A lady rooted in Spirit, a music based on Jazz
‘I love Gil Scott-Heron! He’s one of my teachers – in the sense that he taught me how to be free and honest in terms of writing.’ Nailah
The highest praise one can give this exquisite artist is that like the acclaimed author and memoirist Maya Angelou – singer, composer and musician Nailah (pronounced Nye-eel-ah), has an innate ability to express and transpose her life experiences via her chosen medium – In Nailah’s case via her deep lyrical content and her emotive, soul stirring vocals.
Lauded by esteemed artist such as Diane Reeves and Andy Bey and DJ’s in the know, most notably Gilles Peterson who said of Nailah, ‘This is a really great voice…one of the discoveries of 2009’ and went on to tag her ‘Female jazz voice of the year.’ So it was no surprise to see her evocative track ‘Sacred’ appear on his latest compilation, Brownswood Bubblers Five.
It was back in November 2009 when the UK Vibe team descended on Cargo, London to watch an awesome gig by ‘Build an Ark’. After the performance the band’s saxsophonist, Tracy Wanname handed The Dood an EP. He enthused, ‘Watch out for this lady called Nailah, she will be passing through London in February 2010.’
That six track sampler EP, ‘Life In Session’, was on continual playback in The Dood’s household, car and mp3 player until he finally met with the engaging, effervescent and enigmatic Nailah in person in her London hotel, a few days after her spellbinding performance at London’s Worldwide Awards followed by a hastily scheduled Jazz Café appearance and was handed the complete ten track CD entitled, ‘ConJazzNess’.
The Dood: So Nailah, give me some background as to the conception and people behind your illuminating first solo offering. I understand Grammy Award winners Gavin Lurssen and Seth Atkins Horan hand a big input on the project?
Nailah: Gavin Lurssen. Yeah, he did ‘Oh Brother Where Art Thou’, he did record of the year last year (2009)….He is just a wonderful, wonderful person and he always goes for the spirit of the record and keeps the essence of it…His whole idea is to master the record, but you can’t tell that it’s mastered because it’s still like you’re in the room with everyone playing. So he doesn’t get in the way of the actual process.
The Dood: So that’s his forté?
Nailah: Yeah, that’s his thing. It’s like he’s not even there. He’s just a wonderful, wonderful spirit.
The Dood: So how did you meet Gavin in the first place?
Nailah: Actually Seth, who mixed the record, he linked us into Gavin, because they’d worked together. He was just really taken with the record when we started mixing it, because we recorded it at the Studio that he works at. We recorded at a place called Phantom Vox in L.A. That was one of the places. Most of it was recorded there live. It was recorded in three days!
The Dood: The EP?
Nailah: The record! Then we went back in and did some over dubs. Actually, I spell it ConJazzNess, but the way it’s pronounced is ‘Consciousness.’ So I dub my music ‘Consciousness’, but I spell it ‘ConJazzNess.’
The Dood: That’s wonderful. I like the play on words there.
Nailah: Thank you.
The Dood: Over what period of time have these songs been in the making?
Nailah: About three years now…Actually we recorded it and then decided to take six of them and put them on an EP and release that to see what would happen.
The Dood: To test the waters?
Nailah: Yeah, just to see. While we were finishing the record we were still performing live, so it just started to get a little buzz.
The Dood: Cool. Ok let’s go back. You’re originally from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I know you came through the church, but what singing/musical influences did you have growing up, such as parents, grandparents, siblings?
Nailah: No siblings, I’m an only child. Church was always there and I always sang in the choirs, school choirs etc. But I always had radio, I guess with me being an only child.
The Dood: That was your comfort blanket.
Nailah: Yeah! I always listened to the radio. Being in the south I listened to all kinds of music. I was raised on Gospel and Bluegrass and Folk and Soul and Jazz. All of it!
The Dood: So it comes out as Nailah, but all these influences infuse your sound.
Nailah: Everything, I literally was raised on everything – Rock’n’Roll, Funk…It was just a part of my environment and what I listened to. The great thing about radio is that it was formatted, but it wasn’t as bad as it is now.
The Dood: So what were the stations you’d be listening to back then?
Nailah: The main one was WAAA in Winston-Salem, North Carolina – that’s AM. And then there was also another station TripleA, with a show called ‘Daddy-O on the Patio.’ He was one of the black DJ’s and he had a great show and theme song, so you always got excited when it was time for Daddy-O’s show. In the morning Triple A would wake you up with Gospel music. 6am – Sam Cooke, first thing every morning! Then it would move anywhere from Mahalia (Jackson) to Shirley Caesar to just everybody! Blind Boys of Alabama…James Cleveland. So I was just steeped in that and I was raised actually in a Methodist Church. It was St John CME. The thing about St John CME was that it had an Elders choir. So the Elders choir always sang acapella.
