Words and photography by Sian Irvine
This week on Ultravenus, we talk to jazz singer Ni… who just so happens to also be my sister in law! This incredibly talented young lady is a creative tour de force, and we sat down to talk music, food, creativity and all that’s in between.
So for those who don’t know who you are, do you want to tell us a bit about yourself?
Yeah! So… I don’t even know where to start! I’m just one of those really particular people, I’ve got really strong opinions about a lot of things…
What’s your name!!
Oh…! I’m Ni! You know… I’m me, I’m just Ni!
I’m Ni. Like k-n-e-e, but spelt N-i.
Ok cool… and you’re a very particular person.
Yes. I’ve got very strong opinions, I don’t like to be wrong…and, yeah, I love jazz! That’s the kind of life that I live really, I think I’ve mastered it.
So, tell us a little bit about your journey so far, to where you are now in life.
Okay, so that’s really tricky because there has been a lot… but okay, so I was born in London- my claim to fame is actually that I was born in the same hospital that Amy Winehouse was born in…
Were you! I didn’t even know that about you…
Yeah! I was always destined to live a life of jazz!
From birth! From the day you were born!
Yeah!! So, I was born in London, moved to Bristol when I was really really young… with my mum, brother and sister. I was brought up by my mum, my great aunt and all my cousins. So family has always been really important to me, I’ve got a massive family and they were always really there for us. So I grew up in Bristol and then moved back to London to study Fashion PR (at LCF)… kind of a mistake, kind of glad I did it because it led me to where I am now…
Yeah of course.
I was also doing a little bit of singing at Jazz After Dark, which, funnily enough, is where Amy Winehouse used to perform…
No way! She’s like your jazz spirit animal.
Yeah! Exactly that! So I was doing a bit of singing, met some friends who liked making music, and we used to hang out in our flat in Hither Green, South East London, making music with our friend Caleb, eating good food and chilling out… vibing off a song then cutting a bit of it and making a song out of it… that’s just what we did for a little while. Anyway, now I’ve moved to Liverpool, with Kieran who is my one true love…
Yeeeaaah! (Kieran is my brother)
And now we are just living a life of jazz! So really it has all been a bit of a whirlwind, but it’s all turned out okay, I’m kind of shocked every day that it’s all turned out alright!
So when did you first fall in love with jazz?
I always struggle with this question… probably because I don’t want to admit it, because as you may have gathered I don’t have the best relationship with my dad, but I can thank him for jazz, because jazz was always on in the car… we were always going between London and Bristol, we would get to a certain point in the journey and tune in to Jazz FM… that’s even what we listen to now, the only radio station we listen to… oh I love this song! It’s so great, we discovered it in Portugal…
What song is it?
It’s called ‘I didn’t know what time it was’, and it’s by Cecile McLorin Salvant… she’s incredible, we saw her at Love Supreme and it was incredible… Anyway! I’m digressing… Another thing I have to thank my dad for, I have this one memory, we once went on this road trip to Barcelona, and one of the CDs we had was Amy Winehouse- ‘Frank’, so we had that one repeat…
SUCH a good album!
Such a good album… driving through these mountains at night, listening to that album… so amazing.
I feel like this next question might be a bit of a tough question for you, but who is your favourite jazz singer?
That is a tough question… Obviously, I love Amy Winehouse… I wouldn’t say she’s my favourite jazz singer, because although she is a jazz singer, there are elements of her work that I feel relate more to pop culture… so I wouldn’t say she’s my favourite jazz singer, I’d say she’s my favourite mainstream singer. My favourite jazz singer is, by far, Ella Fitzgerald. I just love the quality of her voice, I really connected with her when I was quite young… do you want me to tell you why? Or am I talking too much?
Tell us why! You’re in no way talking too much! Please please tell us why.
Okay… so when I was younger, we really didn’t have a lot. Baked beans, pasta, with the addition of cheese sometimes. But my mum always made sure that our social calendars were busy. So I went to Stage Coach and Pop Academy, my brother went to Sports Academy, my sister Shade did gymnastics… my mum would struggle but she would always make it work, because she knew we had passions. So when I was 11, I was at Pop Academy and I was auditioning for a role in the show… which I got… and they gave me Ella Fitzgerald – ‘Every Time We Say Goodbye’… it was the first time I performed solo, but also as a jazz singer, so it was really important to me. So I sang it…and it just became my favourite song, it always will be my favourite song, and her version of it is something that really sticks with me. Also, a close family friend, who really believed in me as a musician and performer, he used to treat me to this thing called Bristol School of Performing Arts… anyway, he really believed in me, and he gave to me Ella Fitzgerald singing the Irving Berlin song book… it was a really ancient, original copy of the Irving Berlin songbook on CD… and I used to listen to it on repeat, it had a lyric book so I learned all the lyrics…
Oh I love that. I miss that about CDs.
