Artist Spotlight: Nailah Hunter

    Los Angeles-based harpist, multi-instrumentalist, and composer Nailah Hunter grew up playing several instruments and singing in the choir of her father’s church. She went on to study music, with a focus on classical voice, at CalArts, where she also began her journey with the harp, an instrument she’d long associated with ancient mythology, fantasy realms, and the natural world. Beginning in 2019, she has put out a series of mystical, meditative singles and two EPs, Spells and Quietude, and now signed to Fat Possum, she’s about to release her debut album, Lovegaze, on Friday. Hunter worked on the songs in a small coastal city along the English Channel before fleshing them out with London–based producer Cicely Goulder, and it finds her reorienting her focus back on the self, foregrounding her voice while pushing beyond the genre trappings of harp music. In doing so, the record harnesses the tension between what enchants and disarms us about the ethereal and intangible – things we can’t always see, reach, or really possess but are bound to chase after even in the face of destruction, like love.

    We caught up with Nailah Hunter for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight series to talk about her upbringing, her relationship with the harp, her debut album, and more.

    Your father was a pastor, and you grew up singing and playing piano in the church. How did that experience feed into your personal journey of music discovery?

    Growing up in the church, and it being kind of like a family activity – a family business, in a way – it felt sacred. It was introduced in hand with music very early, and I have really early memories of feeling the harmonies of the choir washing over me and thinking, Wow, that feels special. It provided me an awareness of that which is not seen. I’ve been thinking a lot about how in church, when people are closing their eyes and raising their hands and, like, being filled with the spirit, all of that stuff – you either believe it or you don’t, and I believed it. And it’s interesting, as I grew, getting into my angsty teen years – sure, I rolled my eyes at the institution of church, but it never shook my belief in whatever was happening there. It provided a foundation for my interest in mysticism, in a way.

    Your music has always displayed a fascination with magic and fantastical realms. To what extent do you now see that as a way of pushing back against religious tradition in the way it was set up around you?

    I think what I found later, after being involved in church, with what we would more likely label as mysticism – it goes back to what churches are trying to point out, but without structure or hierarchy. Therefore, it’s just the wild animus, the thing the earth is made of, all of the essential stuff that we experience as beings on the planet. I don’t know if it pushes back against it; I like to think that it’s just another lens. Of course, I’m not sitting here and doing tarot readings with my dad, but the thing that he gets when he reads the Bible and the thing that I get when I read tarot are probably the same. I think the difference between the church zone and the mysticism zone and the music that I’ve been making – it’s reclaiming spirit. It’s for the people versus through an institution, and I think that’s what’s important about it, about the pushing back. We don’t need the structure of a church or a book to tell us how to process this. It’s more about our experience as elemental beings that are connected to the elements at play on the earth.

    Do you feel like music has provided a space for you to explore your spirituality, or is it more like using spirituality as a playground for musical ideas?

    Yeah, I like that description. I think that music, because it’s this intangible sort of realm – obviously, through instruments we make it tangible, but each time you create something musically, you’re reaching beyond the veil. No matter how technically skilled you are, I think the fun is reaching beyond the veil and being blind and seeing what appears in the palm of your hand, because anything can happen in that place. I like the feeling of longing – I don’t know if I like the feeling of longing, but I feel like that’s what I am working with whenever I’m writing. And really, longing, yearning, is reaching into the dark. I think that’s why it’s exciting.

    What you were talking about in terms of the intangible makes me think of the harp, which is an instrument we often associate with this feeling of longing, maybe because for a lot of people it feels out of reach or inaccessible, even though it shouldn’t be. Even before you started playing harp, what it made feel like a natural or unique companion for that sort of reaching into the otherworldly?

    I think everyone, whenever they hear “harp,” the ear perks up, even if you don’t know what it is. I think about when I was a young person who didn’t have thoughts about instrumentation, and I would hear certain songs – my mom used to play this Erik Satie record, but it was all harp. I was like: That’s a texture that I know isn’t piano. There’s a lift, and also a dropping in, when you hear the pluck of a harp. That’s something I was aware of very early.

