What’s R&B virtuoso Noah Slee been up to in 2020? With gigs taking a backseat along with everything else, we caught up with the man himself a few weeks ago for a little chat. Here’s what he had to say.
So what drew you to music?
Music was just one of those things that I connected with. It just felt natural to me. Growing up in a Polynesian family, music was a constant. From cultural music to church to family events, and at the dinner table, there was always music playing. I feel blessed that it was always bubbling around in different styles and forms.
I discovered singing at a very young age through my family. It’s just one of those things I remember from a really young age; It felt so good, and it felt so right.
At one point, I had a negative experience within the industry, and it kind of turned me off music altogether. But then I found my way, you know, falling in love with it again. It’s important in my life and also to my day-to-day. Whether I’m creating it or just enjoying it, you know?
Tongan culture is known for its strong ties to nature. Has this deep respect for nature, instilled through your family and ancestry, influenced the way you approach your music?
Yeah, definitely has, especially in recent years. Understanding the effects and the power that my ancestors had was not taught to us growing up in school as part of the New Zealand syllabus and educational programs. It wasn’t until later on in my adult life where I discovered that my people were navigating the oceans for centuries well before it was colonized by Europeans or the English. I found out just how connected we were and how superior nature is to my people.
At one point, it was our religion. We would worship the God- Tangaloa and the Moana. Nature, to me, is home. It’s where I feel refreshed and reset, and it’s just one of those powerful things. I’ve only engaged deeply with it in my adult years. I grew up around a lot of beautiful nature in New Zealand, but when that’s all you know, you’re not fazed by it; It’s just the ocean and the mountains. But it wasn’t until I started living in Europe that I really fell in love with its beauty. I just definitely have a deep respect for it. New Zealand and Tonga are so beautiful, and I feel more empowered to contribute to saving the planet we live in.
I assume that you like to put yourself in these environments when you’re creating as well?
Yeah. Although I live in Berlin, I’d rather find somewhere that’s quiet, tranquil, and relaxing around nature to finish my records. For me, It’s not necessarily about being in a flashy studio, but about being focused, and I feel like I can be most focused when I’m outside of the city, surrounded by nature.
When I take a break, I prefer going for a swim or a walk rather than going out and having a coffee in a bustling city. And quite often, it’s makeshift studios, and not anything fancy that I work out of. If I were to speak to a few producers or engineers about my setup, I’m sure they would be super surprised by the gear that I use to finish my records.
Photo Credit: Nicola Kosovich
2020 has been a crazy year. As an artist, touring is such an essential part of connecting with your fans. And this year has been anything but that. Now that this year’s practically freed up, what takes up a significant portion of your time?
Like the majority of the world, it’s been the weirdest year for me, you know? I haven’t played. I’ve had numerous tours canceled. I was actually in New Zealand for eight months of this year. I just got back into Europe about a month ago.
I was touring in New Zealand & Australia when shit hit the fan. Coronavirus started spreading, and I decided to stay back in NZ. I was there for eight months, which is super weird because I haven’t been in one place for so long in the past few years. So it’s kind of gone from like being super busy to the exact opposite. And I must say, it’s been rough trying to navigate because I rely heavily on touring, you know? I rely heavily on creating and releasing. And it’s also been a bit of a struggle to understand what the future looks like for me. And I mean, I’m still able and have opportunities, which I’m grateful for. But, it’s been quite a dramatic change. There are still expenses going out, but nothing coming in.
It’s a challenging situation and super humbling, too. It’s challenged me to evaluate what matters and also why I do what I do. I’ve been in the south of France with my brother. He has a food truck business here.
I have so much respect for people that have to work. I’m grateful that I’ve found what I love. I’m fortunate that I never consider it as work. I’ve had to help out my older brother a little bit, and it’s like totally flipped my world. I’m like, “Oh my Gosh, it’s hard work.”
CoVID has been a challenging time. Also, the Black Lives Matter movement has really hit home for me. I think it’s woken us up to racial injustice all around the world. Each country, wherever you may be, can relate to it somehow and in some way. That’s why I think it’s so important not only as a movement but for action to take place. That’s been a priority in my mind. I believe it is important to write music for the times, and I want to contribute in whatever way I can. For me, that means creating art, telling stories from my perspective, and contributing to this movement. It’s also about taking action, having uncomfortable conversations, and trying to lend a hand to charities and focus groups that are pushing the envelope and making real change. It’s also a blessing in a weird way that you can no longer shy away from this conversation. It’s made a point. And you have to decide where you stand and if you’re willing to make changes in your own life, your perspective, your mentality. That’s been a focus of mine too.
Photo Credit: Nicola Kosovich
Having moved to Berlin, do you feel that you have a very good understanding of who you are at the moment?
