It’s been a turbulent year for all, but one positive from 2020’s UK lockdown was how we had a little more time to discover emerging talent that we expect huge things for in 2021. One artist that we fell in love with is London-based NAHLI, who released Garage single ‘Catch 22’; a collaborative effort with Big Narstie.
Mixed by MSM (Drake, Wretch 32) and produced by long-term collaborator DaVinche, the track sees NAHLI continue her ascent to the upper echelons of new stars emerging from the UK and follows last year’s debut EP ‘Therapy [Side A]’.
We caught up with the newcomer to discuss touring with Sigma, life after lockdown and the importance of queer representation in music.
Nahli, we’re obsessed with your new single ‘Catch 22’, but before we delve into the present, let’s take it all the way back. What are your earliest memories of music as a child?
Thank you so much! My earliest memory…It’s not my earliest exactly but it’s my most memorable. I had my CD Walkman stuffed into the back of my pyjama bottoms and I was listening to Holly Valance and mouthing the words to ‘Kiss Kiss’ really overly seductively into my bedroom mirror with total vivacity and my stepdad tapped me on the shoulder to come downstairs for dinner. Apparently, he’d been standing there for ages. Just watching this skinny little twat wiggling about. I was so embarrassed. I was so red faced at dinner. I couldn’t look at anyone!
What were some of the earliest records you remember playing, and can you remember which record was the first one you ever purchased with your own pocket money?
Apparently, whenever Michael Jackson came on the radio, I’d kick my little legs along with the music. I was tiny, like 1 years old. It was only ever Michael Jackson that I’d react like that. It became an ongoing thing. So, when I was about 4, my Dad bought me a VHS of all his music videos…I was obsessed. Overwhelmed. I just could not believe my eyes. Everything about him was insatiable. He was a work of art. The first album I got with my own pocket money was actually Britney Spears first album. I listened to that day in and day out.
As an artist it seems as though you wear your heart on your sleeve for all to see. Is writing, recording and performing almost like therapy to you?
It absolutely is. I’m not very good at speaking on my emotions at the time I actually need to. Or I speak far too much nonsense during heightened emotion. At the end of a breakup for example. I can never find the words I need. I just sort of sit there feeling the world fall but say nothing, or I’m screaming for it to not be over because I cannot stand the feeling of rejection. I never really had the tools to process emotions. I guess we learn from our parents and both are just really wild with their coping mechanisms. So, writing down how I feel into music is best for me. I can really think about what I want to say, and I know the people I need to hear it, will hear it. For example, I needed my Dad to know that the way he’s dealt with me over the years has been really detrimental to the way I viewed relationships. I needed everyone to know my ex was a controlling, narcissistic mummy’s boy.
Writing from a personal perspective surely must feel strange when you’re playing to hundreds or thousands of people?
Omg no I love it. Reason being, there’s ALWAYS a group of people who are like “HELL YEAH ME TOO GIRL” in the audience. I LOVE how relatable it all is. We all go through this shit. It’s great that I get to share it with a room of people and not only share their own personal romantic traumas through my music, but I also get to offload in a way, and feel heard. I feel really heard and understood when I’m on stage. I went through a lot of gaslighting throughout most of my younger relationships and I do need to feel that I’m not the only one holding these emotions sometimes. It helps me. I grow from it every single time.
You’ve played to some huge crowds with acts like Sigma – do you feel less vulnerable singing other people’s songs in comparison to something you’ve penned?
Those Sigma shows rocked my world. I think there were 50,000 people in those crowds. I cannot even begin to explain how that felt, I was flooded with anxiety beforehand. Like…I knew I couldn’t back out from it, I just felt each minute pass until I had to be on stage. I knew it was the biggest thing I had ever done and part of me just wanted to run away but the other half of me was grounded. Ecstatic. I was standing on the edge of the stage just staring at the crowd with this really unusual feeling jolting through my body. Like a whirring feeling of excitement, I hadn’t experienced before. Sigma were already blasting their tunes and the crowd was going wild and I was just ticking down the seconds and I walked on. Clutching my microphone so hard and hoping it didn’t slip out of my hands because they were so sweaty! Singing their songs instead of mine made absolutely no difference. I still felt vulnerable, yet strong. I felt like I’d stepped into a new chapter of my life in that very moment. I felt myself almost feel so rooted and understanding of all the hard work that had come before. That it all suddenly made sense.
