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"Are We," Plus Conversations with The Civil Wars and NEeMA
Posted: March 10, 2011 01:58 AM
A Conversation with NEeMA
Mike Ragogna: Hey, NEeMA.
NEeMA: Hi Mike.
MR: Can you tell me about your video "Escape" and how it ended up on MTV's The Freshmen?
N: I wish I could tell you that. I'm not the one who made the song end up there--that's other people behind the
scenes. I think the song was submitted by somebody on my team, but I couldn't even tell you who the credit goes to.
We did a video for the song where I play the role of an elementary school teacher, and it was a collaboration with a
local school in Montreal where we taught the kids about video making and what goes on behind the scenes.
Somebody from my team submitted that video, MTV picked it up, and it was featured for a week recently on The
Freshmen, which was really exciting.
MR: This new album, Watching You Think, is your first project that is going to be strongly promoted in the United
N: Yeah, it's the first time that it's entered the United States.
MR: Well, let's fill in the American audience on your musical history. How did music come into your life?
N: Well, writing came into my life very early. When I was in elementary school I used to write a lot of poetry, or
what I called poetry at the time. It was a lot of broken love and loss of people, and it was very deep subjects for a
very young child. I'm not sure where that came from, but I did a lot of that kind of writing when I was very young. I
loved to sing, so I would learn the songs of a lot of different people. I have an older brother and I had an older sister,
and they listened to a lot of different kinds of music, which I picked up on, and then there was the music that I
listened to with my friends. When I was in about grade six, I wrote a couple of songs, and then I kind of stepped
away from that and just kept writing and learning other people's music. When I was in high school, I'd often sit in
class and replace lyrics of other people's songs with my own lyrics. Then, eventually, when I was finishing
University in Australia, I learned to play guitar, and that's when I really started to get into music more seriously and
started to write songs. I guess that spirit--the writing and the singing--has been a part of my life for as long as I can
remember, really. In '04, I started recording a demo of my original songs, and I turned that into an album that was
an independent thing. It was inspired a lot by my time living in the North with indigenous people. That was kind of
my first real putting together of my musical works or whatever, but it was more of a hobby at the time and then
turned into more of a serious thing.
MR: Wonderful. How did you come across Leonard Cohen? What's your relationship with him?
N: I call him more my mentor, and he's been an incredible influence on my life and my work. I met him in Montreal.
We just kind of ran into each other on the street--it was just a really fortunate, lucky encounter. We just sort of
bumped into each other, started talking, and then started meeting for tea and walks, and we'd sit and have these
long, wonderful conversations about everything. From that, a friendship was born, and eventually I began to share
my writing with him. So, while I was writing this second album, Watching You Think, he'd give me feedback, and
writing exercises sometimes, and all kinds of feedback--sometimes he'd give me ideas for lines or whatever. He was
very helpful, and very hard--very strict. If he didn't think something was to a certain level, he'd certainly tell me, and
tell me that I should go start the song again if that's what he felt. So, when the song was good in his eyes, it felt like
it was really good because I felt like I knew that he wouldn't say that easily. Yeah, he's supportive and really
wonderful in this whole process. He kind of helped out with the writing of the album, giving me feedback
throughout the course of it, and then while I was recording, he did the same. So, he was a really good source of
support and mentorship throughout the project.
MR: You produced this project yourself, in association with Leonard Cohen, but you also did it with Pierre
N: Yes, I met him years ago also, and also by chance. I wanted to meet Daniel Lanois, the producer of U2. He was
doing a concert down the street from where I was doing a concert. So, when mine finished, I went over there, and
somehow I made my way into the backstage room where they were having an afterparty, and Pierre was there. So,
we started talking and just had a really nice connection. Then, a couple of years later, I sought him out again to see
if he was interested in helping out on this project. Again, more of a friendship was born first. With both of them, I
would have listening sessions a lot. When I actually started the recording of the album, I'd sit and have listening
sessions with one or the other, who would really give me feedback on the music--the instrumentation, the singing,
the words--just to see what they thought. So, they really helped produce the album by giving suggestions on what
the instrumentations should be, what I should add, how things could be changed, how the vocal could be better, and
whatever their thoughts were.
MR: What an ideal situation, it would seem, to be able to work up as much as you could on your own, and then go to
people for input to make things better.
N: It worked really well for me because I tend to have a strong vision of things that I want in my creative process.