The Dood: Always.
Nailah: Always! Even to this day – straight up! Somebody would start tapping a foot and then somebody would start moaning and then the harmonies would come out of everywhere! Just the moans and someone would take a line and start singing it and the voices would swell – And the crazy thing is the harmonies were just always strong and powerful and beautiful but sad and uplifting in a way to.
It wasn’t until years later that I was in Washington D.C and um, I was hearing African harmonies. It was like the dots connected for me because I realised at that point that those were the exact same harmonies that I grew up on and it was passed down from the slaves. That’s what was passed down through generations in my church. So those moans and harmonies were the exact same harmonies that I would hear African’s singing. And it just blew my mind in terms of like those were from the slaves, from the Motherland.
The Dood: Was it like a eureka moment?
Nailah: It really was! It really was! I’ve always loved harmonies, but I will never forget that moment where it just struck me and all the dots connected.
The Dood: So did you’re parents sing at all in the church?
Nailah: No, members of my family sang though. One of my aunts, my mother’s sister, she could sing like Patti Labelle. I mean they SANG! So I never really sang out because I couldn’t sing like that. Then it got to a point where I didn’t want to work that hard!
The Dood: Is this when you decided to study to become an attorney?
Nailah: Well, you know what, I wanted to do that since I was in the 8th grade. I was fascinated by it.
The Dood: I understand you visited Colourful Radio recently?
Nailah: Yeah, I went there last night (8/2/10) – Dom Servini. I was on for the last half hour 11.00pm – 11.30pm…and Adam Scrimshire who works with him, he brought his guitar and I taught him the song ‘Hands’ real quick and he played it and we did ‘Hands’ on the air live! It was just so crazy.
The Dood: What Impromptu?!
Nailah: Yeah! We met at the train station, walked over and I sat down with the guitar and showed him how it goes, I sang it and played it…Then he took it and embellished it, ‘cause he plays better than I do…He plays beautifully. It was really special!
The Dood: So you arrived in London on 1st February ‘10. You’re cool with the different accent?
Nailah: Let me tell you, I’ve been messing everything up! Last night I just wore Dom Servini out! He talks so fast, so I was staring at him. He said, ‘Did you understand me?’ I said ‘Hell no, I don’t know what you just said. So then he starts talking really loudly. I’m like. ‘I’m not deaf; I just don’t understand your accent!!! (Laughs openly)
The Dood: Excellent, sounds like a fun evening.
Nailah: It was. We had so much fun.
The Dood: I’m still at a loss as to how that link with Gilles Peterson came about though?
Nailah: Ok, here’s the story. I put the EP up on Myspace and Ennio Styles, a DJ in Melbourne, Australia, he found it. And he posted ‘He Speaks’ on the Brownswood Forum and Gilles Peterson heard it.
The Dood: Okay!!
Nailah: That’s what happened. Anyway, I had forgotten my Myspace password and somebody told me about Facebook, so I started trying to learn Facebook. It was so much more user- friendly compared to Myspace, so I didn’t care that I had lost the password. So then one day, it (the password) just comes to me out of the blue and I go on Myspace and there’s a message from Gilles, which is like two months old saying, ‘Send me some music!’
The Dood: So you were like’ ‘Who’s this Gilles guy?’
Nailah: No, I knew who he was, because I followed him over the years! In the meantime José James and I had discovered each other on Myspace and had become admires of each other’s music. So we had started dialoguing – I’m such a huge fan of his! So I sent him a message to please tell Gilles I have completely forgotten my password to Myspace and didn’t get his message.
Then all of a sudden I get a message from Sly Stone’s daughter, Novena Carmel. She’s the lead singer in the group Babystone. This was in summer ’09. She works in L.A and is a good friend of mine. So she sends me a message saying Gilles Peterson is talking about you on Twitter. So I’m like, ‘What is Twitter?’ I wasn’t that advanced yet. So she gave me the link to Twitter and I went on and I saw it and he had put a post up saying, ‘Discovered this new artist out of L.A named Nailah and I’m gonna play her on my show next week. So we send him the music files, the EP files and he plays it on his show.
