Looking at the Stars


Looking at the Stars with Heather Nova

Imagine the scene. It is a dull Saturday afternoon in October of 1990, and quite unexpectedly a beautiful new voice emerges from a wireless tuned to Radio One. The song is New Love, the singer is Heather Frith - later to re-emerge under a different surname. Her first recordings, four songs on a 12 inch EP released by Big Cat, is out in the shops - but not for long. A week later, the distributor, Rough Trade, goes out of business. The record is very hard to find. After months of listening to these four songs, showing the influence of Joni Mitchell and very much in the contemporary folk mould, a chance finally arrives to see the singer live: she is to play a support at the Borderline, just off Charing Cross Road in London. However, hopes of hearing more from her are dashed: upon arrival at the venue, a chalked notice informs us that Heather is ill, and that label-mates Faith Over Reason will substitute. Then, silence for almost two years.

In April 1993 a trawl through the new CD singles in an independent record shop in Berwick Street turns up an EP, Spirit in You, by Heather Nova. Could this be the long- awaited re-emergence of Heather Frith, under a new name? The first time one hears the voice on the CD, the only answer can be yes. The EP serves as a trailer to her first album, Glow Stars, released in May. This shows that the singer and songwriter has come a long way from her former folk influences. She has translated an earlier concern with love as emotion to love as spirit. Her lyrics have moved into metaphysical and transcendent concerns, whilst the dreamlike quality of the music and the sheer fragile beauty of the voice are the perfect vehicle. The album receives very favourable critical notices from sources as different as New Musical Express and Q. As Heather Nova, with a small band, is touring in support of the album, an opportunity arises to see her live at the Mean Fiddler.

At 9.40pm on 8 July, Heather Nova and her band come on stage. Heather switches between acoustic and electric guitars, swapping the electric with her guitarist, who plays bass when she is using the electric guitar. The other two musicians play drums and cello. The overall effect is to produce a more aggressive and less ethereal sound than on the album. Heather is a slim figure, dressed in an unlikely combination of a daisy print dress and black motorcycle boots. She has silver rings on her fingers, a silver band on her right wrist and a small armband on her upper right arm. Around her neck is a necklace, which she later reveals she has made from found objects. Her dark blonde hair, with braids and coils, is dishevelled, and she has a sultry and heavy- lidded look. Listening to the studio album one has concerns that her voice may be too fragile for live performance. However, the exact opposite is true. She has not only great vocal power and precision, but can switch between the ethereal and the anthemic. On Maybe an Angel in particular, she sends a shiver up the spine, as her voice swells out and one feels that the shade of Patti Smith is with us. Heather's combination of poet and singer creates a magical experience. She is completely taken up by her music. You have the feeling that for this woman, on stage, the world of spirit is less than a step away, that she has only to move a tiny distance in her own special dimension to enter this other world.

In October, a live mini-album is released, called Blow, recorded earlier in the year, containing three new songs and three concert versions of tracks from Glow Stars: a vital record of her performance. A few weeks later, an interview is arranged.

It's shortly after ten o'clock on Friday 5 November, in Big Life Records offices near Oxford Circus. Heather Nova walks in, eating a banana. "This is my breakfast," she apologises. She unzips her brightly coloured jacket and sits down. Apart from the jacket, she is all in black - a short-sleeved top, ski pants and boots. Her hair, in dense waves, falls over her face, whose strong features include a dark, straight, heavy eyebrow line. She is relaxed and healthy, with a light tan, looking forward to the fireworks of Guy Fawkes' Night. Although she has been living in London for three years, this is the first time she has been free to see them.

