I often think of music as a combination of a person and a place, a city seeping into a creative mind and reflecting back out of it amplifying both the individual and the landscape around them. Perhaps though that is an over-simplification, in an increasingly nomadic world human beings and by extension creativity, are far more complex than the result of a single place. We’re all an amalgam of the places we’ve been and the people we’ve met, a mixture of our roots and our influences. Musicians at their most honest are a reflection of every place, every person and every event they’ve experienced along their way.
Based out of South-East London, Naima Bock is a songwriter, Archaeology student and former gardener. She was born in Glastonbury, the daughter of a Greek mother and a Brazilian father, and spent her early life in Brazil before relocating to Britain while still a child. When I recently interviewed her I asked how she thought her global influences played out in her music, was it something she was conscious of incorporating? “I think it was mostly instinctive…I liked the production of a lot of classic Brazilian Bossa Nova records and the way the voices and the percussion sounded, with very little effects and a really nice simple acoustic sound”. Conscious or otherwise, listening to Naima’s debut solo album, Giant Palm, due out at the start of July via Sub Pop, feels like a record in its creator’s own image, a fusion of family, the planet and the way music is passed down from generation to generation.
It’s a concept much explored in traditional folk music, where songs were passed between generations as a way of keeping stories alive, it’s a genre that interests Naima, “that was my first introduction to singing when I was young. My step-father listened to a lot of old folk stuff, more from the Alan Lomax’s collection and stuff like that from the 30s, 40s and 50s…I was always leaning on the side of history. So every song that I’d ever sing, I always made sure I could find the source for it, and go back as far as I can for all the different interpretations…what phrases have been taken out, or what’s been put in. For me that’s the fun part of folk music, obviously playing it is fun, but I actually like finding out all the history…the social history of it is amazing, this untold history of people that didn’t manage to write books but they managed to pass these songs down, and they just survived naturally through generations. It’s almost a miracle”.
I ask if she considers her own music to be a form of folk music? “I find it hard to call my music folk music, I can say it’s folk-inspired but it’s not for me, it’s not traditional music, it’s not old songs where we don’t know who wrote them”. So if it’s not folk music, what is it? “I feel like it’s very pompous to say it doesn’t fit into any genre, and it probably does…it’s hard to come up with words that are unique about anything“. If the words to describe it aren’t unique then the music definitely is, a blend of musical flavours, fitting into the singer-songwriter canon certainly, but not tied to any one sound or musical culture, “each project is unique in its own way and then every project is also the same as what has been before”. Naima is quick to credit her regular collaborator Joel Burton for his role in bringing the songs to life, “he brought a few more jazz elements into it, a bit Brazilian inspired, the record kind of borrows from a few different pots”. I wonder if she considers it important for music to push beyond what came before, “it’s constantly changing…each person puts their own unique slant on something that’s been done before, and that’s okay. I think it’s kind of weird that we, as musicians, want to be so kind of divisive all the time, it’s fine to just be one drop in a massive ocean”.
For a debut album, recorded without a record deal in place, Giant Palm is remarkably ambitious, at times incorporating as many as thirty musicians, a result at least in part due to the album being recorded while touring was not possible, “if we tried to do that now it would be impossible. It’s amazing it just happened because it’s so difficult to get people together”. The ambition of the recording does have an effect on Naima’s plans to tour it though, it sadly isn’t realistic to take the whole band on tour, “the full band is seven of us…unfortunately because of financial restraints we can only really take five people out, and then it’s just me on my own sometimes”. I wonder if it’s difficult having to shift from a solo show to a fuller band, “if I’m playing on my own it’s kind of its own thing…I find it more sad to say we can’t have everyone on this one, I really don’t like having to say that to people, but my van only fits five people”. When we speak Naima is just off the back of a huge solo tour with Rodrigo Amarante, she recalls the first night which saw her take to the stage of the 1300 capacity Casa Del Musica in Porto, “it was the first show on the whole tour and at the same time the biggest venue and there was not a part of me that was happy about that…I was so nervous, that after the soundcheck I started crying, and then after the gig, I was just ecstatic, like fuck, I did it! It was good that being the first show, and getting thrown into the deep end, it helped me get over it”. She actually puts playing solo down to improving her performance skills, “it was good, for me…I’ve actually got to impress just with a guitar and singing, it forced me to get better at singing in front of people, where before it’s always been kind of a sensitive point. I’m a bit shy, it’s scary for me to be in front of people”.
Recorded on borrowed time at Dan Carey’s studio space in Streatham, creating Giant Palm was by design a very organised process, Naima and Joel carefully plotting out their limited studio time, “I’d love to be able to say it was super free, but actually it wasn’t, and I think that was kind of good. It can be so fluid and it can be difficult to be grounded with it and realistic. It was a good process because we had very little expectations which you know was nice”. The record was made back in the Autumn of 2020 before Naima knew what she was going to do with it, and at a period when her expectations were fairly low, “Josh who’s my manager now, me and him were running a gardening company together, we’d almost given up on music and there wasn’t any particular pursuit of my demos. Then I sent the album to him afterwards and then he was like, this is actually really good…he sent it to something stupid like 46 different labels, without my permission, and then a couple of them bit which was really nice actually. I kind of knew that it was good, and I didn’t think it shouldn’t be released at all, but it was a nice surprise”.
With the album finished for nearly eighteen months now, Naima’s thoughts have inevitably started to move on towards what comes next, “it’s actually what I mostly think about…I’ve been writing it for the last year and a half, so the writing is nearly done, it’ll be nice to actually get it recorded”. One downside of her newfound busy schedule is that the gardening business is no more, “I wish it was..but we all got too busy with gigs, and also we’re just lazy. We got kind of disgruntled by the fact we’d spent all this money on a lawnmower and it didn’t work, and we were using my car and it was getting too muddy, but it was fun while it lasted and we raised some money”.
From Brazilian standards to the great and good of English folk, on Giant Palm Naima Bock’s influences stretch as wide as her ambitious arrangements. What started as an unrushed record made with little expectation now finds Naima on the verge of releasing one of the year’s finest debut albums. Give the album the same sort of time that was given to its construction and it rewards you like few others do, from the tiny details to the wide vistas it never disappoints, always intrigues and might just be the making of one music’s most exciting new voices.