Artist Spotlight: Naima Bock

    Born in England to a Brazilian father and a Greek mother, Naima Bock spent her early childhood in Sao Paolo before relocating to South London, where she formed the post-punk band Goat Girl, playing bass and touring the world alongside her friends from school. Following the release of their acclaimed self-titled album in 2018, Bock decided to part ways with the group to focus on other pursuits. In the years between leaving Goat Girl and her solo project, she worked as a gardener and started a degree in archaeology at University College London. Though she was still writing songs during that time – in addition to joining the folk collective Broadside Hacks – she wasn’t planning on assembling them into an album until she met Joel Burton, her close collaborator on Giant Palm, which was recorded in the studio of Speedy Wunderground’s Dan Carey and features over 30 musicians.

    Released last Friday on Sub Pop, the 10-track LP is clearly an ambitious, richly arranged, and eclectic-sounding debut, thanks in no small part to the spirit of collaboration that brought the songs to life. But the elegant, often expansive arrangements on Giant Palm neither disguise nor distract from the bones of Bock’s stirring, idiosyncratic songwriting, only seeking to elevate its strange, conversational intimacy. As much as the album draws from Bock’s heritage and various influences passed on through generations – from bossa nova and British folk to jazz and classical – it consistently grounds itself in the present moment, so much so that it almost feels like a small miracle that her emotional reflections have been so carefully preserved over the past couple of years. In its current form, the weight of her voice evoking both exhaustion and understated power, the album easily serves as a source of comfort, an invitation to slow down and rise up. “Life’s giant palm lifts me to the sky,” she sings on the wondrous title track, “And for a while I forget that I cannot fly/ So I float high, high above it all.”

    We caught up with Naima Bock for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her upbringing, the journey behind Giant Palm, freedom in solitude, and more.

    You spent part of your early childhood in Brazil before you returned to England, where you were born. How do you look back on your upbringing and the music that you grew up around?

    I was pretty young when we were in Brazil. I moved back when I was seven, because my parents split up and schooling was free here in England. There are free schools in Brazil as well, but my mom wanted me to go to an English school. I think musically, it was mostly just my dad playing records, but my Brazilian family, most of them are classical musicians. My grandma, before she got married, she was a concert pianist. She was really good, but she was obviously of the generation where as soon as you get married, you have to have kids and give everything up. And so she stopped at the age of 25. She’s 85 now and she still rips the piano. And then my auntie over there, she’s a cellist in an orchestra. So I grew up around both the Brazilian classics and also quite a lot of classical stuff as well that I found really boring. Now I’m a little bit older, I can appreciate classical music a lot more as well, and I think that’s actually seeped into the album quite a bit. But also, that’s partly thanks to Joel Burton, because while we were recording the album, he was doing his degree in classical music.

    When did that shift happen, where you started appreciating both Brazilian music and classical music more?

    For me, Brazilian music was always part of my life, and it was something that, when I listen to it, it brings about such strong emotion. It’s got that middle point of happy and sad. A lot of my mates from England and Europe absolutely love Brazilian music, loads of people do, but they can’t understand the lyrics, and the lyrics are such an essential part of it – so beautiful. They’re real poetry. So Brazilian music was always just there as the place that I’d go when I felt bad or I needed some kind of comfort or maybe a bit of nostalgia for going back there. Because I try and visit Brazil once a year until the pandemic, I was there in February this year, luckily.

    But then the shift to classical, I’m not like a fervent classical listener or anything, but I was actually trying to consciously listen to less straight-up indie music and less song-based structures. Having grown up in such a technological age, it’s quite easy to just listen to two to three-minutes songs – I think that listening to classical has helped expand my creative mind and my imagination a little bit more by just sitting with it even if I wasn’t immediately gripped by it. That’s kind of true for a lot of instrumental albums that I really love now. It was definitely more of a conscious decision and I’m really happy that I made it, because I think I needed it at that point in my life as well, and it offers some kind of respite from, I guess the personal agonies which can sometimes feel quite egocentric around pop music and indie music. I feel like there’s something a little bit more ethereal and heavenly about some classical and some jazz and instrumental music. A bit more spiritual, maybe.

    You’ve talked about how you’ve been inspired by Brazilian bossa nova British folk music, but I was wondering if the Greek part of your heritage is something you’ve been curious to explore at all.

