Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
I was always musical, and my Grandmother was a singer. As I child I’d go through my parents’ CDs and slowly sequester my favourites on a shelf in my room. I listened to Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Carly Simon, Carole King. My mum brought home a free promotional CD when I was about 9 or 10, with Billie Holiday singing ‘Sophisticated Lady’ and I remember listening to it and knowing that the feeling it gave me wasn’t exactly ‘good’ but that I wanted to keep feeling it anyway. I heard Nina Simone for the first time in a shoe shop and then went straight to buy an album. Now, those early influences are still among my favourites, but I also admire contemporary singers like Cecile Mclorin Salvant and Alice Zawadski. I think my biggest influences are my band mates and associate artists, I am constantly learning from them, and changing my mind about things!
What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?
I’m a storyteller, I’m always looking for the invisible threads that tie things together. My house is a bit like a set, my clothes are costumes, and I know I ascribe meaning to things that are probably completely random, but I’m ok with it! I find myself looking up, at the edges of things, I’m always trying to figure out how to digest what I see or feel and then get it out again in a song.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
There are some songs that I just feel in a different way. ‘Jim’ by Petrillo, Samuels and Shawn is one of those– something about the setting of the lines “Jim doesn’t ever bring me pretty flowers, Jim never tries to cheer my lonely hours, don’t know why I’m so crazy for Jim”, it just breaks my heart! And I think that’s the key, when you have a really strong emotional connection to a song, that’s when you can really make it yours.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
It was huge achievement touring my staged work ‘What Happened to Agnes’ at the beginning of 2020. The show tells the story of my great aunt who disappeared as a child in Malaysia in the 1930s. It started as a commission from Opera North, and my collaborators Tom Harris, Luca Shaw and I (now Ulita!) developed it over 18 months with support from a few amazing partner organisations. It was a big stretch artistically and career-wise, but most of all, it was a very personal, important story, and that made bringing it to audiences incredibly special.
Another absolute adventure was shooting the music video for my song ‘Blue Dream’. The whole thing was pretty nuts! I had these very specific visual ideas– colour blocked scenes of domesticity rising incongruously from the Northumberland wilds. I’d been scouring charity shops and junk yards for green chairs and pink velvet and all manner of very specific objects. Then I packed everything into a van by myself and drove it up to Northumberland, where I met Adam Blyth, my cinematographer. It was literally just me and Adam, so we’d drag a cast iron bed up a mountain, or a solid wood dining table into the forest, and then I’d style each scene while he hauled gear and set up cameras and lighting. I really wanted perfect cartoon-like cupcakes with cherries on top, so a friend who is an amazing baker helped me, but they had to be made a few days in advance, so were hard as rocks, and those bright pink cherries don’t come with stems, so I had to make each one out of mint stalks. And the jelly! I really wanted green jelly on the dining room table, but I made it three times, and it just wouldn’t set. The last time I made it was the night before we shot the scene, but then I couldn’t get it out of the bowl, so I just turned the whole thing upside-down on the plate, bowl and all. When we finished shooting in the forest, we had about an hour of daylight left, so I changed costumes in the woods and we headed straight to the stream to shoot me catching a fish with my bare hands. My co-star in this scene was a mackerel that I had bought at my local fishmonger in Manchester 3 days before, and frozen for the journey!
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
I’m always searching for this state you can get into where you are just completely free, and unselfconscious, and you’re just flying. I’ve had moments where I’ve felt it, and those have been the best handful of moments of my career. I’d like to figure out how to always find it!
It would also be nice to get more than a month ahead of my bills…
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
That there’s room for all sorts of artistic voices and that the best thing you can do is find yours, and be true to it.
You also recently became a City Music Foundation artist – how do you see your life as a musician progressing in the next year or two?
I have an album coming out, some really exciting commissions and am working on a two act play-with-songs with Ulita. It’s such a privilege to be able to make art and music and work with the people I do, I’m incredibly grateful, and just excited to see what happens next.
Nishla Smith will give a lunchtime concert for City Music Foundation on 19 May. Details here https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/lunchtime-concert-series-nishla-smith-tickets-132084950643
Nishla Smith is a singer and writer driven by a desire to tell stories. Her unique musical sensibility, along with this preoccupation with narrative, is recurrent throughout her diverse array of musical projects.