Heather Nova was born and brought up in Bermuda. When she was seven, her father bought a small island "for nothing, because nobody wanted it. It was way out, and you can't get electricity or telephone. Not unusually for the sixties, he had an idea of being self-sufficient, and having his family live like that. He and my mum built a sail boat together. We lived half on the island and half on the boat, and did a lot of sailing." She went to school until she was eight, and was then educated by her parents until she went to art college. She studied painting and film, and found herself writing her own soundtracks. She had listened to her parents' records, including those by Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Simon and Garfunkel and Van Morrison. When she was in college, she was introduced to the work of New York artists like Lou Reed and Patti Smith. Her interest in writing songs had always been there. She had played violin and written poetry. "I've always loved to sing. I've always felt it was a real escape from things for me. When I came out of college, that was what I really wanted to do, deep down."

At the time Heather particularly liked the poetry of Anne Sexton and Sharon Olds, but her favourite was the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, one of whose best known works was The Heights of Macchu Picchu. "His stuff is so pure, it's beautiful, and it's very musical. I wish I could read Spanish, because I think it's even more musical in Spanish." This influence shows in her lyrics, with their concerns with the land and the sky, the connection between nature and spirit.

After leaving art college, she decided to come to London. "I think it was fate. You know when you make a decision about something that you want to do with your life, because it's really true to yourself. Then other things start to happen to keep you on that path. Soon after I decided, I got a call from a friend who said she had a flat in London, it was free, and I should come over. I'd read a bit about the music scene here and I felt it would be a good place to try."

She came over in October 1989, and a year later her 12 inch EP was released under the name Heather Frith (Frith being her mother's maiden name). The combination of poor distribution and a feeling that she wasn't ready to release more work meant that she took time out to develop further. She spent the next two years writing, recording demos in her front room. When she played the results to the producer Youth, he felt that they needed no more work and should be released as an album. "There was a vulnerability to them. We had caught the emotion in the songs, which was the main thing." It came out as Glow Stars on his label, Butterfly, distributed through Big Life. "I didn't have a band together when I made the demos. After the record I put the band together and now I'm really happy with the music." During this time, life had been a financial struggle, with Heather doing a variety of work, including "the perfect job for me" at the Bermuda Tourist Board.

Over the two years, she had developed musically and personally. "I was trying to be as honest as I could. With a first record, I think your influences are a hindrance. I had to get over my influences and get down to what was me. My stuff now has got down to the core. Music is really spiritual to me. It's the only time I feel I get in touch with any kind of spirituality, so I guess that comes through."

Commenting on her appearance on stage, she says "I just have a few pieces of jewellery, and each one means something to me. I have a necklace that I made out of things I found, and a silver bracelet that someone gave me. They're symbolic things to me." However, she rejects any notion of a deliberate attempt to evoke sixties references.

Heather's artwork has appeared on her album covers. In fact, on the Spirit in You CD EP she hand painted the covers. "Oh my God! I painted a thousand of them. It was one of those great ideas that turns into a nightmare," she laughs. She still retains an interest in painting. "I feel that it's something that I want to explore, but I'm saving it for another time in my life. You only have a certain amount of creative energy, and you have to focus it. I want to put as much as I can into my music right now."

Her live CD is being released in Germany with additional tracks as she has developed a following there and in France. She hopes to tour continental Europe and the UK in Spring 1994. Her next project is to record a new studio album in December, for release in early 1994. She will work on the record with her current live band. "They're really fantastic musicians. The cellist, Nadia, and the guitarist, David, are both classically trained. I'm the untrained one in the group. I like there to be a lot of collaboration on the arrangements, because then it's more like a band." Talking about her intense live performances, she says "I feel like I'm giving a lot in the music, so to speak as well seems redundant. I feel quite awkward speaking. I have to lose myself in the music, to get right inside it."

Her parents are happy with her musical career, although "I think my dad will feel that I've really done something with my life when he can hear me on the BBC World Service. So, I'm working on that." She likes living in London, but says "I have to go away once a year because I need to go back home, centre myself. Living in the city I get out of touch with nature. But I can see the stars out of my window, which is nice. And it's northern exposure - the perfect painting light."

On this note we end. One is left with the impression of an artist who is where she wants to be, moving onwards and upwards, creating a music which liberates the spirit, at one with the great flow of life.

Chris Fowler

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