Nailah Hunter is a harpist, vocalist, and composer living in Los Angeles. Guided by her intuition, she creates otherworldly music inspired by a connection to her ancestors, as well as her love of fantasy and all things nerdy. She’s also a coffee lover too, and gave us some tips on her favorite neighborhood spots in LA. Nailah's music casts a spell, and will spirit you away, something I'm sure we all can all use right now.
Hey Nailah, how's it going? Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Hey! I'm Nailah Hunter, and I'm a musician, a harpist, a composer. I feel like my art practice is tone columns of different mediums.
How long have you been playing?
I've been playing piano since I was like 4, I started singing in church when I was about 6. I started playing harp when I was 19, so I've been playing for a while, I guess!
What drew you to the harp?
I was going to school for voice actually, when I was gifted a small harp, and I started taking lessons. I eventually moved up to a pedal harp, and it just sort of became an obsession. It provided me the sound I had always been looking for for my own music, you know? Prior to that I was playing on an acoustic guitar and maybe sometimes piano, but otherwise I was the lead singer of a band, which was not my personality type, in any way (laughs.) So, finding the harp was like finding the right one.
So, were there bands you played in before you started releasing work under your own name?
Yeah, so the bands I played in before were really fusion-like, like Radiohead influenced, along with some jazz influence? I was playing harp in those bands as well, which was cool, I do enjoy playing harp with a full band. It's just that it's such an involved process to play harp and sing in the first place, that when you add other people into that, there's a lot to negotiate. I am excited to approach that again, deeper into my career as a harpist.
When did you start putting stuff out under your own name? Spells was recommended to me a few months ago on a Bandcamp Friday, and I immediately loved it!
Cool! Last year I put out my first single,"Apple, Maple, Willow", and that was my first declaration of "OK, I think this is what this could sound like" and just kept going from there.
By the way, I love the artwork on Spells. It fits the recording so perfectly.
That's great! I love to hear that so much. Ianna, the artist who did that is so fantastic and is like my ride or die Fantasy friend. We went back and forth on the art for some time, but at the same time she really sees what I see, so it's really nice seeing my vision carried out by her hand. I've always wished I was a visual artist, but I just don't have that in me. At least not much!
Spells, by Nailah Hunter, artwork by Ianna Vasale.
Let's talk about your recording process. Do you record at home, or have you gone somewhere to make these recordings?
Yeah, for Spells I actually recorded it all in my home studio and it was a very personal process. I did all of the recording, engineering and everything myself. There's lots of layering, obviously. I really appreciate my little home studio, it's just got all the stuff I need in it!
What do you use?
Well, I have a harp (laughs), and I have a looper that has effects on it. Pedals for the harp, even though there wasn't as much of that for this record. I also use a Korg Triton synthesizer pretty heavily on those songs. I just love playing with texture on a synth because it can get so technical, you know? I mean, it should get technical. My partner tries to teach me all the time, like "this is how to do this" but I'm like "I love that, I'll probably just feel it out as I go." You know what I mean (laughs)? I'm still open to learning... eventually.
This has obviously been a weird year for musicians, but how actively were you playing live and such before the pandemic hit, and how did this impact any plans you may have had for the release of Spells?
It's funny, so before Spells I was in a very not great place about performance in general, and Spells was kind of in response to that. I just wanted to make something that I could perform without having to get in my head about it, and I wanted to make it all about this ritual, so it could be removed from anything I could get stage fright about. I just had really bad stage fright. I did also find that I enjoyed the performances that I played outside. Those were performances where you just listened to music outside, under a tree in the daylight. I don't if it just coincided with this time period, but it made me feel like "Ahhh, OK. Performing can make sense." I was already in a place where I was trying to figure out how I could be an artist, how could I make music regularly but not have to tour.
I don't really like the idea of touring, even to this day. You know, I really just like my zones, right? Also, harps are hard to move! It was really nice to talk to Mary (Lattimore) about that. She's toured all over the place and is like "Yeah, it's annoying!" It's all about what you do for the instrument, but I think it's also about the setting of the performance. That's really important to me so it's nice to be able to open up to more of those opportunities. Having said that, yeah, like all of the coolest ones got canceled. I have faith though that when things open back up it will be fine, but I'm also enjoying having my music out and feeling like a part of a community in a musical way without having to be touring, having to be out until 1am every night, you know what i mean?
Have you been working on new stuff?
Yeah! That's the thing; it's been nice because it feels like the project was an opening that I don't see closing. I mean, I know things ebb and flow, but I don't think I've felt it like this in my life before and it's just so much easier to create. I think maybe I'm just allowing to create, whereas before I felt so bound by expectation? So yeah, I've been making a lot of music, a lot is coming out in the coming months and I'm really excited.
Nice! I'm definitely looking forward to that. So, what do you consider the biggest influences on what you create?
I feel like my playing, especially with the harp, but other instruments as well, is led by obviously intuition, and I've been trying to connect to my ancestors through music as of late. Definitely when I play the harp, I feel in touch with something else, something beyond this realm. So that's always nice, but I'm obviously also very influenced by high fantasy things, like I just love all the nerdy stuff. If it's nerdy, I probably like it. Yeah, I'm creating the places that I wish existed here. That's pretty much it!
What have you been listening to lately?
Hmm... I have been listening to a lot of Green-house, also on Leaving Records. I just love their whole thing. Field recordings and all that stuff. I've been listening to a lot of 90's pop/R&B stuff. Mary Lattimore. I'm trying to think... it's funny, when anyone asks me this sort of thing I can't really think of anything. John Carroll Kirby. Also, there's this compilation I happened upon of Japanese disco music that's really cool. It's been a treat.
So, let's talk about coffee for a bit. You're a fan?
How do you make coffee at home?
I love using my Chemex to make coffee. I usually get it whole bean, because I feel like grinding it is part of the vibe. It's part of the whole situation.
What do you look for in a cup of coffee?
I like dark coffee, but a medium roast is cool too. You know, chocolatey notes? I'm not as keen on what I like about coffee as far as flavors, but I know when I don't like them! You know what I know I don't like? Ethiopian coffee. It seems to have this super acidic thing happening that I just don't like. Other than that, I like most coffee (laughs).
If you happen to be out and about and are grabbing a coffee somewhere, do you have go-to places and/or drinks?
There's a place in my neighborhood called Hilltop Coffee, and they just make the best oat milk latte. It's just great. Oh! There's this place called Sip & Sonder which is equally delicious, I like both of those. If I was going to the store to get beans, probably Stumptown if I feel like treating myself.
Do you feel like coffee plays into your creativity in any way?
I feel like it's an organizer, like it zips you up into whatever tasks you have before you. I always try to drink my coffee at the top of the morning, right before I drink like a liter of water, and then I do my workout. After that, I do whatever musical things. Also, who are we kidding? It cleanses you out. It gets you going, right? Then, you're like "I'm ready to start my day." Haha!
Many thanks to Nailah for talking with us! Be sure to check out her Bandcamp page and listen to more of her beautiful music. New customers can use the code SPELLS for 20% off of your first order!
Banner image by Ianna Vasale.