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Nakhane’s Rich Musical World

After wowing Elton John and Madonna, South African singer-songwriter sets sights on Australia


Alex de Mora

Nakhane released a new EP to end 2022. Titled Leading Lines, it emerged from a prolific period for the acclaimed South African singer-songwriter, who is also due to release their third full-length LP, Bastard Jargon, in March. 

Leading Lines features previous singles, “Tell Me Your Politik” (featuring Moonchild Snalley and Nile Rodgers) and the Perfume Genius collaboration “Do You Well”, as well as new single “My Ma Was Good.” 

“That song’s very important to me,” Nakhane says via a Zoom call from London, “because I was walking through Brixton at the time going to a bookstore and the hook just came to me and that doesn’t happen a lot. I normally figure out my melodies to record. I got home and I actually worked on it immediately, which is very rare, because I normally have an idea and work on it a year after (laughs). 

“Of course, I fixed this and that but all-in-all I got the formula in a day and I knew what the song was about. I knew that it was me reckoning with this idea of my dark side, fucking someone over. Well, first of all recognising it and seeing that it does exist.

“That doesn’t mean that it should be entertained, but in that moment, it was a moment where I thought, ‘you know, why should I be good? Here’s this person that I really love and respect and believe has been a good person – or at least as far as I know, as much as she could have – and she was still fucked over.’ So she was good, but why should I be?”

For Nakhane, it’s their favourite song from the EP and album – it features on both – because of all the tracks recorded they feel it’s the most South-African-sounding.

“It reminds me of home,” they say. “I was thinking of a lot of South African Kwaito bands when I was writing – I think I was missing home before COVID actually, but I wanted this EP and the following album to be inspired by South African dance sounds. Particularly because house is really big in South Africa, but house is very different to the house that is heard everywhere else in the world because of the sensibility of how we hear music and how we make music.”

That sensibility runs deep given Nakhane’s mother and aunties were all opera singers. Communal singing sessions in the family’s Port Elizabeth (an Eastern Cape seaport city now known as Gqeberha) household were a frequent occurrence and are some of Nakhane’s formative recollections.

“What mandated my existence as a child, as a human being, was that I can sing,” they say. “From around age three, my earliest memory is me singing to my mum’s friends. My mum and her sisters and my cousins were all opera singers and it was them teaching me songs, teaching me how to round off my tone. So this is before five, right? And everyone can sing in my family except maybe one or two people, everyone can sing in my family. 

“But for some reason, there was quite something special about me singing because… I loved it. It was it was my way of self-soothing, as well. I just put myself to sleep over time.”

Opera provided Nakhane with a beautiful and complex introduction to music, even if some rebellion later kicked in, albeit only for a time. “Within that, when you’re a teenager you just start to kick against that as well,” they say. “I mean, I grew up around these choirs of 60 voices, in a very small room. I don’t know how our hearing’s just fine because those are a lot of voices. Which is why I think I love harmony so much, because that’s how I remember hearing music.

“But what happens is that it’s very Freudian, you love your parents, you want them and then you’re like, ‘No, I want my own thing’ and you reject that formative experience. And then you come back to it like I’m doing right now. Now I’m coming back to it and I’m really, again, obsessed with classical music and opera… but I don’t want to do it the way that I don’t want to. I’m not interested in it that way.”

Alex de Mora

Radiohead and Leonard Cohen were two artists that Nakhane gravitated to. Being the mid-2000s, it was the time of MySpace. We may now remember it quaintly, but at that point the platform provided an all-new way of sharing influences and interests.

“What I loved about MySpace was that you could follow an artist and they were following other artists,” Nakhane says. “So you would discover music through other artists and what they loved. It wasn’t about artists’ personalities. It wasn’t about what they had for breakfast, or how they did their makeup. It was about their interests and I loved that.  

“So I discovered Sigur Rós, Feist and Rufus Wainwright. A lot of quote/unquote ‘white music.’ I already loved Marvin Gaye, Fela Kuti, all of these incredible soul artists from the ‘70s that my mum had introduced me to. My dad was more of an Afro-jazz kind of guy, so a lot of South African jazz… a lot of Miriam Makimba, etc. My mum was more the soul person. 

“And that’s when I realised I wanted to be a songwriter. That’s when I thought, ‘oh, I want to I want to write my own story. I’m tired of reciting’. Whether it was classical music – I was playing trombone as a child – or singing pop songs on talent shows. And so I got started writing songs.”

Another artist for whom Nakhane became fascinated by was Jeff Buckley. The amazing melange of influence and inspirations that the late singer/songwriter revelled in, whilst resolutely maintaining an artistic individualism, provided an example of how to both indulge and explore.

 “I really loved Jeff Buckley and what I loved about him was his varied taste in music. Nina Simone… and I don’t want to mention them because Morrissey has ruined everything, but The Smiths, Led Zeppelin. Nusrat Fata Ali Khan. Then what comes out of all those influences is a very self-assured Jeff Buckley. 