    Yeah, that’s funny, actually. Bless her soul, my mom has always been trying to – we had quite a difficult relationship with my Greek family, because there was a lot of drama. There was a period during my childhood where my mom wasn’t talking to her parents. She was trying to teach me the language and trying to sort of keep the culture going with me, but because we were not visiting Greece very much, it didn’t really work. But I’ve actually gotten in touch with it a little bit more in the last year or so, I’ve listened to some more Greek music. Not before the album, so it hasn’t really played much of a part in it, but I have definitely gotten more in touch with it recently. And it’s just such such a fascinating history as well. I’m going on a marine archaeological dig in Cyprus later this year, which I’m really excited about. I guess I’m more interested in the history, but I feel like I’m yet to plunge into the musical history, which I will do properly one day. I’m kind of just dipping my toes in at the minute, but what I have found has been incredible and beautiful. Such a rich culture.

    Is there a specific moment where you felt like songwriting and making music became an important part of your life?

    Well, especially towards the end of my time in Goat Girl, my last band, I started to write songs but I had absolutely zero confidence with it. So there was never a serious thought in my mind that I would do it as a career or even in an ambitious way. I’d write songs in quite a relaxed manner – it would take me like six months to write one song, and then another one will pop up. I didn’t really try very hard, because I just wasn’t expecting it to go anywhere. But then, in the intervening years between Goat Girl and this project, I did a lot of gardening, I started a degree in archaeology as well. I really enjoyed doing all of those things, but I did sort of realise that music would be the only thing that I’d ever actually drop everything else for. I think that to do a lot of different things in life is very important, and especially with musicians, I really respect people that have like a tunnel vision with music and that’s the only thing that they could do, but without sounding too serious, I also can’t take the business as a very solid grounding for life. I didn’t come from a lot of money in my family, so it’s not like I can lean back on a bunch of money in case it doesn’t work out.

    That’s why I started the degree, mostly because of my interest in history, but partly so I could have a bit of a solid footing. Something to do that I enjoyed and that would also make me a little bit of money, definitely more money than music. But I feel like songwriting, regardless of whether I do it as a career or not, is always gonna – it’s just so fun. Even writing bad songs is still fun. It’s the only real thing that actually gives me any mental peace, I think, which is what a lot of musicians have. Whatever context I’m doing it in doesn’t really matter too much to me, although at the moment, I’m very grateful to be able to do it more permanently. But I’m also aware that things don’t last forever.

    It sounds like it was more the gap between Goat Girl and your solo project that led you to that realization. You left the band in order to focus on other parts of your life, not necessarily your solo career, which is maybe the more traditional story. But that made you realize how much you actually need music in your life.

    That’s exactly it, really. I didn’t too much like the idea of leaving a band and going solo because I kind of associated that sometimes as a product of individualism and an inability to work with each other, or to be not the front of something. I say that, and then I went to do my own solo project, so I don’t really know if I can preach about that. [laughs] But in that gap, I was quite intent on that not being the trajectory. It was more just that it was something that, like you said, I kind of needed to do. I didn’t really feel like there was much of an option. But I struggle with a lot of confidence around music as well, so that’s another reason why I might not have been so driven or ambitious with it.

    There’s so many people involved in the making of this album, so I’m curious how working with others in this context differed from being in a band for you. Was it a need, also, to work with others? Or maybe the songs needed it?

    I don’t know if the songs needed it as such, but I think that they asked for it. And I was lucky enough to be introduced to so many good musicians that were also at the time very free. I kind of just thought I’d asked them and see if they wanted to, and they turned out to like the songs enough that they were up for doing it, which I was quite surprised about, actually. One of the best things for me about listening back to it is being able to hear all my friends in it. Each part can feel so personal to them. I much prefer listening back to it and hearing them than hearing myself in it. So, I think working with people always was going to be the case because music is enriched so much when it’s got a lot of different minds and talents and hearts put together. If it was a completely solitary voyage, I think it would be beautiful, but it wouldn’t be what it is.

    Do you feel like that process of collaboration gave you more control?

    I think that in some ways, it does give you more control. This one felt a lot more like a collaboration between me and Joel, who did the production, so it’s kind of the two of us that were making all the decisions. And then sometimes, we would have, like, the violinists come up with their own parts and sometimes the horns would come up with their parts, but on the whole, it was mostly us. I think in that way sometimes a creative idea can be more concise when one does have more control. And when there’s a conciseness to it, it makes it more personal in a sense, rather than it being diluted through a lot of ideas and slotted into something that everyone’s happy with. That’s maybe the difference between working or writing as a band that I couldn’t really get behind, because a lot of the music that I listen to isn’t too collaborative. It’s either one or two people making it. The control, in a way, is important so that a clear idea can be can be expressed without too much dilution. Because once you finish the song, everything that happens with that afterwards is diluted through so many layers different people saying, “You need to market it like this” or “We need a music video like this.” You kind of lose control, so if you have control over how it sounds, I think that’s important.

