Name: Nadine Khouri

Nationality: Lebanese
Occupation: Singer, songwriter
Current release: Nadine Khouri's Another Life is out November 18th 2022 via Talitres.

If you enjoyed this interview with Nadine Khouri and would like to stay up to date with her work, visit her official website. She is also on Instagram, Facebook, and twitter.

Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?

I think, on some level, I’ve always wanted to create a little world of my own. I think it’s the impulse to feel free, to externalise whatever is happening within into form. Possibly a way of resisting the passing of things a little, too …

All of those often-quoted sources seep into my writing process in some form or other. I’d say my songwriting is a mix of all of those things, whether consciously or not.

For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a “visualisation” of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?

I would usually start with chance or whatever my instinct was pushing me towards, rather than anything too cerebral. From the seeds of that, I start to visualise the song, how it could be arranged or what it would sound like in its finished form.

For “Song of A Caged Bird” on the new album, for example, I was messing around with a bass riff and drum machine; when the song gradually started to take shape, I knew exactly what I wanted this song to sound like and evoke lyrically.

Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do “research” or create early versions?

I prepare by recording basic demos with arrangements. Almost all my writing is immediately recorded (in whatever scrappy form that may be!)

Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?

I wouldn’t recommend coffee for writing! I like writing in the morning when my subconscious is still quite open. I think any time of day works, so long as your channels are open and you aren’t on autopilot. The best moments are when you are ready to receive and open to anything.

I like to have a quiet, solitary space to write from, but obviously this isn’t always possible. Reading poetry is always inspiring to me.  

What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?

I have no rules. Whatever comes knocking first, I happily welcome! It’s not hard if you don’t overthink or put too much pressure on yourself.

You just have to get started and trust that things will come. It could be a lyrical line, a riff, a beat - whatever comes first.

When do the lyrics enter the picture? Where do they come from? Do lyrics need to grow together with the music or can they emerge from a place of their own?

My lyrics are often connected to the music before they’re set to a finished form. It’s not that usual for me to have a lyric with no music at all - I find it more challenging to write “toplines” I’ve been completely disconnected from in the writing process. The music will often dictate the words and the feeling of the piece.

During the pandemic, I was going through an awful patch of writers’ block - totally stuck in anxiety - and decided to take this online course with Julia Holter. It was probably the best thing I could have done at the time for my writing (and sanity.) It was very inspiring to step out of my habits writing-wise and be immersed in experimental music.

There was a lesson where we were encouraged to trust the sounds more than the words, or construct lyrics from the sounds that came to us in the writing. I took this advice once the course was over for “Vertigo”.

I knew the syllables and sounds I wanted for the chorus of the song, but I went though a lot of words, before I got to ‘Vertigo’.

What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?

I always appreciate a song that can be read like a piece of prose or poetry - lyrics that hold their own on a page - though I don’t think that’s what songwriting is, I do enjoy this, personally.

It’s hard to say - I think a good lyric is anything that resonates deeply and lingers. A good lyric is as much about the sound and rhythm as the content. It can be something really catchy and simple, or it can be a lyric like Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”, which is pretty epic and detailed.

Once you’ve started, how does the work gradually emerge?

Generally, I tend to demo the overall arrangement of the song to begin with. I discovered Midi later in life, which is a great tool for music composition, especially when you haven’t been musically trained. I do think I should revert back to voice and guitar for writing songs at some point, because that’s when you absolutely know how strong your song is, whatever the situation on stage, or production that follows.

I think performing live is also often an indicator of whether a song can live on, beyond the recording itself, though I didn’t get the opportunity to do this much at all with the new album because of the pandemic, obviously.

For this new album, I took my sketches to my musician friends to see how we could perform them live together. We were going to be recording the album live (vocals included) in the studio, so I had to make sure the songs and arrangements were ready to go.

Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?

I like a bit of both. There is definitely the sense of “following” something in the writing process. I have no idea where things will go, just that I have to follow and trust where they are going.

For recording, too much control can be stifling and boring in the studio, but you also don’t want to end up with a recording you really dislike either, because you weren’t firm enough with your overall vision for it.

Some of my most memorable moments recording with others have been of a spontaneous nature … My friend Josh Allen’s Genie organ doing a whacky sound at the beginning of “Blue of Princes” was a kind of technical issue, but a really beautiful example of that.

Jean-Marc Butty finding a pair of bricks on the side of the road to play them on “The Salted Air”.

I’m so grateful in those instances, where the musician is reacting to the work in that way, where something totally surprising happens when you are least expecting it. I think capturing those moments on a recording - capturing something unfolding in pure presence - is always a magical thing, but you have to make space for those things.

Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?

Yes, definitely. I think I try to be patient and write as many songs as I can.

Often times I’ll be writing 4 songs or so in tandem, so they feed into each other anyway.

There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?

I think writing for me is the most satisfying part of the process for me, personally.

When you’re in the zone, you’re only writing for the act of writing itself. It can really go anywhere and I associate that with the feeling of freedom and total presence. Writing is freedom because anything can happen between the writer and the page.

I would definitely say that the state of flow is spiritual. It brings me a lot of joy.

Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?

Right now, the end of the process has been set by external limitations. Though I do think you can kill the spirit of a song if you spend too long tinkering on mixes, etc.

John Parish, who produced my last 2 albums, works so well and so fast, and I think I’ve learned from him that it’s often better to capture the moment well and keep moving, rather than spend 2 years editing a mix (which I have been guilty of!)

Obviously there is no one way of doing things - sometimes you don’t have the luxury of clinging on forever. I think deep down you always know when something is done to your satisfaction, and sometimes I think it’s OK to be restricted by the aforementioned limitations and do the best you can, if you’re doing this for a living.

Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you’re satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?

For my last few releases, the “finished piece” was the live recording itself, so there was not that much adjustment made after-the-fact, except for the mix.  

Songs in their recorded form are strange things, like butterflies, that can elude you. In situations when I’ve recorded a song over and over to “get it right”, in most cases, I felt like I was photocopying the original so many times, until the version I was left with was nowhere near as authentic as the original. (There are a few exceptions of course.)

What’s your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?

I’ve always been very involved with production - from the sonic choices in general to mixing and mastering. I take pleasure in a sound of a recording, as much as songwriting itself, so that’s been important to me.

I was very lucky to have Dani Spragg as our engineer on the tracking session for Another Life. We’d never met before and she was phenomenal - one of the most talented engineers I’ve had the pleasure of working with.

Those working on the technical side all played a part in how ‘Another Life’ sounds ultimately - John, Dani, Oliver Baldwin, Jason Mitchell who did the mastering, and of course, the musicians - Francis Booth (bass) Tomas Garcia (drums) Basia Bartz (keys, violin, vocals) Tom Chadd (keys) Lizzy O’Connor (bvs) Adrian Crowley (bvs) Josh Allen (percussion) and Jake McMurchie (baritone saxophone.)

Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn’t or wouldn’t in more”mundane" tasks?

Ha, yes of course … I mean, as much as I enjoy a nice cup of coffee!

I think music opens us up to other realms, to one another, to ourselves … It is spiritual because it is invisible to the naked eye and makes us experience so much.

I’d say you can express almost anything and everything through music.