    I think because of LARPing, fantasy, Dungeons & Dragons – all that stuff has such a splash on the mainstream scene, and there’s a lot of harp imagery. I think a lot of people have preconceived notions and box in what harp can be surrounding that. Like, “Oh, harp, the fairy, LARPing thing, right?” And yes, I love that stuff. I will LARP. But I’m realizing now that my connection to the instrument has always gone beyond that, and it really is that thing about reaching into a space that feels beyond. I think the way that the instrument is set up – all zithers, whether it’s koto, guzheng – the way that you can sweep across pigmentation, you can’t really do that on any other instrument. It’s a thing on piano, but it doesn’t lift in the same way on piano. I think that’s what attracts people to it. It feels like infinite possibilities, especially concert-grand pedal harp, which is the most expensive and inaccessible version of harp.

    I feel like I don’t talk about my experience at CalArts with enough graciousness and thankfulness sometimes, but I was really lucky to be in the right place at the right time and be able to have contact with a concert-grand pedal harp. As soon as I played it, I was like, “I don’t know how, but this is my instrument now.” And made it happen because I had to, because it felt like the only thing that I could do: persevere and find a harp, save the money, make it happen, instead of just longing for it.

    What was going through your mind when you had that realization?

    It’s two–fold. Something interesting about harp is that, even if you’re playing a smaller one, you look at a harp and you say, “Oh, delicate! Oh, sweet!” No, it’s a heavy instrument. It has a bunch of hardware. It’s gritty, it’s buff, you know what I mean? So there was this this understanding of: Oh, this is not some magical realm thing. This is a physical object that exists in physical space that someone built, and it has 10,000 moving parts. Taking out the mystification of it and being like, “This is a crazy piece of machinery.” In that sense, it was almost grounding. My first harp teacher, Marilu Donovan, she’s in that band LEYA – just seeing her carrying around the harp, always getting to the gig an hour before everyone else because you have to tune, and seeing the responsibility of it, in a way, was actually more attractive to me than anything. It coincides with the part of college where I kind of needed some structure, and it felt like a call to sacred structure. Having said that, it did feel like a divine calling. I’ve heard other people say, like, “This instrument found you, this is this is something that you were destined to always do,” and I’ll take that. But I’m almost more interested in the, like, “No, I chose this, and it’s a crazy responsibility that is very real and physical and not just cloud music.”

    Listening to your EPs, it’s interesting how the interaction between the harp and your voice, as a texture or more of a guiding force, has evolved. How do you feel that relationship has changed over time, especially going into Lovegaze?

    There’s a lot there. I think going back to that idea of longing, that is something that I think attracted me to harp and voice, harp and songwriting. I felt like Spells was channeling one spirit, like that was the least about me that I’ve ever made anything. The feeling of singing covers with harp – when you have a pre-existing song but then you make it harp, what does it do? It sends it into a space where you can imagine it in a different time period – that’s one thing. I think it also does this thing where it’s either standing up or down, it doesn’t spread anything out. It gives a sinking feeling or a lifted feeling, and I love a sinking feeling. It’s not something that is necessarily comfortable at all times, but it’s something that is conjured very easily with harp.

    Taking an instrument that is known for being delicate, airy, angelic, and juxtaposing it with something gritty – which, I hold the estimation of my voice being gritty as a compliment; I embrace the grit, I seek out the grit. With Lovegaze, it’s like, how do you hold those two things together while reaching beyond the veil? So it does feel like an amalgamation of all of the projects that I have released thus far. There’s a lot when it comes to showcasing my voice versus playing the harp. It feels scary for me to stay, but I think for a lot of people who play harp and do something else, they can very easily hide behind the harp and hide behind what people think your intention is with the instrument. As scary as it is, because it was, I’m really proud of myself for not hiding behind the harp with Lovegaze. I think it’s beautifully integrated throughout the album, I would still say it’s a harp–centric album, but it feels like the harp is asking the questions versus being the answer to the questions, in a way.

    You could even say the harp itself hides on some of the tracks, or it recedes into the background. I’m thinking of ‘000’ and the electronic textures that come into the fold there. Was that daunting?

    Yeah. This is the first record where I’ve worked with a producer, and that is something that made it very different. So, daunting in the sense that it was a moment of letting go. It was a decision that I made, like, “Are we going to let this be something new? Are we going to explore outside of the safe territory of harp plucking, which we know that people can understand as this one thing?” Especially for ‘000’, I wanted that song to feel like a sinking down, an eternally sinking downward kind of feeling. [laughs] The only light is is from the stars, which is the harp. ‘Cloudbreath’ is one of my favorite songs on the album, and I think it works so well because it’s the one instrumental harp track. It would have been easy for me to make a bunch of music that sounded like ‘Cloudbreath’ – still delving into that realm and developing what instrumental harp music can mean to me – but in terms of my general development as an artist, it felt more worthwhile and meaningful to integrate other aspects of my musical practice.

