The London-born singer talks all things her debut album, Heirloom.
Raised in Hackney, London-born singer NUUXS’ sound falls somewhere between a captivating drama and the realm of pure pop, always translating into the most tantalising of sounds. Garnering acclaim from the likes of Huw Stephens with her Red Tape mixtape last year, you’d be forgiven for assuming NUUXS is some lucky newcomer. Whether it be co-writing hits for Major Lazer or delivering impassioned vocals for Shawn Mendes, the singer’s versatility and wide-ranging talents have immediately singled her out as a creative powerhouse to be reckoned with.
With the release of her debut album Heirloom on the horizon, NUUXS latest single “SPF” embodies all the elements of a classic aughts banger, full of lush lyrics, cavernous bass and body-popping drum beats. “I’ll always be there in times of need/Drown me in your love so I can’t breathe,” NUUXS calls over poppy piano chords, retaining a soft and sweet groove as she glides through the track. The song is a metaphor for the guard we put up after being hurt or for fear of rejection, whether it be with friends or lovers. But NUUXS isn’t calling for us to slather it on to protect ourselves, oh no. She wants us to sizzle in our feelings, to get raw and real.
Catching up with the singer below, we talk unleashing her debut album into the world, living with The Libertines and graduating from Christian rock to grime.
Hi NUUXS, how has lockdown been treating you?
To be quite honest, I can’t complain and I’m so grateful for that. Lockdown has made me feel like I’m becoming a semi-pro baker… At first I was very apprehensive about going out and also discouraged as I had spent a long time writing my debut album “Heirloom”, I had a whole plan to release each track every 8 weeks up until it’s entire release and it hit me hard that the world seemed to be changing so rapidly and had to think of new ways of making it work. I couldn’t gig anymore and even with radio play a lot of DJs were playing more nostalgic songs than newer music. There were so many reasons to postpone but I thought, instead of just giving up on something I had worked so hard on- I had a gut feeling to stick with my plan. So far my two singles have had a lot of radio support and fan support so I’m relieved that I didn’t reconfigure everything. I also had to rethink my music videos and I’ve been working with animator Charlie Cross. I love how detailed his ideas are and how personal and quirky he is with each track- he completely understood my vision and takes so much time and animates everything drawn and painted by hand. Even though this is something no one could have predicted I’m so happy with the outcome.
You were born in France but are London-based – how has this influenced you sonically?
I was born in France but I have dotted around quite a bit, my younger years were spent in Hackney, my early teens up north and then back to London by the time I was 15. There are influences from my eclectic upbringing everywhere, to the folksy Laotian country music my dad would sing karaoke to, the big Bon Jovi ballads and Gloria Estefan my mum loved to absolutely nothing at all when I was in a more restricted environment- to Grime and Indie when I returned to London, not to forget all the house music I listened to when I started clubbing, I love dancing with my friends even if we do look like we’re doing fake salsa. All in all I’ve become a blend of all the music I love from 80’s power ballads, a bit of house, R&B, UK grime & garage, but one thing I don’t think I can stop being is me. In the end although I am influenced by a lot of these genres, I always end up with a sound that doesn’t traditionally fit with anything, I’m always on the edge of it, which I love.
Congratulations on your new single “SPF” – what is it about and inspired by?
Thank you I really appreciate that because it was literally the last song written when I thought I had all the album tracks together. An unexpected but very much loved song, I think by then I had taken a lot of the pressure off and we were just having a little jam and ended up with a more dance-influenced track. It’s about not wanting to be protected from someone’s love. “SPF” represents the walls we put up to shield us from being hurt but in this song I wanted to talk about when you just want to let someone completely in. To be able to ask someone to “burn me up” with all your love “I don’t want your SPF” is quite a daring and raw feeling to express.
It’s taken from your debut album Heirloom – why that name?
It was actually after I had been given my great grandmothers chair, it had so many memories attached to it, I remember the first time my grandmother reupholstered it for my mum the first time and it used to live with us in our Homerton house, to moving up north where my ominous stepfather at the time would sit on it whilst I’d have to sit on the floor until my legs went numb reading the bible for so many hours I’d physically be shaking myself awake. This chair has witnessed happy, sad and quite awful moments in my life and when it was given to me all broken, the springs needed to be replaced and the guy was like, this chair isn’t going to be worth much more, you’ll spend more money fixing it – I was more determined to return it to its former glory. I chose a pale blue satin embellished with a similar coloured satin thread used to embroider large elegant flowers that you can faintly see, he sanded and treated the wood and the seat was fully restored to the point I could happily sit there and read a good few chapters from a book I fancy. So there it was, my very own heirloom, my family don’t come from much so even though it held some painful memories it was still a part of my history, just like my album, every song holds an important part of what has shaped me into the person today, my Heirloom which I pass on to anyone who will listen.
