Photo: Ingrid Ferrer

Interview Núria Graham: “I tried to connect with the subconscious, the dreams and the signals in nature”

For a record that deals with grief and impending catastrophe, Núria Graham‘s latest album Cyclamen sounds peculiarly light-hearted, playful and surreal. The Catalan-Irish songsmith, producer and musician has crafted a collection of songs that strike like an empyrean folk tale, with characters exploring the scenery through specific vantage points. It’s a piece of work that explores Graham’s subconsciousness, dreams and memories with a psychedelic wonder, imbued with deft arrangements, crisp production methods and her patented whimsical vocal delivery.

Fortunately, Graham cleared some time to answer some questions amidst her busy touring schedule. A beaming conversation that attempts to make sense of many unbroken mysteries; the signals in nature, the cycles of life and death, and how singing in a different language unlocks fresh creative sparks.

BPM: Do you have vivid recollections of growing up ?

Núria Graham: When I talk with my parents, I actually have very early memories from when I was young, because I’m an only child. So I don’t know if that’s something that keeps me going back to my childhood a lot. And I don’t know if it’s an obsession, but I do think a lot about the past. I keep my memory very fresh. And I remember specific details about my childhood… and even music! A lot of the music that I used to listen to when I was a kid, I remember quite well.

Wish to share any examples?

My dad used to listen a lot to Led Zeppelin and stuff like that. I remember we had the cassette. I even remember the artwork of the cassette. But I don’t remember now which record it was. And also Björk’s Debut, which is definitely one of my favorite albums of all time, because we had it on cassette. My mother is a big fan. And we used to listen to it nearly everyday because we didn’t have a lot of cassettes in the car. So that was one of the most played. I have very early memories of remembering the melodies of the record, it became a big influence on me as I got older.

Were you also inspired by Björk’s work ethos as an artist, not just musically?

I think both. Apart from the singing, I think that because I wasn’t conscious at the time about the production and the sounds. But yeah, she created something very interesting in that record, because of the way she approaches the instrument. There’s a lot of electronic parts. And for the time, it sounded very new, I think. But I didn’t know when I was a kid, obviously. But I remember, there’s a song – “The Anchor Song” – with a saxophone quartet. When I listen to this, I keep coming back to my childhood. You know, I remember listening to these notes, and wonder, what is this weird thing? 

Your music obviously is different from Björk’s. But a record like Cyclamen does feel like a visiting specific environment, maybe the kind of world that exists in a Greek poem. That’s something Björk has been doing as well, create this sealed-off universe of sound. Which makes me wonder how you view Cyclamen now that the album is done. Can you listen to it and feel untethered from the process of crafting it?

I think that’s my obligation as a musician: when you make a record, you’re not supposed to make just an example of nice songs, good songs or even your favorite songs! I don’t particularly choose the best songs to go on a record, because a record is something you kind of follow a narrative, but you don’t know the narrative, once everything is created. And maybe you won’t understand it until years later. You’re a bit of a slave in the process; you keep pulling at strings, and they bring you some places, and you have to either know or follow your instinct.  

This album for me is a new beginning in that sense. Because obviously, it’s a bit autobiographical. I mean, it’s impossible not to create from your own persona in some way. But it’s definitely like an observation and a story. What you said about the Greeks, you know, it looks like a mighty logical story. I imagined the songs like little fables, and there are different characters existing in them. And nature is a big part of that too. 

And when I talk about nature, it’s not just nature itself, but also our nature as humans. I tried to connect with the subconscious, the dreams and the signals in nature, which I think we are very disconnected from. Especially in our age, and the world we live in now. So I was trying to connect with all of this. 

Can you name examples on the record where you sort of address this connection to nature? 

“Yes It’s Me, The Goldfish!” for example introduces a very important character on the record. Because first of all, the record speaks about a catastrophe in some way. Not in a depressing manner, or at least I don’t intend it to be depressing. But it does talk about a kind of natural disaster. And there are all these little characters like the Birdman, which is a bird that flies over and sees the catastrophe from above.

