Swedish musician Nadia Nair started to sing as soon as she learned how to talk. Since then her whole life has revolved around music. This May saw the release of Nadia’s unsigned debut The Bon Voyage EP, and a turning point in her own musical voyage. We’ve met with Sweden’s darkest and most soulful songbird.
Nadia Nair’s whole life has revolved around music. She grew up in Gothenburg on the Swedish west coast with a Swedish father and a Malaysian mother and started to sing as soon as she learned how to talk. She joined an orchestra to play the violin at the age of five, and at eleven she wrote her first songs, dreaming about one day joining a girlband.
– My first musical memory is when I listened to I Will Always Love You with Whitney Houston, Nadia says. I must have been three years old and I listened to it in headphones, day in and day out. It’s the first time I remember that I truly experienced music. When I visited my relatives in Malaysia as a child, I used to perform that song in front of the whole family.
Nadia realised early on that music was the only thing she wanted to do. Besides the violin she also taught herself how to play the piano and the guitar, although the instrument she used the most was her voice. She sang in the church choir for ten years, and at the age of eleven she wrote her first songs by setting her poems to music, taking her first trembling steps on what would turn out to be a long and winding musical voyage.
It’s like everything in my life has pointed towards music.
– I understood early on that I didn’t want to do anything else but music, Nadia says. There have been times when I’ve tried to do something else, something more steady, but it’s like everything in my life has pointed towards music.
– I felt somewhat rejected and misplaced during high school. Music was what kept me going. I decided to attend a musical program in secondary school, and it was much easier to write music when I was surrounded by people sharing the same interest. I also joined my first band, which was something I’d been dreaming about.
When Nadia graduated from high school she spent some years studying songwriting and music production, trying to navigate herself through the tricky music business. She tried to collaborate with a number of different producers, struggling to find a sound of her own. Eventually she gave up trying to find a definitive sound, realising that writing music is an endless search for ways of expression. She also met the producer Victor Rådström, with whom she would take the next steps on her musical journey.
– By then I was just writing a whole lot of music by myself and I didn’t have any expectations. It was my manager who suggested that we meet. I went to Victor’s studio to show him some of my material, but he was just sitting there quiet. Until I played him the song that would later become Bon Voyage. It was a really bad recording, but he heard at once that there was something in it.
Together Nadia and Victor began working on what would become Nadia’s debut The Bon Voyage EP. Their music isn’t easily described, moving from dark and vigorous soundscapes to shimmering pop melodies and back again.
– I’ve had troubles devoting myself to a specific genre, something that is both a blessing and a curse, Nadia says. I haven’t been able to create a niche for myself, but when I discovered musicians like Kate Bush I realised that I don’t need I niche. I can do what the hell I want. My music is mostly just a mishmash of the music I grew up with, while my voice is the main thread.
– I think that my reluctance to genres also has something to do with fact that I’m half Malaysian, half Swedish. Just as I don’t feel comfortable choosing one culture over the other, I don’t feel comfortable devoting myself to a specific genre.
The voice that ties Nadia’s music together is deep and soulful, with a somewhat sensual and evocative touch. A voice that it took Nadia years to come to terms with.
– The older I got, the more my voice stood out from the rest, Nadia says. It became more husky and nasal. Eventually the conductor of the church choir told me I should sing less in my way. It’s not exactly what you want to hear when you’re young and insecure. It took me years to learn how to appreciate it, but now I try to enhance the sound of my voice instead of trying to disguise it.
How would you describe your music?
– I don’t feel a need to describe my music, and I’m usually nonplussed when faced with that question. I’d rather describe it with emotions, like raw and honest, but I understand that not everyone can grasp that. Right now my music is influenced by rock, soul, blues, and ethnic folk music, but I have no idea what kind of music I will make three years from now. Usually I find my main inspirations in emotions or events in life.
Both Nadia and Victor take part in writing and producing the songs, but the lyrics are written by Nadia herself. The songs are honest and sincere, yet poetic and metaphorical.
– I believe that all human beings have a need to express themselves without being censored, and this is my way of expressing myself. I’m used to write poetry, and tend to write my songs in metaphors. Sometimes I have a certain theme or subject that I want to convey with the song, but I prefer to leave room for interpretation and not blurt it out
– I want my songs to stir emotions, just as other musicians stirred emotions in me. Some songs have really gripped my heart, especially when I was younger. I remember when I saw the video for Sinead O’Connor’s Nothing Compares To You as a child. I had no idea what she was singing about, but I couldn’t help crying. There and then I truly understood the power inherent in music.
I want my songs to stir emotions, just as other musicians stirred emotions in me
Do you listen to music while you’re writing?
– I’m easily influenced by the things I hear, so I prefer not to listen to music when I’m working in the studio. I want a clean slate. But naturally I have some musical references in the back of my head, especially things I listened to as a child, such as Prince, Kate Bush, Nina Simone, Queen, Jimi Hendrix.
After spending her summer in Malaysia and India, Nadia is back in Stockholm, with her mind set on writing songs for her upcoming album and signing with the right record label.
– I hope that I will be able to do this the rest of my life, she says. But I try to be in the moment and set intermediate goals. Right now I want to finish this album and then we’ll see what happens. I also have to sign the right record label. I’ve had discussions with some labels, but I will wait until it feels hundred percent right. Just like I’ve done with everything else in life.
Photos by Aron Pelcman.