    Tell me more about your relationship with Joel, how it evolved over time and whether it ended up shaping the songs in a way that you didn’t necessarily anticipate.

    I met him because he was in the band Viewfinder – well, he was Viewfinder and then made a band around it. And he released a really beautiful album. Actually, the very first time I met him was at an open mic, I was 15 and he was playing. We didn’t actually meet, but I got massive crush on him, so I obviously went and pulled up his SoundCloud afterwards. And then we didn’t meet again until six years after that, and he was in the band Viewfinder. So Josh [Cohen], my manager now, put me in contact with him, and I supported him at a show. And then I asked him if he wants to help me with some songs, and he agreed. This was like four years ago. Basically, I had the songs that I’d made as demos, but most of them I’d written on bass because I obviously played bass in Goat Girl. I kind of fell out of practice with the guitar, so I was writing my songs on bass and then I had to relearn them on guitar and then showed them to him.

    Over those two years, we played live together, and that period of time when we were playing live is sort of the formation of why the album sounds like it does now, I think. Because we just played little gigs, and it was just the two of us as well, so we sort of found out our voices went really well together and that we shared the same musical world. I don’t think either of us had had that with anyone else before, where we felt comfortable enough – because he shares a lot of his songs with me, and I did the vice versa. So we both felt comfortable enough around each other to tell each other when something was good, and more importantly, when it was not good. And then in the summer of 2020, we basically just went traveling. We went camping quite a lot that summer, and basically picked up those songs after having not played them live for a while and just decided to record them and shape them into something.

    Also, we got gifted the studio so we didn’t have to pay for the studio, which was nice. That was a big incentive, and it was more of a kind of “Fuck it” thing, rather than like, “We’re gonna make an album.” But we ended up getting very serious with it as well. Two months prior to recording the album, we put in a lot of work. Like, pretty much every day we got together and went over the songs, went over what needed to be where, he’d make lots of arrangements and I would say yes or no. We got everything in its place, quite a lot before the actual recording of the album, so that when we got into the studio, we’d know exactly what we needed to do. Because neither of us really enjoyed going into a studio and just kind of winging it. We’d done that with our last bands. We didn’t want to get too serious with it, but we both agreed that it was a waste of time when you just go in and, like, jam it out. We’re both very organized people. It was very fun, but I think it was only fun because we were so well prepared. But that’s obviously not that rock and roll.

    I don’t want to ask you about the meaning of the songs, but I am interested in how you relate to them at this point in time. Is there something that you feel ties them together in a way that wasn’t obvious before?

    I don’t know if there’s something that ties them together. I haven’t gotten sick of them yet, which I kind of thought I would. They still bring me quite a lot of happiness to play them, and I do still feel quite connected to them. And I still feel like connected to the person that made them, even though she is quite different from who I am now. I still feel love and sympathy for the times that I was going through when I wrote them. Obviously, people change, but there’s also a thread through it all where people don’t change. And it’s kind of funny sometimes where I think I’ve outgrown the songs, but something will happen in my life that makes me realize I really haven’t grown up that much. Half the album was written in the summer before we recorded it, so they’re a little bit newer. And I think the longer you live with songs, you kind of have a choice to get sick of them and forget why you wrote them in the first place, or you have a choice to enjoy them and change them as you perform them and respect the recording for what it is.

    How do you feel like your relationship with your voice has changed since you made these songs?

    That’s a really good question. I think that it’s really the thing that’s changed the most, because I never really related to my voice as an instrument. I always thought that it was just something you had and you had to make do with what you got. Ironically, after recording the vocals, which did take me quite a while because I was in a very fragile state at the time when I was meant to be recording them, and I just couldn’t do it – I was trying over and over again, different people, different places, different studios. I couldn’t get the right feel for it. I think a lot of musicians have that, especially with vocals. I ended up going into studio with Liam [Cooper of the band Mela], so I did half the vocals with him and half of them with my dad. And it kind of worked. I wasn’t 100% happy with it, but what I realized was that I was never going to be 100% happy with it.

