You know that feeling of stepping out into the first day of sunshine after a long, grey winter, eyes shut just letting the sun bask over your skin as you relish in that blissful moment of serenity?
That’s exactly how it feels to listen to London-born saxophonist, composer and bandleader Nubya Garcia. Talking to her and listening to her play, 29-year old Garcia exudes warmth, honesty and humility, whilst remaining truly captivating. There is no doubt that the tenor she produces is an extension of her soul, and it acts as pure medicine – you can’t help but feel good upon listening to it. A modern-day jazz icon making her name known around the globe, she plays alongside her band: Joe Armon-Jones on keys, Daniel Casmir on double bass, and Sam Jones on drums.
Garcia tours internationally, in Europe, India, Australia, and the US (she recently commanded her own concert with National Public Radio’s prestigious Tiny Desk Concert series). She regularly performs at festivals in the UK including Love Supreme Jazz Festival and NN North Sea Jazz Festival. She has headlined sell-out shows at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club (London). Garcia also has a burgeoning reputation as a DJ, with a monthly radio residency on NTS Radio since November 2017.
FRONTRUNNER spoke with Garcia about last year’s album, Source, the discipline it takes to honour your talent, and appreciating your “bubbles of goodness.”
I always think that we’re largely influenced from a young age by the music that we hear around us; did you come from a musical family? Can you remember how old you were when you started playing music?
Yeah, absolutely agree with that. My parents really, really loved music. They’re not musicians themselves, as such, but my older brothers and sisters were deeply into music. I just always saw them with instruments, so you know when you’re the younger one and it’s like, “Well, I want to do that too, why does everyone else get to do that?” So eventually, I was part of the club! It’s crazy, but I wonder what it would have been like if not all of us were into music. I grew up around a lot of it, I started around the age of four and it kind of continued from there. I really was invested probably from the age of thirteen or fourteen.
Your mum is from Guyana and your dad is from Trinidad; has that had an impact on the music you heard growing up, or the music that you now create?
It’s definitely always in the back of my mind to want to connect to the musical landscape of those two places and the wider Caribbean culture. I used to go to Trinidad Carnival when I was a kid, so that was my first introduction into being in it rather than what you hear in life. But yeah, my mum and my stepdad are hugely into reggae, so that has been a huge part of my musical taste. I always want to connect to it, even if I’m not there as such in body. It’s a way to connect with your spirit and also to learn more about your culture and yourself. Growing up identifying as black British, you’ve got such a huge community all over the U.K., especially in different parts of London. So yeah, it’s definitely shaped my musical taste and also how and what I end up writing, I would say.
And you grew up in Camden. Did that have an impact on your creativity?
I don’t know, I guess Camden is so famous, it’s been famous for music that people kind of assume that it did have an impact. But what you know Camden for – like Indie, rock, grunge, punk – is not necessarily what I love. But being around it undoubtedly filled me with range, even hanging out there on the weekend and going to gigs. All of that has obviously got to have an impact; it probably had some sort of inspiring process in my teens.
The jazz scene in London is quite special, isn’t it? I’ve been to The Jazz Café in Camden. So much fun!
Yeah! We’re really lucky in London. There’s such a rich musical culture from all corners of the globe, as such. Being from London, I always take that for granted, how you can hear one thing in the playground at school and then a completely different thing in your local pub. Even with us, we pushed to get into venues that didn’t usually accept what you call jazz. That was a really big shift in everything: opening up loads of different types of spaces, which automatically brings in different kinds of people. So, I do think London has that space. It’s declining rapidly because of developers (even before COVID), and because of how expensive the rent is in London. If you can build flats, people will. But London’s really, really special. I’m really happy to call it home, for now.
When did music turn from a hobby into a career for you?