I love it, I’m terrible with lyrics so for me, that’s the only way it’s going to happen.
And really, isn’t that such a pure way of learning lyrics? It’s not just going onto Google… it’s how the artist intended it to be written, not someone’s interpretation…
Yeah. It’s so lovely.
So when did you start singing?
Well, I always sang in church. From when I was really, really young.
Because your mum sings as well, doesn’t she?
Yeah, and what’s actually really nice is that actually, my mum didn’t really sing until I was old enough to go to choir with her. We used to go to choir together every week and that’s when she started singing, and it’s been amazing to watch her grow into her voice over the years.
That’s so lovely. Big up Shirley!
Big up Shirl.
So, who inspires your creativity?
Oh gosh… that’s a really hard question! What do you mean?
Okay, so… I know you very well, and you are probably one of the most creative people I know… every facet of your life is absolutely drenched in creativity, even down to… and to everyone else, this won’t sound like much, but I know… even down to how you lay a table! The way you lay a table is a work of art… I’ll have to post a photo of how you laid the table at Christmas…
So really, I mean you sing… you create music, you do interior design, you’ve started drawing… you have so many facets of creativity and I’m just wondering who inspires that? Anyone at all, I mean… famous or non-famous, anyone.
I’m not really inspired by famous people, I think there is so much out there and there’s plenty of room for that if you’re in to that…
Yes, I agree. It’s a bit pedestal-y…
Yeah, I just think the world around us inspires us enough. Famous people are just people who have managed to capture the inspiring world around them, and portray it well so that they can make money from it. Ultimately, if you can do that- which is what you’re doing- that is what inspires you, the world- and the world you create around yourself, the people you associate with, people you have dinner with- which is something really important to us. And the people around me… Kieran inspires me so much, all the time… I guess just, life. Experiences and stories. Everything, really. Everything.
So I guess… not so much people, but things, and experiences, and day-to-day…
And also, jazz. There’s something about my ideal which just…there is nothing I want in the world other than jazz… I believe jazz manifests itself in much more than just music, and that’s what inspires me I guess. It manifests itself in every part of your life.
So, off the back of that… why do you think that jazz is such an important aspect of music, and of wider society?
So… this is without doing any research, because I am terrible at research, and reading… basically, I don’t read, which is awful. It’s something I aspire to do, and it’s part of my plan, but I haven’t quite mastered sitting down with a book because I’m a bloody busybody and I love cleaning too much. I really struggle to sit down and absorb it… but you know what? I’m getting there.
You have to really schedule in the time, set aside half an hour and say ‘that half hour, I am reading’.
That’s exactly it. And, I’ve got a really exciting thing. We are turning our wardrobe room into a reading and writing room… a technology-free room, no phones allowed, pure silence, you and your pen and paper, or a book. But I need to read more! That’s my note to self. And… the question was… no I’ve lost it!
Why do you think jazz is important in music and wider society?
That was it…jazz! That’s what I was saying. Without doing much research, just from having a general awareness… I really believe jazz to be foundation of all music. That’s just my opinion, like I said at the beginning, I have strong opinions… not everyone is going to agree with that, but that’s fine. I think that it’s formed a lot of other genres of music, or inspired other genres of music, and for me as a Black Woman, it really resonates in my soul. I really feel that jazz reflects my experience, and my struggle. It just really embodies who I believe that I am, and who I want to be. More of who I want to be, because I think that we are only who we strive to be… I think it’s really also quite relevant at every point in history. There has always been, consistently, a jazz scene, because it is reflective of ‘the now’, and it always changes and moulds itself to what is ‘now’, and reflects the experience of the people.
That’s such a great answer…
It really seems that this is coming from your heart… I’m listening to you talk and I’m thinking, wow, that really came from your soul, that came from somewhere very ancient and deep and special. It was really lovely.
Thanks sis, I feel emotional right now reflecting on all of this.
Do you have a muse? Who do you look up to in the scene?
