The Forum: Nabihah Iqbal

Nabihah Iqbal has always been a dab hand at defying expectations. Before her current role as one of London’s most consistently surprising producers and radio hosts, she’s thrived as an ethnomusicologist, a human rights lawyer and even a karate instructor. As Throwing Shade, her earlier releases on labels such as No Pain in Pop, Happy Skull and Omnimira veered from weirdo techno to deconstructed, glossy RnB. Suitably, she was also revealed as the vocalist on SOPHIE’s divisive PC-music head-turner, ‘Lemonade’. A fortnightly resident on NTS, a typical Iqbal show could be partly or solely dedicated to ambient, disco, funk, broken beat, Japanese folk, Islamic jazz...

In 2017, the change is more radical still. Reverting to her original name has allowed Iqbal, in her own words, to “stand proudly as a female British Asian artist making music”, as well as “moving her music in a bolder, more expansive direction.” On her debut LP for Ninja Tune, ‘Weighing of The Heart’, Iqbal makes good on these changes with a record unpredictably indebted to post-punk, grunge and vintage indie rock (in the purest, Eighties sense), grappling with all manner of low-key crises in the outer-zones of modern day London. Inspired by William Blake, CAN style krautrock and underpinned by the distant, dusty throb of vintage house music, it’s a highly personal mixture of irresistible basslines and urban melancholy. A surprisingly easy listen that offers little in the way of easy answers to it’s numerous existential dilemmas.

Following the release of ‘Weighing of The Heart’, Iqbal caught up with John Thorp, to discuss subverting cultural preconceptions, why guitars sound so bad on the radio these days (and why Beyonce sounds so good), and how to make songs about loneliness, honour killings and affairs sound surprisingly uplifting.

 

Was there a specific moment at which you decided this record needed to be released under your own name, rather than Throwing Shade?
It was a gradual development to the decision. It wasn’t a sudden, out-of-the-blue move to use my own name, but more of a point I’ve reached on a journey. Not just in terms of music, but a realisation of self. When I chose the name Throwing Shade, it was 2009, and I was just DJing for fun. I hadn’t thought about a career in music. But more importantly, it’s because I’ve just been thinking a lot about identity and representation.
 
You’ve always shifted sound through your career, but I could never have anticipated you making something largely informed by post-punk. How did you end up at that sound?
I knew that I wanted to incorporate guitar into my music, which I hadn’t done previously. But I had used it in my live shows and really enjoyed it. But I was quite conscious of not thinking about how I wanted it to sound. Obviously I had aims about what I wanted to do or achieve, but in terms of style, I didn’t think about. There’s too much music now trying to sound like something else. There are too many fads and crazes, and people want to sound like what’s hot. And I kind of hate all that, so I just let myself go in the studio and it took me by surprise as well, when it started to take shape and sounded quite post-punk or eighties. But I was really happy with it.
 
Guitar music often gets a poor rap nowadays, or is at least lumped in with a lot of bad, laddish stuff. But you’re an actual ethnomusicologist and you’ve done something really interesting with it here. Was that something you were conscious of?
Not as much, but I think most of the guitar playing on the record is quite melodic, rather than strumming chords aggressively. So maybe, subconsciously, I was trying to bring in a lot of the melodic string instrument sounds I enjoy listening to. But like I said, I think if you sort of free yourself up from these restraints, it becomes clear, and it was obviously very heavily influenced by all that guitar music that I grew up with. There’s not much new guitar music I listen to, and then I look at the current electronic music landscape, there’s obviously no guitar, and we don’t really talk about the guitar anymore. The way technology has advanced, it’s been left behind.

Also, radio play is a massive part of it. Radio stations now operate with limiters on the sound that are defining the way people are producing songs. If you listen to any big pop song of recent times, whether it’s Drake, Rihanna or Beyonce, you’ll notice the production is very minimal. It’s just bass, some percussion and the vocal. And the reason they do it that way is because when the limiter has it’s effect on the music, it pumps it really loud, without compressing it and making it sound weird. So guitar music just isn’t made for radio anymore. When you push all that sound through, it does compress it and it doesn’t sound good. So that’s a shame, but I only found that out once I’d finished the album! But I’m just gonna make what I want to make, and not think about radio stations compressing it to make it sound bad.
 
In part, the record is about the struggle of city life, the work cycle and the commute. But there are moments of romance and optimism throughout, like on ‘Saw You Twice’, which is a sort of reluctant love song. Would you say the record is more of a love letter or a riposte to London and city living?
It’s definitely a riposte. Everything feels very reluctant on it. When I finished the record, my Mum asked if there were any love songs on it. And I told her that there weren’t any real love songs. I feel like most love songs are idealistic bullshit, and I’m more concerned about what people are really feeling. Because I don’t think people’s perception of love isn’t real. It’s just like a fantasy that motivates people to carry on living. But when you ask anyone about their experiences, it’s never good. People should just focus on themselves. I can’t imagine being in a relationship and putting anyone before me, because it’s always going to end negatively, every time. I feel like if you can avoid that, you can enjoy life. You’ll never feel these horrible feelings of jealousy and worry.

So, the songs that deal, in a very cursory way, with love, they’re about being in a relationship, but not wanting to be in a relationship. But you can’t see any alternative, so you just stick it out. One song, ‘New New Eyes’ is about seeing one of my best friend’s Dad on a date with another woman who wasn’t his wife. And yeah, ‘Saw You Twice’ is about a really hot guy, who I saw twice. But I was with my boyfriend both times. So you can't put away these feelings. That’s real life, and everybody is trapped in these weird contradictions every single day, but nobody can admit to it.
 
