Words by Luke LaBenne
P O T I O N S is an album that almost didn’t exist. Artist, dancer and activist nasimiYu had made a name for herself as a musician with multiple releases, both under her solo name and as part of the duo baeb rxxth. Following the release of her 2014 EP Dirt she stopped making music for seven years. After years of resisting and doubting her own creative abilities, with the help of some friends, she finally gave into the urge to create. This album was written in the midst of Black Lives Matter protests occurring in NYC this summer, protests that nasimiYu helped organize. With the intensity of the chanting and the rhythm of the marches echoing in her mind she was able to access a powerful part of herself to create a potent concoction bursting with musical innovation and vulnerable expression. Stripped down compositions bubble up into glorious orchestrations with textured percussion, evocative electronics and raw emotional power. From ancestral tributes to raw confessionals to self-realization anthems, nasimiYu guides the listener through all the highs and lows of heartbreak and healing.
Off Shelf: How is the week treating you?
nasimiYu: It’s been really great. I just released the last single and putting that video out felt really good. I made all this stuff last summer so it’s been a long time coming. I kind of think that the thesis statement of this album works better as a group. I know we’re not really in the era of the full album anymore, where people listen from front to back, but I really think this is how it’s meant to be heard.
OS: You mentioned making the album last summer and I know you also organized BLM protests and you were very active in that work and you would come home from that and do this as a sort of cleansing ceremony. What was that process like?
NM: It was cool because so much of the musical stuff that was happening in the marches was making its way on the album just through osmosis. Like I’d be playing with this all-female drum core and we’d be coming up with these really, really cool rhythms. We kind of just felt like we were all keeping each other going through all these weeks and weeks of being out there every single day. The rhythm and the percussion were a really crucial force for keeping that sustainable, so much of that made it onto the album. Also, some of the musicality of the styles of chanting and the group vocal thing, I think that that ended up influencing the album too. But also, having a space that was about looking inward was a really nice contrast to what I was doing organizing which was all about being outward facing and trying to affect the external world. It provided a really nice balance for me, working on this music and being totally focused on what I can do, the revolution that needs to happen inside myself in order for me to be ready for that revolution that I’m calling for.
OS: That’s interesting that it sort of seeped into the music but also that you were disconnecting from it a little bit looking inward. That’s really cool. You’ve been dancing since you were very young and have done it all over the world. Through your background in dance, how did you find your way into making music?
NM: I think they’re always linked for me. They’re the exact same thing. Dance has been a lifelong spiritual journey about really knowing yourself and hearing your truest, innermost voice by feeling it in your body and not by thinking, thinking, thinking, and the endless chatter in your mind. I’ve been working on that my whole life but only now on this project did I apply those tools of creating from an embodied place of like uttermost presence, I applied those tools to music-making for the first time when I made this project. That’s what I meant by translating dance into songwriting.
OS: You had made music before this right?
NM: This is my fifth album, that includes the one I did with baeb rxxth which was the electronic trap duo with my dear friend Devin C. Johnson who was also a co-organizer for a lot of the BLM events with me. The first album I released the first year I got to New Orleans that came out in 2010 called It Ain’t Pretty But It’s Beautiful and I don’t even like to admit that this album exists because it’s rough.
OS: Yeah it’s your early work.
NM: It was my first time being in a studio. It was my first time leading a band. It was rough. So I don’t really recommend going back and checking that out and now that I’ve said that I know that it’s going to be probably the only thing that anybody checks out. Then I released a full length album in 2012 called Rules Aren’t Real. Then I did an EP under nasimiYu as well and that’s called Dirt and that’s the last thing I put out under my name. Then after that I put out an EP under baeb rxxth. Then I spent a bunch of years pretending I was out of ideas.
OS: How were you able to break through that long sort of writer’s block?
NM: I have my dear friends Kal of Kalbells and Tōth of Tōth to thank for that because right at the beginning of quarantine they gathered all their songwriting friends to do this Song-A-Day challenge. So there were 30 of us and there are all these people that I’m a huge fan of. All these amazing artists that are all actively playing and killing it and I was the one who was like, “I haven’t made anything in years, I haven’t played a show in years, I wouldn’t even consider myself a musician anymore but I’ll try and hang.”
The whole gist was that everybody had to create an entire completed song and recording and submit it every single day for seven days in a row and the day after you submitted your song everybody in the group would hear what you just made. When it’s all your heroes that are going to hear the thing you just threw together the pressures really on. So I really just allowed that week to be a week where I didn’t even feel like I was a part of the human earth at all. I was in ceremony the entire time and it was amazing. It was like a marathon of creativity. The best thing about it and the reason that it took this to get me out of my writer’s block is that I didn’t get a chance to overthink. There was no time. You’re rushing to get it done so you don’t have a chance to sit there idly and start judging and criticizing yourself and start self-editing in your mind. You just have to go on your own intuition and keep charging forward and trust yourself. So having those time constraints was a crucial piece and another crucial piece was having the accountability of that group of people who are also putting themselves in a really vulnerable position by sharing what they’re making every day. It was like a support group it was just perfect.