And the Goldfish sees that something is coming, like you see the future. So the Goldfish is part of the instinct of you knowing that something is going to happen. And then obviously there’s a song called “Fire Mountain, Oh Sacred Ancient Fountain”. I know, it’s a very long title!  It’s a song that basically talks about – well, I actually didn’t know it talked about this, as I’m discovering it now! It speaks about Mount Vesuvius, the big volcano in Naples. 

Such an enormous volcano, in some way, symbolises death. And then there’s this big city where life goes on. And it’s actually like a pretty chaotic city. It inspired me a lot to see this kind of connection: that nature is always there, like a big signal. And life just goes on.  All those surroundings inspired me a lot in this record, because I also mentioned an island next to Naples called Procida. From the island, you see the sea, and you see the visual view, from very far away. And I didn’t know it kind of struck me in a way,  sometimes there’s places that tell you things. And I guess this place told me something.

Researching this interview, I looked at some pictures of Procida. It looks surreal, almost something that indeed exists inside of a fish bowl, or maybe out of a fairy tale. The melody you sing on ”Procida I” kind of sounds like a jingle from some traveling infomercial, telling you what a wonderful place it is. Which makes me wonder how much Cyclamen is rooted in your experience being there? Assuming that you have been there, of course!

The record relates to it in a very weird way, because yeah I was there. I was in Naples eight years ago. And actually the song called “Disaster in Napoli”, which is quite an older song where I coped with a personal experience. It was like an emotional disaster because I had a breakup in the city. And it was this very film-like experience, but then for some reason, I kept thinking about the place itself more than what had happened there. 

I went back there five years ago with Ingrid Ferrer, who is my friend. We directed the art cover with Ingrid and we painted it together. We had this weird connection with the place together, we took a picture of the album cover, which is in Torre del Greco, just next to Naples. It’s a little town. I had this picture on my bedside table for four years, I think. 

And we were both obsessed with that picture. And we don’t even know why because it’s just a normal picture of the beach. It was kind of a trashy place, you know, but I don’t know…  When we finally decided to make this the album cover. It’s so poetic, because basically all the album happens there. So it just made sense to us for some reason.

Obviously you’ve looked at this picture a lot, so maybe this scenery trickles down your subconsciousness and dreams organically? The idea of this other place, a place where you can maybe escape to?

I like what you’re saying, yeah. I think I created this place in my mind, because I used this place for some reason. And probably because it was always sitting on my bedside table, and my subconscious was connected to the place. But also, because there was a physical necessity to make my mind fly. The last few years obviously have been very weird for all humanity, it has been like a big catastrophe, I would say, you know, when we live through this together.

When everything opened up, there was a big rush to go back to normal. But I kind of wanted to stay at home and observe our nature as humans. Maybe this place I imagined – this story I imagined on the record – was a way to explain how I was feeling at the time. Even though Cyclamen is very catastrophic, in a way, I think that it also looks towards the light all the time. It’s very hopeful, or at least that’s what I tried to do. I think that the most important thing is that I wanted to create an imaginary place or a new story that I would like to be real, but it walks towards the light.

I might be putting on my tinfoil hat here and look too deeply into it. But weirdly, there are certain songs on this album that feel like companions to one another “The Catalyst” and “The Waterway”, those songs feel related in some profound way. They talk about an underlying grief, and they have a similar cadence to them. Cyclamen definitely seems to have cyclical structure, also with the bookending Procida-tracks. 

I’m even surprised that you’re saying this because, yeah, it’s exactly what you said. “The Catalyst” and “The Waterway” were part of the same project I had when I was recording them. “Procida” and “The Catalyst” went together then “The Waterway” came after “The Catalyst” and then it ended up with Procida. So the first cyclical thing I had in my head was around those songs. 

Both those songs talk about grief basically. I think that I was trying to explain the grief that I was living through. Those two songs and probably the whole record I was trying not to look for answers but to to help myself understand what death was. Or at least be at peace with it. Because “The Catalyst” talks about this character the same way as the Goldfish does, it kind of guesses the future. 

