By Michelle Matthews
Heather Nova is a shining example of a vibrant young woman making her mark in rock. She's playing in South Africa and speaks to Michelle Matthews.
It's a beautiful day in Cape Town. The sky's a brilliant blue, as flat and saturated as the heavens of South Park, and the still air is a comfortable notch above body temperature. Heather Nova and I are sitting by the cascading pool at a swanky hotel in Bantry Bay. She's broken the ice by complimenting me on my shoes - a pair of silver sequined slip-slops. She's a little left of the catwalk herself, in a black top emblazoned with "Elvis" in gold and accessories - a chunky tortoise-shell bracelet like a diving weight on her tiny wrist and a blue plastic purse covered with kitsch kitties. She doesn't look like a rock star, she looks like fun.
She surprises me by being quite chatty and smiley. I expected the performer of emotional rock ballads Walk This World, Maybe an Angel and London Rain (Nothing Heals Me Like You Do) to be more intense. She's also smaller than I expected. Her fey figure perfectly suits her ethereal voice, which issues from the same sort of mystical resonating body cavities as Kate Bush has. From quivering croaks to almost inhuman peaks of pitch, she maintains a fierce clarity of tone. One imagines her dwarfed behind her Fender, but, as live albums Blow and Live From the Milky Way testify, she can more than hold her own on stage. South Africans can expect a powerful, polished performance.
# MM: I went to the CD shop yesterday and listened to your Live From the Milky Way album. You sound great live ...
HN: I really love playing live. I think something happens live that I've never been able to capture on a record.
# You have a strong following on the internet. Have you seen any of the sites?
Yeah, I haven't visited them all, but there's a lot out there. It's kind of bizarre [laughs]. It's actually great for fans - before the internet you didn't have such immediate communication to talk about the artist. I'm quite flattered by it. I don't go on there myself and hang out [laughs].
# It's interesting to see how all these people really relate to you and particular songs ...
Actually, that's what's nice, to be able to go on and read that. Because besides getting letters from people - which don't always arrive - you don't get that kind of direct feedback from the fans. So it's great to know what people think about each song.
# On your first album your name was Heather Frith ...
Yeah, my name is Frith, but 'cause I live in Europe, I found that people like the French couldn't pronounce my name. I ended up either Fried or Cold. I also decided that I wanted to have more privacy. So I chose a name that came from my mother's family.
# Oh, 'cause I thought it had to do with the star: "a star showing a sudden large increase of brightness and then subsiding". That's surely not what a rock star wants!
[laughing] Right! Everyone thinks it's about the star, but I didn't think of that when I chose it.
# When did you realise you could sing and wanted to write songs? When I was a kid I used to sing all the time. When I was about 13 I learned the guitar and from then I started writing songs. It was something that was really natural to me. It was something I would do to relax or escape. We lived on a small boat [in Bermuda], five of us in the family. You had to kinda create your own space. And for me it was just going on deck and playing the guitar and that was the way I had my own world.
# You use water, rain and sea imagery a lot in your music, even on your covers. What is the significance of this?
It's something that I naturally use as a metaphor. Obviously I guess it comes from a really deep-rooted connection with the sea, because I grew up on the sea, literally, as my garden. And the sea is always where I go back to to feel connected and to feel at home ... [she gazes out onto Bantry Bay].
# Do your songs come from real life or have you projected yourself into spaces you've never been before? 'Cause there's a lot of emotional variation in them ...
You know, we all go through many moods within a day, or maybe that's just me [laughs]. No, my songs are very much from real life. A lot of them are autobiographical, but some of them are, like you say, projected. Some of them are observations. Little bits are imagined, but most of it is very real.
# Who do you imagine you're singing to?
[pauses] Anyone who will listen! What's amazing about music is that emotion doesn't discriminate. It doesn't matter what the person looks like, or how old they are. I just want people to feel. I want them to allow themselves to feel and I think that's what music does - gives us permission and access to our emotions. That's what fascinates me and that's what drives me to write.
# What progression do you feel you've made between 1995's Oyster and your latest album Siren, both musically and personally?
Well, personally an album always reflects the space you're in at that time - what relationship you're going through, what ideas you're having. That's always indicative of who you were then. Musically, with Siren I was more into guitars, more into the rock thing and with the next album I'd like to move a little bit away from that - strip it back. What influenced the difference between Oyster and Siren is that between those two records I did so many live gigs. I wanted to capture some of that intensity that we get live - I still don't think I really did it, but that was the intention. And the next one, I want to be using more beats. Still be using guitars, but not in such a rock way. But not dance - it'll still be very Heather Nova!
# You studied art and painted the cover for your EP Blow, are you going to do that again?
Yeah, I just did another one actually. I'm releasing another live record which should be coming out in a couple of months. I paint for my own pleasure, but it's nice to put something on the cover.
# You had a rigorous touring schedule for two years after the release of Oyster. What did it teach you? Are you happy to be touring again?
The first time I did that long kind of touring I had to learn where my limits were. I got really, really stressed out on that tour. But when I came to tour with Siren I was much more prepared and more relaxed. I could enjoy it more. I just finished an 18-month tour in October and I haven't been on the road since then. I just came to do these gigs 'cause I got the offer. I decided yeah, I'd love to go to South Africa! I'm excited about playing with Joan Armatrading. I grew up listening to her music. It's great to play with your icons [grins].
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