Heather Nova: Coming Out
By Yasmin Tabi
Why should you care about Heather Nova?
Because, after 10 years in the music business, six albums and a healthy following in Europe, she's (finally) poised to make it big in the U.S. with the release of her seventh album, South, this summer. Heather has the goods to cause even uber-talented artists like Sheryl Crow to take a step back and make room on the stage for this gifted guitarist, lyricist and pop/folk singer/songwriter.
Why are we talking about her?
Because it's time Heather gets the fan base she deserves here in the good ol' U.S. After a decade in the (continued below)
business, well-known producers such as Bernard Butler (of Aimee Mann and Manic Street Preachers fame) and Felix Tod (who has worked with Dogstar, Keanu Reeves's band) have given her the respect she needs for a big uprising in the States. So don't be surprised if you hear a lot of buzz about her. In fact, you might have already heard Heather's memorable voice on the soundtrack of the Michelle Pfeiffer/Sean Penn film I Am Sam, belting out her rendition of the Beatles hit "We Can Work It Out" next to other big names such as Eddie Vedder, Sheryl Crow and Sarah McLaughlin.
What else you should know about her:
Heather Nova was born Heather Frith on July 6, 1968, in Bermuda. Her family on her father's side is one of the oldest on the island, with a history going back 200 years, while her mother is of Canadian origin.
Although she now lives in London, the high seas were Heather's home growing up. Raised until she was 15 on a 40-foot sailboat built by her parents, Heather spent her formative years learning to play the guitar and violin and listening to the Beatles, Jimmy Cliff and Neil Young on a tape deck powered by a wind generator. Clearly a garage band would've been out of the question at the time!
At 16, her family moved to the U.S., and Heather later enrolled in the Rhode Island School of Performing Arts. Although she closely studied visual arts and film, it was at this time that she discovered she wanted to be a musician.
After school, she moved to London and released her first EP (short-length album), Heather Frith, in 1990. She chose Nova, a surname from her mother's side of the family, shortly after the release of this EP because she felt it suited her better. Heather's first collection of songs led to the production of her first full-length album, Glowstar, in 1993. Things started snowballing from there. She did a world tour in 1995 and 1996 to promote her next album, Oyster, and then came her first stateside release, Siren, in 1998.
Heather's lyrics focus mostly on love and everyday life experiences, and her music has been described as "soft and sexually charged" by RollingStone.com. She's one of the few artists left who talks about love as if it were a good thing (think Trent Reznor on a good day), but she does so in a manner that is neither overwhelmingly sentimental nor gut-wrenchingly irritating (think Celine Dion). In a recent phone interview while on a promotional tour for South, Heather talked about her band's history, her songwriting process and how music can erase geographical boundaries.
How did your band meet?
I met all my bandmates in London while I was living there. There's a large community of musicians there, and we met by word of mouth. When I first started out, I used to audition musicians, and that's really difficult.
Can you define your writing process?
It depends. Sometimes I sit down and a song comes in one sitting and it's just a gift from the stars. Other times I sit and work on a song for weeks. Usually the lyrics and melody come together simultaneously. I feel that they are and should be very connected, so I don't tend to write a whole melody and then work on lyrics to fit.
How has the reception been internationally vs. nationally?
Since I live in London and have toured Europe for the past nine years, I have more of a fan base there. I haven't really had the opportunity to tour here [the U.S.] as much, so I'm not as well known. But the nice thing about music and playing live is that music breaks those location barriers. You play a gig, the lights go down, it doesn't matter what country you're in -- it becomes about what we, artist and audience, have in common more than how we're different. It becomes about music, the depth of feeling that music facilitates and that nice state which music enables us to be in. When you play live, the music has the power to connect people on an emotional level, and that's a fulfilling thing to share.
I hear you're releasing a book of poetry. What inspired you to put it together?
The book is titled The Sorrowjoy and is currently being sold at my concerts, although it will be for sale on the Internet shortly.
I consider poetry a very different form from writing songs. A lyric has never been a poem, and a poem can never become a lyric. They're very separate. The reason I do it is that it's coming from a different part of my brain. A poem has to start on its own, and it's more intimate in that it's something written down that you have to read to yourself from a book, while a song is something that is just hanging out there for the listeners. My songs are very intimate, but a poem is even more so, somehow.
It's clear you like to write from your own experience. So why choose to perform "Gloomy Sunday" [music and lyrics composed by Rezso Seress, 1935]? The lyrics are a total departure from your happier music.
"Gloomy Sunday" was recorded as part of a movie soundtrack [also titled Gloomy Sunday]. The actual movie was about the writing of that song, and the producers chose me to sing it.
Numerous artists have dabbled with that song -- Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Elvis Costello?
And Frank Sinatra, too. It's such an amazing and powerful story and such a beautiful song that it's easy to see why.
Your guitarist, Berit Fridahl, is coming out with a solo album. Have you heard it yet? How do you feel about her solo efforts?
I haven't heard it yet, but I'm very excited. I'm sure it's going to be great because she's very talented. There's no tension because we all have our own, separate lives, and I would never resent anyone for doing their own projects. I'm very supportive of anything my bandmates do.
There are numerous fan sites out there. Do you ever browse them?
I find it really touching that people take the time to create a Website. Some sites have been really well done.
Do you spend a lot of time online?
I really like going online. It's a nice distraction when you're on tour to get to your hotel room and write. I don't know how people on tour ever did without it! It's really great to be able to keep in touch with my friends, my husband and my family. My favorite site is Salon because there's always such a variety of stuff.
What do you think of your success since your debut? Are you where you wanted to be, musically and professionally?
I didn't set out to be really famous. My initial goal was just to make one album. But naturally, once you make one album, you want to make another one. I guess I feel very fortunate that I've been able to stay in the business this long, to be able to keep making records. It seems like it's getting harder and harder to do that these days with the record companies having short attention spans.
Are you already planning your next album?
No -- right now I'm just trying to focus on what's happening right now. There are three stages to producing an album, and I like to spend time and concentrate on these steps. The first step is writing, which, for me, is quite reclusive. I go away somewhere on my own, unplug the phone and just write. The second step, recording, is collaborative but still hard work. Finally comes promoting and working on reaching a lot of people, putting yourself out there and touring. It's an exhausting and fulfilling experience at the same time, because it really feels like you're contributing something.
Live From The Milky Way, Live Album of Oyster: 1995
South: 2001 (Europe)
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