Interview \\ Gondwana’s Noya Rao: Mysticism is our thing

Noya Rao have enveloped the ears of listeners with their mystic tones and enigmatic melodies. Nina Fine talks to vocalist Olivia Bhattacharjee and keys Player / producer Tom Henry to get the low down on one of the UK’s most exciting rising bands. Catch them at The Great Escape on 19 May. Tickets

It’s 11am and I’m accompanied by a steaming cup of coffee, awaiting the voices of Noya Rao‘s Olivia (vocalist and lyricist) and Tom (keys player) on Skype. This is a familiar form of communication for the band who, since their formation, have managed to split themselves between Leeds and London. 

Starting out as a bedroom beat-making exploration, I quickly learn how Tom began to carve-out a live format. Bringing drummer Matt Davies into the project, Tom also began to yearn for vocals. The interview begins without my help. “Did you feel Tom”, asks Olivia, “like the potential was limited by just a three piece?” Tom explains that “it just felt like it needed a new dimension to it”.

I consider Tom’s words. “Did you feel like you actually needed words to possibly communicate what couldn’t be fully communicated or realised through instrumental music?”, I ask. Often, talking to beat-makers and rhythm section musicians, lyrics become secondary to the communicated meanings through melody and beats, however, Tom explains, “that sounds pretty good, but I wouldn’t say it was that deep actually… I think the words and having someone on top of music now, a vocalist of some sorts, it kinda connects people to the music a bit more, on some levels.” Talking with Olivia and Tom, I sense musical decisions come from a curiosity to learn and an interest to explore sound making at its foundations, journeying towards their full potential.

Noya Rao open the EZH stage at The Great Escape 2018

As the lyricist, I ask Olivia if the melodies and lyrics seemed obvious to her when she first heard the tracks that she was invited to write on. “As a lyricist I think it is inevitably going to be a personal thing. So I think, I usually take from like a mood or like the sonic qualities of what it evokes and just naturally and I usually write a song based on that.” Olivia refers to “the palette of Noya Rao” and what she felt at the early stages of hearing the music: “to me it was a very new sound, moving away from that very neo-soul sound that had just been done a lot, but with the sound of the rhodes and things… the rhythms are just so unusual and I just love the music. I was so happy to be able to write to it.” 

Gondwana signed Noya Rao almost immediately after a small show in Manchester. Olivia notes, “because Godwana as a label is obviously primarily more jazz and ambient jazz […] we don’t necessarily fit into that, we are definitely on the periphery of the jazz world.” She continues, “when I’ve spoken to other people, the music, like I said, kind of makes more sense when it’s in a live setting because it has a new energy.” 

Noya Rao are a band pushing themselves. One thing you can be sure about is that they will never simply play the album. Olivia explains, “It is important for us to embellish the songs and read the mood in a way; to have the live set as something that is [different to the album]. Obviously we’re playing songs that are on the album,  but we don’t have to strictly. Actually, I think it’s playing those songs live that gives you the opportunity to explore the melodies, explore the harmony, make the intro longer or have a big instrumental. That is the beauty of live music and that is why people still pay for live music.”

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Tom explains, “I think it’s all an interesting challenge, trying to portray songs live. There’s been quite a few technical things that we want to try and get right, like Olivia’s vocal harmonies… it messes with your head. But then you get to a stage when it starts to sounds good and you’re like, ‘actually it’s not the same but it sounds cool in itself’. It’s a bit of a battle but it’s a cool thing in the end – that’s how I feel about it…”. 

We have happened upon a very relevant issue; do they feel like technology expands or contracts creativity, particularly when a band sees the limitations of what they can do with traditional instrumentation? In its essence, Tom says, “I think it does expand creativity, but you can make sure it doesn’t take over from the initial core thing of an idea and bringing it back to basics in an instrument.” I find this an attractive stance. It both honours the instrument for what it is, whilst opening space for innovation. Sharing an example, Tom describes a recent discovery:  “I watching an interview with a guy called Steve Lacey, I don’t know if you know about him, he’s like a songwriter who makes songs on his iPhone – songs like Kendrick Lamar and all sorts of amazing artists and that to me is super inspiring because I am definitely one to get caught up in this idea that I need more gear to write better ideas, I need more gear to get a better soon and then you see people who literally have nothing and they’re making amazing music because the music can and it speaks for itself.”

Once again there is a real sense of humility and exploration when listening to the band speak. Removed of any ego, both Olivia and Tom express a clear desire to grow the band’s sounds first presented in Icaros. Tom explains that “there are other approaches I want to try. It’s quite an exciting prospect really, now that we’ve kind of solidified what the band is to a certain extent and in terms of the set up. The sound will probably change quite a lot. We know what everyone’s individual sound and moving that all forward is pretty excited.” 

Discussing the Noya Rao aesthetic, I ask Olivia and Tom how the band came to form visual expressions of their music. Noya Rao’s videos evoke a dreamscape with ethereal moods and water-like textures. Tom explains, “I think Gondwana have also taken on the fact that our band uses raw, analogue, tapey sounds. They’ve tried to keep things pretty analogue, so the guy who created the video actually put loads of things in a fish tank like inks and paper, and then recorded through the fish tank.” Olivia notes,  “I don’t like to think of Noya Rao as being too airy fairy but I definitely think mysticism is a part of our thing. There’s a lot of lyrical references to astrology and musically the soundscapes can be quite enigmatic, ethereal at times. Golden Claw is pretty crazy!”

I hear Tom laughing over the call, “we didn’t have much input into that to be pretty honest, that was a bit of a shock to us as well, but it is cool, I do like it.” We laugh about the reality versus final outcomes of videos. Olivia tells me, “It’s also so interesting doing that side of whole things because the reality of what we actually do to create these videos is, you know, they do look so professional and they’re beautiful but the reality for us is being in a room with a green screen like in someone’s living room with a green screen, just being told to get into this poses and then suddenly, in like, three months I’m flying I’m in space on a cube.” 

There’s a lot of promise for Noya Rao in 2018, who open the EZH stage at The Great Escape this year; “we are organising a tour for May, and as a band, we’re just focussing on writing, trying to get the next project together.” With that in mind Noya Rao aren’t putting too much pressure and instead are open to putting “a lot of time into experimentation and gathering as much material as we can to then narrow it down into something.” They explain, “more than ever, we are going into a phase of experimentation and expansion”. 

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EZH | Nina Fine