Nakhane Toure, who won the Best Alternative South African Music Award for his debut album, Brave Confusion, starts his 2015 gigging in Johannesburg by sharing a stage with Eastern Cape homeboy Bongeziwe Mabandla tonight. The Con’s Niren Tolsi asked him a few questions in anticipation:
The Con (TC): What have you been doing for the past few months? Have you been collaborating with anyone musically? And your other projects, like the book – please extrapolate on your creative pursuits?
Nakhane Toure (NT): When I finished recording Brave Confusion I started writing for my next possible work almost immediately. I had no idea what it would sound like. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I became very frustrated. But I had a very clear idea of what I did not want to do: repeat myself. So I’ve spent the past year and a half writing for my upcoming work (EP and album in 2015).
The first decision that I made when I started writing for the new work was to not touch the acoustic guitar. And that was for a number of reasons:
I couldn’t write a song on the acoustic guitar without sounding like the Nakhane of Brave Confusion. And he’s done. He’s finished. I love that album. I think it was important for what it was and I will never dishonour it, but I hardly listen to it anymore, and when I do I hear a few things about it that I try desperately not to repeat. But they are a secret. So I went to Yamaha and asked for a keyboard. I was not interested in sounding like the bearded guys with acoustic guitars. That was quickly starting to get under my skin. Nothing against them, but I definitely did not want to be seen as that. Personally. Beard or no beard. I wanted to move away from a lot of descriptions that I found problematic in the first album: folk singer, ‘authentic’, ‘he doesn’t do it for money but for the love’ sensationalism, ‘molested as a child’ stuff, and get power from those things. Some were true and I can never completely remove myself from them, but the ones which do not apply I remove.
I describe the three works (first album, EP, second album) as a sort of exchange in a relay. Brave Confusion is the first runner, the EP is the baton being exchanged, and the second album is the second runner.
I’m in the middle of a collaboration with Black Coffee and some other artists who are not musicians. I can’t name them as the collaborations are still in gestation. It helps to look outside your main medium in order to use other mediums’ ways in your work. I don’t consider myself just a musician? There are many other things I want to do. If I were pushed I’d call myself a multimedia artist.
With the music, it is me in a room with all my instruments and a laptop singing about what interests or bothers me. With this new collaborative work, which is theatre and film, the initial period of coming up with ideas is collaborative. I haven’t done that since I was in The Idiots or when I was studying at AFDA, where you bounce ideas around and you create work which is equally by you and your collaborator.
TC: What has been informing your projects over this period – from your personal experiences and thoughts to books and music?
NT: It’s incredible to me how people change in a space of a year-and-a-half. From something as banal as where you live – and who you live with- to what you spiritually believe in. So those myriad changes informed my work, for better or for worse. I’ve always said that an album should be a snapshot of where your life has been in the time you’ve been writing it. I grew up, I got exposed to things outside of myself, which feature prominently in the upcoming work.
When I moved to Johannesburg I stayed in the suburbs with my family. I didn’t really know the city. I never ventured out from the west, which is a strange place to be. Last year I moved into the city and it has been incredibly influential on my work and just my psyche in general. There is a constant friction and beautiful contradiction to the city. There’s so much noise, joy, pain, violence, peace. I met people who I really love and have become close to. I often look back to who I was a year and a half ago and I laugh to myself. Sometimes I feel like a character in James Baldwin’s Another Country. Hopefully not as tragic. Artists whose work I love and admire have become my friends, and that can’t help but influence you as an artist. Interestingly enough though, I spent a lot of time in my apartment writing obsessively, so there’s a lot of that solitude in the work, and there is an anthropomorphism of the city.
I used to identify as a Church of England South Africa disciple, which is fundamental Anglicanism. I don’t identify as a Christian anymore. There came a point where most of it did not make sense to me anymore. And It took quite a toll on me. I’d spent, what, about 25 years of my life believing this particular thing, and then gradually over the course of a year, I started to lose grip on it. And I had the conversations with my mother. I was called by my pastor, threatening excommunication if I didn’t turn.
My first album was very internal. And big parts of this upcoming work are too because I can’t help but be that particular kind of artist. I draw from within. I spent a good deal of this past year chastising myself for being a narcissist. I reasoned with myself that when it comes to my work, it is alright. The narcissism of Brave Confusion helped people deal with their own demons. I understand that I seem self-aggrandising, but it did. From my pain, people realised that they were not alone in how they felt and what they had gone through. And if that’s not the point of art, then I don’t know what is. And then I stepped out of my shell and looked into the world. I was no longer a child, it was no longer solely about me, and the world was (and has always been) ugly. Full of prejudice, racism, homophobia, xenophobia etc. And I hate even using ‘etc’, and that glare into the real world really opened my eyes and my work to something else. Something powerful and frightening.
TC: Could you give examples of film, music, art, books, music that you were introduced to during this period that help effect this shift you speak of?
NT: I loved Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. How it dealt with racial relations, generational gaps and religion. That book was so important to me that it actually inspired the first song I wrote after Brave Confusion that I was proud of.
Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth – I’m still reading this, but it completely turned me upside down and made a new man out of me. It also inspired my EP title, soon to be announced.
Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel – I can’t think of any other artist who seriously gives you her heart when you listen to her album. What I love best about that album is how balanced some of it is in terms of blame. Sometimes it’s her who is the source of the problem and she is not afraid to say that.