Then he starts tweeting about me and how much he loves ‘Sacred’ and he plays it like three weeks in a row. It was just so bizarre. Thank goodness my password came to me, it was only God! That was straight from the universe. It was like, ‘Ok, here’s that information. This is what you need right about now.’ Then Ennio Styles starts sending it out to his DJ pool around the world. Michael Ruetten (Soulsearching Radio Show / Frankford, Germany) picked it up and Dom Servini’s artist Adam Scrimshire heard it and called Dom saying, ‘Please get her – find her!’
Then one day the phone rings while I’m at my computer, and it’s Gilles! But I thought it was a friend of mine from Baltimore playing a trick on me! (Nailah laughs heartily). I was like, ‘Who is this?’ He says, ‘It’s Gilles Peterson!’ I’m like, ‘Right, stop playing!!’ He said, ‘It’s Gilles Peterson calling from London.’ So we strike up a conversation and make that verbal connection….And then he talks to me about coming out to London for the Worldwide Awards. Next thing I know that’s in the works. Then I get a call from someone in his office…saying we want to put ‘Sacred’ on Brownswood Bubblers Five.
The Dood: How does that work with your people and his re: licensing etc?
Nailah: I have my own label, NiaMuse is my own label. So I licensed it to Brownswood. It’s just so happened that this came in today when I went to the office!
Nailah hands The Dood a fresh out the box copy of Brownswood Bubblers Five with a special highlight on track 10, ‘Sacred’
Nailah: So they arranged for me to do the Worldwide Awards (Saturday 6th Feb 2010) and then Simon set it up for me to do the Jazz Café the day after. I performed with the house band.
The Dood: So you didn’t travel with your band this time around?
Nailah: No, It’s been totally off-the-cuff. I have my charts and the songs and for the house band at Jazz Café I gave them the charts and the music. It was a packed house and so much fun. For me it was such an honour, because that is one of the places I always wanted to play! So Paul Aaron and I have been emailing each other for the past couple of years on Myspace. He sends me an email on Friday saying you’re going to be doing the Jazz Café on Sunday!
The Dood: So what songs did you perform?
Nailah: I did ‘Transcending’, ‘He Speaks’ and then I performed with Heidi Vogul on Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Gonna Come.’ Oh, and Cecelia helped out on ‘Transcending,’ we vibed that together. It was a beautiful night!
The Dood: So the day before at the Worldwide Awards how was that for you and what did you perform?
Nailah: I only did one song; I did ‘He Speaks’, because the band didn’t have enough time to learn my music as I was originally supposed to play with José James. When that didn’t happen, we worked it out so I still got to perform. Doing one song was GREAT! Because it was like now I get to see the show.
The Dood: Gilles always puts together an eclectic mix of acts.
Nailah: It was so much fun. The Robert Glasper Trio. I love Robert Glasper, he’s amazing. Then on Sunday during the day, I went to Maida Vale with Gilles and did an impromptu song with Robert Glasper. So we recorded that on Sunday. It wasn’t the whole trio though, just me and Robert. It was in the BBC studios. I did that Sunday during the day and then Jazz Café that night. I stayed all night. I shut it down! It was so much fun.
The Dood: When can we expect the next Nailah UK live experience?
Nailah: I have no idea! This has been such an amazing ride. I’ve been putting everything on Facebook. I did an impromptu photo shoot on the Embankment…So it’s all a dream come true, so everything is icing on the cake. It’s absolutely incredible. And then Gilles named me ‘Jazz Female vocalist of the Year ‘09’. So at this point I’m just giggling.
Photo by Darrell Fields
The Dood: You’re in a different stratosphere?
Nailah: You know what? It’s been a lot of work. It’s the first time I’ve been in the spotlight for MY music. I’ve always been doing other people’s music.
The Dood: You’ve definitely raised your head above the parapet now. What acts or groups have you written for or sang background for up to now?
Nailah: Beck, I was the background vocalist, Warren G, I sang on his record and toured with the G-Funk family. I’ve written with Tom Scott, Jeff Lorber. I’ve played with Billy Childs. We’ll be writing some stuff soon, as a matter of fact when I get back, we’ll start working on some stuff together. Cree Summer, I sang as her background vocalist on the Lenny Kravitz tour.
The Dood: Tell me about the impact of Gil Scott-Heron on your life and your music? You’re aware he has a new CD out?
Nailah: Oh! Gilles was playing it last night, it is so wonderful. And you know it comes with an extra CD that just has Gil playing piano and singing all his old stuff. And then it’s him just talking about life and his experiences – I was in tears! I love Gil Scott-Heron! He’s one of my teachers, in the sense that he taught me how to be free and honest in terms of writing.
The Dood: That’s very interesting.
Nailah: I would so love to work with him!
