go on tour, both in Canada and abroad. Being here has allowed me to tap into these resources. I applied to three grant organizations and I was successful with one of them which allowed me to record this album the way I wanted to.

Was the title Nowhere Girl inspired by your move to Canada?

I wish it was, but the song Nowhere Girl was written when I had just moved to New York, which was more than ten years ago. I have performed the song everywhere, from Makhanda to London, and it was always going to be featured in my next project but maybe not as a title track. Once I put this album together, I looked back and realized that this song best described me and the entire project. So that’s how this album got its title.

Does music help you feel closer to home?

It helps me understand that home can have many different meanings and it can apply to many different things. I will always feel slightly torn because I’m not in the same city as my parents and siblings but I’m happy where I am because home for me is wherever my husband and child are.

Image by Matt Griffiths

How do you keep making music at the high standard that you do with no expectation of a monetary return?

Making an album serves two functions, the first being a personal function. I have the want and the need to write original music and put my stamp on other people’s music by rearranging it to fulfil the idea I have of it. I don’t ever write with the intention to monetize, it just doesn’t occur to me to go about my craft in that manner. I write because I have something to say and  I have been inspired by a lyric or harmonic progression or whatever the case might be. I write because I had an idea and I want to put that down on paper.

To take that one step further, I make an album because I want to document what I have written at this moment in time, at this point of my life, and I hope that other people will like it and relate to it. However, I do shape the album with the listener in mind. I think about whether a 10-minute solo will bring a song to fruition in the best way possible or perhaps a shorter solo will be more palatable to the listener and get the message across.

The second function of making an album is the business or professional aspect. An album is a very expensive business card and if you, as a musician, haven’t recorded anything, it can be very hard to get work in the industry. An album is a calling card and so it becomes a necessity at a some point. For me, I had already recorded and released 2 albums, 2 EPs, and a single. But that was ten years ago and so it was imperative that I bring out a new business card, so to speak, that reflects what I sound like now, the music I write now and my musical intention now.

I keep making music because I haven’t hung up my mic yet. Although it is challenging to be a recording artist, I still have things to say and I still have hopes and ambitions. I make albums because it is part of the process. I can’t move on until I have documented what is consuming me at this moment in time.

Image by Matt Griffiths

In this album you covered Bheki Mseleku’s Closer to the Source and added your own lyrics to it, tell me about that process and why this song?

I am intentional about having a South Africa tune on my albums. On my first album I recorded Carlo Mombelli‘s Me, The Mango Picker; in my second album I recorded Victor Ntoni‘s Seliyana. So when I put this album together, Closer to the Source was the obvious choice. The backstory however is that when I was a student at the college of music, Bokani Dyer, Shane Cooper & Chris Engel, did a Bheki Mseleku tribute concert. I remember Chris came to me and said he’d spoken to the guys and if I wanted to sing on a couple tunes I could, but if I wasn’t good I’d be out. Luckily I was okay and we ended up performing Angola; that was my introduction to Bheki Mseleku‘s music. After that, Bokani schooled me on the rest of Bheki Mseleku’s repertoire and I have loved it ever since.

Later in life I was teaching at UCT and I found that our vocalists struggled to find South African jazz songs to sing for their assessments because there were so few of them with lyrics, especially in English. So I decided to take some songs that are instrumentals and write lyrics to them as a means to expand the educational resources avaialble at the time. And one of the songs I wrote lyrics to was Closer to the Source, and I liked it a lot. That’s what made it the obvious choice for this album.

I picked up on some ambiguity with the Traveler. At first I thought it was you, but the more I listened to the song, the more I was convinced it could anybody. So I have to ask, who is the Traveler?

It is a bit autobiographical. Listen, I’m a musician and I have dated musicians, in the past, who were better musicians than I was or whose careers were taking off while I felt mine was slow to grow. And that certainly inspired the thought about what it is like when you have two creative people, who are both ambitious, in a relationship but one’s career is always behind the other. The reality is it’s seldom that you will be at the same level, at the same time. I thought of artists like Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera; and authors Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, who were both poets. There’s always competition and it’s a common scenario. So yes, it started off as my story but then the fiction artistic license took over. And it makes for a great narrative because at the end of the song you feel like the person who was left behind gets their win in the end.

I suppose you were on the same wave of thought when you chose to include Heart like a Wheel in this album; what was the vision there?

I was introduced to this song by my father many years ago and I’m pretty sure at the time he had no idea I would move to Canada one day. It was written by Canadian singer-songwriter Anna McGarrigle. I knew I wanted to sing a duet with Laila Biali in this album and I thought this would be a great tune for us. Plus there weren’t a lot of love songs on this album and I do love a good love song, even though I do not write a lot of them. I love Heart like a Wheel because it frames love in a beautiful way. It’s about love and loss which is more interesting for me than “I’m in love, let’s get down and celebrate good time”.

Why is love and loss a more interesting concept for you?

Well, there’s so much luck involved in love and romance. You’ve got to meet someone that’s wonderful but not only that, you have to be compatible. There are a lot of wonderful people out there but they’re not all a good fit. You both have to want the same things in terms of relationship and commitment. It takes effort to make a relationship work. To top it off we’re constantly growing and changing. There are just so many variables that it is truly amazing that anybody can find love and commit to a partner for life. So I think love songs are great but sad love songs are really great because there are so many experiences that we don’t share but are universal, such as wanting love and not having love.

Because love is for the birds?

Exactly! I wrote this song when I was single and it seemed like everyone around me was in love and I just couldn’t seem to find my fit. I was a bit jaded and a little bit jealous (laughs). So Love is for the Birds is a song for people who aren’t in love but remain hopeful that they will find love; and for people who have lost love and remain a little hopeful that they will love again.

What would like people to feel or take away from your album?

I would like them to be moved by the music and feel that these songs could apply in their lives. I hope they enjoy listening to the album and find it to be a cathartic and joyous experience.