Nubya Garcia: “I try and deflect the questions that put too many labels on me”


Camden’s Nubya Garcia weaves a tapestry of identity on her debut album, ‘Source’, her most confident outing to date. After collaborations with collectives such as Steam Down, and exploring her approach to music through her membership of bands, including Nérija, she takes charge on ‘Source’, leading her band into a nine-track record of collective power. The record tells a story, comprised of jazz compositions which re-purpose elements of other genres and sub-genres, including reggae, Ethio-jazz and dub, whilst holding onto her own unique power.

Garcia released her debut at an odd and uncertain time for the industry, and the world. What would usually have been a season of touring and showcasing her album live, has become a series of virtual performances, including one on a very empty Glastonbury Festival site and her recently released Tiny Desk (Home) Concert for NPR Music, surrounded by more plants than your local garden centre. In the midst of this new global situation, we chatted to Garcia over Skype about pigeon-holing, collaboration, appropriation, and whether jazz’s recent popularity is a positive thing.

How did your parents encourage you to explore music?


My elder siblings always went to music stuff at the weekend, and it was kinda expected that I’d do the same. My mum took me to a lot of gigs when I was younger and placed really high importance on live music, as well as CDs for presents. My mum and my step-dad had quite a lot of records. Not as many as I have now, but a lot when you’re a child and looking up at the shelf like “Woah! That’s a lot”. They were very present in encouraging me to be involved in music. 

With so many cuts to art and youth projects across the country, how important was it to you to have access to spaces such as the programme you were part of at The Roundhouse?

Really important. We were probably the last generation who had quite a lot of government support for arts in the communities, and music especially. I was within The Roundhouse for a little bit, and Tomorrow’s Warriors. Loads of things that we probably all took for granted at the time, but knowing that they exist in a very different way now, knowing that the community centres aren’t there, they’ve all been cut, it’s a huge shame. I did a bit of teaching about four or five years ago, after leaving Uni, and it’s just different. Even the structure of lessons – group lessons being a thing to save money. It’s very different now. It’s sad.

The arts aren’t taken seriously by the Government so there’s no funding for it in schools. It makes you think about how many young people could thrive in an environment like that but won’t have the access.

It’ll become very marginalised again and available to only some members of society and their kids. It’s going to go back to the problem of lack of inclusivity and accessibility. Kids have so much to say and give and often don’t have the words, but get so much out of building a community. You meet so many people doing music that you may not meet at football or tennis or in the park. You become part of a bigger unit, say if you become part of an orchestra or a jazz band. It leads to opportunities such as performances or teaching children to express themselves, you know, improvise and create something on the spot and get out of your shell if you’re a nervous person. It’s the same value theatre or drama has – allowing kids to speak in a different way and communicate with each other.

What was it like growing up in Camden and being interested in jazz?

I was never really part of the Camden scene that people think of – indie music, rock music, grunge, punk. It wasn’t really what I experienced Camden as. I went down to The Roundhouse and played jazz and I went to The Jazz Cafe and saw stuff and did gigs there. Jazz is this tiny pocket of people interested in that and I think I really came into my own when I found Tomorrow’s Warriors, that community based in Southbank Centre. That was the first time, other than The Roundhouse, that I had been in contact with people my own age who were heavily into jazz. That was really amazing, I felt seen in a different way. And heard.

You’ve collaborated with lots of collectives like Steam Down and Ezra Collective. How has this influenced your music, and how does it compare with being a solo artist?

It’s taught me so many different ways that you can lead a band and write music and lead on stage. I think it’s kind of osmosis, I’ve just soaked up what I can in terms of things that work for me and things that don’t, and how to create good energy and expel other energies that may not need a place in the room at the time, and just expand my mind musically. I love doing my own tour and know exactly what energy I’m trying to go for and then I love going on other people’s tours and bands I’ve been a part of for years and taking a different role, but it’s not one or the other for me. It doesn’t mean more to me to be a band leader or a side person. They’re two different sides to the same coin of being a musician. It’s important to learn how to communicate in as many ways as possible musically.

Was there a point where you thought “I can do this own my own”?

There’s this place in Deptford, Royal Albert, and there are these arts events on a Sunday run by Good Evening Arts. I got a message saying “Hey I saw you at the jam last week, do you want to do a gig in a month’s time, take one of the Sundays and do a set of your own stuff, run the jam session?” That was probably the first example of me being like ok, let me call a few people and ask them if they want to play a few standards. That was the beginning of it really and I thought oh, it’s not as bad as I thought. I was very nervous – it’s not just the gig, it’s a gig and a jam session. Nothing terrible happened, nothing collapsed, we did a really good job and I actually enjoyed it. It put the idea of band leading and writing my own stuff more firmly in my mind.

What was your process when you were making ‘Source’, and how different was it to your previous work?