“I’m not ashamed of my influences, and I’m not ashamed of glorifying them and saying, ‘I wanted this to sound like Marvin Gaye. I wanted this to sound like Ali Farka Toure or Fela Kuti or Miriam Makeba’, because those are my ancestors and those people still, to this day, influence how I make music. Of course, I don’t want to sound like them, but your ancestors are like your parents, you still you carry traces of them on you.” 

While Nakhane’s musical upbringing may sound idyllic, there are other aspects of their youth, however, that are dreadfully harsh. At the age of 19, Nakhane was involuntarily outed to their family and was forced to undergo gay conversion therapy by the conservative Baptist church they attended. This lasted for five years, amidst a raft of soul-searching and misplaced guilt, until Nakhane extricated themself from the church altogether. 

In 2014, after Nakhane won the ‘Best Alternative Album’ category for their debut LP, Brave Confusion, at the South African Music Awards, the pastor of the church called to excommunicate them. A moot point, really. It was all a bit late for that.

That Nakhane has emerged as a stronger person is without doubt. Their concept of strength, however, is not as straight-forward as most. 

“Well, you have to be a strong person,” they say. “We’re animals, we’re mammals. We’re violent. We have to survive. We do things in order for us to survive. So strength is very important. I think sometimes we forget our animal nature. We think that just because we evolved, that we have houses and we wear clothes that some of those – and I hate this word – quote/unquote ‘natural’ facets of our beings are not there anymore. But they’re there, coming out in different ways. So strength is really important, but strength is not the only thing. 

“I know that I can endure. I’m good at enduring.”

Upon explaining this, Nakhane offers a true-life metaphor. In late 2020 they attended a friend’s birthday party at a London park where a pick-up rugby game was played. Naturally competitive, Nakhane was feeling even more so after four pints.

“I ran, I tripped, and I fell, right? And the next day I woke up sober and my wrist was kind of niggly and I was like, ‘oh whatever’. 

Nakhane went on to endure a niggling pain for over two years before seeing an orthopaedic surgeon last December. It turns out that the wrist had been fractured and that, perhaps, endurance isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. 

“I think softness and weakness – if we’re talking about contrasts – are also really valuable,” they note. 

Even so, softness and weakness are not comforts Nakhane allows themself as an artist. “I do believe that the moment you are comfortable you should get out of the room,” they state. The fact that they admittedly enjoy settling into a groove then repeating and revelling in it, is all the more reason to abandon ship for something more difficult and creatively rewarding. 

“I guess it’s a tell-tale sign of my neuro-divergency, but I have to make very harsh decisions,” Nakhane explains. So, no acoustic guitars – that’s I said to myself when I was making (2019 album) You Will Not Die – ‘no acoustic guitars and no live drums, but synthesisers and keyboards.’

“For this one I knew that I wanted to make a rhythmic album. So I knew that the first thing that I would do when I was writing it was to program drums, program basslines, and write over those and then fill it out with chords… if I wanted chords.

“If you actually listen to the songs on the EP and the album coming up next, there aren’t really chords. It’s all melodies, it’s a lot of arpeggios… because of how it was written, which is very different to how I had written before.”

As Nakhane’s star has risen in recent years, there’s been no shortage of celestial beings singing their praises. In 2018 Elton John interviewed Nakhane on his Beats 1 radio show, remarking that their voice reminded him of none other than Marvin Gaye. Madonna named Nakhane as one of her two favourite artists and noted how their music influenced her 2019 album, Madame X. 

After working on “Tell Me Your Politik”, Nile Rodgers was full of praise for the demo Nakhane had presented and their approach to evolving the song. 

“From little acorns grow giant oaks,” Rodgers said on a ‘Behind the Track’ YouTube video. “The last thing that tripped me a little bit was at the end Nakhane changed one word. And that one word made it a lot better and the message clearer. That just shows how when you have confidence and clarity and you feel a certain way about what you want to say, one word can really make a huge difference.” 

Nakhane’s forthcoming Australian visit will be a two-piece scenario, featuring long-time rhythmatist, Keir Adamson, on synth and analogue drums, with Nakhane on vocals, keyboards, guitar and “possibly trombone.” 

And clearly, they are in love with the whole thing.

“Every night is different,” Nakhane ponders. “There’s something about performance which is very… refining. It’s like fire to gold – there’s something about it. 

“I love that sense of community. I love that anything can happen if you allow it. With this new show, I’m trying to create something that is quite spartan, but also with moments of improvisation. I want there to always be a sense of possible failure, sort of looking at me, peering over from behind the corner. That makes it makes it edgy for me.”

Nakhane Australian Tour

Friday, March 3rd
Sydney WorldPride, City Recital Hall, NSW
Tickets: City Recital

Saturday, March 4th
Powerhouse, Brisbane, QLD
Tickets: Powerhouse

Sunday, March 5th
Perth Festival, WA
Tickets: Perth Festival

Friday, March 10th-Monday, March 13th
WOMADelaide, SA
Tickets: WOMADelaide

Wednesday, March 15th
Melbourne Recital Centre, Melbourne, VIC
Tickets: Melbourne Recital