I honestly don’t know. It’s weird, as a teenager I was really listening to jazz. I was really getting into it. I don’t know if there was ever a point in time that I recognized that this is what I was going to do, other than the fact that I didn’t have anything else that I was that passionate about. I had other hobbies. I was deep into sport, but at some point when you’re a teenager, you have to pick what you have to focus on to really excel, and music was that. I found my unit and I found what it did for me, without realising. Looking back, I can see that it gave me what I needed at the time: a really important outlet. You have to start getting ready to apply for university and music college around the ages of sixteen or seventeen, so you already have to be good enough, which happens a lot earlier than other people in other careers. I still have to remember that this is my career, job, whatever you want to call it!
I don’t use “hobby” because there’s a lot of people that come up to you and it’s like, “I can’t believe you managed to make music more than a hobby.” A hobby is what you love, but I think hobby suggests that it’s only for fun and it doesn’t have that level of expertise. It takes it away from the fact that you’ve practiced eight hours a day for years and years. A hobby, for me, is what I do to completely detach in a good way and give myself some time. I’m grateful that my passion turned into what I do.
What made you want to start playing the saxophone, specifically? Did you see or hear it somewhere?
My older brother was in big bands, so I must have grown up seeing him. That was my first interaction with other people playing the saxophone. I started at the age of ten. My memory’s not that good, so I don’t know how it fell into my lap! I don’t remember asking for it, but I do remember getting it, opening the case and being like, “Oh my gosh, is this for me!?” At the time, I was playing piano and violin and really not enjoying it. It didn’t bring a spark out in me. Having taught now, I think you can tell when a kid’s on an instrument that isn’t what they would have liked to be doing. Yeah, I’m happy that I got the saxophone.
The saxophone, and jazz generally, is quite a male-dominated space. Have you experienced this gender gap at all?
There’s definitely a gender gap. From personal experience, I split it up before Tomorrow’s Warriors and after Tomorrow’s Warriors. Before I joined there, I was usually the only girl. Not always. When I was at Camden Music, there were quite a lot of girls, but in other entities and institutions, I was often very much the only woman in the room. Maybe there would be a vocalist, sometimes. After Tomorrow’s Warriors, or since I joined, there were so many women that I didn’t feel like the only one. There was definitely a really strong unit. Part of the ethos of Tomorrow’s Warriors is to champion diversity, ethnically and in terms of gender, bringing more women in and providing a space for that. In the wider scheme, there’s definitely a gender gap, but in my very formative years (I’d say seventeen to twenty-four and now even), I was around very inspiring women my own age on all instruments. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I actually had a really different experience to most young women the second I joined Tomorrow’s Warriors. I’m not sure that many women have that experience.
Speaking of Tomorrow’s Warriors, how much of musical talent do you think comes down to natural talent versus access to learning and resources? It’s easy to forget that not everyone has access to spaces to nurture their talent.
Absolutely. I think it’s a real mixture. But what people often skate over is that it’s an extreme amount of discipline and hard work from a very young age. I know excellent musicians that started at fifteen or seventeen, and in the world of jazz that’s considered quite late. But it doesn’t really matter, to be honest, if you put the work in! There’s a spark: everybody has that for something in their life and some people find it at the age of four or six. One of my sisters knew from Day One that she wanted to be an animator, and the same with my eldest sister, she wanted to be a classical singer. That can change, which is great, it’s not like you’re on that path forever.
I think if music speaks to you, and you have a voice to say something within that space, that’s what it’s all about. You can teach the tools to be technically incredible and try to teach any passionate soul, but that’s also a body-feeling that you have to learn yourself. To see your process, to find your way around that emotion, or into that emotion. There are things that you have to be taught, not just from a teacher. You could learn from records the history of jazz. There’s no such thing as a lazy musician! People often forget that, but nobody’s born excellent at anything. Music is one of those things, too. You can be naturally gifted, absolutely, but it will get you to a certain point. To have been taught or teach yourself or really to have the discipline to take yourself to the next level, that’s also completely involved in it and often forgotten about.
Turning to your album, Source, what was it like releasing this during such a turbulent and strange year? I can’t imagine that COVID was part of the plan!
