Current release: Nabalayo is one of the artists included on the thrilling compilation release Place: Nairobi curated by KMRU, released on Music and Activism / Air Texture.
Recommendations: I would recommend The Music of Africa, a book by Joseph Hanson Kwabena Nketia and the album Kanawa by Nahawa Doumbia.
If you enjoyed this interview with Nabalayo and would like to find out more about her work, visit her official homepage. You can also find her on Instagram, Soundcloud, and bandcamp.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started writing music in 2015, producing in 2018. My early passions were Björk, the blues and all types of heavy metal. I was drawn to Björk because of her ability to transport me to another world with every meticulous detail of her composition. The blues attracted me because of their folk feel and similarity to folk music from where I'm from and heavy metal because I was an emo kid (laughs).
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I approached my learning phase with a lot of freedom.. Many of the artists who inspired me were either rule breakers or experimenters or pioneers. I believe those values were instilled in me as a musician so I often just did whatever felt right.
I was and am deeply inspired by my cultural heritage as a Kenyan and as a person born on the vast African continent. I found my own voice by figuring out my values and the message in my heart and looking to music makers and artists who resonated with this for inspiration.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity? What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
I tell stories through my music so of course you get a feel of who I am. I also preach pride in cultural heritage all the while showing off my own cultural roots. So you can really see what I identify with through consuming my music. Technical production stuff was a nightmare. I'd watch tutorials with tears in my eyes (laughs).
I also had a hard time letting go of a project after it was technically finished. My inner critic always questioned if the song was really finished. Did it sound as good as it could possibly be? Was I able to say everything I needed to say? I thought variations were my strength until they became a serious weakness. I would spend hours doing and redoing a track with so many different outcomes.
These days I learn more by attending masterclasses or making use of the music buddies I made in the various artist collectives. I now tend to go with the first Idea that comes to me and I restrain myself from doing and redoing because that was where the doubts set in.
It also changed the tone of the music with each new take after the first few. It is for sure in my best interest to trust what I made initially and just run with it.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
First ever instrument was the flute at 8 years old. In highschool I got a violin and became an orchestra kid. The violin was a gift but I took to it because of a vampire character called Lestat. There was a movie I think about an interview with the vampire where he played and I was so captivated I had to play, too.
I also got a guitar, hoping to form a rock band with my highschool friends. We were going to be called The Pretty Ladies and the Prancing Ponies. Unfortunately that did not pan out the way we wanted it to. First year of Uni I got a bass guitar solely off my admiration for Marceline the Vampire queen. Then as part of my degree I was required to play a Kenyan folk instrument and I chose the Obokano, an eight string lyre from the Abagusii community.
That is my history with the instruments. These are what I used to record music when I started.
I was motivated by my peers at university. There were these three guys who’d just be producing music all the time on their laptops and I thought to myself, man, I wish I was them. I would have music out instead of saving up for studio time and finding people to record and produce for me. These three guys were KMRU, Hendrick Sam and Lloyd. I would harass them into teaching me (laughs). I’m so glad they were happy to help at all times. They opened my eyes to the world of production and I was able to figure out what I wanted to do with myself as a producer.
Of course being inexperienced, I asked for recommendations on hardware and software and ended up with a Focusrite solo bundle, basic studio monitors and a mic stand. With Ableton Live Lite. Ableton was a headache in the beginning so I started with Garage Band. Then by the time I was producing my debut album I knew enough to survive on Ableton
I still use the same stuff I did before. But watching artists online do solo performances has made me crave a midi controller and effects pedals. I want to do solo live shows where I sing and play at the same time. Working towards getting a midi at the moment.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Getting a DAW changed my songwriting process. I’m now able to flesh out my music more.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
My collaborations take the form of participating in workshops, artist collectives and skillshares. That way I learn from others and can give my own input. I tend to stay away from jamming in a collective space because it disturbs my creative process. Maybe that will change some day.
My first ever collaborative music project from 2021 happened online. I shared stems back and forth with a very cool artist called NKC until the music took shape.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I don’t have a routine. My life is a constant effort to balance music making and visual art creation and actually trying to make these two crafts monetized.
Being an indie artist and a freelance illustrator I can really work at any time. I tend to sleep eight hours at any time. Then when I’m up I create. I tend to alternate between music and art projects. So I do a couple days of music then a couple days of art. Depending on my mood or if I am working under a contract with someone else.
I have spurts of something close to a routine and then spurts of going with the flow just to keep things light. If I had everything set in stone I think I’d lose my mind with boredom. My creativity would suffer for sure.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
Giving my first workshop on Kenyan Folk music on the Common festival by Currents FM was major for me. I got to share knowledge with people all over the world. That was so special to me. The opportunity came through the Currents FM team where they made a call for artists to share their skills in workshop format.
I chose to share about folk music because I realized there is a gap in information out there. We here know about our stuff but people out there don’t really know cause not many people have said much you know?
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
My ideal state of creativity is space to be alone with my thoughts and ideas. I isolate myself when I’m doing creative things. I require calm quiet spaces to work on my ideas. My ideas come to me anywhere so I don’t really have to withdraw for those.
I also connect with my feelings to figure out what story I want to tell, what tone I want my work to have. Sometimes I prepare by listening and consuming vast styles of music. Sounds inspire me. For example my debut album was preceded by months of listening to traditional music from Kenya, Nai Palm, Björk, Fela Kuti and tons of bossa nova.
Other times creative mode just happens to me and I start working without prior planning.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
Music gave me temporary tinnitus. That hurt. I now know how to work around it and I can stay safe. When I’m stressed I sing a lot. I unwind by performing. It’s weird. But it feels right (laughs)
My music is my personal stories in cryptic lyrics with layers of meaning. It’s healing to put my business out there in detail without actually putting my business out there. Like I could have a song that can be interpreted as a break up song when really it was about that one time I got bored and read a book and it sucked and I found out I’m not that into reading anymore. And it's beautiful when everyone has their own interpretations.
No one hates music. This automatically makes music a tool that can be used to foster togetherness and understanding. It can be used to heal conflict and or foster understanding by being common ground for people.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
It is offensive when things start being attributed to people who only borrowed the culture/ symbols. Like your people can do what my people do if you find it cool but don’t act like you are the originators and vice versa.
Also respecting culture, learning about it as much as you can and referring to the people whom it originates from versus treating it like a shiny exotic mysterious spectacle that you “discovered” and is “your thing” is important in my opinion.
I’m not sure I understood the gender specificity part of the question. Maybe from the privilege of falling under what is considered “norm”? Not sure. I don’t mind gender specificity if everyone is telling their own stories. Leaving gender out all together is cool too. So long as everyone’s voice can be heard.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
Sometimes visual art inspires musical ideas for me. In the same way music can inspire my visual artworks. I believe the senses trigger my feels and that's where my creativity comes from. Our senses are just the gateway to our feelings I think.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I express myself using art. But I also carry out advocacy. Through my voice as an artist I advocate for the preservation of cultural heritage.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
I have never thought about that. I might write a song about it soon (laughs).