Interview: Nina Baker
Songwriting catches up with a rising star from Norfolk as she prepares to release her debut long player ‘Quite Frankly’
inger/songwriter Nina Baker is fast making a name for herself with her witty lyrics and piano-driven composition. With an eclectic range of material, she was chosen by BBC Introducing to attend their 2013 Master Class and came runner-up in MTV’s ‘Brand New For 2013’ unsigned artists competition.
Nina has also won plaudits for her live act, performing at festivals such as Latitude and Godiva Festival. Hailing from rural Norfolk in the UK – home also to Ed Sheeran – she has just completed a new album called Quite Frankly, which is due out in January 2014. It’ll be trailed by single called Single Bed, which is due to be released in November.
When did you decide you wanted to become a singer-songwriter?
“I’m a trained pianist, so composition is something I always dabbled with. I spent hours working out chord structures, and that early training came back when I started songwriting. The writing side of things springs back to when I was younger, when I used to write a lot of poetry. I had some poetry published when I was very young. These all seem to have merged well.
And at what stage did you start performing in public?
“I started off performing as a soloist, doing covers of other people’s songs. I started to slip in the odd original and after a while I found people started to request my original work more than covers. This was in 2010, and that was when I thought, okay, I’lll dedicate my time to songwriting.
“I like Lady Gaga: if you listen to her early recordings, she’s a very good pianist”
Who has most influenced you musically?
“I love Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone – I definitely liked the early classics. I also love songwriter-performers like Kate Bush. She has a very unique style, not just with the writing but how she performs. Also I like Lady Gaga: if you listen to her early material, she’s a very good pianist and her early recordings highlight this.
“I would always class myself as a songwriter first and foremost… and one reason I have a great respect for these artists is that they write their own material”
What’s your process when writing songs? Do you write the lyrics first or the music first? Or do you sing into your mobile phone?
“I think a combination of all those things. The main way that I start to write a song is I’ll just sit at the piano and work out chord structures. I’ll play by ear with the chord structures on the piano and then I’ll hum along an additional melody line.
“Once that’s in my head, I’ll normally go away, and I’ll always have a notepad on me so if I think of some lyrics then I will jot them down. I have piles and piles of notepads, as I think most songwriters do. But I don’t ever set out to write about a specific topic. It’s strange: there’ve been some songs where I’ve started about writing one topic and then it’s blended into another.
“My main structure is the music and the lyrics just come with it. But I always have a strong idea of the direction that I want each song to go, even when creating it in its raw state as a piano/vocal. This intended direction is something which was very important during the recording process. Every single instrument, every piano riff, guitar layer or string motif has a meaning and purpose which has transformed the tracks into the pieces that I intended them to be and into the pieces you hear now.”
When does this happen? Is it ‘as and when’, or do you sit down and say, ‘I’m going to write a song today’?
“Generally I’ll never put that pressure on myself because I think with any type of artist – whether a writer or a painter or whatever – you need to write or create when inspiration strikes. But there were a couple of moments where I took months trying to get a chorus right. For example with Single Bed, I managed to get the verses and middle eight really quickly but the chorus just took months. I knew it had to be really catchy and I spent so many sleepless nights trying to get the chorus right… and then it just came to me.”
As that’s the album opener, and the first single, tell us a little more about Single Bed…
“It’s all about the joys of being single. Things you like to do when you’re single, like vegging out and having tea and cake. I’ve had friends in the past complaining about being single. Well, actually it’s not that bad! It’s quite good to be independent. You learn more about yourself. You are more your own person.
“And yes, Single Bed will be out as a single on 4 November and will have a music video – an animated video produced by Steve Jones. It’s very funny. I’m excited by it, it’s quite an unusual video.”
What about the track Bruising, which seems more emotional and powerful, talking about “Your lies bruising me”?
“That was definitely a personal reflection on something from years ago. A lot of heartfelt pain went into the lyrics and I needed this to come through on the audio. I found one of the hardest things in the recording environment is that people can’t see you. Vocals on the album were quite hard to get right as I need to make sure the listener could understand what I was feeling.
“When I write songs it is not always a conscious decision – often the music drives the lyrics, which definitely the case here. Some of the lyrics are slightly cynical, it’s almost a two-way argument in this song about a relationship. The character is talking about seven years’ bad luck.
“Bruising starts with a military drum intro because as the song’s about a relationship that breaks down, I wanted a regimented sound to begin it – very structured. It’s almost an ironic song, because the structure has broken down (in the relationship).
What inspired Little Fib, a more playful track with lines such as “Your friends annoy me most of the time/ They stay in, get stoned, drink lots of wine/ I never like to park in your town/You live like a pig, you should be put down”?
“That song is almost skiffle. Whenever I perform it live it’s great fun, it’s such a fun track and catchy – which is what I wanted. The person doing the brass arrangements on the track is Andrew Griffiths. I love that 20s-to-50s style of music. But I wanted to write the track not for the sake of being written to fit in particular genre, I want to write songs I was passionate about simply for the music. It gives you so many more options.”
“When you write a song like that, you’re sharing some of your life with the listener”
Another powerful song on the album is Clown, with lines such as: “I’m killing my well-being and the world is clearly seeing/that the thought that fills my mind are all the things I left behind”. Tell us how that came about?
“That was quite a hard track to produce because it’s a very simple structure, just a repetitive loop. With that comes complications because everything has to be completely set in stone. It was probably one of the most complex songs to produce: the amount of layers of guitars is unbelievable, but they are subtly added.
“Most of my songs are a combination of personal experience and a reflection of what I was observing. This is a song that was written while I was going through a dark time. Listening to it is an emotional experience, because it brings back memories. When you write a song like that, you’re sharing some of your life with the listener. But you need to be strong about what you’re doing.”
Finally, what advice do you have for aspiring singer/songwriters trying to make it in the music industry?
“You need to have a lot of determination and a lot of passion about what you do, and you just need to do it for the love of it because it is hard, it is really hard work. I’ve had a lot of success over the last three years and I’ve had a certain amount of luck, but I’ve also worked really hard and I’ve had to sacrifice a lot to do it. But if you do something because you are passionate about it you will always be inspired by it.”