I think I’m always discovering new things about myself. You might arrive somewhere and feel like you’ve learned something, but then sometimes, you have to relearn it again, you know? I’ve been living in Berlin for five to six years now (on and off), and it’s just a beautiful city. I have a good community that I connect deeply with and a bunch of friends and a lot of creatives that I work with, too. It’s just an open-minded place and super liberal. It’s empowering to be around people like that where you can feel unthreatened and safe. It’s not to say that it’s a perfect city; it’s not. What city is perfect? But in terms of the places that I’ve lived and the places I’ve been to, it definitely feels like a second home for me, and I’m grateful to be there. I’ve changed a lot and continue to change. There’s a beautiful queer community that I connect deeply with and a Neo-Soul/R&B Scene that’s starting to come up. Yeah, there are many amazing, interesting things happening in the city, but more so now. I feel like there are things that I click with, you know? When I first moved to Berlin, there wasn’t much of an R&B Scene. Now there is one. The city has always been known for the LGBTQ community for decades. But even in that way, there’s more representation with black and brown people within the scene because predominantly it was non-black and brown people. But now there’s space for representation. And even in the club world, there’s more representation; there is more diversity in sound. Obviously, the roots and the heart of Berlin is techno and house music. And you can’t take that away from the city. It is what it is.
And I’m not saying that that should be taken away in any way. But over the years of me living there, there’s been more layers added. There have been more points of difference and more stories.
Is there an album that you hold close to your heart, and you always go back to when things get tough?
I’ve listened to ‘Channel Orange’ a whole lot; It’s a great album. And ‘Voodoo’ is like a Bible to me.
The Soulquarians were amazing.
Yeah, definitely the Soulquarians. I mean, anything that was part of that time at Electric Ladyland was phenomenal. Another album that I’ve been listening to on repeat is Cleo Sol’s “Rose in the Dark.” I don’t know why, but I just love that album. It has an old soul to it.
If you could be a fly on the wall in any studio session, past or present, which artist’s studio session would you have liked to be a part of?
Maybe the making of D’Angelo’s Voodoo.
The energy in that room would have been fierce.
I was thinking ‘The Beatles’ because when they were working at Abbey Road, not only was there so much musical creation; there was so much technical creation as well. That’s when they started experimenting with certain music effects. I think that would have been mind-blowing to see.
Michael Jacksons’ studio sessions would’ve been cool to watch for sure. I think there’s still a lot of mystery around how he created his music.
Do you think you’d want to record any of your studio sessions as footage for documentaries later?
The other day, I saw Anderson. Paak making a beat for his song, “YUUUU.” He put it out because people didn’t believe that he made the beat or whatever, you know? I think that’s really interesting. I mean, as a music nerd myself, I love watching studio sessions, whatever I can get my hands on. I’m working on something now, so maybe I’ll document my studio sessions with a camera in the background.
You’ve released “Enough” with Narou, which came out in August, and “Here for it All” with Mike Nasa in May, both a few months from each other. Can you take us through how these tracks came together, the creative process, and anything you can maybe share with us about it?
Sure. I wrote, “Here for it all” for a friend of mine who had lost his father. It’s such an emotional time when that happens. I wrote the chorus and some of the verse’s lyrics as a poem on a card for him.
A little later, I was in the studio with Beau Diako and Ben Esser (who I’ve worked closely with on almost all my records.) We had this loop going around. The first drum sound you hear was taken from my drummer when we were on tour.
We pulled it up, Ben laid the drums, and Beau put down some guitars, and that was the beat. But then I was trying to write to it, and I asked Ben to play it on the piano so that I can break it down a little bit and strip it back to see what we can come up with. I really wanted to use the lyrics, but I didn’t have a melody at that point. I recorded myself singing, and that’s also what you hear in the intro. The voice recording when we were writing ended up on the record itself.
I found the melodies, and then I wrote the verse. Sometimes, I just don’t want to hear myself again in a verse. On that song, I felt like I would get annoyed if I heard myself on the verse again.
Is that when Mike comes in?
Yeah. I’ve always wanted to work with Mike. I haven’t had the right song. I asked Mike to jump on it, and he added his verse, and that’s how the song came together.
I finished it when I was in New Zealand a few months ago. I went into a studio there and added some extra vocals, and then we got it mixed and mastered. And that was the song.
Tell us about “Enough” with Narou.
“Enough” is Narou’s song that I’m featuring on. So he was predominantly the creative mind behind it, and I just contributed with the vocals and wrote the verse and bridge too. It was more his journey, and I was just adding my interpretation of what he was trying to say.
He’s an amazing artist originally from Austria but living in Berlin now. It’s a beautiful song and a great reminder to push your friends along and always believe in what you’re doing. It’s always nice to contribute to songs that have a message.