I didn’t think I was going to write anything worth keeping because usually, my ratio of songs I write to songs that I release is like 1 in 10. I also didn’t have any living music projects or desire to start any new projects. So I was just like I’m just going to do this Song-A-Day Challenge as a therapeutic exercise so that I can process the emotional stuff that I’m going through in my solo quarantine, being completely alone and having nowhere to run from all these big feelings and all this uncertainty in the world. I wasn’t trying to make an album. I wasn’t trying to make anything that anyone would ever hear outside of the group.
Then on the 7th day, I looked back at everything I had and was like I think I want to keep all of this, which was insane. Then I was like what would I use it for? Then I listened and was like I think these could work for my solo project. I had buried, six feet under the ground, I had shoveled the last bit of dirt on top of it, I was planting grass, I was not going to bring my solo project back ever. Imagine my surprise. The songs told me where they belong, they were like, “This is a nasimiYu album.” All seven songs are on that album. Every single one.
OS: Really? Which ones were they?
NM: The only ones that weren’t from Song-A-Day were “White Lightning,” “Secretsecret,” and one other one. There are ten songs on the album and seven of them were from Song-A-Day.
OS: So 70% of the album…
NM: …was written in one week flat and, check it out, I made that with no recording gear. I didn’t have a microphone. I didn’t have cool software. I made it on Garageband and I sang it into my built-in laptop mic. The only instrument that I had was this Wurlitzer, and then I had a keyboard and some electronic samples on my iPad. That’s what made it onto the album.
OS: That’s crazy! It sounds really good for it just being the computer mic.
NM: Yeah! So after I decided it was going to be an album I was like, “Ok cool I’m going to re-track everything! I’m going to make it sound super nice!” I borrow all this really fancy gear, I got a super nice microphone, learned how to use Logic for the first time, re-tracked the whole thing. I’m like ok I’m stepping my game up here. It didn’t sound half as good as the original. I’m like screw this I’m releasing the version that I sang into the laptop mic because if it sounds better it sounds better. Just because it’s more expensive doesn’t always mean it’s better.
OS: Right. It’s what you captured in the moment, that’s where the power comes from. So was this mostly software instruments?
NM: Yeah. This was a big shift for me because I always had this purist approach where I only used organic instruments. So everything you hear on my last album Dirt, every single instrument is acoustic, raw, organic instruments – the real thing. Every drum hit, even things that sound like electronic sounds are organic sounds that we took and we used analog processes to make them sound affected. For example, when I wanted to get this really crazy vocal sample sounding thing we actually put my vocal through a Leslie of an organ.
OS: What’s a Leslie?
NM: A Leslie is a spinning amplifier that gives the organ its vibrato sound. It’s like an ancient analog mechanism before you had digital vibrato on a keyboard you had to do it mechanically through this big box that would come with the organ. This is for organs that are from the ’40s and ‘50s we’re talking that level of technology. I put my vocal through that, we’d put that out in the middle of a big garage and we’d mic it up from like 20 feet away. Just to get the cool effect because we didn’t want to go the electronic plug-in route. Fast forward to last year everything I was doing was through electronic production. Imagine the canvas that I’m painting from suddenly has a million different textures and tones. I had such a blast allowing myself to use any instrumentation that my wildest dreams could imagine. Instead of being like my band has these 5 instruments so that’s what it’s going to be every time. So I had a blast and I grew as a producer so much making this album!
OS: Wow, because it does sound textured and real I thought a lot of it probably was actual instruments so that’s crazy.
NM: Thank you. It’s a nice mix of real lo-fi stuff. Like for example, this little pan flute part was just me playing that into the microphone. Then the kalimba and all of the little percussion. I’d use a set of keys or I’d bang on a candle or I’d drum on a table. So you do have enough sounds from the room in there mixed in with the electronic production.
OS: It blends nicely. Speaking of cool percussion, the song “Secretsecret” I love that song. I love the piano and the percussion going on in there. Is that you beatboxing?
NM: That is me beatboxing.
OS: That’s great. You have the harder piano percussion part in the chorus and then it gets a little more floaty in the verse. How did you build that song?
NM: That song in particular was built on nothing but pure emotion. That chorus part with the rhythmic piano stabs that was freestyled. When I was demoing it out that all just came out in a burst of legit emotion.
OS: The lyrics too?
NM: Yeah. I don’t think I could’ve come up with that any other way. If it hadn’t just been like [explosion sound] bursting out of my body I don’t think I could’ve come up with that.
OS: You feel that in your performance, that comes across. That lyric, “What if I told you that I’m not all that I’m cracked up to be?” It’s very powerful. It seems like you’re just talking to someone but I thought of it as my own anxiety and the world at large. What was your thought process behind those lyrics?
NM: I mean when I was singing it I was just deep in this dizzying heartbreak and I was just trying to process my way through it, I wasn’t trying to make a great song but I guess that’s how it happens right.
OS: It’s like therapy.
