Feature/Interview (PP)

Nishla Smith (new album ‘Friends with Monsters’ and touring)

Singer and writer Nishla Smith is about to launch her debut album, Friends with Monsters (Whirlwind Recordings). She ” is a natural storyteller” and the album is “a set of inventive narratives around the subject of night-time restlessness. The album is released digitally on 12 November. Nishla and her band are also touring. Feature by Martin Chilton.

Nishla Smith. Photo copyright Robin Clewley

Sydney-born jazz singer Nishla Smith jokes that she moved to England “on a whim” after being told by a friend in Australia about the vibrant, inviting music scene in Manchester. It is a description that has lived up to all expectations.

As she prepares to launch her captivating debut album Friends with Monsters, Smith, who studied music in Melbourne and Berlin, credits her mother for introducing her to jazz, especially the singing of Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole and Billie Holiday. From a young age, she grew to love standards from Great American Songbook.

Smith, who was born in 1989, is half-Indian. Her name was intended to be Nicola, but her grandmother pronounced it as Nishla and it stuck. She has a rich, nuanced voice, and sings with “a bit of an American accent”.

The Australian composed 10 of the 11 tracks on Friends with Monsters – the exception being a lovely version of the 1945 Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II It Might as Well Be Spring, an Academy Award-winning classic covered by luminaries such as Peggy Lee and Astrud Gilberto. Smith loves the version in French by American Blossom Dearie, a singer she discovered in her late twenties. “I wanted to include one standard and that song popped into my head while I was writing the album,” Smith says. “I learned it as a child from watching the movie State Fair with my grandmother. Friends with Monsters is set over one night and it’s moody, so I wanted something that could give us a change of pace but still keep that dreamy energy. We did it in a more up-tempo way while retaining the melancholy essence that’s in the lyrics.”

Smith’s first experience of performing in front of an audience came in Melbourne, where she sang in a cocktail bar after finishing a classical vocal degree in Sydney. She also gigged regularly in Berlin, where she moved with her cellist partner to undertake a Masters in Musicology (through The Melbourne Conservatorium). She credits a teacher in Germany with passing on a “valuable lesson” about how to really interrogate the lyrics, allowing the sound or technique to be secondary to discovering what you are really trying to do with a song.

After moving to Manchester in 2017, Smith found her way as a songwriter. She is a natural storyteller and her debut is a set of inventive narratives around the subject of night-time restlessness. “I often lie awake unable to sleep,” Smith says. In the song 3 A.M., she muses about ‘waiting for the movie inside my head to roll credits’.

Friends with Monsters is about being afraid at night, in the way that a child is afraid. I don’t know how to shake that, because I am very much an adult,” she adds laughing. “I get up and prowl around. Sometimes it’s low-key and it’s my imagination, and sometimes it gets out of control to the point where I am opening cupboards.” When she went to Snape Maltings for a Britten Pears Arts project, the cast of the show jokingly checked the cupboards of her room before lights out.

Although she was sleeping better when she wrote her album, the pandemic brought back the problems of trying to switch off from “constant haunting anxiety”. The flow of the album, she explains, takes in the reflective nature of twilight; the midnight hour, “when you’re really despairing”; the three-in-the-morning period when the sleepless are “letting their brains get a bit weird”; right through to the dawn interlude “and that feeling of relief that it’s over you can see the sun, lightness”.

The talented musicians on the album are Aaron Wood (trumpet), Richard Jones (piano), Joshua Cavanagh-Brierley (bass) and Johnny Hunter (drums). She met Jones soon after moving to Manchester (“he had a really friendly face”) and the quintet have played together regularly ever since she earned a place on Manchester Jazz Festival’s acclaimed “hothouse” development programme in 2018. The band share ideas about jazz (Wood recently lent her an Erroll Garner album) and their enthusiasms for other exciting contemporary female jazz singers, such as Americans Cécile McLorin Salvant and Samara Joy, a fellow Whirlwind
Recordings artist.

As a young girl, Smith wanted to be “a musical theatre person” until she got “serious about singing”. Her creative side finds an outlet in making imaginative, eye-catching promotional videos. These exploits started with her 2017 project What Happened to Agnes – the story of a great aunt who was a child when she disappeared in 1930s Malaysia – which came from stories told to Smith by her pioneering grandmother. “She was an opera singer who performed for the Queen, when she was a princess, in London. She chose medicine over opera and was one of the first brown women to go through Glasgow Medical School,” explains Smith. When Smith started the theatre company Ulita, it was named after her grandmother. Ulita undertake all sorts of positive projects, including working with a women’s refugee choir in Manchester.

During lockdown, when Smith was “creatively blocked in terms of music”, she put her energies into creating the videos for Friends with Monsters, Julian and Up. “I spent the whole year making crazy props,” Smith says. “I choreographed Up and made the costumes, the parrot outfit, the space suit, the sailor suits. Most of it was out of charity shop finds or from literal garbage. The parrot costume feathers we found on the street; the shiny stuff for the space suit came out of a skip; we even borrowed the Christmas trees for the forest.”

Smith also commissioned illustrations from nine different Greater Manchester artists, impressive images created in response to her. They are collected in a special booklet. When Smith plays The Yard in Manchester in November, there will be a special exhibition of the artwork, along with screenings of the music videos. Smith, helped by Arts Council funding, has overseen the logistics for the launch tour, which started in Aberdeen on 14 October and takes in concerts in Scarborough, Newcastle, Leeds and Birmingham. The London shows are at The Vortex (2 December) and Ronnie Scott’s (1 November). “Ronnie’s is world famous and I feel very excited and honoured to play there,” Smith says.

Smith resumed playing live concerts in June and detects “a good energy in the air” about the return of gigs. “Hopefully people realise how much live music adds to their lives,” she remarks. “I saw an orchestra a few weeks ago and I was just weeping. It’s so powerful being in the room with people playing music.”

Friends with Monsters ends with Up, a life-affirming and sunny way for a debut album to conclude. “I always end a live set with something bright, so you send people out into the world feeling good,” says Smith. “I’m an optimistic person and I’ve tried not to lose my sense of playfulness.”

pp features are part of marketing packages. Nishla Smith is a City Music Foundation artist. The Friends with Monsters tour is supported by Arts Council England

REMAINING TOUR DATES

27 October – Scarborough Jazz

1 November – Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club

4 November – Bobiks, Newcastle

8 November – NQ Jazz at The Yard, Manchester + art exhibitions

14 November – Jazz Leeds

23 November – The Spotted Dog, Birmingham

2 December – The Vortex, London

LINKS: Nishla Smith’s website

Friends with Monsters on Bandcamp

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