Can we expect new Music from Noah Slee in the shape of an album or an EP sometime soon?
Yeah, I’m working on a lot of music at the moment, and it’s definitely taking shape. I guess that’s the most information I can give you without misleading you because I don’t know if it will be an EP or an album yet.
It’s been so much fun working on them. I feel genuine joy working on them. I don’t have any schedules, and so I work on it when I want to. Any time I have a spare moment, I’m carving away at these projects. So I’m excited for everyone to hear it.
With all the music you’ve produced and the music you’re making now, can you share some personal goals you have for what you want to achieve with your music?
I like setting my own creative goals. I always want to evolve as an artist. And one key thing that I’ve always stuck by is to do what I want. With “Spacifix,” we didn’t necessarily have complete creative control over what we were doing. We had a whole management and record label that controlled what we were doing.
So after that experience, I took a break and then found my way to creating this whole world around what I wanted to do, and that’s one thing that I’ve stuck by.
If you were to look too deeply into the music industry and try achieving certain goals, it could get overwhelming, and that can almost take away from the creative element of it. I always just try to make the freshest shit that I can; whatever comes naturally to me, whatever feels good. For me, I just want to continue to create the best music and art that I can.
I have more confidence in exploring different art forms, which I didn’t initially have. I’ve evolved into directing my videos now and am more hands-on with the visual element of everything I’m doing.
I made a short film just before I released “Twice.” It sparked my enthusiasm for video creation and has given me the motivation to explore different art forms. I think it’s important that I nail everything that I do. I don’t want to get into something only because it’s fun. I still have expectations of myself. And I guess that’s just from being in music so long and also my upbringing.
To be honest with you, when I was young, I used to have goals of being in America and doing all that. But, things change, and that’s far from my mind now, obviously, because of just what America has become.
The most reward I get is when I do something that I feel really satisfied with. And yeah, I enjoy being in Europe. I enjoy being able to tour. I enjoy meeting people, and I enjoy writing and producing for other people. I just keep it simple, man (Laughs)
Many people find themselves either looking back into the past or worrying about the future, especially in these dystopian times. Where you at with all of these things?
If I was to be really honest with you, I think I’m a mixture of all of it because, as human beings, we’re all an extension of our childhood experiences.
I feel like I’m unlearning things and just trying to understand who I am now and how my past has affected the present. I’m unlearning things that I had seen or experienced or learned. So that’s kind of me reflecting on the past. But I guess with the shit show that we’ve experienced this year, you can’t help but worry about what the future will look like, especially with America being this superiority over the world and how the election matters.
If it were a more chilled year, I would be excited about the future, but with everything going on, it’s hard to be optimistic, and it’s hard to be hopeful, but somehow, I find myself having small moments of optimism. Being optimistic is about holding moments of hope.
I’m a really sensitive person, but I feel like, at this point, I’m good, you know, and I can take it day by day. If you asked me, like earlier in the year, you would have been talking to a completely different human being because I was definitely way more depressed, just struggling to manage everything emotionally.
I’m assuming being around family and nature back in New Zealand would have helped things a little bit?
Yeah, for sure. It was a conscious decision to stay back. This year continues to give. You think you’ve experienced 2020, and then all these little nuggets come in and uppercut you from behind. (Laughs)
As a musician, your art has the potential to live on long after you’re gone. How important is that to you?
I’ve never actually thought about it. I think it’s quite powerful that what you create will exist out there in the ether. I do want to make music that is approachable and is timeless. I often hear new sounds and new songs. Not to be judgmental, but it’s easy to realize that some of these will probably disappear and never come back; That it’s just a part of a trend.
So, I do want my music to mean something. And I want people to listen to it in 5, 10, 100 years and be like, “I understand what you’re going through” and “I get it,” or “this is groovy” or, “I can get down to this.”
So I’m not so big into following new trends. I always try and listen to new stuff with an open mind because once you close yourself off to new creations, I think that can be quite damaging as an artist. I have friends stuck on a loop or are almost like snobby, in a way. I feel like that can be stifling. As a creative person, everyone’s experiences and expressions are valid. It’s not like you have to listen to it daily, but everyone’s song or creation is valid and will resonate with someone out there.
I mean, I would like to think that I’m going to be that sixty-five-year-old guy at one point that’s like still interested in what’s being created, you know?
I keep telling myself that I want to be that kind of human being that’s still interested and engaged. I don’t have to dress up like the kids when I’m sixty-five and try to be in their space or anything. But, I think creatively, it’s great to see how music has changed and how music continues to evolve and, almost how we’re on repeat now of the genres we created 20 or 30 years ago. That’s where we’re at now in some way or form. Soul has just had its come back. And obviously, it’s so interesting to me, and I hope I’ll still be interested in it in my older age.
Thank You, Noah