Interview: Nina Miranda (July 2017)

She finally made the big step. After twenty years of a career successfully spent being the voice of this or that project, Nina Miranda has signed her name on a debut album.

As we understood from an interesting chat that we recently had with her, Freedom of Movement is not just the title of her first work, but also her philosophy on life. Her origins have brought her to travel the world and music has done the rest. Today, even if London has become her domicile, her suitcase is constantly packed and her artistic gaze is looking back at her very own Brazil and further beyond.

“I’ve wanted to do a solo project for ages. After the second Smoke City album, we split up, deciding that we wanted to do our own things. I went on to work with several people (including Chris and Marc from Smoke City on their projects Da Lata and KV5.) I love collaborating, with each collaboration there is a new exchange, a different way of working, and the result is a surprise for myself and hopefully the listener too. Life itself should be like that, conversations in diversity, learning about new places, people, ways of seeing, working. But I was already pretty keen on the idea to do my own album, choose the characters.. the sounds, the destination.

But meanwhile, with some of the collaborations, I found that one song leads to another and soon I was part of a whole album project under another name. If one is not careful one can end up swimming up the rivers of other’s people’s choices not your own, so I was finally like ‘I’ve got to break free and release my own album’.

I remember having a chat with Gilles Peterson and he asked me ‘Who is Nina Miranda?’ I took it that he meant, I have so many projects, influences, tastes, voices. I believe my solo album is the answer to that question. I have curated my world, often recorded my own voice, when no one else is listening”.

This Summer Nina’s songs finally enjoyed their well-deserved freedom of movement…

The album’s project started about four or five years ago, but I’d say that I was properly only dedicated to it since two years ago. It was when I made a make-shift studio in my attic. Some of the songs on the album are quite old, but I’ve only been entirely focused on it since 2015. I had to learn a lot of new skills myself to produce it. That’s why I consider this record as a bridge between the past and the future. I didn’t want to break away from the people who were incredibly important in my musical life, like Chris Frank, for example, who’s from Smoke City, Da Lata, Zeep and the father of my children. So it was meaningful to have him on board. At the same time, it was also crucial to find other people and form my own band, which is composed of mainly Brazilian musicians, apart from apart from musicians such as UK born Antony Elvin and Kari Bannerman, who’s from Ghana and who I simply adore!

It’s hard to mention and recall all of the musicians and projects that Nina Miranda has worked on and taken part with. So we made things easier and asked her the most significant musicians who she has collaborated with and is still collaborating with…

Chris Frank is the musician I’ve worked the most with and there’s also a guy called Domenico Lancellotti, who’s a Brazilian drummer with whom I always find it great to work. Next to him, there’s also another Brazilian musician called Kassin. They’ve been best friends forever and good friends and compadres of mine for time. The way they make music is totally like I do. It’s very instinctive and intuitive, without too much rehearsal or discussion. We’ve always worked in a way where we swap. They were calling me saying, ‘Nina can you come and sing on my record’, and then I asked them to do the same for my album. We never discussed contracts or business because it has always been a swap. It’s, like, ‘You come around for dinner on Monday; I’ll come by on Tuesday.’ Simple as that. When we make music, we are completely free. We are not worried about the direction we are going to take and where we are going. I completely trust their judgment and they always want to take me somewhere unexpected. I really like that. They always say, ‘Nina, there’s a cliché of what Brazilian music is or might be, but we are not going to give you that’. On my part, I also try to give them something unexpected, so it’s really exciting playing with them”.