You released an incredible body of work [Therapy Side A] last year. Will the next EP be full of as much rawness, soul and personal storytelling? What can we expect from it?
Absolutely! I can’t release music unless it almost makes me cringe because it’s so honest. I always feel nervous beforehand and I feel as though people can suddenly see right through me. That this cool/goofy exterior I present people with is suddenly knocked down and people can see the girl inside who can’t handle herself as well as she pretends to. But, this half of the EP is more light-hearted. I’m not sad about anything at the moment haha! Thankfully. I’ve flourished via those Sigma shows we spoke about, the artwork, the new parts of myself that I’ve found. I feel anew. It’s me almost passing on my experiences as therapy. I want my listeners to hear one half and then hear the other and know that we get through shit. Shit happens, but we get through it. I love being able to share that journey, it’s really special and I love being able to see my own growth in such a cool way. Through my own music. I’m really proud of it. The new EP is elevating. It’s empowering.
So ‘Catch 22’ surprised us all when it came out – how did you meet and get to collaborate with Big Narstie?
There’s such a story behind this track. I originally wrote it as a soulful song on top of just the guitar and George The Poet was featuring. He’s one of my favourite artists so I was really overwhelmed! I’d messaged him on Instagram telling him I’d love to work, and we were in studio the following week. Madness. It was really beautiful. DaVinChe worked on the production and made it more upbeat, and when he first sent it to me, I was thrown by the difference. I absolutely loved it. It turned into this really upbeat sick tune and I was SO happy with it. Unfortunately, the new garage version wasn’t quite up George’s street so it was decided that it would go out as a tune with just me on it. George is amazing, I’m such a fan of his but, next thing I knew it had been played to Big Narstie via the label. You can imagine I nearly jumped through the roof when I got the call that Narstie wanted to collaborate and feature on the track. I just couldn’t believe it. I’d just had a weird relationship with a UK rapper, and I was in a weird place emotionally about it. I wrote this about him. Knowing my words and my emotions were now on a track with one of the UK’s biggest personalities was crazy. It just makes me feel so…Earthed. I don’t know what other word to use. I feel like I’m exactly where I’m meant to be, doing exactly what I’m meant to be doing. A feeling that I’ve fought for a really long time.
The official video looks incredibly opulent – what was it like on-set?
That house was insane. The chandeliers and the bathrooms alone were unbelievable. I think there were 8 of them. Each one decorated beautifully and completely different from each other. On set I just kept hearing my name being called from each room because I couldn’t stop wandering around on my own just observing everything. I always have to take time to understand my surroundings. I feel like I learn so much about a person by the home they live in. It filled me with crazy energy on the day, I loved it. I was still struggling to walk around at the time pain-free as I’d broken my leg at the end of 2019 and standing up in high heels for any amount of time for any scenes was quite painful for me and I kept kicking them off. Apparently, the owner of the house assumed I was a massive diva who just didn’t like wearing heels haha! Another lesson for us to never judge a book etc.
Would you ever want to take his lead and move into TV at any point?
I’d love to be on television, and I think I slip into this alter ego when the camera is on me. I’ve always wanted to be in a Netflix series or a really dramatic horror or something weird like that. I used to do speech and drama exams because my mum always thought it would be helpful to my future. Sounds like a really over the top thing to do but my mum just wanted the best for me. I had to learn Shakespeare off by heart and recite it to four really posh looking older people who would judge me on my punctuation and flow and precision to detail. It’s hilarious looking back. We had no money at all really, but despite that, my mum worked double hard on her own as a singer and sent me to private school. Girls only. She did absolutely everything she could to make sure I found my path, and I’m so grateful for that. I went to Italia Conti, but I always felt out of place. I was that kid who sat in the corner just observing everyone. I wasn’t the popular kid I was the funny kid. So, I have all the tools behind me to do these things. I guess I’m just focusing on one thing at a time. I want to get myself into a great place with music before I venture into acting or television.
What pearls of wisdom would you like to tell your younger self, given the opportunity?
When I think of my younger self, I just want to hug her. I’d tell her to leave a room if she felt uncomfortable, and not change herself so often just to fit her surroundings. I’d tell her to keep going. I’d lift her chin and tell her it’s all going to be worth it. I’d definitely tell her to drink less and spend more time with family. I’d tell her to get TF off MSN and stop texting loser boys and I’d tell her way in advance that social media was going to be huge so I could have got a half decent Instagram handle haha! I’d tell her how precious time is. I’d tell her that perseverance is going to be my greatest asset and I’d tell her to just forget everything anyone has ever told me and make all my own decisions based on my gut. I’d also tell her that becoming a stripper during times of hardship isn’t something to be so ashamed of. I used to hide it from everyone. But, fuck I’m just proud of you for relying on yourself girl.
