One half of The Electronic Exchange; one quarter of To Sophia; one half of The Ground, Najia Bagi has been fractions of other musical projects. With the release of her solo debut recording, Six Months, she is now a whole.
Sparsely arranged pieces combining shimmering, uncomplicated piano and vocals discard the accompaniment and layering effects familiar within her other projects – most notably a sample-heavy fusion as The Electronic Exchange on the Concrete Moniker label. If that collaboration with beats merchant Tullis Rennie finds Najia pushing the boundaries of her own comfort zone, then her solo work is the antithesis of that; songs built from the epicentre of her musical learnings. There’s an added confidence born from broad musical experience, but it is a return to independence that accentuates Najia’s vocal style – fragile yet captivating – while keeping instrumental congestion to a minimum.
Najia spoke to Now Then Manchester’s Ian Pennington about her various musical projects along the road to becoming a solo artist.
Now Then: Having been a part of very different sounding musical projects, how far does your solo album define your preferred style?
Najia Bagi: I feel like all the music I’ve ever been involved in has led up to this album, which is a nice feeling to have. I only really started to write music that I was proud of with To Sophia, so I think that was the beginning of the process that led to this album. And then I found myself wanting to write music that was more and more simple and gentle until I got to this point. It can’t get much more simple and gentle than this!
Also, the music that I listen to has changed over the years, which has always been reflected in what I’ve written at any given point. But I remember hearing the stuff that has inspired me to write this album (Nils Frahm, Anthony and the Johnsons, Soap&Skin) and at the time I thought, “This is it, this is the music that I want to respond to.” I think that it is a combination of being in a certain frame of mind and being a bit tired of music that is too busy. I think it’s a bit like reading a brilliant book – what you feel and learn is held between the notes, if you know what I mean?
NT: Do you prefer the stage to yourself or with other musicians to fill out the sound?
NB: I prefer being on stage with other people. I get incredibly nervous and I’m not that comfortable with being the centre of attention on stage, so it’s hard to be up there on my own. But there is something really incredible about sharing completely personal experiences and feelings with the audience that you don’t get with a band on stage and I love that part. It’s a bit like having a really lovely heart to heart with a friend.
NT: What has been your most memorable live show, either solo or with another project?
NB: This is a hard one. I think there have been a few memorable shows over the past few years. The Electronic Exchange was commissioned by FutureEverything Festival this year to develop some of our music with a string quartet, live drums and live backing vocals, which was just incredible. It was so humbling to be on stage with those brilliant musicians – when the string quartet really let rip it was almost impossible to sing! And the first time I played these songs was memorable. I had never played piano to an audience before and I was completely terrified, but the crowd were brilliant. They were completely silent.
To Sophia had a few brilliant shows too; we were all best friends so when we felt like we were connecting with the audience we all felt completely elated and proud of each other. At least that’s how I felt! And once we played for a cocktail bar full of people at around 2am, which was pretty memorable because we were paid in tequila! I have patchy memories of that performance, which include me standing on a barrel and shouting at the poor people in the bar: “Okay everyone, we’re going to play now, so can you all be quiet!” Awesome.
NT: You’ve recently supported Julianna Barwick, who arranges her music live by looping vocal parts, and (correct this if it’s wrong!) you often loop your own voice with The Electronic Exchange. Did you consider using that style on your solo record?
NB: Well, Tullis (Rennie, the other half of The Electronic Exchange) loops my vocals actually. He records me singing and plays around with it live – he’s brilliant. But I have recently started to write music with Dave Johnson (drummer from To Sophia), which is just drums and vocals and we use a loop station. It’s hard! I find it difficult to use technical equipment but I’m learning. I did think about using effects for a while with this material but I decided not to, I think there’s a time and place for effects and stuff like that but for me one of the things I like about this piano music is that it’s clean. It’s just a set of stories, just piano and vocals. And at the moment I don’t want it to be any more.
NT: Has the experience of diversifying into different forms of electronic production (ie with The Electronic Exchange) affected your solo work?
NB: Yes absolutely. Because The Electronic Exchange writes via email, I found myself writing and singing alone for the first time in a very long time, during the process, and I loved it. I found that I had time and space to write exactly what I wanted to, without the pressure of there being other band members present. I think that this gave me the confidence to write solo material. But in terms of the music being electronic, I suppose it made me want to write something non-electronic, something acoustic and simple.
NT: What’s been happening with The Electronic Exchange and what's lined up for the future?
NB: We’ve had some really exciting things happening! This month we released a second EP on Concrete Moniker, which is two new songs and two remixes (the remixes sound amazing)! And then we played at Band on the Wall supporting one of Tullis’ heroes, Bugge Wesseltoft, which was great. Then we were off to Barcelona to play at the Apollo there, which was incredibly exciting. We’re also planning a tour next year with the same musicians that we worked with for FutureEverything and we’re in talks with the festival, which could result in something amazing happening at FutureEverything 2012. It’s all going really well!
NT: For how long will To Sophia be on hiatus? Are there any future plans for the band?
NB: Well, To Sophia is taking a break for now and I’m not sure how long that will be for. But although it’s sad not to be playing with each other, it has given each of us the opportunity to write new and exciting music. Paul (Balcombe, one half of The Ground) is writing solo material that is haunting and beautiful; Dave, Paul and Adam (drums, guitar and bass from To Sophia) have formed an amazing band called Outer Dark which I think sounds like a mixture of Radiohead and Tool, which is great for all of them and of course I’m doing this stuff which I absolutely love. We were having a laugh recently saying that maybe we’ll reform one day like Pink Floyd and that the strap line could be: “No one came to see our gigs then, and no one will now!”
NT: Finally, which records are you playing the grooves off at the moment and which of your peers would you recommend?
NB: Peers – that’s easy. Rioghnach Connolly (Honeyfeet) has the best voice in Manchester and possibly the UK. She sings all over Manchester all of the time in different bands and everyone should go to see her. She sounds like heaven. She’s amazing. And Outer Dark, of course! I also love Jesca Hoop, who plays in Manchester a lot, but she’s not a peer, she’s way beyond me in terms of success. Records, well, I listen to Rory Gallagher, The Temptations, Little Dragon, Nils Frahm and Yann Tiersen. There’s a song called ‘Til The End’ on his album Dust Lane that just keeps getting better and better until you think you can’t take any more – and then it keeps going! It’s amazing.
Images #1 & #5: Jacob Russell
Images #3, #4 & #6: Courtesy of Najia Bagi
Images #2 & #6 album artwork: Adam Dolan
Image #7 poster design: Louie Mitchell & Matthew Mathieson
Najia launches her debut solo record, Six Months, at Dulcimer bar in Chorlton on Thursday 10th November. She will be joined onstage by a string quartet, while Avital Raz and Gerard Starkie will also perform at the show, which is a Now Then Manchester co-promotion with Imploding Inevitable. Entry policy is pay-what-you-like, £4 suggested; anyone paying £4 (or more!) will also receive a download code for Najia's album.