The Dood: What is about Gil Scott-Heron that grips you?
Nailah: The honesty. The main thing about Gil Scott-Heron for me, that just stands out above and beyond anything else is that, being raised in the South, you’re taught to just go along and get along. Don’t question anything; this is the way it is. There’s a certain demeanour and posture that you maintain, so as to not disrupt anything.
The Dood: Don’t upset the apple cart and all that?
Nailah: Right! But with Gil Scott-Heron, when I first started hearing his music, it was me and a friend of mine, Cheryl Jackson. She had her brother’s records and we were both embarking on going to law school, and we just had this whole vision. But sitting in her basement, listening to him (Scott-Heron), he taught me to question everything…Everything that I knew to be the truth, he was just turning it upside down and giving me information that I probably would not have gotten, or if I had, it would’ve been years down the line.
Between him and Curtis Mayfield, those two taught me to question everything and not accept the ‘status quo’ and how things appear to be. Always know that there is something else at work and to have an understanding of that, but not to let it stop you.
The Dood: To be a rebel you don’t have to destroy things to make your point.
Nailah: Everybody can’t be on the front line smashing up stuff.
The Dood: So you’re studying law, but you have this strong musical calling/pull within you as a better medium to reach people?
Nailah: The music has always been there…And Gil Scott-Heron’s message just hit me right here (points to heart). I guess it’s because I’ve always been a thinker. I wouldn’t consider myself an intellectual, but just to think about things, to ponder things…I also know of the Civil Rights movement, I’m steeped in that! That’s what I come from.
The Dood: So do you fall into the Martin Luther King or Malcolm X camp?
Nailiah: I was raised with all of it. It’s a thing of understanding that it’s all necessary. They’re both right. It’s about which tactic you use and sometimes this tactic works, and sometimes you’ve got to pull this one back and push this one to the forefront. It’s all necessary. But I think with Gil and Curtis, they were just brave enough to say it! And it just hit me over the head and opened me up and I’ve never been the same.
The Dood: What was their impact on your writing?
Nailah: They’re who taught me how to write I think. Like I said, the music has always been there, but in terms of song writing, for me it had to be used to for something. I think that’s what stands out for me. If you’re gonna say something make it count. Now that’s what ever it is for you. But for me making it count means just speaking my truth and saying something that’s beyond me. It’s not always about me or what I’m thinking, what I’m doing. It’s about helping someone else connect.
The Dood: Would you say you’re a spiritual person then?
The Dood: I ask that because everyone has a spiritual side but often suppress it and that’s where a lot of creativity emanates from. I see it in your writing style.
Nailah: I am definitely in that space! I’ll give you an example, for instance the song ‘Lillies and Birds,’ that song is about New Orleans. With that particular song, I’m driving down Washington Boulevard and I always listen to KPFK which is a Pacifica radio station.
The Dood: I’m familiar with the Pacifica archives.
Nailah: Yeah! That’s what I’m locked in to KPFK. So there was a segment on about New Orleans shortly after the hurricane had happened. I’m listening to the segment and I’m seeing the images of the bodies floating through the water. And as I’m driving down Washington Boulevard, these lyrics just start coming through, ‘Black lilies floating in silence.’ And I just pulled over and wrote it like that. Then I went home, sat at the piano and it was down like that. Some things come through like that, ‘Beautiful Anyway’, ‘Hands,’ ‘Jesus Wept.’
The Dood: Which is the song you wrote about your Mother?
Nailah: ‘Hands’ – yeah. So I always say, particularly before I do a show or a session, I always ask the Spirit to speak through me and to itself and everything that lives. Understand that it’s only one of us in the room… we’re all connected to the Divine Source. So it’s really just one of us….It’s different manifestations of it, but it’s the same energy that breathes us all. So I just try and maintain a connection to that.
The Dood: I hear that. It seems music in general is the great connector the world over?
Nailah: I think I have connected with that dynamic here (London) more so than I have ever before! I’m in a taxi with an Italian, a Cuban, an Englishman and everybody is talking about music. It’s just so interesting how some things we can’t understand language wise, but the music hits here (points to her heart) and everybody understands it. Even with performing at the Worldwide Awards, the band consisted of a Cuban drummer an Italian percussionist, two Brits….We may have had trouble understanding each other, but when it came down to the music, everybody clicked – It was such a beautiful thing for me. That’s the power of music!!
The Dood: How uplifting and empowering was it to travel from L.A as a relative unknown then hear your music played by a house band?
Nailah: It was beautiful! It was really beautiful! Just so that it could transcend the band in L.A, it could move beyond the band.