Freedom of movement is a recurring concept when you talk with Nina Miranda. For example, we asked her to describe her sound…

I’m absolutely delighted with the title of my album because it really says what it is: freedom of movement. Basically, I like atmosphere, and that’s something that helped me to realise that I wanted to do a whole album with Smoke City. Everything started when Mark [Brown] gave me Underwater Love. He’s a DJ that I really liked. We used to hang out together and I loved his sets. He saw me performing live and he told me, ‘one day, I’ll do a track for you and it’s going to be perfect’. That track was Underwater Love and it was indeed so perfect. I was living in Brazil at that time, and the song became a massive hit. Around the same period, I also met Chris Frank and Patrick Forge. They wrote a track called ‘Devil Mood’ and I started working on that in Brazil. Then, they did one more track and I immediately knew that the album was going to be amazing. Every song had a completely different atmosphere. I also love painting, and each song has a different colour to me. ‘Underwater Love’ is blue, ‘Devil Mood’ is red, ‘Jamie Pan’ is green. I hate to be in the same place for too long and that album was simply leaping from one environment to the next”.

It goes without saying that the album’s title also stores a strong link with current affairs.

I’m also quite affected by politics and human issues and that’s reflected by my music. Hearing about what’s happening to people in Syria makes me upset. I feel ashamed hearing about those people trying to get here to the UK because they have been bombed. They have been bombed by bombs that are being manufactured by our country and they can’t escape death because this country closes its doors to them, when it has basically killed them and is still killing them, destroying their lives and at the same time pulling up the drawbridge”.

Also what’s happening on the other shore of the Atlantic, where her roots are, worries Nina…

I’ve always been quite upset by Brazilian society and confused by it because, on one side, it is so warm and loving, while on the other side it’s so cold. I used to talk with my friends about it in England, saying how in Brazil there’s this expression that says, ‘you’re either a maid or you have a maid’. The contrast between rich and poor is so deep and extended and it’s getting even worse. You can experience it when it’s Carnival, for example. Carnival was a time for Afro-Brazilians to be proud of their origins. It was a time when they could finally be Kings and Queens for the day. Many of them were also Kings and Queens before being uprooted and taken off to be slaves. Now they’ve got these stupid soap opera stars sitting on top of the cars and dancing. They made people pay for their outfits, which are also inorganic, made of styrofoam and new man-made materials in toxic colours. In the past, it was all about creativity ‘make your stuff yourself’ and coming together, while now it’s just a big money-making rapture and another occasion to oppress people. You can’t be Queen or King of the day anymore. “You push the float, you pay for it with your sweat, tears and money and we are just going to dance really badly on the top of it.” That’s something that really upsets me. So, I’d like to do something about it and I think sometimes it takes people in other countries to talk about what’s happening there for them to listen”.

That’s why I always try to bring those subjects into my music. For example, Freedom of Movement is quite a lot about Afro-Brazilian culture, like Capoeira. I want Brazilians to be proud of what is unique to them, and so much of that is from Afro-Brazilian culture. That’s what people are more interested in out of Brazil, and it’s also where they get it wrong. When I was in Bahia, I realised the distorted view that people can have of Brazil if they are just in Rio de Janeiro. Rio is a tiny version of what Brazil is like, just like Chelsea is one version of London”.

Until now, we’ve widely spoken about Nina’s album, but also the live dimension represents a crucial aspect of her art. Brazilian and UK characteristics have shaped the way she performs on stage. Nonetheless, she always tries to affirm her free spirit…

To tour this album, I’d love to take some of the key musicians with me to Brazil, I would love to see the exchange between them all in the land of my roots. Up until now when I perform in Brazil I gather my band together from local talent, I love to perform with these musicians, I have so little time there that I want and need that conversation and interaction. There’s so much musical talent in the country where I would ideally live. and that’s something quite exciting for them too because they work with a singer who’s not usually there and who has a different approach..

I also play a lot with my duality. In Brazil, there’s a pressure to be sexy, pretty and perfect, like having your nails done before going on stage. I’m going to make a huge generalisation now, but it’s not really encouraged for women to be funny, (even though they are..and many wait to show their hilarity when the guys aren’t around) I love making people laugh, and my performances can become pretty strange.

In Brazil, there’s a saying ‘O santo baixa’ ‘The saint comes down’ so for me that feels like I’m a vessel or ‘o cavalo’, “the horse” especially when I really feel the music and the atmosphere is open and conducive to this exchange, I am the voice of another spirit or several people in one song and perhaps a singer or creator is essentially that: a conduit. The audience affects me/us: we feel their energies and this can make me reflect in harmony back to them what they’re conveying to me.