It talks about something and then it happens you know, it tries to be at peace with that. Whereas “The Waterway” is about when somebody dies and they send them to a river. I don’t know which cultures do that, but they put the body onto a vessel and they go through a waterway and then they go out to the sea. 

And it definitely talks about this because I’m doing this as we speak. Last year, my aunt, who is from Connemara, Ireland, passed away. And for me, it was like a very difficult thing to even understand, because I couldn’t be there. So the distance itself was very difficult. And my last record, which was called Marjorie, was basically about my family. There was a song about my aunt and Connemara. For the song we even filmed a video recorded there with her. 

And it talked about death, you know, and when everything happened, I wasn’t even able to sing those songs. It was a very difficult process but I think that writing “The Catalyst” and “The Waterway” was a way to be at peace with this you know. To understand that it’s just part of the cycle and a part of nature and just to accept it. So definitely the catastrophe in the record is also me trying to understand catastrophe. I’m trying to understand death, but not in a depressing way again, but to find some answers

“The Catalyst” is a strangely funny song for something that addresses the death of a close family member. You mention ‘your stupid Catalan accent’ and you reference Frank Sinatra. It doesn’t feel like you are trying to be poetic. It’s more like a plainspoken eulogy of sorts. 

When talking about a strong topic like this, I’m not good at being too serious. Because I think that if you want to actually connect with something, you don’t have to make an enormous effort to find the words. The words kind of come to me. And, when I write in English, I don’t have as much vocabulary as I would in my own language. I synthesise my feelings in a different way when I speak English.

When I speak in Spanish or Catalan, which is my own language, I feel like I have a whole different personality. When I write in English, it’s what comes first. So I feel like these lyrics are not even made by myself. It’s a strange feeling. I had the chords for many months, but nothing happened. And one day I was actually in therapy and when I went outside, I was having a bad time. 

I was trying to understand all those things they were saying about death and my aunt, and, and I just got on the bus after a conversation. The lyrics just came out, I don’t think that I’ve never been that fast writing a lyric. There are little details maybe only my aunt would understand. The time that we were dancing together to a Frank Sinatra song, like many years ago when I was little. It was a fun process to me because it actually helped me understand what I was feeling. 

You just talked about the Birdman, the character seeing things from the bird’s eye view. Maybe singing in English helps you do just that?

Yeah, I think it does, because I started writing songs when I was very young. My first song, I don’t even know which one it was, it must have been around 14 or 15. And you know, when you’re a teenager and you don’t understand your feelings yet. But the first attempt I did of creating  a song was in English, and I don’t know if it was because I wanted to create another space for myself, and express things that maybe I didn’t say out loud. I think I was just shy at the time, you know, and English became a way to just say all the crazy things I didn’t say! 

Does your creativity have some kind of method or structure to it? Do you feel like you need to find yourself in different environments and situations to develop your craft further?

Hmm, I would like to know if I have a method. But then again, I don’t think I want to find out! If I find out my own secret, then I’m going to be like ‘Oh, shit!’. But I do have some habits, which work very well for me. And, for example, even if I’m not inspired – which is a lot of days – I wake up, and I want to play. I don’t know if I’m gonna create something new, but I do like to play my instrument every day, or I try to play the piano. Maybe some melody comes to my head and I can record it.

But I don’t force myself a lot in the process. I used to think I wasn’t ambitious. You know, when I was younger, I was like, now I’m not ambitious. Everything comes out easily for me. And I don’t know, I thought that I wasn’t like a very work-like person. But now that I’m getting a bit older, I am seeing things about myself that I do have like a process and a way of working. And especially because this record was in big part made at home, and I was being a producer for the first time. So I spent a lot of time by myself. 

But inspiration just comes in so many different ways. I could be walking down the street or going to the supermarket. And then I’m like, ‘Oh, now I know that!’ and the lyrics just come to me. I’m always thinking about songs. I think about life through songs, it’s my way to try and understand it.

Cyclamen is out now via Primavera Labels. Follow Núria Graham on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and her official site.