The Dood: What did the house band say to you after having felt the vibe and essence of your music?
Nailah: They loved it and wanted to do more. They totally embraced it. This was both at Jazz Café and the Worldwide Awards…Everyone’s embraced it and told me they were really honoured to be playing it, which was really lovely. I told Gilles that I have been on the verge of tears the entire time I’ve been here because it’s….
(Clearly overwhelmed, Nailah reaches into her bag for a tissue. Composing herself she continues.) ….It’s just been that moving for me on so many levels. To have people embrace it…
The Dood: That’s what you want right?
Nailah: Yeah! But to see it manifest is a whole different thing…London has given me the biggest hug!
The Dood: It’s seems to me that it’s all go since you arrived in London and this is the first opportunity you’ve had to sit down and reflect on what you’ve accomplished in a brief space of time?
Nailah: Yeah! And I leave tomorrow. Tonight I’m going to see Robert Glasper at Ronnie Scott’s. He was there last night and he’s there tonight. Then I’m gonna go and do Gilles’ show with him. So it’s been an amazing ride. If I never do anything else, let me say this – Just knowing that I got to come to London and experience this, I’m cool!
LISTEN TO THE BROWNSWOOD SHOW HERE:
The Dood: You can die happy.
Nailah: It was a goal and it’s a goal that’s been accomplished, and I’m good. Everything else is icing on the cake.
The Dood: So how do you feel about spreading your message further a field, for instance Japan?
Nailah: I’m just so ready to go! Because we’ve just been doing it in L.A and building it and building it and I’m ready to go, I really am.
The Dood: Live interaction with the audience or recording in the studio, what do you prefer?
Nailah: I prefer live, but that’s also why we do the studio live, there are times when I go in and I’ll do over dubs, but when we record it, I’m singing live with the band. Like for instance, ‘Lillies & Birds,’ that was one take with us doing it together…So I just prefer the live experience, there’s nothing like it, that’s why I’m just ready to get on stages all over the world – festivals etc. That’s what I wanna do, I wanna do festivals! North Sea Jazz Festival, any of them!
The Dood: Monteux Jazz Festival maybe?
Nailah: Definitely! Like I said, I’m just letting Spirit take it on where it’s supposed to be. I could not have paid for this, the way this has all turned out, it’s been a real blessing.
The Dood: Hey, but you’ve paid dues up to now. I read somewhere that you have your ‘testing phase,’ ‘nesting phase,’ and then comes the ‘cresting phase.’
Nailah: ‘Testing phase’, ‘nesting phase’, ‘cresting phase’ – that’s hip! Wow!
The Dood: ‘Cresting phase’ being when you’ve arrived and the wider recognition follows.
Nailah: Listen, I’m just ready to sing! That’s the thing for me; I really am just ready to sing!
The Dood: I see you continuing the tradition of classic female vocalists such as Betty Carter, Sarah Vaughn, Abbey Lincoln, and Cassandra Wilson. You’re like taking it to the next level.
Nailah: Thank you, that’s a huge compliment.
The Dood: Enlighten us more as to Phantom Vox, the studio where you recorded most of the album?
Nailah: We book the time with Phantom Vox – I love that studio! It’s just a beautiful space and it’s kind of like a little secret. The way that I got into Phantom Vox is that I was doing background vocals on a record for Chris Pearce, who’s an amazing singer/song writer – you should check him out. He was linked into Phantom Vox and because I did a recording session with him, I became linked in, so they allowed me to come in and record, because it’s like a secret…The guy that owns it only lets special projects come through. It’s a beautiful set-up, laid back, a beautiful room with a baby grand piano. It’s lovely, it’s a whole vibe!
The Dood: Puts you in the right mindset to record?
Nailah: That definitely helps, but no matter what the situation, if it’s time to sing, I don’t care if it’s in the back of a truck (laughs freely)
The Dood: Is singing a release for you?
Nailah: It’s how I breathe! It’s that simple. And that’s the only time where I feel absolutely one hundred percent connected to Spirit. Like I know why I’m here. Everything else, even with practicing Law, yeah I could do it well, but I always felt like I was operating at eighty percent, you know what I mean?
Photo by Ravi Chandarana
The Dood: Who of your contempories inspire you?
Nailah: Cassandra Wilson, I just think that what she does is profound. She’s so brave. I love the fact that she was brave enough to just do her own thing.
The Dood: Her albums were so progressive. Do you agree?
