2016: The Year in Charts

Nadia Reid, Otherworldly Voice of New Zealand, Is Saving Folk Music

Josh Yong
Nadia Reid

A dusky whisper, a darkened corner, a lush coastline. Nadia Reid has sprung from the southern breach of New Zealand with a voice as full and warm as felted wool, nimble as a magician's legerdemain. The easy umbrella to put over Reid's debut full-length, Listen to Formation, Look for the Signs, is folk, but -- thankfully, as this post-genre moment of ours fully concretes -- Reid pushes back on the familiar cabin candlelight with smooth, textured brushstrokes of cello, guitar sweeps of heavy tremolo and playful structures, as in the slow fade-in of album standout "Seasons Change." Reid sings tales of a young, lamenting and lonely heart, laid low but insistently hopeful.

Considering the restraint and maturity of the songs, its somewhat remarkable that Reid -- who has been playing around her home country for some time -- didn't take her songwriting truly seriously until a few years ago.

Speaking over Skype from across the world, Billboard wanted to know how Reid's nascent success is treating her.

So you had quite a month, huh?

I guess so, yeah. It's been quite a year, really. Some massive stuff has come my way in the last month, yes.

So you record it and then it comes out and everyone hears it for the first time?

Yeah, with the European and American release it's been quite a slow-burn from when it was released over here and recorded. It does feel like it's been  a long time but for you guys and for Europe it's the first time they're even hearing any of it. But it runs a bit over over here.

When did it come out in New Zealand?

Well I self-released it in November 2014, so last year. And then Spunk Records picked it up and it came out in March this year in Australasia.

So you're mega sick of it?

Yeah, yeah. We already moved on from it. We've basically got the next album done, written, ready to go. Though I can't release anything until another year -- or not anytime soon, anyway.

How long had you been working on these songs before recording them, whether just a chord or a lyric you couldn't get out of your head?

The album is a collection of songs written over the last --  some of them probably 6 years old, and they've been sporadically written from then to now. I've been about 6 years in the making. I did do an EP in 2011. But this album was much more thought about.

So with the new stuff that you wrote between the Australasian release and the European/American release, those came much quicker?

Yeah, I guess with anything the more you do something the easier it becomes and also you know I'm getting older and having more experiences is more to write about really. I don't know what it is. It's quite hard to -- they just sort of come when they do. Sometimes just totally nothing comes out.

How long have you been playing? Your whole life?

I remember picking up the guitar at about 15 but it really has only become serious ever since 2012. I just couldn't stop doing it. I don't know if it was something I really wanted to pursue, but I don't really have much a choice with it. It's sort of a bit of a burden but also can be very amazing, at the same time. But at about 15, I'm 24 now, so 9 years.

What do you mean by 'a burden'?

I don't know, it's not the easiest type of work to do all the time. You're very vulnerable. It's quite hard to put stuff out there and sometimes I can't even understand how people get anything from it.

Maybe for someone whose career is just starting, it's surprising the ease with which people can connect?

Yeah, and that effect is the whole reason I would continue. That's the goal, really.

I sense a little reticence on your part. Did you have any reservations about the 'look at me' aspect of this work?

I've got a shy side, but then I do love attention. [Laughs] It's a balance. I really wanted to earn respect and I wanted to earn that attention, and I feel like it's been a really slow burn with getting any attention for this particular record. Even in New Zealand like, until Pitchfork or NPR featured us stateside, no one even noticed this album. That's not to say that all of a sudden I'm this 'hidden treasure'. I don't know how that sits with me... perhaps that's just the way it goes.

When you start trying to work towards something like this, wanting to earn it, does being in that small country put a limitation, a ceiling, in your head?

It does, yeah. I think I'm either going to need to think about that aspect of where I'm going to be positioned. It's so beautiful here, but you get to a certain point and then you''ve just heard it all, really. There's only so many people here. You exhaust your crowd.

Did you find having that ceiling meant you could push against it, challenge it, in a safe environment?

Certainly, it gets me wanting to break out of the country. Even just going to Melbourne, Australia is a whole other world. In Australia, I don't know any different because I've been here my whole life. This particular music scene is all I really know. Having this American/European release is opening my eyes to the fact that there's a lot of people in the world. My particular crowd here is not huge.

This record is a lot more restrained and less folky than calling it folk is fair to.

It’s hard to put it into a word. I think folk is definitely the core of everything. All of those songs are written with 3-4 chords, written on guitar. They're stories, which I think essentially are what folk songs are.

I saw on that, after reading a particular review, you had some reservations on their interpretation.

I just had some really nice reviews. I know that that Pitchfork review was mostly positive, but it was the interpretation that unsettled me and I needed to address it. It did get me thinking that I don't want -- that I really hope that's not everyone's interpretation.

That's part of the beauty and frustration of putting something out there. Being someone with an increasing profile, I can see that being annoying.

I don't know if it had anything to do the fact of her being a woman, but I'm glad that it did ruffle me up a bit.

Why?

I just needed it, you know.

A useful frustration?

I just don't want to be some sort of bitter, down-on-love, angry, lonely woman. [Laughs]

What are you noticing about the more pragmatic side of the music business?

I think people are -- I don't know. It's just so easy to get sucked into this good praise and such and such writing about this and getting nominated for this Tui Award, which is quite a prestigious New Zealand music award, and just getting sucked in and worked up and anxious about not being able to live up to this hype or not winning this award. And then I'm like, 'This isn't what this is all about for me.'  I need to be clear about what the whole point is for me and the rest of this industry stuff doesn't matter. It's one thing to have recognition and to reach more people, which is what happens when you get on all of these websites. But it doesn't change anything for me. I need to be careful about that. 

You don't want to turn later-in-life Madonna, just the snake eating its awful tail. [Laughs]

Yeah, yeah. We sort of need the music industry and they need artists so we need each other but sometimes it goes a bit... wrong.