Who would have guessed that Indie Rock’s new messiah was to come from South Africa? As this year’s Best Newcomer at Rennes’ Trans Musicales festival, Nakhane is reenchanting an electronically leaning experimental soul with subliminal African influences. He is restoring its notes of nobility, cleansing it of the dross of ambient cynicism to revive it with a new, staggering profoundness.
Having grown up in Port Elizabeth after being born in Alice, South Africa, and armed with a voice so pure it is reminiscent of Anohni’s – he admits that “she changed my life, as did James Baldwin” – the polymorphic artist (actor, musician, novelist, poet, songwriter) seems to have fallen from the heavens, so captivating is he. Magnetic, his androgynous, almost painfully juvenile physique conceals the torment that still tore at his soul until recent years under its beauty and grace. “When I was Christian and prayed to God everyday, I had only hatred for myself. Every day of my life, I was doing all I possibly could to be like everyone else, to be heterosexual. I was even convinced I would be able to ‘heal’ my homosexuality. I was living in constant fear; controlling myself at all times.” As the descendant of artists and musicians, only the music and vocal harmonies that this 29-year-old Xhosa (the second biggest ethnic group in South Africa after the Zulu) has been practicing since his childhood with his mother, sisters and aunts had the power – wholly magical – to alleviate him of his burden of shame and anxiety. “All of a sudden on stage I could be precisely who I wanted to be”. His first album “Brave Confusion”, which was released in his homeland in 2013, already touched upon theses torments and paradoxes.
His second, “You Will Not Die”, plays into an even deeper need for emancipation. Having freed himself from the judgment of others by coming out, Nakhane saved himself from that of God – by renouncing his Christian faith. The decision came about after a dream of his that served as inspiration for the album’s title. “One night, I dreamt a voice gave me a date, that of my death. I’m not going to tell you when it was, but suddenly, having forever lived in fear of divine punishment, I was certain I wasn’t to die the next day, or even ten years later. It was incredibly freeing. I decided to catch up on lost time, to finally live my life.” To give up the daily, uninterrupted psalmodic dialog with God that is prayer, was to accept being suddenly swallowed by silence. Music was the only thing able to fill this inner emptiness, as overwhelming and stifling as a deep depression. This is what makes Nakhane an alternative artist as unusual as he is universal, and his songs so moving, sometimes to the point of tears. His ability to embrace that moment of intense vulnerability without attempting to subdue it, denature or polish it to excess. To create bold music, all while remaining accessible to the point where some songs occasionally have the ring of an instant classic: These were the guidelines with which he started work on this record, which he spent a long time completing. “I love the quote by Eric Rohmer, one of my favorite film directors: the most important thing to me is that people have an emotional response to my films, not just an intellectual one.”
With that in mind, Nakhane, a methodic artist, set some fundamental rules. “I knew I wanted some electronic sounds. In Johannesburg, you hear a lot of artists forcing themselves to play acoustic-only to sound more ‘authentic’, but it doesn’t work. The sounds of gay techno clubs rang much truer to me.” Writing with a computer and synthesizers while jumping back and forth between the piano and an acoustic guitar to uphold the songs’ pop structures, whilst avoiding getting lost in the infinite possibilities of the electronic, soon became his creative method. Next came the testing of stripped down versions of every song on the acoustic guitar. Then came the time for final arrangements in London, with skilled producer Ben Christophers (Bat For Lashes). Both accomplices had a shared desire to explore their experimental follies without ever making room for compromise. “To be incredibly artistic and completely true to ourselves” as Nakhane puts it “while putting emotion and energy at the forefront. This was painful at times because it could mean removing part of a piano that was too perfect… But if I can’t feel any emotion, how am I to communicate it to others?” As he jokes: “Trauma, but make it fashion!”
Ultimately, one is captivated by the almost liturgical beauty of “Violent Measures” and its fraternal harmonies and crystalline, disarmed vocals; the electrifying, upbeat and breathless urgency of “Clairvoyant”, the name of which came from a quote in Jean Cocteau’s “Les Enfants Terribles” (“Love had made them clairvoyant”). The same can be said of the airy fragility of piano ballad “You Will Not Die”; the both sensual and spiritual languor of “Presbyteria” in which Nakhane describes the first church he went to in Alice in a classical, close-to-pop format; the oppressive and magical atmosphere of “The Dead” – with its blues guitars and mysterious harmonies – where Nakhane mentions his Xhosa ancestors. The communicative soul fervor of “Star Red” comes in at the end, an homage to his grand mother (“A rebel to her religion, who was one of the first people to tell me to live my life how I saw fit”); the light, careless ambiance of “By The Gullet”, like a musical set to an electronic beat; and the sublime organ peak that is “Teen Prayer”. Throughout the album, each of the musical influences that cradled him as a child and defined him as a musician become apparent: American musicals, Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, Ahnoni, David Bowie, Busi Mhlongo, Simphiwe Dana, Mbongwana Star, TkZee.
And made him what he is today: A South African artist with the potential to become a planetary star.