My first outing to the London Jazz Festival (LJF) 2016 isn’t going as I hoped. It’s an obstinately wet and miserable day. I traipse all the way to the Barbican Centre in central London to discover that the Jazz Records Request event I planned to attend is an underwhelming affair. The host is barely audible over the foyer hum. He mostly introduces mere recordings of arcane Bebop instead of hearty live interpretations. I head to the Southbank Centre, where I’m due to interview French singer-songwriter Adam Naas, who will be the opening act for Jazzy compatriot St Germain later that evening. I’m well ahead of schedule. To my great chagrin, I’ve just missed a surprise cameo appearance at the Royal Festival Hall by the Kandace Springs Trio; one of the most eagerly anticipated acts at this year’s LJF.
Miffed, I contact the PR rep looking after Adam to see if I can gatecrash a photo shoot he’s doing for another magazine. The session, I’m told, is in the Artists’ Bar – situated in some underground, maze-like enclave of the Royal Festival Hall. It’s inaccessible to plebs like me except by special invitation.
In the flesh, Adam is a dead ringer for Prince, slight and compact frame to boot. However, he doesn’t have the superstar ego. Neither is he the sombre artist averse to smiling that previous interviews and promo shots suggest. In between outfit changes, Naas is in surprisingly good spirits, considering he’s been on the go since he arrived in London that morning.
Adam and I exchange bilingual pleasantries. He’s friendly, softly-spoken and diffident – almost to a fault. I tell him how much he resembles the Now Departed Purple One. This observation is met with the closest thing he shows to annoyance during the entire interview. He rolls his eyes in wordless exasperation. Of course, he hears that a lot.
If the 24-year old born and bred Parisian of Algerian, Syrian, and Egyptian descent is vocally reminiscent of James Blunt, then his production calls to mind the sparse, soul-electronica of Jessie Ware’s soundscape. Jessie at her most pensive, that is.
Naas’ self-titled debut EP and single ‘Fading Away’ have been warmly received this side of the channel. His Bo-Ho pop-soul will likely earn him more plaudits in future.
Adam wasn’t following in the footsteps of a musical family when he eventually chose his path. Rather he was introduced to the potentially transcendent effects of music as a youngster listening to iconic (mostly female) African-American vocalists; Nina Simone, Sam Cooke, Etta James, Lauryn Hill (whose influence can be heard in Naas’ vibrato)…
‘The first time I realised [music] was important is when I started to hear great voices,’ he explains. ‘I wasn’t really into instruments; I was interested in vocals. The first time I heard [James’] ‘At Last’, it was in a basement. I was just… “Oh God! This is incredible… I feel something. There’s something underneath this voice”. It’s not just the words, it’s the sounds as well that are powerful.’
Cooke’s ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ also had a profound impact on the younger Adam. He seems given to introspection. Naas studied Economics at University, he says, to better understand how the world works. He has also spoken about his one-time fascination with the mechanics and physical laws that govern the planet. I ask if this consciousness is a determining factor in the songwriting process. Is he deliberate about tackling The Big Issues? Not really.
‘I didn’t want to get into this stuff because I think it was too much for me,’ he admits. ‘Too deep. I always thought relationships were the biggest theme ever; for poetry, songs, movies, anything that’s art. I really wanted to understand the world and how it works but with music I just wanted to experience spontaneous feelings, not trying to understand how it works; just to feel. I want to understand the world and I want to understand myself but I don’t necessarily want to get to know ‘me’ in [relation to] ‘the world’. I want to get to know me. Who I am.’
A less rigorous existentialism, perhaps, but not too far from that tradition after all.
Naas maintains the audience will not necessarily feel alienated by his personal themes.
‘The lyrics are important to me because I write about myself and my experiences [but] the melody and the instrumentation are minimal. So when you hear it you can use your imagination to go somewhere else and think about yourself. The only thing I want when someone hears my songs is just to ask one question about themselves. “What am I here for? What have I felt?”’ then in a burst of self-doubt, he adds: ‘I don’t know how to answer!’
Not for the first – or last – time, I reassure Adam that he’s doing just fine. I probe for further deconstruction of his approach to songwriting.
‘It’s always spontaneous,’ he continues. ‘Sometimes even when I’m in the bathroom or on the Paris metro or in the street… It’s like “I’ve been thinking about that and I can’t get out of it so I have to write about it”.’
