“A Space Where I Can Set Roots” Clash Meets Naima Bock
For a while there, it looked as though Naima Bock was done with music. A member of South London post-punk group Goat Girl, she was a key aspect in their rise, but found that touring, and the grind that comes with the everyday mechanics of being in a band, simply didn’t agree with her soul. It was all too much too young, and she took a step back – seemingly, for good.
The songs, however, didn’t quite go away. Her solo album ‘Giant Palm’ is wonderful – released this summer, it’s a baroque-tinged song cycle whose poetry, and personal revelation is riveting from start to finish. Entrancing with its difficulty yet ultimately wide open and inviting, ‘Giant Palm’ felt remarkable partly because it was so unexpected – a bravura creative statement from someone who was once, for all intents and purposes, done with music.
When Clash speaks to Naima over the phone she’s travelling between shows, on her way to a festival in Norwich. The reception is crackly, but her voice is clear; having taken time out, she knows exactly what to expect from life on the road, and how to deal with it. We open by discussing the emotional realm that ‘Giant Palm’ occupies, and whether her tour bus has given her space and distance from the project itself.
“I actually don’t think I’ve done that quite yet!” she says. “I reflected on it after it was released, just before we started playing gigs. That’s when I felt it the most.”
It’s been a busy summer for Naima, with a slew of festivals to her name; plaudits were given for her turn at End Of The Road, while a solo run also included Hamburg’s key showcase festival Reeperbahn. “I think I’ve enjoyed it,” she says. “I’ve made simple adjustments in relation to my health, and my mental health.”
“For the first time, I’ve approached it intentionally. I’ve realised that the difficult layers mean you have to build this foundation to do the things you love the most. So travelling, being tired, moving equipment, they all facilitate this thing you love. Before, I couldn’t see the link.”
In a way, those painful moments in his previous life were necessary to reach this step. “Maybe it’s growing up,” she ponders. “Or maybe I just drink a whole lot more water than I used to, which certainly helps!”
A rare full-band run, the tour culminates with an evening at London’s ICA on October 27th. “I’ve been doing quite a lot on my own,” she points out. “It’s a whole different challenge. But now I’m back with the band for this run, which is great.”
The album itself is a rich, fulsome experience; Naima’s voice guides the way, but those glorious arrangements create a sonorous atmosphere. An old but apt cliché: it’s a record to lose yourself in. These solo shows, then, invert the final result, and return us to the songwriter’s initial sketches. She points out: “I guess the songs started as that, and then filled out, with all these different layers, to make it more sonically interesting. It was a therapeutic practice for me to take it back to where it began.”
“It’s kind of snobby, but I feel like a song will always sound good on a guitar or a piano, Naima adds. “It’ll sound good just by itself. That’s a good baseline for songwriting, I think.”
Joel Burton assisted throughout the process of assembling the album, with the two working extensively before the tapes even started rolling. Working independently, and with minimal budget – “we maybe had about 500 quid for the whole” – meant that every single note had to be accounted for. “We’d been working together for about a year and half before reaching the album,” she says. “We managed to bring all these elements together that made it happen – like, we got gifted some studio time, and these musicians became free around this time. We didn’t have a lot of time to do it, so we spent time before going into the studio to work out what we wanted. We knew exactly what the timetable was going to be.”
“I guess, in a way, we didn’t really know how it was going to sound by the end of it,” she notes. “And that’s probably a good thing.”
Barely out of her teens when she stepped back from Goat Girl, Naima found new interests to plug herself into. She’s a keen gardener, and studied archaeology, too – all of these aspects and more fostered a sense of personal growth, affording space for her to re-assess the role music places in her life.
“I think those aspects of my life solidified for me that I can love other things in my life, but it’s music that I love the most. Throughout my life I’ve given up on a lot of things, so I started to feel like I was the sort of person who just… gives up on things. I would start things, and then put them down again. But actually, music has been the thing that allows me to gain perspective. It’s what I love doing the most.”
“They don’t feed into the songwriting,” she notes. “It feeds into life, which then feeds into the songwriting.”
As she’s at pains to point out, the album was ultimately a solitary process. “it can get quite insular, the music experience. Especially touring. There can be a sense of not being able to relate to different jobs. It’s like it’s own world. And that’s why it’s so important to stay in tune with everything you enjoy in life, so you can expand your horizons.”
The results, though, speak for themselves. ‘Giant Palm’ is the work of a driven, incredibly talented young artist, someone with a clear vision for what they want to produce. Remarkably, Naima’s faith never faltered, from first session to last. “It was intense. I was very intense. But there wasn’t one second where I doubted it. Which I’ve never felt about… anything. I felt from the start that I was on the right path. It felt right.”
“They’re my songs, but it felt very collaborative. Which was good, as that feeling of control needs to be spread out as much as possible.”
Clash can’t help but wonder where this certitude came from. Naima cites the support of her manager, the help of her collaborators, but also something slightly intangible, something beyond her fingertips. “I guess all I can say is that there was… a feeling. Before recording this album, I didn’t consider myself a songwriter. Not in the sense of taking that seriously. I had to almost trick myself into believing it was good enough to do it. Before, I found it very hard to take it seriously – it’s an insecurity, which a lot of musicians get.”
“But you do have to take that risk,” she says. “Good songwriting has to be naked and honest, and you have to risk that sense of embarrassment.”
Set to finish this run of dates in London, Naima Bock’s return home should coincide with another creative spell. In her downtime she’s been writing again, ensuring that every moment is made to count. “Over the last two years I managed to write more songs that I thought I would,” she gleams. “Every gig I’d use those few hours between the soundcheck, and the actual gig, to find a space on my own, and write. It’s a thing that grounds me, so I seek out a space where I can set roots, and be on my own.”
‘Giant Palm’ is out now. Catch Naima Bock at London’s ICA on October 27th.