Nailah: Yeah. But it’s because she was brave enough to do what she was put here to do and to move it in a different direction and to show who she was. Not just sing the standards from before and sing them in the same way as before. She opened it all up and gave a nod that it was okay to do that – to me it was just like carrying on where Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln, Lena Horne had paved. It was like, ‘who are you in this?’ ‘Show us who you are?’ I just love her for doing that. I appreciate her so much, I really do.
The Dood: Have you ever met her?
Nailah: I’ve never met her. I’ve seen her perform every chance I get….So I hope I get to meet her one day because I absolutely love her. I love Lizz Wright’s voice. I think her voice is just phenomenal. I love her a lot. You know who else I love – Adele, her voice makes me cry. Her voice literally makes me cry when she sings….I would absolutely love to meet her. I know she’s just starting out but I think she’s absolutely phenomenal.
The Dood: Performing wise do you aspire to play the bigger venues or are you happier playing the more intimate gigs?
Nailah: The bigger stages and so on are great, but the thing that’s dear to my heart is theatre spaces and concert halls. To me it’s a different connection with the audience…It’s a different interaction. The audience comes to sit and listen and interact with you as oppose to showing up at a concert to be entertained.
The Dood: The message can evaporate somewhat?
Nailah: Yeah, but when it’s a concert hall or theatre space, it’s a different interaction because they’re actively listening. So it’s not you necessarily competing with the blender or the waiter or waitress, you know what I mean, or big crowds. Of course I wanna do all that too because that stuff is so much fun. But when you get folks who actually want to sit and listen, it’s like they’re giving you permission to take them somewhere and then they’re trusting you to bring them back and land them safely. So you all ride it together.
The Dood: It comes back to your theory of ‘One.’ So your audience leaves feeling light and refreshed like they’ve had a holistic massage?
Nailah: Exactly! I like that, holistic massage, that’s good! That’s really what I prefer, that moves me. It’s a level of respect that also goes with it.
The Dood: Do you feel an onus on you to give one hundred percent and leave yourself out there as it were?
Nailah: Yeah, it’s such an honour that people would take time out, so I wanna make sure that we’re all connected.
The Dood: So how do you wind down after a show?
Nailah: Normally after a show it’s getting the kids – back to real life! Ihsan is our son, he’s nine and Macie she’s six, she’s named after my Grandmother. They’re wonderful wonderful kids. So this is really the first time that I’ve had an opportunity to perform and then to be able to just relax in it and bask in it and enjoy it, because usually I’m onto the next thing. But this has been an opportunity to just sit back and go wow! Jazz Café was great hanging out with everybody and having fun. Then some of the girls invited me to go out dancing afterwards, but I was beat!
The Dood: Now, where did your name Nailah (Nye-eel-ah) come from?
Nailah: It’s actually Swahili and it means ‘one who succeeds.’
The Dood: Nothing succeeds like success.
Nailah: It’s a beautiful name and the meaning is really wonderful and my best friend named me. So it’s not my given name. I’ve had that for years. My best friend is actually Muslim and she was the first Muslim born in the state of North Carolina.
The Dood: What’s her name?
Nailah: Her name is Veda Shamsid-Deen. Her parents helped start the movement of Muslim’s in North Carolina….We were in under-graduate school together, we were in Law School together. We practiced Law in D.C together and she now lives in Florida…She is my rock, if you ever want to know anything about me – Veda Shamsid-Deen.
The Dood: You’re gonna have an interesting flight back. I don’t think you’ll need a plane, you’re flying already?
Nailah: It’s like I needed this confirmation. It’s been a big confirmation for me in terms of my path.
The Dood: So you were going on your inner belief system up to this point?
Nailah: It’s been just that, and it’s had to be that, because if I look around everything says no. Your not this, your not that, your too this, your too that. Everything says no! But I just kept paying attention to the vision that God said… I know that I just had to serve that instead of serving everything outwardly that said no. So I just had to stick to the vision, because the vision says yes, so I have to honour that. So when you get to a place where the outward picture looks like the vision…
The Dood: The two align and all becomes clear in your minds eye?
Nailah: It’s not only clear, it’s so powerful also. Because form follows thought, so when you get the physical manifestation of what’s in here (she points to her head) and you actually see the out picturing of it, you have to be careful, you have to mind your mind….The Elders say where I come from, ‘when you know that you know that you know.’ For years I didn’t know what that meant, it was just something I grew up on. But I so understand that now. When you know that you KNOW that you know, there’s nothing else. You can’t let anything else in, you just can’t!
The Dood: So the definitive choice between music and law, how did that come about?