NM: Yeah, I was probably in tears the whole time I was writing that song. I’ll be sitting at the piano and freestyling but I’ll record the freestyle. Then I’ll listen back to the freestyle and structure it and say I wanna keep this part. It’s just taking what came out in the improvisation and then reworking it. But this song, after I recorded it I had some help restructuring it from Tōth. He was like the fairy godfather of this album and he was like, “Ok here are the really powerful parts of this song.” Because the song was originally like 6 minutes long and had like all these other sections. He said, “I think you’re getting too far away from your original idea and you want to give it more of a tight container to live in.” He actually helped me like completely reorder the whole thing into what it is now. So I’m really happy I had his ear on that. He also helped me reorder “White Lightning” a big part of that job was cutting out 4 sections that the song had. Looking back I laugh that every song was so long, but I’m really glad that he got real with me and was like girl, you don’t need to do all that.
OS: That’s cool because you talked about how you sort of improved this and that goes back to what you were talking about with dance. How you’re just being present and feeling it instead of overthinking it. That’s a really cool connection there.
NM: You totally get it. Yeah.
OS: I love the “White Lightning” lyrics, “I found how to plug directly into the engine within myself without your help and now I know I’m an ever-flowing fountain.” How were you able to reach that point of looking inward and truly recognizing your power and self-worth?
NM: That’s what my quarantine was all about and it forced me to sit with all the discomfort and all of the pain and all the uncertainty because I was going through fresh heartbreak right when it happened. In any other circumstance I would’ve distracted myself from it by going out to this event or going on this vacation or starting up this project or this collaboration. Without those distractions, I was able to really look within for what I need in a way that was so much more fulfilling and uncomfortable at first but also just really healing. That last verse is really the story of the friendship that I gained with myself thanks to my solo quarantine.
OS: It’s good that some good things came out of that tough time. I want to talk about “Immigrant Hustle” both the production and lyrics of that are beautifully done I like the story you tell. Was that inspired by your parents or grandparents?
NM: That’s the story of my father. He has the most unbelievably improbable story. Him ending up here and making it work and me coming into existence, the improbability is unfathomable to me. So I wrote that song just from a place of utter awe and gratitude that I get to have the opportunities that I have to be who I am and make the art that I want to make because of this amazing journey that this man took. Really my big takeaway from his story, and I tried to put this in the song too, is that he was only capable of going above and beyond and going so far because he wasn’t doing it for himself. He was doing it for his whole tribe. He was doing it because he was representing the many and he was blazing a new trail for the many to come behind him. And he was doing it for the dream of the family that he was going to have. So for me to feel like he was fighting for me and the freedom that I was going to have before I even existed. That’s part of what I was saying when I say, “I was part born in the red clay.” He was already being an awesome father before he had kids he was already making this dream come true and he did so much to do that. So I was just really reflecting on that journey and how incredible it is. There are some Swahili lyrics in there. It opens with the Swahili prayer that I wrote, it translates to, “Prayers to all my ancestors. It is only on your backs that we may touch the stars.” To get that Swahili down I had to call my cousin and have her coach me through it because mine is not actually that good.
OS: You’re not fluent?
NM: Not fluent I wish I was but it was important to me to have that. Really it was like an incantation, I really wanted to send that to the ancestors to all the people that came before me. That’s a song of gratitude. It’s so funny I played that song for my dad.
OS: Yeah, what does he think?
NM: I’m like, “Dad it’s all about you and your journey.” Typical immigrant father, he’s like, “Uhh yeah sure it’s fine. It could use a little work I think we could add a few things, we’ll work on it.” I’m like we won’t work on it it’s done the albums mastered. Perpetually unimpressed but that’s ok.
OS: I want to talk about the title P O T I O N S. Why did you pick that title and is it witchcraft-related?
NM: Oh totally. All of these songs are spells. I was just trying to manifest. Like I said I wasn’t trying to make an album. I wasn’t trying to make an awesome song to release, I was trying to like move mountains within myself and around myself.
I think of P O T I O N S like my favorite activities as a 5-year-old was to just pull all the mysterious liquids in the pantry and mix them all up until it was this crazy chemically mysterious thing. As I was doing this I was completely convinced that I was making a magical spell that if someone drank it they would like shrink or disappear. But that same childlike instinct is still in me and that’s exactly what I’m tapping into when I’m casting a spell through creating a song.
Also, there’s this quote that I want to share with you, the idea is not only is the word very powerful, but the word in its different incantations is powerful. So the spoken word has some power to that, the written word has a lot of power to that, but the sung word, that is a sacred thing and there’s a reason why every culture in human history has used that to tap into a divine state or a trance-like state or a meditative or prayer-like state. The sung word is a spell that is being cast and I feel like that was my whole intention when making every single moment of this record.
OS: That’s a really good point because it is throughout the whole world and different experiences like that and I guess music is the closest thing we have to magic.
NM: Oh yes! Oh yes! I completely believe that.
OS: That’s awesome. What do you hope the listener takes away after listening to P O T I O N S?
NM: I hope that sharing some of my vulnerability that it makes people feel like they can do the same. That they can allow themselves space to be messy and contradictory and too much, too loud, whatever. I hope that by sharing all of the stuff that makes me me, that I’ve been going through and struggling with I hope it inspires people to make more room for themselves.