Because they were a part of it early on, especially Leonard--he was a part of it for a while before the recording even
started--it was that kind of support and feedback throughout the process. So, it wasn't just getting to the final part
and then get feedback--it was really along the way, which was very helpful, and it would allow me to go back and
really dig deeper in the writing and in all of it. It was just like getting feedback from this master teacher, and then
I'd go back and work at my end and get closer to what I was trying to get to, and then present it again. For me, it was
a really great way to do that album, and to go further into the craft.
MR: You do a terrific cover of Dire Strait's "Romeo and Juliet" on this album. Did you rewrite the lyrics to that one
too--not for this record, but early on, when you were a kid?
N: Wow, I didn't see that question coming. I don't know if I did. I don't remember if I did for that one.
MR: Didn't mean to put you on the spot...what were some of the hits that you did rewrite when you started playing
around with songs?
N: Um, "Piano Man" by Billy Joel. We were sitting in physics class and it was like (sings), "It's eleven thirty-five on a
Monday, and I don't know what's going on. Mr. Jackson is babbling as usual about something that's called a
proton." It would just go on like that. I also did the theme song fromCheers. I did many, many different versions of
that one. I did this with a couple of friends, but I was the one that was really behind this thing, and I just did so
many different songs. It was like my pastime in high school.
MR: So many of your songs on this album really spoke to me, and one of them in particular, ironically, was
"Unspoken." When you're writing, what goes into the formation of your lyrics? From your classroom creations, it
was about stuff happening in your life, so I'm imagining that it's the same thing here?
N: It is. This song was such a big thing happening in my life, and I couldn't figure out what angle to write about it,
so I turned it into a kind of a fairytale to give myself some distance from it. It took a while to get it right. The chorus
really came to me first--I would sing the chorus to that song over and over, and I didn't have the rest of the song yet,
I just found myself singing the chorus. Then, with time, I dove into writing the verses. I remember finishing the
song when I was touring Ireland. I was on my own, driving through this beautiful landscape, and I finally finished
the songs. I started to sing it in my concerts, a cappella, in Ireland, which of course had a different feel, but it was
really lovely. Something about being in that country really went with that song. The specific story that goes behind
the song is, I think, unimportant. What really matters to me is how other people can see themselves in it. My
specific experience may have led to the writing of the song, but what's more important to me is that the song can
stand on its own, and people are able to see themselves in it and relate to their own lives. I think sometimes when
something goes so deep in one's heart, it's just better left unspoken.
MR: Beautiful. "Unwinding" is another song that I really loved the concept of. It's sort of like you've gotten to a
certain point and there's nothing to be done, so you've got to let it go.
N: Easier said than done. It's easier to say that you're going to let go than it is to actually do it. The song ends with,
"Here I go," even after the singing of it and everything it's, "Okay, I'm going to try now." Yeah, that one was another
that was very interesting in that it took many different lives before it got to this final one. I initially wrote it as a
four-four, but it didn't work well and I changed it to a kind of a waltz. I remember when I did that it was like, "Oh,
yes. This is what the song was meant to be." It's just that kind of feeling that it's easy to hold on and get attached to
someone, and harder to just say, "I'm going to let you go. Whatever that takes, I'll do it."
MR: All of the musicians on this album are great, but a couple of them are more well known than others, including
Tim Kingsbury of Arcade Fire and also Tom Mennier who has worked with Martha and Rufus Wainwright. When
you get the musicians together in the studio, are you more of an arranger or do you let everybody kind of figure it
out and capture the better moments? How do you work in the studio with your musicians?
N: Generally, it would be more of something that we kind of vibe out, and play the song a little bit, especially with
such wonderful musicians as these guys and the others on my album, the song kind of has a life of its own. But then
we go into the studio and often, it takes on another life, which is really beautiful because the musicians will bring
their own take to it. That being said, it depends on the song because sometimes I have a very precise vision of the
song and I've really already come to the arrangement that I love. Then, it becomes more of a direction to recapture
that thing that I've got in mind. Even then, though, they'll bring their own touch to it, and kind of give it a new life
anyway. It depends on the song, and it isn't always the same. On this album, we would really jam it out in the
studio. We'd play the song and get the right feel of it and the right vibe of it. Everybody did bring and enormous
amount to it. More of the songs on this album, it was a matter of finding the arrangement together in the studio by
MR: There are a couple of other things that we should probably educate the readers on. You are of Egyptian and
Lebanese decent, and you live in Canada. Were you born in Canada?
N: I was. I was born in Montreal.