I’ve been collecting little bits of musical ideas whilst I was on tour last year, when we toured for ages and ages. I didn’t really have a lot of time at home, so I spent a lot of time before and after sound check and in my hotel room trying to play really quietly and not disturbing anyone. Playing around and working out melodies and basslines and keeping my creativity going. That definitely can stop if you don’t keep it charged, because you put everything out there at every single gig. And then when I came back from tour last summer, I had about a week off so I booked a space because working outside the home is really healthy if you have the means to do so.

I’d already booked my album session which is something that I do and helps to get things going for me. I’d done that for all of my EPs, with this one it was on a bigger scale. I had more ideas to flesh out, I put ideas together with ideas, I worked with the guests on the record, I thought of them when I was writing these tunes. This album felt a lot more conceptual than I’d ever thought, or played or written about previously.

I read that you’re quite wary of being pigeonholed, due to your identity. How do you break through that? You were part of Nérija and I know that, as a mostly women-led band, it was frustrating for you that that was always the focus.

People always call us an all-women band, and we’re like… we’re not, you’re cutting out one of the members! Rather than let it affect me too much, I move on with the way I make music and try and deflect the questions that put too many labels on me. They will exist and I’ve made my peace somewhat with that because you know how it is – journalism is journalism, music journalism is music journalism. People want labels and they will continue to write labels, and all I can do is make music and make music the way I want to make music and kind of get what’s in my head out, so that we can push past this genre labelling type of thing. I understand why people like to read “if you like this then you’ll like that” from a marketing and selling point of view, but I think I just try and leave it behind.

2019 was the year when Glastonbury was starting to embrace jazz a bit more, and you were due to perform this year, performing instead at The Glastonbury Experience. What’s it been like to be part of these spaces that haven’t always platformed jazz musicians?

It’s an honour, to be honest. I think we’re at a really important time in the landscape of music and jazz within that. To be part of a community that’s entering a new space like that is really important and really special. I’m just really grateful. It doesn’t mean we don’t deserve it, we have a place there and it’s been shown and proven that archaic descriptions surrounding some styles of music are what have held a lot of people away from something they might enjoy. The goal is to reach as many people as possible. Music is for people, that’s it, that’s as simple as it needs to be. To be invited to more places that haven’t necessarily been a home for this style of music before is really special.

What do you think about jazz becoming more mainstream? Some of the more successful musicians aren’t necessarily representative of the community that created this genre.

What is different now is the notion of collaboration. That’s really changing what has happened in the past, which was people coming in, deciding they like something and completely appropriating it. And that’s regardless of music – I’m talking about everything, fashion as well as art, anything. I think it’s important for us to grow and for communities to feel like their voices can be heard. Representation, diversity, this is what everything is about and comes down to. Reflecting the world as it is rather than some people being successful and some people just never getting a leg up because of everything. I kinda struggle with the word ‘mainstream’. I wanna hear as many people collaborate as possible and I think ‘mainstream’ or ‘niche’ excludes people, whereas two people from completely different musical worlds can collaborate on a track and people will really like it, whereas if you say “oh this person’s gone mainstream” or “this person is doing something a bit too niche” it becomes about something else.

I think sometimes there’s a bit of snobbery behind the word ‘mainstream’. It’s as if something loses its value if too many people listen to it.

This is it, this is the problem, you said it exactly. I think language is really important and affects the way someone reacts to something, it decides how much someone likes it. Art, music, whatever, it’s about what’s your reaction, rather than “oh, I saw it on this, and that means x amount of people like it and now it’s popular” or “ah whatever, what’s the next new niche thing I can find?” Either side, whether it’s small or big, people change their view of it before they’ve even listened, and that’s an issue. I’m happy people are listening, and that’s all that really matters. It’s about connection, movement, everyone in the room at the gig or in the studio. That’s what it’s about.

There’s a lot of different sub-genres and forms of jazz, particularly now. Do you think we’re in a new Golden Age of jazz?

I hope so! I think music that continues to evolve and move is of its times and a reaction to everything going on around us. We’re really lucky to be surrounded by so many people doing so many different things. I feel very lucky.

You blended lots of different genres on ‘Source’. Do you think you’ve found your sound?

Wow, big question! I think I’m well on my way to realising my musical voice. I’m really pleased that I’ve found this space to operate in, in terms of my own musical being and have amalgamated all of the things that I love. I don’t know because I’m not listening as a person that isn’t me, but it brings me a lot of happiness to know that it feels very honest to me, and that was my only goal. I wasn’t trying to sound like anyone else, and it’s actually really hard to not sound like anyone else! And being honest to what you’re trying to say and how you’re trying to say it. The EPs were a good introduction to how I write, where I write, where I take inspiration from. It’s the first album, I hope there are many more to come!