There is no musician more exposed than the solo singer-songwriter. Stood with nothing but a guitar over the shoulder and a microphone in front, there’s nowhere to hide. But it’s this exposure that makes genuine talent all the more satisfying. Marie Naffah is one such singer-songwriter, London born and raised. Following a remarkable gig at The Troubadour, Earl’s Court, Performance Reviewed found her in a pretty little cafe to see what gets her creative juices flowing.
The way I present myself as a musician is exactly who I am as a person. Just by watching a half hour set, you can get to know me through that.’
Every songwriter has a different place where they find it easiest to write, but very few are most comfortable in the bathroom. ‘It’s cool, even though it’s quite echoey,’ Marie tells me, ‘I write best in somewhere that I feel comfortable.’ But even when she’s found her comfy spot on her bathroom floor, she doesn’t claim a superhuman, Dylan-esque ability to pluck fully formed songs out of the air. ‘I write songs pretty much all the time, but in fragments. I do the odd line, anything I think sounds right or cool. Then I play around on my guitar and try and take a line or a verse and mix it with a song.’
Expect clever wordplay from her lyrics, picking up on and twisting popular phrases, whilst cleverly avoiding clichés. It’s hard not to admire the laid back attitude Marie takes to such a vital part of the musical process: ‘I can’t just sit down and say “today I’ll write a song” but I know it’ll come. When it comes, it’s nice. I started writing songs when I was about 14 years old and they were all shit. For about 4 years, I was trying to write about stuff I thought I knew, but that’s all you can write about. In some way or other, I’ve now experienced all my songs, just because it’s easier to write, in the same way that writers can’t just write about something completely unknown. You have to experience it.’
‘What I’d love is for as many people as possible to enjoy the music that I enjoy making.’
Critics have already begun to wax lyrical about Marie’s prospects. With the likes of the BBC’s Tony Shearman and Island Records singing her praises, such praise is hard to ignore. But having been described as ‘One to Watch’ for some time, I’m interested in how she plans to push on from that:
‘I think it’s very important to gig a lot. As an unsigned musician in London, you’ve got to make use of London, everywhere and anywhere, and build up an idea of what it is you like and what audiences like to listen to. That builds your confidence and through gigging, you can meet people. Networking is so, so important in this industry because you meet people and you learn things through them. I think also, whilst it’s flattering being described as ‘One to Watch’, there’s always a very long period of being One to Watch. I have a theory that it probably takes at least 5 to 7 years of gigging and recording and meeting people before you really cross that boundary. But it can only go up from here.’
For most, receiving such positive feedback from critics would mean the world, but Marie’s kicks come from another source: her fans. ‘I go to a gig and play and all it takes is one person to say “I really enjoyed your set” or “I really want to see you again” and it makes it all worth it. Fortunately, praise is flooding in from critics, fans and fellow performers alike, so she’ll never have to choose one over another.
Earlier this year, Marie recorded a music video for her track ’Primrose Hill’, produced by Hunter Allen. Check it out below:
Last year, Marie played venues that stretched as far as Europe and South America. The challenge of an international tour for a singer-songwriter who relies so heavily on lyrics and wordplay is self-explanatory. Whilst we are fortunate that the rest of the world spends a great deal of time learning English, Marie has her own way of coping: ‘There’s definitely a time and place for certain songs and I alter my set list quite a lot depending on where I’m playing. So, for example, there’s a song which I play blindfolded, which is inspired by my grandmother who’s lost her sight. It’s a very emotional song for me to play and the lyrics are very serious. You can’t play it in a rowdy pub, so I think you have to pick the right ones. You have to judge your audience and work out what they’re going to appreciate.’
‘The process is so important; there’s something so satisfying about the build up.’
Looking forward, Marie refuses to get ahead of herself. ‘I don’t have one specific goal but I have lots of little goals that you can build on as you experience them,’ she tells me, ‘you’ve got to take baby steps.’ But that’s not to say she doesn’t have dreams. She gets particularly excited by the prospect of being able to choose a band to tour with. The likes of Fleetwood Mac who ‘have that energy and presence on stage, they’ve got the audience eating out of the palm of their hands’ and Eric Clapton feature high on her list, alongside more contemporary acts Laura Marling and Daughter. I can barely stop her when she gets going, telling us (and you) to explore Kal Lavelle, James Page (Sivu), Callum Burrows (St. Raymond) and Rae Morris, to name but a few.
She’s even considered having her own band: ‘I think that would be great fun. It would be a great project if I find the right person and hopefully in the future I will be able to work with a backing band. It would do a lot to enhance the sound, could be good fun.’
Until then, all focus is on a long-overdue EP. ‘That is in the pipeline,’ she explains, ‘2014 is going to be the year.’ The combination of studio time and quality production does not come easily for the unsigned musician, but her past offerings and honest sensibilities point to a sparkling future.