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Nailah Hunter forges her own dark fantasy on 'Lovegaze'

Nailah Hunter
Dillon Howl
Courtesy of the artist
Nailah Hunter

There was something in the dreary gray of Portsmouth that moved Nailah Hunter to write while visiting the city off the southern coast of England.

"There's a silence in that atmosphere," she shares during a video call with World Cafe. "Maybe it's just because it's not my own realm, but I felt a quietness of the mind the first time I went."

The Los Angeles-based harpist and composer, who is quick to cite Arthurian lore and The Chronicles of Narnia as early childhood fascinations, was inspired by the bleakness, the pebbled beaches and the enchanted air that one can only find in 800-year-old English towns.

"I can't pretend that it's not a huge part of this," she says. "It's what brought me into that area, its music and its fantasy first."

So Hunter borrowed a Celtic harp, began recording demos in Portsmouth, and eventually, she returned to England to work with producer Cicely Goulder to create Lovegaze; Hunter's enthralling debut album is not only colored by those ancient English tales, but by her own life in California and the recent darkness that seems to have blanketed us all.

"It's something I've been thinking about a lot these past few months with the way the climate's going and politics," she says. "We're riding into this time where the ability to hold two things at once is going to be necessary."

A melding of ambient music with R&B, jazz and classical touches, Lovegaze holds space for that duality. Much of Hunter's previous music served as a salve, offering a sense of hope through her harp's ethereal qualities, but her latest record looks turmoil right in the eye: "This time, I was, like, 'Yes, there's despair. Let's cry it out. What about the dark? Let's look down into the abyss'," she says.

She has always been a fan of musicians skilled at balancing light and dark. Among her musical influences, Hunter cites Ryuichi Sakamoto, Imogen Heap, and Joe Hisaishi (the composer responsible for most Studio Ghibli films).

Her instrument of choice, often pigeonholed by its angelic timbre, is actually quite capable of expressing something much colder and darker. It's at this point in our conversation that Hunter briefly gets up to fetch Ophelia. Bright red and very plinky-sounding, Ophelia was her very first harp.

"I went to Cal Arts for vocal performance, and in the first year that I was there, I was gifted Ophelia by a person that I was dating at the time because I had just always wanted to play the harp," she says.

Hunter became so enamored by the instrument that she'd hole herself up in the harp room and practice for hours. She says it offered her the kind of structure she was lacking at the time; "I think, especially in my younger days, it was always fun to be the Black girl rolling up into a space with a harp."

Encounters with other harpists, including Naomi Greene and Marilu Donovan, helped Hunter realize there was a path forward for a young singer-songwriter who didn't have much of a desire to become an outright classical harpist.

"I was, like, 'So this is a possible thing that other people are doing? It's not just Joanna Newsom being an anomaly'," Hunter says.

Despite its sound, the harp is not a breeze to play. Heavy and cumbersome, it's the most physical instrument in Hunter's arsenal, as well as the most demanding.

"There's the preparation of your own vessel, to get ready to interact with the instrument," she says. "I find that I need to really open up. There's yoga involved. There's essential oils involved. All of these sensory things kind of drop me into my body, into a neutral space, because if there's any air of judgment or construction or tension, it can be heard in the way that you're plucking."

It's not a shy instrument, either. The harp's tone resonates far and wide, as it does on a lot of Hunter's previous work (especially her 2020 EP, Spells). But she wanted to try something different on Lovegaze.

"People have their preconceived notions about what a harp is going to sound like or how it's going to function in a song," she says. "You add a voice into that, and you're thinking wispy and angelic. While I do feel like my voice can visit those places, there's always this smoke and grit to it."

Hunter says putting her voice at the forefront was a personal risk. Making instrumental music felt safer to her, perhaps due to the histories stored within her voice. She remembers singing in elementary school choirs and in her father's church.

There are moments on Lovegaze where singing even brought Hunter to tears. "Into the Sun" is the result of a single, improvised take too pure to replicate.

"It was so interwoven with the harp part that I was playing and it just didn't feel like we could rerecord either the harp or the voice without losing something," she says. "I'm really happy that some of my little sniffles and tears were in there because that's what it felt like."

The song, and the whole album, is charged with that sense of urgency — that we are on the brink of collapse, like an asteroid plummeting into the sun. It is not surprising that Hunter counts the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm — and their often morbid endings — among her early inspirations.

But the dark dream within Lovegaze differs greatly from the view from the real world. Throughout her career, Hunter has been keenly aware that both the fairy tales that fascinate her and the musical lane she occupies are overwhelmingly white spaces.

"You have to claim your Blackness. It's part of what makes you you, and you need to help other people understand that about themselves," she says. "First, find examples of these fantastical realms that include Black people, and then, create the realm yourself."

Lovegaze may be cloaked in darkness, but it's also the result of an immensely talented musician who has built a strange and delightful fantasy realm of her own.

Copyright 2024 XPN

Miguel Perez
Miguel Perez is a radio producer for NPR's World Cafe, based out of WXPN in Philadelphia. Before that, he covered arts, music and culture for KERA in Dallas. He reported on everything from the rise of NFTs in the music industry to the enduring significance of gay and lesbian bars to the LGBTQ community in North Texas.