MR: You've had such a worldly kind of life. You've traveled extensively, you've shared time with the Dalai Lama and
Mother Teresa, and you've worked with street children in Egypt.
MR: First of all, what was it like to spend time with the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa?
N: Oh, you know, it was just casual. (laughs) It was wonderful. It was really just an incredible experience. The Dalai
Lama was like a public visiting, I guess, that he was doing. I was living in Dharemsala, which is where his monastery
is, and it's the home of the new Tibetan refugees. I was living with Tibetan monks at the time, and I went to the
Dalai Lama's monastery because he was coming out to meet everybody--he meets you, gives you a blessing, holds
your hand and gives you a red string. So, it was a long day of just sitting at the monastery and waiting for my turn. It
was a very powerful day, and I remember I just spent most of the day sitting quietly. There were so many people
around just to be in the presence of such a generous, peaceful, and happy being. I remember feeling like if I could
live my life a tiny bit like he does, I'd be happy. It was a very inspiring thing to be in his presence.
N: Mother Teresa was in Calcutta. It was very close to her passing--just a few months before. It was at The Mother
House, and at six in the morning, they give a mass. So, I went to see her and to attend mass. It was a very brief
exchange, but it was also incredible to be in her presence. She was much more frail, but she's such an inspiration for
everything that she's done. It was really a wonderful moment to be there with her. Just being in the presence of such
giving and wonderful people gave me a lot. I carry that with me, to feel inspired or--I don't know--spread hope. If I
can do my little part, that would be good.
MR: You've done quite a big part, I would say. Like I mentioned before, you worked with the street children in
Egypt. Do you see that as one of your roles--being someone who is out there trying to make the world a better place?
N: If you had asked me that ten years ago I would have said, "Absolutely." To say that it's one of my roles is maybe
not quite...I don't know what my role is, and I don't know if I am really making the world a better place, but I try, I
definitely try. I try how I can to do what I can. When I first started doing music, one of my goals was that I could be
an inspiration to people, and that I could somehow make a difference. If I gained enough influence through music,
then I could be a role model for younger women and kids, and make a difference in the world. As one grows older,
you kind of see that the world is what the world is. I still feel that, I still try, of course, I'll always try. The world kind
of goes on without me, but I try.
MR: I think that's a very fair and a very honest answer. Thank you for going into that with me. Now, let's get back to
your music. Is there a specific story that goes along with your song, "Sidewalk"?
N: You know Mike, if you were going to ask me what went into the writing of any song, this would be the one. The
reason is that this song was born out of a writing exercise that Leonard gave. So, this song is actually about ten
pages long, in lyrics. He wrote a verse that really inspired me, so I wrote a verse with the same kind of writing
scheme and rhythm that he said was really good. He said, "I think you should just keep writing verses like that, with
the same writing pattern and rhythm, and without thought of where you're going with this. Just write. Wherever
you are and whatever you feel, just write with this structure." I did that for pages and pages and pages. I remember
going up to him after and saying, "Okay, well I've got ten pages now. Now what do I do?" And he said, "Well, find
the song in there." I was like, "What? That's like a thousand verses!" So, this one, unlike any of the others that I've
written on this album came from, began as a writing exercise. But I was going through things at the time, so it was
tainted by that, of course, which is why that song came from it. There's definitely a story behind that song, but I had
no idea where I was going at the beginning. I was doing what Leonard has told me to do many times, which is to
uncover a song as opposed to having in mind what you're writing from the start. This song was a really good
example of that, where I was exploring my own mind and heart to get to something that I wasn't sure of, but I was
uncovering and working at trying to get to it by writing and writing and writing.
MR: What was the discovery process like for this? It seems to not be so much a song of observances from being on
the sidewalk, but more of a life observance. I know I'm not articulating this exactly right because it was more on a
feeling level that I got this song.
N: You do describe it quite well. It definitely was more of an observation of much of my life. There is a specific story
in there, which has to do with a former partner and the pain that I caused. So, it was a reflection of all of that--the
pain that we cause others from a personal level, and also from the perspective that so much is broken, right down to
the sidewalk. It's kind of the nature of our world today that so much seems to be falling apart, and what is the light
that we can move towards.
MR: It is amazing that sometimes the people you love the most or the people you care for the most are the people
you just can't quite get a bridge to.
