Nishla Smith is an Australian jazz singer and songwriter based in Manchester. Her new track Blue Dream, along with its stunning video, is out now.
This track is so refreshing. I always get excited when I discover new piano pieces. The guitar is synonymous with the archetypal singer/ songwriter, and rightly famed for its role, but every so often along comes a track with the most beautiful piano accompaniment, to whisk you off your feet. It’s interesting to be given something a little out of the ordinary to explore.
Blue Dream, with its echos of ‘Cry Me A River’, and its Nick Drake-esque melancholy, somehow seems also a rather playful tune, perhaps thanks to its picture-book imagery (and this is before we take a look at the video.) I can imagine playing this on a warm summer’s evening as I relax with a well-earned glass of wine; the melody gently drifting around the room, net curtains billowing ever so slightly in the breeze… everything about this track is sophisticated and tasteful. I admire Nishla’s creative vocal line- the song sounds familiar but doesn’t quite always end up where you expect it to. Her voice is reminiscent of the classic jazz and blues era, and evidently very well trained with the odd seeming ‘falter’ only adding a touch of earthiness. Oh, and the strings- what a perfect addition. This piece doesn’t need anything else, and indeed showcases just how effective stripped back instrumentation can be.
As if the song itself wasn’t enough to satisfy us, Nishla has also bestowed upon us, a gem of a video. The artistry and originality with which this short film was conceived and created, make it a stand alone work in its own right. The colours, the location, the set-up of each scene, is magical and perfectly suits the whimsical nature of the song it accompanies.
Nishla Smith song + vocals / Andy Stamatakis-Brown string arrangement + piano / Grant Russell bass / Simmy Singh violin I / Eva Þórarinsdóttir violin II / Sophia Dignam viola / William Hewer cello
I caught up with Nishla to get her take on the project…
What inspired you to write this song?
I wrote Blue Dream as I was emerging from a kind of unhappy time in my life— I didn’t realise how weird I’d gotten, until I started to wake up again! So although the song sounds quite melancholy, it’s actually about coming out the other side.
Is there a meaning behind the lyrics?
I guess because I felt like I was ‘waking up’, what had come just before felt like an unsteady, confusing and sort of numb dream, which is how I came to that imagery.
How did you go about writing this song, can you explain your process?
Usually I get an idea that’s a fragment of lyrics and melody together, and a feeling about the flavour of the song. I wait a while and then I’ll sit down to develop it at the piano over the next few weeks. With this song, I had been doing some work with Manchester Collective not too long beforehand, and so I had strings in my head! I was doing MJF’s Hothouse programme at the time, which is how I was able to fund the recording, and I asked Andy Stamatakis-Brown who I’d worked with on the Collective project to do the string arrangements, which turned out beautifully— I think they really capture the strangeness and sadness of the song. We recorded it with Lee Aston and Brendan Williams at Low Four Studio in Manchester, and it was done ‘live’ in the studio, because it needed to have that freedom of us all being able to follow each other.
Would you say this track represented your style / character well, or is it a bit different from what you usually do?
It’s hard to say, I think Blue Dream is representative of what I’m doing right now, but at the same time this feels like a period where my tastes and ideas are changing really quickly, so I’m not really sure how my songs will sound in a year or so!
What is your favourite lyric in this song and why?
Probably the last line, because it hints at a resolution: ’I’m tired of my blue dream, god it’s been a long sleep— Oh won’t you come wake me? Blue girl, blue world, blue dream.’
Who did you work with to create the video?
So I conceived and directed the video, and I worked with an amazing cinematographer/editor from Hull, Adam Blyth. It was literally just the two of us on the shoot, and we met in Northumberland to film over one slightly insane weekend. We met once before the shoot for a coffee at a services off the motorway half way between Hull and Manchester, and as soon as we got talking, I knew that he just understood what I was going for. Adam was amazing to work with because he became really invested in the project and went to great lengths to shoot it in just the right way.
Can you tell us a funny/ interesting story about something that happened whilst filming?
The whole thing was pretty nuts, I had these very specific visual ideas, each scene is colour blocked, so I’d been scouring charity shops and junk yards for green chairs and pink velvet and all manner of other crazy things. Then I packed everything into a van and drove it up to Northumberland. It was literally just me and Adam, so we’d drag a cast iron bed up a mountain, or a solid wood dining table into the forest, and then I’d style each scene while he hauled gear and set up cameras and lighting. I really wanted perfect cartoon-like cupcakes with cherries on top, so a friend who is vastly superior at baking helped me, but they had to be made a few days in advance, so were hard as rocks, and those bright pink cherries don’t come with stems, so I made them out of mint stalks. And the jelly! I really wanted green jelly on the table, but I made it three times, and it wouldn’t gel. The last time I made it was the night before, but then I couldn’t get it out of the bowl, so I just turned the bowl upside-down on the table When we finished shooting the forest, we had about an hour of daylight left, so I changed in the woods and we headed straight to the stream to shoot the mackerel (which, by the way I had brought all the way from Manchester, having bought it at my local fishmonger and frozen for the journey!)
Where was the video filmed and why was this location chosen?
It was filmed at a farm called Scotchcoulthard, in the Northumberland national park. I found it on Instagram and it was just so ridiculously beautiful, and had every type of location I was envisioning- mountains, a stream and this gorgeous pine forest. It’s run by Susan and Andy, who were amazing, they totally got on board— fed us, put us up and Andy even drove me around on the quad bike in the dark after the shoot to collect all my random possessions from various fields. They also had amazing dogs who made regular visits for pats 🙂
What was the inspiration behind the furniture?
I can’t really explain that! I wanted to create a weird dream of a video. I had this very specific visual idea about colour-coded scenes of domesticity rising out of wild, unlikely landscapes pretty early on in the process and I just madly stuck by it even though it was a completely insane logistical nightmare.
What is your favourite part of the video and why?
Probably the reveal shot of the forest dining room, about two-thirds of the way through the song. Adam did this amazing thing where the camera sort of creeps around a tree to show this strange scene and it just looks exactly like it did in my head— like something bizarre and magical is going on in the woods…
What was the most important thing you took away from your experience of making this video?
It was such a huge effort but it was so amazing to have an idea and make it real just through sheer will power and stubbornness. I absolutely loved it.
Tell us a little bit about yourself, your work and your upcoming projects- where can we find you?
So at the moment I’ve got a few balls in the air. My original jazz quintet is currently on Jazz North’s Northern Line, so we’ll hopefully be touring around the north quite a bit over the next year or so. I’m also in the middle of a major narrative project— I’ve written a staged song cycle, which has just been through a production phase and preview with Opera North’s Resonance. It tells the story of my great aunt Agnes, who disappeared as a child in Malaysia in the 1930s. I’m working with visual artist Luca Shaw and pianist Tom Harris, and we’ve created this wild show— I transform into a tiger and a river, and the whole story is enhanced by Luca’s amazing animation which is projected over me and the stage. We’re working towards a tour of that now. There’s a trailer for that show and a full gig listing for my quintet project on my website, www.nishlasmith.com
Finally- what is your advice to other female creatives?
Ahh! That’s hard! I guess the most helpful thing I’ve learnt in the last year is to trust myself. To start to figure out what it is I’m trying to say, let go of restrictive ideas around genre and form, and to go make stuff.
copyright- audio/visuals: Nishla Smith // words: Heidi Dewhirst