What do you think ties together all the tracks in Heirloom as a body of work? And what were the most unusual inspirations that shaped it?
If I had the budget I would have turned it into a musical so instead I have it all in my head, of a young girl who finds her way out of what feels at the time an impossible situation. The storyline is the thread and the music has quite a theatrical flare to it, I use a lot of choral and layered vocals ranging from soprano to alto. It definitely helps having one main producer and co-writer working on the album, Jake Gosling who has really had a complete sense of what I wanted to create, we’ve spoken in length about everything which isn’t easy to share, although vital. The songs hold a sense of glamour, it’s chic and does have a dance and pop sensibility to it.
I think the most unusual inspiration would have to be the more futuristic songs lyrically, I talk of these fantasy worlds where changes are happening rapidly, I didn’t realise how much in common those songs would have with what’s actually happening in the world right now, unintentionally relevant, but those songs haven’t been released yet so I can’t wait for you to hear them as they unfold.
What’s the best piece of feedback you had on it? How did you want it to make people feel?
So far I’ve had people say “Sun God” and “SPF” make them feel like they’re in Ibiza or in a good place. One song has actually made someone flinch, she said it was “scary” and others love the grooves of the other songs however it’s difficult to discuss it when only a few of the songs are out. I do know that it is challenging as an album and extremely personal so might not be for everyone but I can guarantee there is at least one song for everyone. I want people to feel great, excited and challenged at the fact that it is a piece of art to be analysed and critiqued as well as enjoyed.
I read you were raised in a cult – how do you think this has coloured how you view music and the freedom and vulnerability creating and listening to music gives you?
Music gives me the most freedom apart from when I first got my drivers licence and I was like I’m going to Brighton for the day because I can now. Driving and listening to music could be one of the simplest pleasures of freedom that I love. What I’ve learned is that there are cults all over the world, some are good some are not. I’ve actually met a few people who have experienced similar lives to saying that they “loved it” to simply “it wasn’t for them”. In my personal experience I was not gently shielded from the world because of a system of Christian beliefs, I was in an environment ruled by a dangerous controlling man who believed he was chosen by God and had charmed the school authorities and other people that he was an upstanding citizen when unfortunately he wasn’t. So charming in fact people began to “follow” him. We did sometimes for a treat listen to Christian music so when I turned 14 I was finally allowed a CD player to listen to Christian music. What I quickly discovered was the radio which I would secretly play in the middle of the night with my ear to the speaker whilst playing it on the lowest decimal, that’s when I knew I needed to find my own way and leave which I did a year later. Music is an expression of who you are and if it feels like I’m in a box you can expect me to want to break out of it.
I also read you used to write hooks for local grime artists – why is it important to branch outside of your set genre and experience the rhythms and lyricism of others?
I was in my final GCSE year in East London where the scene strong and they were my friends in class who just asked if I could write short hooks because I was good at writing poetry, then it lead to them asking if I could sing it, it all sort of grew from there and I ended up meeting producers through friends of friends and I began writing for other artists, a few years later I got a publishing deal.
What’s been your biggest pinch-me moment so far?
As a writer I’ve had a few pinch me moments – I’ve been in some really random situations- I got the chance to go to Thailand at Karma studios to do some writing and ended up singing backing vocals and living with The Libertines whilst they were making their album Anthems For Doomed Youth it’s quite funny because Dagny the singer was there too. I even ended up painting some of the artwork that ended up on the final album cover- those guys are absolute legends.
Another time I was writing in Rhinebeck on my own stuff and I ended up living in the same complex as Shawn Mendes whilst he was writing and recording his second album “Illuminate”. I used to make breakfast for everyone with his manager Andrew in the communal kitchen and was one day asked to sing backing vocals on a track called “Mercy” for him, I was stoked but also super hungover that we all nicknamed the place “Winebeck” it was insane to see him perform it live at the O2 with all his fans singing along.
More recently I wrote a track with Mr Eazi, Zac Pajak and Jake Gosling. It’s called “Tied Up” and there and then in the studio he dialled his phone and spoke to Diplo directly who loved the song and wanted to jump on it for Major Lazer. It then became a single with Raye and it was added to their Major Lazer Essentials album. I couldn’t have been happier. But to have my own track played on BBC Radio 1 for the first time by Annie Mac is something I’ll never forget.
What’s next for you? What are you excited about in 2020?
Well, aside from releasing singles from the album, which will carry me straight to March 2021, I’m excited to see the build of it all. I look forward to seeing my music reach everyone and hear their reactions. It’s also the year where we should all remember to be kinder to ourselves and know how resilient we all are and how adaptable we can be. I’m excited to be acquainted with the person I know I’m capable of being, I’d love to share more but it’s a surprise.
NUUXS is playing Online Aid on the 4th August for Refuge. Tickets and info at online-aid.org