N: I did blame myself a lot for how our relationship fell apart, and it's not to say that it isn't or it is my fault, but
there's so much at play when we talk about relationships. It isn't so simple to say that it's your fault or my fault, or
whatever. We try, and sometimes, there's so much more at play that we don't really command--it's not within our
hands. That's not to say that we're not responsible for our actions, but often, there is a force that's greater,
propelling us to do something and it's tricky.
MR: And sometimes it's just realities that don't mesh. It's almost like you've got lives that are trying to meld, but
there are too many other things going on, or maybe these lives just shouldn't be meshing, you know?
N: Right. We try to force things to happen that aren't meant to be happening, or maybe things just aren't meant to
be that way, but we try to force them to be that way, whatever the situation. I found that in my personal life, we were trying to hold onto something that just wasn't what we were trying to say that it was, and I feel the same about
much of our society. I feel that we try to hold on to a way of life that is something of the past--it isn't right for today
anymore, but we're still holding onto it. I guess what emerged from that song was that there was a real parallel for
me between my personal life and life in general.
MR: Very beautiful observation, and this is why "Sidewalk" is my favorite song on the album. I'd like to ask you
about another song, "Elsa's Lullaby." Could you tell us about that song and how it's not about a horse, which is what
I thought it was totally about?
N: Elsa is not a horse. Many people have thought that Elsa was my daughter. I've gone into interviews where people
say it's one of their favorite songs, and I say, "Do you want to see a photo of Elsa?" Then, I show them a photo of my
beautiful dog, which is in the CD booklet, and they're completely shocked. The song began as a long poem for Elsa. I
was touring Canada with her, and a little girl just fell in love with her and said, "Wow, you must have so many songs
about your dog." I thought, "Geez, I don't have any." Thus began an epic poem for Elsa, which she basically wrote
herself. All I had to do was look at her, and she would give me the verses. She's like a little human--she's really
incredible. I later turned part of that poem into a song, and it isn't obvious who the song is for. I sometimes think
that it's one of my greatest love songs. It's just a lovely little love song, and it takes a couple of listens to get to the
fact that it's for a dog, but it is. My dog is really the love of my life. She's really incredible, and the connection that
we can have with animals is just amazing. So, that's what I share with my dog, who has been through a lot with me--
lived in the North for many years with me, and traveled across the country many times. At concerts, many people
think that I'm writing a song for my little girl. I may skew them that way because I say, "This one's for my baby,"
and people think it's for my daughter.
MR: I have yet another question about Leonard Cohen. I imagine you sat down with him and played him your
album after it was finished, right?
N: Yes, he even helped me to find the right order. He's really been a huge support.
MR: I guess my question is, basically, how big was the smile on his face?
N: It was very big. He's a very smiley person, you know? He's one of the funniest people that I've ever met, I must
say. Despite being thought of as The Godfather of Gloom and other titles he's been given, he's honestly one of the
funniest people I've ever met. He had a big smile, and congratulated me several times for the really, really good
work. It was really nice to hear that from him, yeah. So, we'll see what happens.
MR: Where you are right now, right?
N: Yes, I'm in Memphis right now.
MR: And you're going to be touring across the United States, but are you also doing an international tour?
N: Yes, I believe we're going to Europe this summer, but we're focusing on the United States for the next couple of
MR: And you're going to be playing South by Southwest, right?
MR: Well, I'm going to be down there, and I think at the very least, maybe we could shake hands.
MR: Thank you. I can't wait to hear your set, and hear what you do live, in addition to this really wonderful album. I
really appreciate you giving me some of your time here. It's been a pleasure. We've got time for a few more songs to
take us out on the radio broadcast of our conversation. Do you have any songs you'd like to hear?
MR: What's the origin of "Masi"?
N: Yes. That was inspired by my time living in the North. It's a prayer song, actually, but it's a really lovely prayer
song, and we've added it as a bonus track to the American release.
MR: What kind of advice do you have for new artists?
N: Wow. I don't know. I was going to say, "Follow your heart," but I think it's a hard business--because it is a
business that you're entering, if you want to do it seriously. If it's what keeps you alive, and you really love to do it,
then work hard and be determined. I don't know what kind of advice I have. I don't know if I'm in any position to
give anybody advice, but since you're asking, just have a lot of determination, and just keep at it. Don't let other's
discourage you, and just do what you feel you have to do. I think that often if is something you feel you have to do.
Sometimes I feel like you don't really have a choice in the matter. So, if that's the case, then just do it.
MR: NEeMA, thank you very much for all your time, and all your insights. It really was a pleasure.
N: Thank you, Mike.