Ah yes, the obsessiveness of inspiration. Many a creative could relate to that.
‘It’s stuck in your head. It’s the worst feeling ever. You have to let it go and do something with it. The quicker you let it go, the stronger it gets. It’s in the moment and you don’t lose any of the feeling.’
Like a lot of contemporary French acts, Naas performs exclusively in English. He’s a natural linguist, it appears. He credits watching lots of Anglophone television, English-speaking friends and an inspirational teacher for his fluency and British (occasionally transatlantic) inflections. He is so comfortable writing in his adopted language, he won’t countenance anything else.
‘I wrote songs in French but I just can’t sing them. I don’t know why. It’s just as simple as that.’
For Adam, there is more of a creative affinity with English than his first language.
‘I don’t want to sound cocky but it makes me feel good when I sing in English. I tend to express myself with sounds and not especially with words. If I want to express pain or excitement – or any emotion – sometimes I feel like it’s easier with the sounds of English. You can inflect with the language. In French everything is monotone… Maybe it was my past life – I was an English singer in the 17th Century or something, I don’t know!’
There could also be a more prosaic reason for Naas’ linguistic choices. Grammar classes as taught in France can be notoriously stringent. This appears to have stymied some of Adam’s artistic flow as far as his mother tongue is concerned.
‘I would go crazy if I started to write in French. Every word…’
…Has to count?
‘Exactly! Can you imagine if my French teacher called me on the phone and she was like “I’ve heard your French songs and they’re s**t!”? It would be devastating.’
Singing in another language leaves room for a certain detachment, he believes.
‘With English, I can be just [about] the emotion. It doesn’t have to mean something. If there’s a story, then well great.’
Is it a case of cultural or linguistic betrayal?
‘Certainly not. Why would I think that? I love my French values but I love every other country in the world. I’m really proud of my French culture and heritage but it’s not just about that. I want to experience more.
I describe Adam as a true global citizen, a concept he appears to welcome. But this everyman has also spoken of a sense of isolation and – once again – detachment from his fellow humanity. Teasingly, I wonder out loud if this is a particularly French-Algerian pre-occupation á la Albert Camus. Naas laughs before giving another ruminative response.
‘On stage you can’t lie. Sometimes I think, in life when I wake up, say “hello” to people, shake their hand and smile…it’s fake-ness. Maybe you have this feeling too – every human does. I’m smiling but I’m not really fine. You don’t want to bother people [with your problems]. It’s an intuitive thing.
On stage, when I sing, I can’t lie really. I like this feeling of being vulnerable. It’s a bit of a challenge. I want to feel every bit of emotion. I guess I don’t especially want to lie when I sing because I like that part of myself.’
It seems apt that Naas has already garnered a reputation as the contemplative artist.
Does he mind this early career label?
‘Not at all. It’s actually true. When you hear the song you can’t deny that. People are always going to put me into boxes. It’s just going to be one after the other. This one is pretty great. I’m just hoping the next is going to be as amazing as this one.’
I ask if he worries this might constrain his creativity. The self-effacing manner that has typified the interview gives way to a flash of artistic assertiveness.
‘No, never. It’s always going to be me first. That’s kind of super-selfish, sorry to say but when I sing, I sing for myself. When I write, I write for myself. When I do things, I do them for myself. The only person I trust in this world is myself. I don’t really care about other people’s opinions except for my friends and family because they mean the world to me. If they [critics, fans] are not happy then too bad, I guess?’.
The self-assured artist retreats, for now. I tell Adam that he defies every stereotype of the conceited Parisian.
The PR Agent and members of Naas’ entourage are hovering. He’ll soon be whisked away to prepare for tonight’s show. Just before he leaves I ask about his plans for 2017. He’s apprehensive as ever.
‘I don’t know. An album, a tour afterwards. I’d like to write some more. I just want to meet a lot of artists and to create a community.’
I ask Adam who he would involve in a dream collaboration. But he’s not interested in wish fulfilment.
‘I don’t want to just imagine things because I’d be really disappointed. I think it would crush me so I’m not expecting anything of anybody. I just want to meet people and create things in the moment; love at first sight. I’m really, really lucky as I’ve met people this year that I’m just in love with; painters and other artists. I just love it. That’s my thing’.
Adam Naas on Soundcloud.