No, gosh it looked very different! But I have no regrets because I don’t know what it would have been like otherwise. I don’t have that kind of experience. I’m really happy that we did it last year and it was musically time for that music to be released. I’m not a person that hangs on to music right now, that may change, who knows! This came out much later than I wanted to, but we still got it out. They’re not for me to digest by myself, otherwise I would never release anything! They’re to be shared, and I think that’s part of why I love music. It’s a joint, shared space that everybody completely gets something different from. It was completely unprecedented, and I don’t know how we managed to do it, but I’m really, really glad that we were able to. I took it on that people said we really need music right now. It’s easy to forget that because there’s so much music in the world, every single day there is so much coming out! But this year has made people, hopefully, really respect and appreciate the whole of the creative arts and how much solace it provides people, how it can bring people together across the world, how much you need it even though you didn’t even know you needed it.
In your YouTube mini-doc, SOURCE: BTS, you say that your communities and (I love this phrase) your “Bubbles of goodness” are what keep you sane.
Yeah, absolutely. They really are!
How have you found this past year with lockdowns?
I don’t even know how to answer that – difficult! I live by myself, which I love, but it’s an interesting time to live alone. I’m always a person that gets out there and sees people as soon as I can, because I’m not around very much. I’m on tour quite a lot. So, having that option removed from my usual things to do and to connect to people has been quite hard. Also, having live stuff removed, to not even be able to be in the audience, it’s been really difficult. I love to come home from tour and – you never forget how tired you are when you get back – and I’ll still drag myself out to my friends nights or parties, or anything like that. I don’t need to talk to anyone, I can just hug and stand there with some incense and just soak up the vibes, then go back on the road the next day. I’ll always do anything I can to be around people that feed me. Being a musician or a creative, you have that performance aspect to your life, you’re constantly giving out – which is great, a really cathartic process – but you also need to recharge! You have to figure out what it is that you have to do to make that happen for yourself. For me, it’s definitely seeing my friends, being with them in multiple spaces, sharing food with people and just chatting! I love my people and my community and this year’s made me really appreciate it. But I also really appreciated it when I was on tour for two or three years. I knew how much it meant to me. I also have really enjoyed having a break this year.
Is it nice to just stop and slow down a bit?
It definitely is. I had already done that; I took two months off in Columbia after the longest tour ever, and that was my break to re-prepare myself to go back on tour in May last year. It’s interesting when you have your first break, at the end of it you finally learn how to relax. And then, you’re off again.
It’s been announced that you’re on the lineup for the All Points East Festival, which is exciting! You were also on the lineup to play Glastonbury last year. I was really pleased to see you on these line-ups because I feel like it’s uncommon to see many musicians who don’t have songs full of lyrics high up on these kinds of bills.
It’s actually still quite wild to me. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll wake up one day and they’ll be like, “Nah!” But it’s amazing! I’m so completely aware and understand that in commercial spaces – music with lyrics and vocals in general – people connect to that in a really different way. It doesn’t mean that they can’t connect to instrumental music, it’s just hasn’t been given a chance yet. I’m really glad that things are opening up to us and to me. I’m just going to keep flying this flag, what else can I do? I do what I do, and I love it.
I love collaborating with vocalists, but I don’t know what the future holds, right now. For this album specifically, I’m really glad that it’s been welcomed into spaces that I didn’t ever think was possible. I played Glastonbury before with a couple of bands, but they all had vocals. I was like, “Yeah, cool, jazz won’t be here, but that’s okay.” Fast forward two or three years, me and my friends are getting billed at the biggest festival in the U.K. and it’s wild to me. Really happy about it!
Is there anyone on the jazz scene at the moment that you think more people should know about?
So many! It’s not even that they’re not known, it’s just I rate them so much. Ego Ella May, to me she’s huge but more sharing is more caring. My bass player Daniel Casmir writes amazing, amazing music. SEED Ensemble run by Cassie: I think she’s one of the most inspiring and amazing creatives and composers and musicians, she does everything! I can’t wait for them to ascend. Can’t wait for more gigs with different types of people and different spaces to continue to be offered to different types of music. That’ll be really cool.