Actually, I don’t have a muse. This is going to sound awful… but I don’t really look up to anyone in the scene. I take inspiration from people in the scene… not in terms of music or lifestyle, but in the way that they’re putting themselves out there. There are definitely artists who are on the scene who inspire me, so people like Esperanza Spalding, she’s incredible, she’s a big one for me. She’s quite an amazing artist because she is quite young, she plays upright bass and she sings… certainly her older stuff from her album called ‘Esperanza’, really rings true to me. I like that she’s young… I saw her, again, at Love Supreme, which was so blessed… she seems really cool. Her new stuff seems maybe a bit commercialised, which is something I never, ever want to happen to me…I don’t sing or make music to sell, but I sing because when I am singing, I am truly in my happy place.
I don’t think you could, I don’t think you even have that within you!
Oh this is a lovely song too… this is a playlist I made for a supper club on Sunday, which we’ve not invited anyone to yet, but it will happen…
If you build it they will come!
I know… its funny! But anyway… I really like that lady Cecile McLorin Salvant, I think recently, from me hearing that song she’s really come back onto my radar. I think she’s such a queen, she’s so elegant, she’s about 35 I think, but she comes on stage and it’s just like seeing Ella… elegance and wisdom, it’s so incredible. And another one, actually, is Amber Navran from Moonchild…her voice really carries me through. We haven’t even listened to Moonchild since we moved into this house, but- Moonchild, her voice really carried me through my lowest point. I feel teary even thinking about it! I’m so indebted to her, and she is so humble… I love her.
So… do you consider yourself a feminist?
Yes, I do. I am a feminist. Of course I am!
What does feminism mean to you?
It means… women not putting up with it any more. For years and years, we have struggled. As a Black Woman as well, I think I have to be a feminist. Because…not that necessarily, the movement in its entirety has benefited me, but it’s important that in any way I can, I find solidarity with other women. We have so much to handle anyway, what’s the point in being against other women? We need to be team female.
We have so many obstacles against us, why would we be obstacles against each other?
Exactly, and that’s why I get so annoyed when people complain about feminism. Especially when women complain about feminism. Because that really acts as a warning bell, that this woman is not for other women. You can’t ignore what feminism is, or what feminism means to other women.
What had you hoped to achieve at the beginning of the year, how far are you with those achievements now, and what does the rest of the year hold for you?
At the beginning of the year, my goal and aim was to be out of London, out of my job and in a position where I can start being more open to music. Six months in, I’m here, (in Liverpool), trying my best to absorb as much music as I can, really tired because of work, but I’m working on how to make earning money in a conventional way go hand in hand with making money from doing what I love which is singing…
Aren’t we all…
Yeah exactly, I’m just living the creative struggle, basically…which is really great, actually, because this time last year I was so far removed from being creative, that I was quite depressed, and it was awful… so it’s great, I’m in a place I need to be, for now, and going forward, I want to be in a position where I’m working less for ‘the man’ and singing more, really… that’s what I want to be doing by the end of the year.
And finally, is there anything you’d like to plug? Um, actually yeah! So for anyone in Liverpool, or anyone further afield who doesn’t mind a train journey, we have got a few exciting things coming up with the Wombat Supper Club, which is our little baby, it’s our way of giving musicians like ourselves a platform, and a space to entertain that is comfortable, but also beneficial to them… one of the things we have pledged to ourselves and to anyone who decides to work with us is that we will pay any musician who plays at our supper club. It’s a way to give musicians, jazz musicians in Liverpool, another space to perform, but also something which is a little bit different- where they can actually network with the people they’re playing for, and also eat nice food and have a good night out as well as enjoying their instrument or voice. We have a supper club coming up on Sunday… which we haven’t actually invited anyone to yet, officially… so if you want to come, email me! firstname.lastname@example.org, and if you can’t come on Sunday, we will be holding them at least once a month- more if we can! It’s just a voluntary donation of £15 for a 3-course meal and live jazz… you can’t get any better in my opinion! Also, when I’m ready, I will be releasing new music soon- so follow my insta to keep updated!! Hit me up, I’ve got some cool stuff coming up, really exciting stuff so please check it out.
Really and truly, all I’m doing here is just living the life I want to live. I don’t care if no one is interested because I am! That’s exactly how I feel about Ultravenus… I don’t care if no one is reading, I am writing! And that is the end of that! And you know what, that is just the best way to live life. What a lovely final thought.
Follow Ni on Instagram: @songsbyni