Distinctive sound? Check. Authentic lyrics with a worthwhile message? Check. One hell of kind soul paired with bursting creativity? Check, check! There’s only a few that can tick all these boxes, and musician Nadia Nair does so with incomparable ease. Ever since her first single Bon Voyage in 2012, the artist has consistently been releasing soulful beats layered with vocals that bleed raw energy. Debut album Beautiful Poetry followed—paired with equally stirring visual projects—and Nadia has steadily and independently let her star rise.
Fully devoted to inclusivity, the half-Swedish, half-Indian-Malaysian musician soaks everything she touches with love and acceptance. Her sound mirrors her nomadic cultural background, which likewise can’t be trapped in a box; elusive but straightforward, honest yet subtly so, her music grows on you until you fully surrender to its appeal. Below we chat with the artist on all things that were on our minds one autumn afternoon.
Nadia, you’ve changed your hair colour to red? Why?
Do you know Pippi Longstocking? Growing up, that movie was one of my favourite things to watch. I dreamt of being her and having her red hair. So, years later, I finally did it!
What was it about Pippi that mesmerised you?
I think when you’re a kid, you don’t really ask yourself why you like someone so much. But looking back as an adult, I find it fantastic that there was this little girl, who was so independent and strong, who did things her own way and although she was a troublemaker, she was good-hearted too. She also had a horse, and I loved horses! I’m honestly just happy my parents let me watch this film again and again as a child! [Laughs]
I also know you daydreamed a lot as a kid, and you considered that to be your blessing and your curse. Do you still daydream?
These days, I think I daydream through making music. With creating songs, you’re never truly finished; and you can never fully master the craft of music either, no matter if it’s the process of making it or performing it. The way I approach it, however, is with one aim: to stay inspired. Hence, I’d say…Wait, I lost my train of thought. [Laughs]
Oh yes, I remember now! My only way to stay sane and feel inspired is through this daydreaming process I go through when making music.
The lyrics of your latest track, Brick and Sandstorms, read: “You don’t hide to know or see / Nothing can escape the earth under you feet / Same colour, same colour as me”. What made you write and sing these words?
The most natural, beautiful thing about us is our skin colour. I wanted to paint this through my words. The song is my way of saying: “Hey, if I’m not welcome in your society and if I’m not part of your norm, then how come the Earth you walk on is the same colour as me?” As much as it deals with struggles however, this is an empowering song. I do confront hate towards people of colour, but essentially, with it I want to spread love, acceptance and promote a new norm.
All of your music videos are a world of their own too. Do you have the visuals in your head while writing the song?
Yes, I write my songs with the video already in my mind. Everything comes to me at the same time. And because each song has its own world, as you said, creating music can also be quite draining for me, since I put quality over quantity.
What role do visuals play in you creative process?
Having the visuals in mind whilst creating the song helps me figure out where I’m headed to with my sounds and lyrics. My own music can be as confusing to me as it is for others who don’t necessarily always understand where I’m coming from. The visuals help me reach a clearer state of mind I suppose.
How involved are you in the process of directing the music videos?
When I start dreaming about the visuals in my head, people who might fit those videos also spring to mind. And these people can be different each time—sometimes they’re friends, other times it can be someone I’ve never worked with before. Nevertheless, once I present my idea, the team can work along their own line and put their flair to it too. But the director and I always work together and throw ideas at each other to see what works best.
Why did you include dancers in your latest video for Bricks and Sandstorms?
I believe dance suits my music very well. And also, a thing I do sometimes is that I record a song, then play a YouTube video on mute and let my sound layer the visuals. While recording Bricks and Sandstorms, I played tons of dance videos over it. So, it just made sense in the end and it all came together quite naturally.
And does dance relate to the issues of skin colour you reference in your songs?
As much as dance is emotional, it’s also very physical. You’re showing your body, you’re claiming your space with it. So, it’s essential to me that when I incorporate dance in my videos, I portray a diversity of bodies. But for me inclusivity doesn’t start and end with what you see in my videos. Many think that being inclusive could be simply about putting a diverse cast of dancers in your visuals. For me, it’s also about the team behind the scenes. When you do any kind of production, it’s much more than what you see on screen—it’s the crew’s labour behind the work too. Hence, the entire backstage process of my work has symbolic meaning to me.
Do you like to collaborate with other musicians too?
