/ 7 July 2023

Thoughtful album will have you dancing, crying

Gwen Ansell Piece (1)
Getting somewhere: Nicky Schrire has a new album out for the first time in nearly a decade. Photo: Matt Griffiths

Even its originator, CapeTown-born, Canadian-resident Nicky Schrire, can’t describe the genre of her latest album Nowhere Girl without a mouthful of hyphens. 

Genre, she says, is important “because it is a hybrid of jazz, singer-songwriter and folk styles and I was very careful about balancing these worlds in this music and delivery”. 

Labels, though, aren’t what should matter for listeners about this music. Multiple singer-songwriters, from our own Dorothy Masuka and Miriam Makeba to the Frenchman Jacques Brel, the Cameroonian Richard Bona and more, have done what Schrire does — wrap intimate, intelligent commentary around good tunes. 

We can call their music “popular” not because it’s pop — it can be any genre — but because it’s about what matters to people. 

It’s been over nine years since Schrire released the album To the Spring and eight since the EP An Education with Ariella Caira. 

Nowhere Girl, she told me in an e-interview, bridges the gap. She’s composing, she says, as intuitively as ever “but I’ve got more trusting in it, leaning into the harmonies, melodies and lyric devices I like without apology and with a little less certainty”, and, as a singer, “more certain of my vocal strengths and weaknesses”.

You can hear the jazz in the way her voice travels around a melody, and the folk in the straightforwardness of some extremely catchy tunes. 

Nowhere Girl is probably Schrire’s most personal album to date, with only two compositions not her own: the McGarrigle Sisters’s Heart Like a Wheel and a vocal arrangement of Bheki Mseleku’s Closer to the Source

Many of the 11 tracks reflect on people and places important in her own life (her Father; In Paris; a rat-race New York where she studied on This Train; Cape Town on My Love) and revisit earlier compositions (the title track and Traveller) seen through different, older eyes. 

The material constantly orbits the tension of the quest for musical identity (Nowhere Girl, This Train), and the rapture when it draws near (Closer to the Source). 

Nowhere Girl comes with full lyrics in the liner notes, because the words, and the stories they tell, matter. There’s also a playlist of 90-second reflections on the tracks available at YouTube (Behind The Song: The Music of Nowhere Girl (Playlist)).

There we learn, for example, how Julio Sigauque’s chiming guitar was invited to overdub an irresistible Cape Town party feel for My Love, and how, when she was supposed to be at language school in Paris, Schrire often spent time just strolling and absorbing the city life. 

She has always had beautiful diction — “Julie Andrews diction goals”, she calls it — and that’s part of what makes this album work. 

On Traveller, for example, a wry reflection on partnered musicians whose careers move at different speeds, the weight of the song hinges on the difference between “writing songs with/for me”. If the last line wasn’t delivered crystal-clear, the whole edifice would slump. 

It’s a different Traveller from that on To the Spring. There, the conclusion has a chirpy schadenfreude that, I admit, had me triumphantly air-punching. Here, Schrire seasons the closing notes for a far more bittersweet aftertaste. 

Those interpretations wouldn’t work without empathetic teamwork from the rest of the quartet: drummer Ernesto Cervini, bassist Daniel Fortin and, especially, pianist Chris Donnelly. As well as Sigauque, the other guests are Laila Biali, who provides the sisterly harmonies on Heart Like A Wheel, and saxophonist Tara Davidson, who doffs her sonic hat to Courtney Pine on the original Closer to the Source, before taking flight in a brief, perfectly judged, solo that’s freshly her own. 

Schrire is happy to acknowledge the influence of other songwriters: film composers such as Thomas Newman, Randy Newman and the Sherman Brothers (Mary Poppins), and Lennon and McCartney. 

Love is for the Birds is an explicit riff on the open harmonic progressions of McCartney’s Blackbird, which she sang on her debut album, Freedom Flight, “because if somebody else has done it well, why wouldn’t you?” 

The lyrics, though, swap dreamy romanticism for a far edgier ambiguity, perfectly underlined by Donnelly’s piano.

“The power of a great song,” Schrire believes, “is that, regardless of the inspiration, the listener hears it and imagines it’s about them … Sometimes that’s something I strive to achieve … sometimes it happens without intention and other times it’s not the goal.”  

Composers have other tools —infectious melody, heartstring-tugging harmonies — to draw listeners in. Nowhere Girl employs them all, demonstrating how Schrire is maturing as a composer. 

The album will take you on journeys, make you joyful enough to dance and maybe nostalgic enough to reach for the tissues. Throughout, like any songbook worth coming back to, it’ll make you think.