The Value Of Honesty: Noname Interviewed

Chicago’s Fatimah Warner on melancholy, playing live, and her 'Telefone' tape...

“Pain. I seem to have an affection, a kind of sweet-tooth for it.” – Toni Morrison, Jazz

Chicago’s Fatimah Warner is a human being before anything else. The fact that she’s also one of the most exciting new voices in rap music won’t get in the way of that. From her chosen moniker, Noname, to her conversational tone of voice when rapping and an aversion to spotlight, she’s entirely relatable to a generation of people who don’t feel comfortable “stunting for the ‘Gram” and forcing themselves outwards. She is the comforting voice that reminds us that sometimes it’s OK to not be OK.

The 25-year-old rarely does “awkward interviews”, so even the way she interrupts to make sure she knows my name before we progress into conversation, is a reminder of a very human interaction – rather than the cold, press factory that’s often built between labels, PRs, the media and well conditioned artists.

It’s the morning after her debut headline show in New York, which she downplays as “fun” and “dope” despite rave reviews from attendees online – she also characteristically omits the fact that double-platinum rapper J. Cole came through as a fan, and had his picture taken with her. “I always get nervous [before shows], I’m very anxious,” she admits, despite having found her voice live at Chicago’s YOUmedia open mic events before committing to record. “But then I’m never nervous on stage. Only an hour before.”

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Her debut mixtape, 'Telefone', is a candid and open affair that offers an emotional spectrum of subject matter spanning everything from an imagined relationship between a mother and her aborted baby, to fear of police brutality. It’s not surprising then, that some of the tracks take an enormous amount of courage to deliver to an audience. “I think the most difficult song to perform, emotionally, is probably ‘Casket Pretty’,” she says, of the song where she expresses a reality in which her friends are one step away from having their lives taken by police officers. “I really love and hate performing that song.” she continues. “[Mixtape opener] ’Yesterday’ is sometimes difficult to perform. But outside of that everything is very enjoyable. Even those moments are fun in a different way, it’s more cathartic, like a healing thing.”

The cathartic powers of Noname’s writing don’t just take effect on their performer, but also channel through her recordings. Sonically, 'Telefone' takes place over a collection of whimsical beats and hip-hop lullabies. If it had been released as a collection of instrumentals it would sound happy – but after filtering through Noname’s ears a layer of melancholy is often applied. The beats become that spoonful of sugar that Mary Poppins told us about. “It’s a weird thing to do,” she acknowledges. “But I just find melancholy in music that makes me happy because I listen to it so much. I think I just like happy beats generally, I don’t really like to listen to instrumentation that's innately sad sounding all the time.”

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I spend all of the time in my own head…

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Lyrics fall into place over a daydreamed soundtrack, delivered as though casually talking directly to her listener, sound drawn bravely and directly from the subconscious – not scatterbrained and unconsidered, but like the result of hours spent going back and forth with oneself before finally casting the words into the ether. “I spend all of the time in my own head,” says Noname. “I think I can be productive in that space, and it can also be counterproductive. I think sometimes I over-think. I wish I could have enjoyed last night a little bit more. Today I looked back on it and was like ‘Oh shit, that show was kind of raw!’”

After half-joking that liquor is her way to flee the voice in her head, Noname cites reading as her main source of escapism. “I don’t want to recommend you the book I’m reading right now, because I haven’t finished it,” she says when I ask for a suggestion as to what the next addition to my bookshelf should be. “Have you read Jazz by Toni Morrison?” she asks, I tell her I haven’t. “I’m really into authors who use a lot of poetic language and devices within normal literature. I would assume you’re into 'Telefone' in some capacity, so if you’re into that style of writing then I think you would like it.”

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You won’t find any ego filtering its way into Noname’s music, she avoids braggadocio and describes her personality as “reserved” and “self-critical to her detriment”. Instead of shoving a highlight reel of achievements and imagined successes down the headphones of her listeners, she keeps things as honest and raw as possible, committing her reality to the record – even if it can be uncomfortable. “I’m very into the idea of being my truest self within my art,” she explains. “I think it speaks value when some people are just as honest as they can possibly be. I wanted people to really feel like they were really listening, like sitting in a room with Fatimah.” As a result 'Telefone' is even more enrapturing. On its first few spins it feels like a new friend that you want to spend more time with, and after that it becomes that person you can hang out with all the time without ever even needing to speak. You can rely on Noname to be honest, but her music is comforting at the same time.

It’s fitting that friendship also played a major factor in the creation of the tape. Rather than forking out for expensive studio time, Noname holed up in an Airbnb out in Los Angeles with three of her close friends – producers Cam O’bi, Saba and Phoelix – where they made the bulk of the tape, fuelled by films (rewatching ‘Ali’ with Saba one night was particularly inspirational) and the cities’ “unexplainable good energy”.

“We’re able to push each other musically, just because we have a better understanding and we trust each other,” she explains of the close-knit group. “Those relationships can only come from spending time with someone, so I think friends make good music just based on that alone. They know when to push and when to pull back.”

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Chicago is a very complex city, it’s very nuanced and sometimes can be very sad.

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Although her hometown of Chicago is very much the most important supporting character in 'Telefone', she felt the need to get some perspective outside of it during the recording process. “You just need to get away from your typical surroundings to make art sometimes,” she says. “Chicago is a very complex city, it’s very nuanced and sometimes can be very sad.” The sadness, she explains can be drawn from a spectrum of something as natural as having a Winter, to the horrific reality of police violence and murder that she reflects on in ‘Casket Pretty’.

Cost was the initial reason for the crew’s Airbnb recording set up, but it’s not something Noname sees herself changing when bigger budgets present themselves in the future. “I still want to have some sort of AirBNB home studio just because it’s way more comfortable to make art in your own space where you feel comfortable,” she considers. “You can cook dinner and then go back to making a song, and then watch a movie.”

Everything, from her writing style, to Noname’s rejection of brand names, set her apart from the rest of the rap landscape – increasing the clarity and strengthening the importance of the voice she has to offer. Noname is a rare original in a world full of borrowers and imposters. “I think most people are very original, but society teaches us not to tap into that part of ourselves,” she laments. “[We’re made] to feel uncomfortable in our originality just because it’s contrary to other people around us and what they’re doing. Obviously, I think it’s extremely important.”

For Noname, chasing the cool isn’t an option; it’s actually something she’s afraid of. “I think the scariest aspect of my career is always feeling like people are only interested in my music now because it’s trendy, as opposed to genuinely liking my art,” she reveals. “I think it’s a more internal thing with me, just feeling like I’m not going to be adequate and able to sustain a life-long career; just constantly the feeling of ‘Am I actually fulfilling my potential?’” She takes a reflective pause. “Everything around me is pretty fun: I get to rap and my friends are always around me. The scariest part is just me feeling like I won’t fulfil some sort of goal that I have for myself.”

While she’s still working on figuring out exactly what lies on the path ahead, Noname feels like she’s moving towards her destination with 'Telefone'. The fact that you can still find all ten songs online is a positive in itself. “I think If I can continue to make art and feel as good about it as I felt about this project, then that will be successful. Most of the time whenever I made music I always deleted it from the Internet,” she admits. “So the fact that I haven’t deleted Telefone; that’s a really big deal for me personally. If I could keep making music on a level where I feel really proud of it then that’s success.”

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Words: Grant Brydon

Noname plays Village Underground tomorrow night (October 26th) with Mick Jenkins, then hits Electrowerkz on October 27th – both venues are in London.

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