Nailah: You know what? I was lobbying on Capital Hill. I was ‘in-house’ counsel for a law enforcement organisation in D.C. Lobbying Congress on law enforcement issues. But I always sang, I sang at my law school graduation, I sang in D.C, I would practice during the day.
The Dood: The ‘singing attorney!’
Nailah: Exactly! I would sing in Jazz clubs at night….At law enforcement functions, I was always singing. ‘Then after six or seven years, I just knew that the time had come to take another direction and I had to trust. It wasn’t like it was easy. But the great thing about it was that my boss also laid me off …He’s an incredible human being.
He’s a Police Commissioner in Newark, New Jersey and he was also an attorney. He really supported me and knew that I wanted to do this (music) and knew what my heart was. So he laid me off, which meant that I had some money to live for a moment. I gave everything away, kept my music and my clothes and my car and moved to L.A. It’s like I always knew that was going to happen, it was just a matter of when. But I always knew that it would be music.
The Dood: Were you always writing at this time, in scrap books and things?
Nailah: Yeah, I’ve always been writing, always. The music has taken on different shapes and forms over the years. I’ve always been a strong song writer in terms of I’m not a ‘singer’s singer’ like a Luther or an Aretha. Folks like that – Chaka…But I know that I can write great songs. I do know that about me.
The Dood: When you know that you know….
Nailah: When you know that you know that you know. But what I also came to understand is that the songs were about my experiences and nobody could sing them like me, because they’re MY experiences. So it was just a matter of it all coming together. You know when you’re putting in all the different ingredients and building the soup.
The Dood: Makin’ that gumbo!
Nailah: Exactly! Then at some point it just all comes together and it works and there’s nothing out of place. I feel like that’s where I am now because there’s nothing out of place, that everything has moved me to this moment. I’m just ready to take it forward and I’m really excited and I’m ready.
Photo by Ravi Chandarana
The Dood: Dipping back into the album – how did the song ‘Sacred’ come about?
Nailah: That song was born out going through hard times with relationships and struggle and fear, frustration and worry and all of those things that creep in when life gets to be overwhelming…I never expected for Gilles to pick up on that song and to play that one. I remember with the ending of it. It was a conversation I was having with Deron Johnson regarding just a regular ending. I said Deron just needs to take it to Carnegie Hall, since he was there at the grand piano and he speaks so beautifully and he’s a very sensitive piano player and sensitive soul, he really is. So we let him play and he took it to Carnegie Hall. He just took it to another level for me with his playing at the end. He put me IN Carnegie Hall! Which, by the way, is where I wanna go!
The Dood: That’s the home of acoustics.
Nailah: Yes, It’s definitely a place I wanna play! Anyway, so that’s where that song comes from, so I was really surprised when Gilles played that song. I was like, ‘Why is he playing Sacred?’ I thought he would be playing ‘He Speaks’ or something -Shish! You just never know. But thank you for liking that tune.
The Dood: What tracks are the most meaningful or dear to you on this set?
Nailah: ‘Hands,’ ‘Breathe.’ That’s a hard one. ‘Uncle Coo’ Jack’
The Dood: What’s the story behind that?
Nailah: He was my Great Uncle – my Grandfather’s brother. He was my most favourite Uncle and male figure in the world. So that song is the actual conversation that we had. I had gotten frustrated living in L.A doing music and I would always go back to North Carolina to replenish…So I was talking to him about how frustrated I was and that I wanted to come back home and walk away from music. He said to me, ‘I was forty-five before I could look a white man in the eye, you don’t know nothing about no pain.’ he said, ‘I have lived my life bending over backwards just so you can stand. So you need to get back out there and finish what you started.’
The Dood: So that’s where you get your strength from?
Nailah: What can you say after that except, ‘Okay Sir! He said, ‘I was forty-five before I could raise my head and look a white man in the eye, you don’t know nothing about no pain. Get back out there and finish what you started!’ He said, ‘Try living forty-five years with a bowed head softly whispering ‘yes sir! yes sir!’ Then we can talk about some pain. The lyrics are in the song, because the song is the actual conversation.
The Dood: The ol’ forty acres and a mule.
Nailah: And four hundred years in the making! Because now I can be brave enough to say what I wanna say, when they couldn’t.
The Dood: I hear that! Tell me more about your backing band on this project?
Nailah: Matt DeMerritt, he plays piano and he’s been out on the road with the ‘Rhythm Roots All-stars,’ that’s the backing band for De La Soul and all these folks. So he was there with us in the beginning, but of course he’s got to make a living, so that tour went out. But he did the recording with us.
The Dood: Deron Johnson?