There seems to be an incredible and eclectic mix of queer artists making huge waves in the industry at the moment, which is long overdue. How important do you think it is for queer voices to be heard?
Honestly, I am so new to this wave myself. I have always been in relationships with men my whole life, so this is totally new to me. I am really pleased to say that it was an easy transition for me because everyone in my life is so carefully handpicked that no one even batted an eyelid about it. All my people appreciate me for being the exact person I am and my new path with a woman was accepted immediately. They all love her. I think it’s absolutely unquestionably important for queer voices to be heard, especially if you’ve had any tribulations with it throughout your life. I think people need to start understanding each other better and not being so judgemental on the choices we make for ourselves. The whole community is full of beautiful wonderful. Gay women are wonderful strong courageous women. People are amazing. I love seeing social media and magazines becoming so open to all of it. Disability. Race. Colour. It’s all moving in the right direction, slowly but surely.
We adore your paintings that we’ve seen you create on your IG. If you weren’t creating art in the form of music, would you consider painting a full-time career?
I’ve become a bit obsessed because I’m your typical Capricorn. When I put my mind to something, it does not rest until I can become really good at it. I know that sounds like I’m being really full of myself, I don’t mean to come across that way at all. I just love that I can create and look at it and think “wow. I did that” …I don’t often feel like that about myself so I’m purposely giving myself credit where it’s due. It’s one of the new promises I made to myself. I spend hours and hours on each piece until they’re perfect (in my eyes at least). If I wasn’t in music, I’d definitely be a full-time artist. In fact, I’m hoping to juggle both for as long as I can. I love being busy.
We know you love to collaborate, so what other artists would you love to get on a forthcoming NAHLI track?
KAYTRANADA. Could you imagine?! I’d die.
2020 has been quite jarring for most people this year – what positives do you think you’ve managed to take from such a strange and unprecedented year?
I’ve taken loads and loads of positives. I’ve worked on myself really dramatically this year and I’m in such an amazing mental space. Breaking my leg was the reason I got myself into art in the first place, so, I don’t even have regrets like “ah I wish I didn’t drink that Prosecco and hop on that flippin’ skateboard that night”. It’s more like, “ah ok now I can see why everything happens for a reason. I’m going to have a titanium rod in it forever, and it’s pretty painful all the time even a year on but finding myself with time in abundance pushed me to paint. Then being hit with the lockdown, more time to paint. I’ve put all my energy into it. On top of the single and music video and finishing the second half of the EP. I’ve learnt that I can do anything I put my mind to, if I don’t drink too much alcohol. Cutting alcohol out of my life has been a really dramatic change for me. I feel like I’m way more focused. I feel like my emotions are elevated. I feel stronger and healthier. I’ve learned the importance of my family, to a new degree. My love for them has felt more powerful than ever. I miss them. I have a new level of respect for so many people around me. How they’ve dealt with this year. The fact everyone checks in on each other and cares so much for each other. I have a newfound worry about women or men in destructive relationships. I worry for them, and I’ve learnt to give more time to the people who I believe need some extra love. I’ve become more open with talking about my own issues, and in turn listening to other peoples. I have friends going through cancer treatment and scary surgeries this year and it puts so much in perspective. I just want to remind myself, and others, to practice gratitude. It helps so much. And meditation. Giving time to yourself to feel what you need to feel. And allowing it.
Live gigs, festivals and events seems like a distant memory. Are you excited to get back on stage and do you have an idea of any possible shows or tours for 2021?
I am beyond excited. I NEED to be back on stage with my favourite people all in one room. Even if I perform to my friends and family, in a room of like 8 of us. I don’t care. I just so badly want to be around my favourite people again and reconnect via music. Many of my friends are really creative and talented. I’d love us to all prepare something for each other and reconnect that way. It’s going to be a beautiful year; I can feel it. I’ve become a bit agoraphobic this year in terms of leaving the house so it’s all going to be new and weird at first but we’re all going to be ok. Normality will come. This has been a year of lessons and self-expression.
‘Catch 22’ is out now, check out the video below. Follow NAHLI at @nahlimusic