    The tracks are also generally longer on this album, which I assume means being more comfortable with stretching out and continually reaching within the arrangements.

    That’s an interesting way to frame it, yeah. The short songs of Spells, it literally leaves one longing for a little bit more, whereas I think these longer forms of expression allow you to sit in the feelings in a way that maybe dispels the longing a little bit. That’s something I haven’t haven’t really thought of until you mentioned it just now. I love a long–form meditation, and I have released that kind of music more recently, but letting these songs be more – I don’t want to say songwriter-y, because I still feel like singer-songwriter is something that I feel the furthest from than I ever have.

    Before Lovegaze, you made a record called Sleeping Sea in collaboration with Endel Sounds, which used AI to arrange various sounds you’d recorded. I’m wondering whether you’re ever torn between meditative music as a practical tool for healing as opposed to emotional expression, and if that’s a dichotomy you’re consciously trying to break.

    That’s such a good question. It’s something I wish wasn’t this dichotomy and wish that it didn’t have to feel separate, but it kind of does. How do I say this without sounding catty – I have a lot of examples of music that tries to be both that feels forced. I don’t like when I hear singer-songwriters talking about manifestation or vibrations, that kind of thing – that’s not something I want to talk about with words. But what I do want to talk about with words is the feelings that are hard to describe in words; therein exists the longing. It’s about the longing for me.

    There’s a soft vulnerability to the music and vocals throughout Lovegaze, but the lyrics often speak of battles, destruction, and darkness. What makes that juxtaposition powerful for you?

    It’s back to that grit thing, right? For example, the Angel of Judgment, even just the phrase – the delicate wings, but also the sword and the swiftness of it. It really comes down to that feeling of friction being interesting to me and subverting assumptions about what harp music is going to be about. But also, maybe it goes back to the feeling of a sacred cleansing, which I know is an intense and charged thing to say, especially in this time period, with all the scary, biblical wars going on. But I do think there’s this thing of – humanity, we we need to pay for what we’ve done, and the sound of the end will have beautiful instrumentation. But it’s the friction in and of itself that that brings me joy, because it’s not business as usual. We need some friction up in here, because the Angel of Judgment will swing her sword, whether we are acknowledging the friction that exists or not. I just devolved into a crazy person, but I really hope that answers your question a little.

    The scale of so much of the album feels cosmic and biblical in that way, but it also feels reflective of an internal landscape. How much do these narratives of beauty and destruction feel like a metaphor for personal strife as well?

    Yeah, it’s definitely about my internal journey as well. It’s the things that we think we want and we need, and the things that we think are important, versus the inevitable. I made this record at the start of my Saturn’s Return, and it’s coming out now at the end of my Saturn’s Return, and that time period is known for reflection on your next steps. There’s just a lot that I’ve learned about what I thought was important and what I thought needed focus that pales in comparison to the primary truths of existing on this planet. I’m really thankful for Lovegaze for providing me this lens to feel through my timeline. I’ve always wanted to put out an LP, I’ve always wanted to work with an electronic producer, I always wanted to make a harp–led vocal album – all the things that I’ve just done. And it feels like a great step, but also, I can now see it for what it is, as just a singular step in a larger tapestry of time. It’s humbling.

    Can you reflect a bit more on those lessons?

    There’s a lot that I learned about production through this album, and a lot of fortification of skills that didn’t feel valuable to me anymore. It felt really good to reengage parts of myself that I felt like I had lost or suppressed or cast to the wayside – in concrete terms, that’s vocals and songwriting. There was a real safety and ease in making instrumental music because I didn’t have to be brave and expose myself. The voice being the closest tangible reflection of self, it just felt like: No, I’m not going to be scared into submission by other people’s praise or acceptance of my instrumental work. It was so nice to get back to my own language. Going back to the healing music versus whatever else, when you think of singer–songwriters, there’s almost this indulgent quality that feels like it’s not for anyone but them, because it is about them. And when you think of healing music, it’s like, “She’s playing the harp to heal us. It’s for us.” So it’s like, but what about if it’s for me, and it’s indulgent, and it’s healing? I’m really happy to have begun this journey of integration in that way.

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

    Nailah Hunter’s Lovegaze is out January 12 via Fat Possum.

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