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve found the whole idea of being featured on someone’s song very appealing! Don’t ask me why, but young-me thought to herself, Oh wow, a feature—so cool! Perhaps it was seeing artists coming together, uniting their creative forces and going bananas over a dope project. I have and am collaborating with others, but I’m also a very private person in general, so that affects whether the audience actually knows I’ve done work with others in the studio or not. On a side note, I should have my name on some big stuff I’ve worked on, but politics or some other things just won’t let my name be seen or my work be appreciated. But I don’t talk much about that.
And what’s a difference you’ve noticed between writing for yourself and for others?
It definitely has to do with the ego. When working with or for someone else, I step into their creative process and let go of my own ego. That’s something that we, as artists, struggle with a lot—our ego. We’re so consumed with what we do, but it’s good to have someone else enter that egotistic picture occasionally. The artistic ego—as much as it can create amazing and innovative things—can also be extremely limiting. It’s liberating and refreshing to take a step back from it. I always go a step forward with my own projects, so it’s nice to take a step back and collaborate or write for someone else.
Do you also need to take a step back from social media if you find yourself feeding that ego with double taps and streams?
That’s something I’ve reflected on a lot lately. I think I’ve always been a very old soul, and I still believe that the coolest thing that happened to music when I was breaking in was MySpace. Do you remember MySpace?
I do, but I have to admit I’ve not been on it… I’m a Tumblr kid.
Well, MySpace was cool because you could upload your music, similarly to how Soundcloud works today, yet on MySpace you also had a personalized profile. And when I think about it now, I realize how few hateful comments there were back then. I would put out a song with just violin and vocals, and I wouldn’t feel ashamed or pressured because people would be empowering and supportive. Today however, you hear of labels that would sign an artist only after seeing their Instagram feed and Twitter account first. It has become more about being an influencer than an artist. And that’s hard for me, because as much as I love how social media allows us to connect and find new, amazing talent, it can also be a space of extreme vulnerability for artists. Even though the ego is involved in making music and art, creativity is a very private process. Back in the day, you wouldn’t see what Aretha Franklin had for dinner or what she was doing in her bathroom. There was a mystique around the artist, a certain level of privacy. And if creating music is a private ritual, putting it out there is an extremely public act; it makes you really vulnerable. I think you need a balance between these two aspects of artistry. Yet now, when you have the tool of social media that demands from you to expose your private life too, you’re left with no balance whatsoever.
What does success mean to you if not likes and streams?
As I evolve as a person and as an artist, my idea of success also transforms. We, human beings, are not static; we’re literally entirely anew every 7 years. It’s no wonder you want that personal change to reflect what makes you content as well. I’ve also been more and more alone with my own self, and in this solitude I’ve realized that right now it’s not a hectic lifestyle I need or a bunch of goals for the distant future. Just dealing with my daily challenges, being creative in my solitude—this is success to me. And also, whenever someone comes to me and shares that my art has made them feel something, that’s when I’m at my most content state. What makes me happy is if I can reach out to others with my music, build a bridge and meet them in the middle.
Your music also brings awareness to issues of gender. Have you noticed, however, that recent promotion of gender inclusivity has become a marketing tool? Where do you stand as a woman in the shifting demography of this industry?
Big companies and brands, they see diversity and inclusivity as a trend. But these issues should never be a trend, because then we’d simply be building sand castles. Also, everyone needs to look at their own crew, company, band, label and so on, and consciously realize who they’re working with behind the scenes, and not simply what they try to present as a public image. Making a couple of queer artists or POC the face of a project, and calling that an inclusive act, simply isn’t enough. If you don’t have diversity on all levels of production, you can’t call yourself inclusive.
You were born and raised in Sweden, but you’re also half-Indian-Malaysian. Do people ever ask you: “But where are you actually from?”
All the time…
How do you respond to that?
It depends on how well I know the person, how much patience I have that day too. The thing that frustrates me most is when I’ve told someone about my heritage already, yet they keep asking again and again. It occasionally takes me to a point where I also provoke them by asking back: “Are you sure you’re Swedish? Maybe British, or you’re perhaps more Finnish”.
What’s something you wished these people would actually ask you about?
Wow, I haven’t given this much thought actually. I mean, it’s always fun to talk about inspiration. But I also really liked how the first thing you asked me was about the colour of my hair. Sometimes, it’s nice to talk about other stuff than my creative process and the like. I also love talking about food, especially about hot sauce! Unfortunately, as much as I try to hint to people that I’m obsessed with it, I haven’t yet met a hot sauce nerd like myself…
Why would you lie to me about Pippi then? The red hair is actually the hot sauce coming through!
[Laughs] Stop it! People would think I’m mental. And even beyond Pippi and hot sauce, the red is also so autumnal!