Five Questions With… T. Nile
The BC electro-folk roots songstress launches her fourth album soon. Here she reflects on its 'don't give a fuck' approach, her ADHD diagnosis, and early touring with her street performer dad.
By Jason Schneider
Beachfires, T. Nile’s fourth album and her first release since 2014’s Tingle & Spark, blends distant echoes of her traditional folk upbringing with vintage and modern electronics, creating a sound at the leading edge of the electro-folk movement.
It is Nile’s first collaboration with Vancouver’s Brent Sadowick, a popular Youtuber and electronic music producer known by his surname only, and his sonic backdrops inspired Nile to develop improvised words and melodies that helped her move on from the sadness she was experiencing after the death of her father, a well-known street performer. The creative chemistry between Nile and Sadowick was, as she describes, a “life raft” for her and the musical foundations of Beachfires.
It was the result of a chance meeting online, but quickly bore fruit after Sadowick set up as much gear as he could in Nile’s abode, a 1957 Airstream trailer on B.C.’s Galiano Island. The first song they recorded there, So High, led to more improvised jam sessions at Sadowick’s tiny bedroom studio. What they didn’t know at the time was that this recording, and the style with which they made it, would lay the foundation for Beachfires’s 10 songs.
T. Nile officially launches Beachfires on May 30 with a full band show at Vancouver’s Rogue Folk Club, followed by summer folk festival dates across Canada. For more information go to tnile.com.
What makes Beachfires different from your past work?
From early on, I’ve taken my own path musically. I intuitively knew that developing my own voice was an essential part of my craft. However, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t musically influenced by my parents. They were my first teachers and bandmates—we had a family band and playing music together was a daily occurrence.
Years later, when I made music my career, my dad would be the first person I’d go to when I wrote a new song. Day or night, he’d answer the phone to hear me sing my new creation through the receiver. He’d occasionally give me feedback, but often it was just “I’m afraid to say anything critical about this song cause I’ll probably screw it up.”
Beachfires was the first album I wrote and recorded after my dad passed away. His voice and perspective were present, but not in a tangible way. I could hear his voice and encouragement in my heart and mind, but without that direct contact, I felt at loose ends.
Eventually, I realized that my father being gone was the final “push out of the nest” for me creatively. There was greater freedom to my writing this time. I was able to emote from a raw and vulnerable place, from an ecstatic place, from a lonely place—more so than ever before.
In this sense, Beachfires is my “don’t give a fuck” album. I was making music that moves and excites me. It’s also the first record where I improvised songs from start to finish in one take. Songs like Note To Self, Use Your Heart, So High, and Dangerously Free were melodically and lyrically improvised, and the first take was the one we kept for the album. Writing and producing this music with Sadowick released me from having to work out chord progressions on guitar, banjo or piano. It gave me the space to improvise as I did.
What songs on the record are you most proud of and why?
Pick a favourite between my children? Nah!
How would you describe your artistic evolution so far?
It’s a long story, so it’s probably best that I tell it in chapters.
Chapter 1: Born with a smile and a sigh in a one-room cabin on Galiano Island. Dad was an Eastern European refugee from the Second World War with a penchant for dust bowl folk, country blues, and klezmer. Mom was a francophone Quebecois visual artist who loved Celtic and Cajun music, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. The sounds of the accordion, violin, harmonies, and laughter drifting off the porch every night.
Chapter 2: I started taking violin and guitar lessons by age six. I wrote my first songs and brought them to “show and tell” at school. In Grade 8, I made friends by playing my guitar and singing in the hallway. The power of music to create community lit a fire inside that is still burning to this day.
Chapter 3: I went to Goa, India and found myself surrounded by electronic music 24/7. At first, I was numbed and rattled by it. Slowly though, as I relaxed into the heat and sensuality of the dance scene blended with ancient Indian culture, those sounds and beats seeped into me and I started to feel the pulse in my bones, like fractals in the leaves and stars, I saw how the repeating patterns were reflected and expressed in everything around me. I began to see electronic music as the soundtrack to life itself. I still longed for the human touch of acoustic music, my first love. But now that my eyes and ears had been opened to such a different musical expression, I had to find a way to integrate the two.
Chapter 4: I went to music school in Vancouver and studied jazz and classical voice, Latin percussion, and electronic composition. I began writing and recording demos obsessively. I also travelled to Europe with my dad, where I decided I could build a career there after meeting some producers in Ibiza, Germany, and France. But after working in Japan to save money, I got robbed and had to return to Canada tail between my legs.
Chapter 5: I hosted a monthly event in Vancouver called “Connect” where built a following of hardcore fans and met Adam Popowitz. He and I produced my first album, At My Table, and I began touring and recording regularly. I won some awards and got to meet and play with some of my biggest heroes. These were some of the greatest experiences of my life, but by 2014 I was experiencing burnout. I had to change my life, so I moved to Galiano Island where I took time away from the industry to recuperate and grieve the loss of my Dad. Music came back into my life out of necessity. After a year where I didn’t sing or pick up my guitar, I fell into a deep state of murky depression and realized that If I didn’t play and create music, my life didn’t make sense. That’s when I met Sadowick and bit by bit, we made Beachfires, which bring us to this moment. And a beautiful moment it is. It feels like a rebirth.
What's been the most significant change in your life over the past year?
ADHD meds—they’ve hugely changed my life. It was an adult diagnosis, and the clouds immediately parted. I can finally get down to the work that needs to be done when I choose to. I don’t think I’ll be on them forever, but right now they are a lifesaver.
What do you recall about your first time performing in public?
When I was 11, I went on tour with my father, who was a traveling one-man band. I’d been on tour with him many times before, but this was the first time he invited me to “join the family business.” We were in L.A., and he brought me to The Hollywood Magic Shop, a place he used to frequent as a young man. I wound up leaving the store with everything I needed to become a balloon-twisting clown, and we set up in Venice Beach. I was sandwiched between my father and man in a wheelchair juggling a bowling ball, a running chainsaw, and an egg. I would use a horn to make noise instead of talking. As families walked by with crying kids in strollers, I was the perfect distraction—a goofy kid clown who’d make a balloon animal for a few bucks. I was a hit and made $75 in the first hour of work. I remember asking my dad at the end of the day, “What can you buy with $75?” This was the first money I’d ever earned, so I really had no concept of what it was worth. That kind of ruined me. After you’ve made $75 per hour at age 11, who wants to climb up the ladder working for someone else doing something you dislike? I guess that set me on a path of being my own boss!