Last time, I went on stage with a broom I picked up, Then, there were all these masks backstage from politicians and I chose the Dilma mask. Dilma was the socialist president of Brazil who was replaced by the dodgy Temer, some people call it a ‘coup-d’etat’ but pretty much all the politicians in Brazil are up against huge corruption charges, while schools, hospitals, universities, theatres are closing and staff going without pay… right now things are particularly strange, dangerous and untrustworthy in Brazil. But as ever the poorer you are the more dangerous it is. Meanwhile, there is plastic surgery on the faces on tv-screens. There is government-backed deforestation of the Amazon and genocide of the indigenous people, The Original people. It’s all gone topsy turvy. It ain’t pretty.

So, I put on the Dilma mask get on the broom that becomes a silken horse draped in cloth, and I ride onto the stage not knowing if I’m a goodie or a baddie and wait to see what is to happen as I go further and further within the ‘drama’, enthused by the incredible presence of other singers and musicians dancing on stage, and the sound of the fifteen-piece strong Orquestra Imperial. It begins and ends dramatically, with three of us lying on the floor, “slain by the funk”.

While the UK is almost a world apart…

I find that here in England, things are a bit more oppressive. In London, in particular, I feel that people are constantly judging. At the same time, I feel that it’s in these places that you need to go ‘fuck it’ more. It’s kind of like a punk attitude and I have that a bit, but I’m a real hippy as well. I’m kind of peace & love punk. I can’t really stand when people are posey”.

You don’t need to wait too long to understand what she means by that because on Sunday, Nina Miranda will perform on Nells Jazz and Blues stage, together with the influential Tropicalia musician, Jards Macalé.

Jards is a very Tropicalista and arty person. He’s a friend of my dad, actually, who’s a painter. Anyway, he’s really taken passion and love and put all of that into his shows. For example, if he’s just been dumped by his girlfriend, he will talk about that and can do the whole gig about that. He’s the human before he’s the artist. He’s the human that goes on stage and expresses himself through his art. Knowing the way he is and liking his material, that already makes me very relaxed.  

Then, I’ll be on stage with Anselmo Netto and Kari Bannerman, who play together in Ibibio Sound Machine. I’m really lucky to have them on stage with me because they work so well together and we know each other very well. It’ll be a really focused gig. There will be a lot of improvisation and surely a lot of groove. I’m also going to do a poem called ‘White Nightmare’ and I’ll see if they agree to dress up in kind of creepy white cloths, a bit like Brazilian Carnival costumes made with pillow cases. We will see what’s going to happen”.

We close our chat asking Nina to introduce herself because she’s widely known as being associated with other band names, but it is possible to say that she’s still a ‘debutant’ when it comes to her solo career.

“My percussionist said to me once, ‘Nina, you’re the best Brazilian singer in London. It’s so beautiful when you sing softly. When me and my wife play your music, it just makes us feel calm’. Sometimes, I think that I’ll just sing and not get into the theatricality of things. The way I love to make music is to comfort people and make them feel loved and excited about life. Hopefully, that’ll make them creative themselves because creativity is in everyone. I believe that everyone is an artist. The cavemen painted in caves because they needed to leave their mark and we should all leave our mark in some way.

I’m really looking forward to hearing Jards Macalé and his trio and meeting the man who is his art and has lived such incredible experiences. I hope that when we open for him and people come and see me, Anselmo and Kari on Sunday, they’ll experience a conversation between friends. The three of us together become a new creature. I also want to make something beautiful for people to forget the harshness and tension caused by living in London. I want to take people to the best of Brazil. I want to take them to my Brazilian fantasy, which is where I lived moments of. It’s about going up the mountain and finding waterfall after waterfall and huge banana plants and meeting people who are just smiling and they hug you because they know that “All you need is love”.

Photo ©: Amelia Lancaster