Nailah: Deron and I go way back to the days when I was on Verve. Deron kind of stepped in as Matt was leaving, but he played on the record as well. Deron Johnson was picked up by Miles Davis. He played in Miles Davis’ last band. Deron was like seventeen/eighteen. He’s also played in Alanis Morissette’s band, Seal, Stanley Clarke, I mean you name it. He’s an A-list player so he’s played with everybody and he is brilliant!
If he’s not in town, sometimes Billy Childs is in town. Billy Childs is Deron’s teacher! So the Mayor’s thing I did this past summer, Deron had gone out on the road and Billy was in town, so I got to do it with Billy. He’s sat in with us on a few things. I love Billy Childs. He’s like my big brother. Who else?
The Dood: Paul Le…
Nailah: Paul Legaspie, an amazing drummer. He’s also Executive Producer of the record.
The Dood: Curtis…
Nailah: Curtis Robertson Jr. He was Lou Rawls’ bass player for twenty five years.
The Dood: These are seasoned players in this band?
Nailah: Everybody’s seasoned. Curtis I consider the elder of the group. He was with Lou Rawls until he died and he also played with Les McCann. He was married to Syreeta Wright and they have two children. He’s a brilliant, brilliant musician. He’s played with everybody, his résumé is so expansive. Now he’s studying holistic health in nursing school and he graduates in May! That’s the next phase of his life. As a result Chris Thomas has stepped in. Christopher Thomas is the upright bass player along with Brian Blade. He’s also played with Betty Carter, Joshua Redman and so many folks.
The Dood: Tracy Wanname on saxophone?
Nailah: Say no more. He’s brilliant. He floats, Tracy floats! To me he’s the other vocalist in the band. But everybody speaks and everybody is in love with way everybody speaks. There’s a love there.
The Dood: Stevie Blacke, Michael Levin, Leon Mobley, Anthony ‘Big Tone’ Tiege
Nailah: Those are the string and percussion players that came in and played for us. They did a beautiful job. Darryl Swann who produced it, he also produced Macy Gray. That song ‘I Try,’ that’s Darryl Swann. We go way back, friends for years.
The Dood: When was NaiMusic, the company established?
Nailah: Actually, when we started doing the music, I said there ought to be a company behind it. Basically what I said was. ‘I’m gonna sign myself!!’ Really! Because I was on Verve. Guy Eckstein, Billy Eckstein’s son signed me to Verve. That was back in the late nineties, like ninety seven/ninety eight. It was an honour for me, because his Dad discovered Sarah Vaughn and it was Verve, so what an honour. But the record never came out and I got dropped by the label. He (Guy) was no longer at Verve, and it’s kinda hard when you’re A&R guy is not there anymore, because the artist is just left out there with no protection…. I consider it an honour, because I can always say I was on Verve!
After that I did a lot of background vocals, touring and a lot of session work. But you know, I decided to sign myself, instead of waiting for someone to green light me. So that’s what I did! I’m a lawyer. I knew how to do it! It’s my own label. Of course it’s not a major or anything like that but it’s me! I do all the work, I do everything from cooking – I cook for the band. I book the gigs; I write the songs; rehearse the band.
The Dood: How many hats do you wear?
Nailah: All of them! I do the website, I do the social make-up. I do everything. I literally do everything, there is no one else.
The Dood: I’m impressed!
Nailah: I also teach a real estate course in a local college. For folks who want to get their real estate licenses, I teach the courses ‘Real Estate Law’ and ‘Real Estate Principals’ and ‘Real Estate Practice.’ These are the courses that are required by the state of California in order for you to sit for your real estate license….But the classes have been cut because of budget cuts and real estate tanking. I used to have three or four classes a semester, now I’m down to one. But one side of it is like. ‘Oh my God, I only have one class, I’m not gonna have any money!’ But the flip side of that is, ‘Thank you God, because that frees me up to go to Europe and it’s all good!!
The Dood: Everything happens for a reason, even if initially you don’t see it.
Nailah: Yes! So I have my laptop and have been dealing with my students on line while here.
The Dood: It’s been a real pleasure meeting with you Nailah. Thank you for your time. I’ve seen the whole gamut of emotions – the tears, the laughter and that wonderful smile!
Nailah: This has been a blast! Thank you for putting me in the space of reminding me what I’m doing. Thank you!
Michael ‘The Dood’ Edwards
ConJazzNess: Full CD (release date TBC 2010)
Life in Session: 6 track EP (Out Now)
Brownswood Bubblers Five (Track 10)
Compiled by Gilles Peterson – out March 8th 2010