    I think, in terms of one’s relationship to their voice, it can be very complicated. I lost my voice a little bit during the making of the album and afterwards, because of emotional reasons. The only thing that kind of got it back to me was singing with different folk groups. That’s all made me project louder, and I learned to treat it more like an instrument and just accept that your voice is what it is and you can only push it so far. There’s no need to be the best of the best, because sometimes you just can’t do it. For me, singing is so much reliant on an internal confidence, and I can see that my voice can be awful some days, and most of the time that’s when I’m feeling not so good, and then really good other days when I’m feeling more confident or happy, a bit lighter. So it’s a bit of a journey. I did a couple of solo tours this year on my own this year, which was helpful for that, and it helped me understand the emotional connection and psychological reliance that singing can have. Maybe not for all people, but certainly for me.

    Was that your first time singing with your dad in that way?

    Not really. We did quite a few recordings when I was younger. It’s quite sweet actually, because when I started singing I was like 13 and he’s got a bunch of recordings from when I was singing and I just sound so young and sweet. So we were kind of used to each other. He’s also a music engineer, so he was really good at recording and I was quite used to singing around him. That made it quite easy. And also, he was the first person that ever taught me how to harmonise or taught me how to do anything. I kind of forget, sometimes, because obviously it’s your parents and I’m quite close to my family and I see them quite a lot, so it’s important not to take them for granted. He’s definitely the reason why I do music. There’s always one parent, you know what I mean? My mom’s tone-deaf, she’s got absolutely no relation to music, but I think she enjoys it.

    Maybe you’ll discover more Greek music together, and that will be your thing.

    Yeah, I think that would be good. I think she does want to, actually. She’s pretty good at dancing though.

    One of my favorite lines from the LP is from ‘Campervan’: “When I can I’ll go alone/ In silence I will make my home.” Since writing that song, have you become more comfortable with the idea of aloneness?

    I did the [Camino de Santiago] pilgrimage in northern Spain quite a few times, and that lyric was from – because I’ve always done it alone, and then one year I did it with a friend, and that was fine, but I think that it was important to me to realize the value of solitude. I think that walk taught me the value of solitude. I had maybe a slightly fearful relationship with solitude before doing those walks. And then suddenly realizing how much bigger the world can be when you go out into it on your own, how much fun it can be, all the possibilities and this beautiful freedom. I guess by not being around people that have stories about you already, you open up to making yourself like a new story, and you can let go of baggage maybe a little bit easier. I think I find growth in solitude more than anything. I also find a lot of growth in interpersonal relationships with my friends and families and romantic relationships, it all teaches us things. But I think the times that I felt most of myself has been when I’m on my own, and especially when I’m walking on my own and meeting strangers in this very sweet and sad way, where they come in and then they quickly go out of your life. Which is a lovely metaphor.

    Can you share a recent moment where you were out in nature or walking or interacting with a stranger that inspired you?

    I think the first one that pops to mind was from when I was on a walk, I think it was last winter up in the Lake District. There were a few different people walking, and there was this older Brazilian guy that just struck me as really grumpy the whole time. I just built up a bit of a vendetta against him, and I think he didn’t like me either. That continued for a few days because we were all walking the same way, so we kind of would cross paths every now and then. Finally we ended up talking, and as soon as he realized that I could speak Portuguese, he opened up a lot. Because I think he’d been feeling quite isolated there, and his English wasn’t amazing. He was this quite big guy, quite macho, and he worked in advertising in Rio. He looked like someone that had put up a lot of guards during his life. And he was walking the way because his father had passed away and it was something that his father had always wanted to do with him, and they never managed to do it together because he’d always been too busy working. As soon as he passed away, he booked his plane tickets and came and did the coast-to-coast walk up in the north of England. And he was just crying. It was really beautiful.

    I think it was one of the most touching moments, because I was a 24-year-old girl with this 58-year-old man just crying his eyes out about his father passing away. There was such – it’s kind of difficult to describe – such connection and such tenderness between us, two strangers that never met each other before properly. And I think that that was only possible because of the many walls that get torn down by tiredness on a walk. It’s like a snake shedding its skin when you put yourself through that kind of exertion in a slow pace, in a non-competitive way. You can just see people and their souls come out, rather than all of the other bullshit that they’ve got in front of their face and in front of their selves.

    I saw him the next day and he was still crying. And I was like, “This is great, you’re still crying!” [laughs] Because of his love for someone, he needed to just keep crying. My dad did the Camino on his own after I did it, and he said that he just cried for three days straight and he had no idea why. There was nothing in his mind, he was just crying and crying and crying. For someone to share that with me, and for me to share that with them, it’s probably one of the most intimate and beautiful moments of really connecting to another person’s heart, rather than just a mental exchange. And as soon as I return to London, I completely lose it.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    Naima Bock’s Giant Palm is out now via Sub Pop/Memorials of Distinction.

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