Brian Eno’s 70s work – the mix of songs, ambient pieces, grating and smooth textures. His use of the synthesizer and group harmonies. Huge influence.
Laurie Anderson –for her poetry and idiosyncratic play with words.
I was in a jazz music store in Braamfontein and there was a droning piece of piano music that I loved that belonged to Kyle Shepherd. Goddammit! I still need to buy that album. There really hasn’t gone a week where I have not thought about it. I reference that piece from memory.
Thando Mgqolozana’s Unimportance. Okay. This. This is a book that really haunted me. I could not stop thinking about it. How it dealt with innocence and inevitable guilt and how grey and contentious those spaces can be.
Egon Schiele- who has been the biggest influence in the press photographs that will soon appear. I love how he mixes the macabre with the angelically beautiful.
None of us are innocent, in whatever walk of life we are on, and these works hammered that in for me.
TC: Please describe the personal and creative space you are currently in.
NT: I was watching a documentary of Francis Bacon because I really enjoy his work. And in his interviews he often describes his work as possessing a certain violence. For me, that violence (not necessarily physical, but multi-faceted) continually informs my work. A kind of rage that drives the thing. And sometimes it is physical.
In the music it is mainly rhythmic and within the attack. There is a current in this new work that was not there before. When it is physical it can be in the performance. I don’t think I want to play shows where I tell people to move to the left and move to the right. This isn’t an R. Kelly song. I want there to be a charge, a wave, which I’m really struggling to describe with words. Have you seen the cover of Fever Ray’s eponymous album? Those hands, how they seem to be conjuring something from another world. That is so interesting to me.
When it is outside of the music, and it frequently is, I go running. I try to exhaust myself.
TC: Why do you love music?
NT: That’s probably the hardest question to answer because you could easily name the superficial reasons. The same way that one would struggle if they were asked why they loved a certain person. You can easily say “Because they’re nice to me, because they’re good looking, because they make me happy etc. etc.” But those are silly reasons. The real reasons are intangible. The real reasons cannot be easily expressed with words, the same as love.
But if I had a gun to my head, I would say it is because music is probably the only thing that knows how to communicate with me the best, and I to it. That communication is sometimes a realisation that there’s someone out there who has felt the same as I do and guess what, it is somebody that I look up to. Somebody whose work matters to me. If they went through what I’m going through, then maybe there’s hope for me.
TC: Do you have to be melancholic to write a melancholic song? Happy to write a happy song? What does song-writing represent to you?
NT: Those descriptions are so fraught because when I do sit down to write a song I don’t spend time thinking if it’s going to be a ‘happy’ or ‘melancholic’ song. It’s normally thoughts and writings of mine that I’ve been working on that will not leave me alone, to the point where I actually have to go and write the song. When I’m in a state of severe melancholy I can’t even manage to get out of bed, so no writing happens then. And when I’m really truly happy I normally cannot focus anyway, so nothing happens then too. It’s afterwards, when everything has started to simmer down that you collect all this information.
TC: There is a “sound and fury” to the age we live in, especially with social media where the malformed stream of consciousness hystericism, moral prefecture and outrage appear to outweigh contemplation and consideration. The latter two would appear important for understanding the human condition and any subsequent artistic creation that is relevant and trenchant. Would you agree? If so, how do you deal with the “noise” and where do you find the quiet spaces?
NT: I find the moral prefecture very interesting, for many reasons: When has it not existed? It just existed differently and certain institutions used their power to administer it. Institutions like the church, schools and certain media.
Now, with social media, and everyone shouting to be heard (and if they have enough followers on Twitter, they will be heard), moral prefecture has become somewhat egalitarian, and it claims to be fair. But let’s face it, nothing is. And nothing is equal. Those with the loudest voices and power will be heard and their choices will be widely spread. Sometimes they’re very black and white. In my opinion, that’s exactly where the artist steps in and problematises the whole situation with a shitload of grey. [As an example,] I have been evangelical about Thando Mgqolozana’s last novel Unimportance. That short book has so much complexity in it. The idea of cause and effect, and how people fuck-up. We do, and sometimes we can’t even stop ourselves even though the trouble is right between our eyes. We are incredibly fallible and we are products of our circumstances. We can intellectualise it as much as we want, but it all boils down to the domino effect. What I loved in that book was the presentation of choice. We can choose to not be products of our circumstances or we can just fail underneath its weight. Is it simple? No. But we have to try. At least, that.
If I am caught in the noise I shut it out if it helps nothing. There’s no point listening to static. I separate what I deem to be nonsense and concentrate on only the things that edify me and matter in my trajectory.
TC: Are you nostalgic, and if so, what for?
NT: No. I try to stay away from nostalgia. For me it’s nothing but lies because we remember only what we choose to remember and how we want to remember it, depending on our current needs. Maybe ‘lies’ is too extreme. I see nostalgia as some form of confabulation. I wrote a note to myself a couple of weeks ago on my notepad. It read, in capital letters: “STAY UNSENTIMENTAL TO THE PAST. IT IS DONE. IT IS FINISHED. MOVE THE FUCK ON. DISENGAGE”
TC: Add as much as you want to the following sentence: “Race in South Africa….”
NT: …will always matter. Even though we’re told repeatedly to get over it.
Photographs: Tarryn Hatchett
* Nakhane Toure and Bongeziwe Mabandla perform tonight (January 29) at the Bannister Hotel, 9 De Beer Street in Braamfontein from 8pm. Entrance: R80.