One strain of dance music culture I think you preluded on NTS, was the idea of the ‘selector’. I know you’re not a fan of the catch-all term ‘world music’, and you’re keen to subvert expectations. As such, this isn’t necessarily the sort of LP you’d expect a young British-Asian woman to make.
Exactly! I’m female, and I’m brown. So there’s a double layer of preconceptions that come with me. So, first of all, people don’t think you’re a producer, they just think you’re the singer. Secondly, that comes with just very stereotypical views of Asian people in Britain. People fall into that trap, time and time again. Where are the Asian-British people in British popular culture, apart from on shows like Goodness Gracious Me or Asian Provocateur or Citizen Khan? Where you can only be legitimized if you’re making fun of yourself, just reducing yourself to crass entertainment. I hate that so much, and people haven’t woken up to it yet. I think about that so much, and I don’t want people to think that because of the way I look, or my background, I should be making a record that sounds like Punjabi MC. I have every right to make music that is a reflection of what I’ve grown up with here as a British person.
 
Is there an expectation within the industry to make the record that’s expected of you?
I think that’s just the case for everyone who wants to make music or be successful. You look around and you see what other people are doing. You look at the Top Ten and think, “OK, do I need to make something that sounds like that?” Or with the fast pace of the music industry now, the fact that you can blow up with just one song that gets like a billion Youtube views, it’s just putting a lot of pressure on people to sound a certain way. And instead of trying to focus on themselves, or their own consciousness or their own creativity, they’re just trying to manufacture something that other people want. But obviously depending on who you are and where you are, those pressures will be different. I could have made a very different, more leftfield and electronic record, if I hadn’t pushed myself out of my comfort zone.


 
You’ve cited poets such as William Blake and Matthew Arnold as lyrical inspirations for the record, which deals with complex and ambitious ideas, such as “how struggle and pleasure are simultaneous forces that push us through mortality". Is it easy for you to meld pop music with philosophy?
I don’t really think about it, and also, this is the first time I’ve tried to write songs properly, with lyrics. So those are the ideas and feelings that just came out. It has to feel real and feel relevant. There are a couple of tracks about positive things, but it’s mostly quite dark. But I like that it’s not overt. When I sent the record to a few people, they said, “Well done for making such a positive sounding record in such dark times.” But one song’s about honour killings, one is about cheating on your wife, one is about never being satisfied, wondering why people want to live, loneliness, lack of communication… That’s just what I think about really. (Laughs.)

I think a lot of people go out of their way to avoid confronting these things. Does it make it easier to do so in the studio, and in your general creative process?
I think it does, actually. Because when you approach any one of those strands in your mind, and you think about how you can convey that with music, what’s the message you want to give to listeners, you have to really think about it deeper than if you were just thinking about it just in your everyday thoughts. For the last six months of making the record, I was totally just in another zone. I wasn’t thinking about anything else. Just going in the studio super early, staying late, going to sleep, and then getting up and doing it again. I wasn’t talking to my friends, my boyfriend or anyone else. And I’d never really experienced that before, and I actually became quite headstrong with the ideas, because it’s not just for the album, it’s your whole philosophy for life and the world. And it definitely brought me to new conclusions about my life and priorities, which I imagine are quite different to those of everyone else.

Somewhat ironically, you get lost in coming to terms with those ideas, and then have quite a nice time?
I feel blessed to be in this position; happy, healthy and able to focus 100% on what I love most in life. It’s a total privilege, and I think recognising that and being thankful motivates me to get up everyday and work as hard as I can. But it also felt very gruelling at times, because of how all-consuming it can be, and exhausting, at least mentally. Aside from the time making eleven tracks that made it to the album, I spent ten times that making stuff that just went nowhere. I suppose it’s the beautiful struggle, or whatever you want to call it. You have to put that time in working in the studio to get to that point where you get an epiphany and it all comes together in half-an-hour or whatever it is.

You have worked with PRS Foundation on this album, but also in the past, the British Council and The Tate. How important are these institutions to new music in the UK? Could you have made the record otherwise?
They’re really important, and I feel so blessed to have worked with PRS, who gave me a grant that meant I was able to rent a studio space for the first time ever, where I basically made the entire album, which is like a direct product of their financial support. And I’m very grateful, and having experienced it first-hand, it makes me realise their importance to aspiring artists in the UK, for sure. And thinking more about arts organisations, like The Tate or The Barbican, they’re amazing outlets for culture in London, and one of the reasons I’m so proud to be a Londoner and have those opportunities. They’re really switched on, the programming is great, and they’re happy work to with you and around you.

I know you have a live show coming up. Are you going to revisit your teens and get a band together?
Well it can’t be a solo show anymore, but also, I haven’t really got the resources for a whole band at the moment, so it’ll be and another person. We’re working it out at the moment. I’m going to be concentrating on the lead vocals, guitars and synths, and he’s going to help out with some other stuff, then the next stage would be to get a drummer.

You’ve discussed moving to Lisbon or Leipzig in the past. Do you think, after this record, you’re going to stick with London?
I love London. There are frustrating things about it, but I’m a Londoner born and bred. I reckon I could spend six months somewhere else, but it’s my favourite place, and there’s a feeling I get being here that’s so special. Even if I stayed somewhere else for a long time, I just wouldn’t get that.

John Thorp, December 2017.

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