Creative Conversations: with Naja
It was a delight getting to know Nathan (he/him) who writes and produces music as Naja. Enjoy our conversation about his most recent release LOYA, the emotional healing that music can bring, and the difference between creating and releasing music.
DECADENT: Can we start off with how you found your voice and what it's like being a musician in the Twin Cities.
NAJA: I started messing around with music production in the loosest sense when I was about 10 or 11 years old. I say "loosest sense" because what I was doing was a pretty far cry from anything musical. But I was having fun. I was exploring and, just with my computer, I figured out ways to take songs and sample them and hash pieces of one song with another and overlap sounds. That was my first venture into doing anything musical. I didn't know how to play any instruments. I had no musical training.
DECADENT: What was it about music that you found so appealing creatively?
NAJA: I remember hearing music growing up. My parents are both musicians. My mom sang in a choir and my dad plays the bagpipes.
It wasn't until I was like, 10 years old when I started to hear music for what it was. And that made my jaw drop. I felt it inside me spiritually. I realized this is what people are talking about.
To get a little more personal and draw an analogy up for you, I'm a recovering drug addict and alcoholic. I've been sober for 12 years. I remember the first time I ever got high. It was like being somebody who is on the brink of death by dehydration, just starving for water. Then getting a sip of water and being like, "Holy shit. This. This is what I've been missing". That's what it was like when I really heard music for the first time.
Over the years, I got more into production and got more tools, more technology, got more familiar with technology, and also developed other musical skills. I started learning how to play guitar and keyboard, I started messing around with vocals.
DECADENT: Were you mainly teaching yourself?
NAJA: Yeah, for the first 10 years I was teaching myself everything. YouTube wasn't really a thing then, I defer to that for so much shit nowadays. But back then I was just figuring stuff out, messing around, playing with sounds, experimenting. As time has gone on, my technical and mechanical skills as a musician have further developed.
The persistent theme is the excitement of curiosity and discovery, just wanting to see what happens.
I've never ever been somebody who can stay in one lane, right? I can't just say, "Here's my artistic identity, 'I'm this metal guy,' or, 'I play guitar, that's my fucking thing'". I've never been able to do that.
I'm kind of envious of people who just feel their thing. I literally have to find a new avenue that's exciting and fulfilling and makes me go, "Ooh, what's going on here?" Right? So I end up with a bunch of different projects with a bunch of different names that appeal to different groups of people.
DECADENT: That's very cool though because it's all coming from you. And so it's really a testament to you being a multifaceted creator. You don't need to be tied down to one thing to make work that is meaningful to you.
NAJA: Yeah, certainly. As an artist, I have to make whatever I feel compelled to make and often it's an unintentional thing on my part. Last summer I wanted to make a really commercial sort of mainstream R&B album. That's what I wanted to do. But it was not coming out at all right. So I had to throw my hands up and say, "I'm not fighting this". And that's how I ended up with the short album I released a few weeks ago.
DECADENT: And it's amazing.
NAJA: Thank you so much. I seriously appreciate it.
DECADENT: Absolutely. How did it feel to release LOYA? What emotions came up as you finished it? It's already a pretty emotional album...
NAJA: Yeah, totally. It's a lot of different things, obviously. There was some enjoyable stuff, and then some less enjoyable stuff, which is pretty consistent. In my experience, there is always a mixed bag.
When I make music that is so personally-inspired and so therapeutic and created as an abstraction of myself and my identity, and is such a vivid representation of the life I've lived, there's no way that anybody's response is going to meet that exactly. There's no way that it can actually measure up to the experience that I had. So in a way, it's like, "Dude, these these songs means so much". But that meaning for me came from me just barfing it all up, expelling it from myself.
Giving those feelings away to other people can feel underwhelming at times, right? That is just part of the process though. It's a weird thing to release music, you know, because creating music and releasing music are two completely different experiences.
When I release music and other people absorb it, they have their own experience with it. It becomes a separate thing from what I had going on.
There's this aspect of it that feels like holding your breath. I'm holding, I'm holding, I'm holding, I'm holding, exhale, there it is. And this was a particularly interesting situation for me in terms of what went into the album.
DECADENT: In what way exactly?
NAJA: These songs are really the most emotionally heavy body of music that I've ever released, which isn't to say that they're my best songs, but the experiences that inspired this stuff have, when I reflect on everything I've released in the past, gravity unlike any other.
This music is more abstract in that the sound and the words that compose it create an unsettled, less definable emotional space.
It's a lot easier to make an album where you say "I'm sad," versus an album where you say, "I don't know what I feel".
The release of this album initially felt pretty counter intuitive for me. If I poured that much into the music, I felt obligated to put that much into the release of the album. But I abandoned all that. I had this revelation. The music had been done since October and I was waiting around for these guys who were going to make a music video. So I'm over here, you know, stressing and trying to figure out where all the pieces should go and what I realized was that it really just had to be meaningful to me.
I have another project that's currently unreleased and I plan on doing my utmost to promote it but with LOYA I just realized that wasn't what it was all about. I didn't want to over complicate it, I don't want to do any fucking marketing, I didn't have the energy to make it any more of a product. So I stopped trying to control the micro details of that musical experience and just let it go.
DECADENT: Sometimes you need to protect your own peace when you make something so raw. You don't want to make it into a product for other people to merely consume.
NAJA: Yeah. And it ended up working out because I am part of it. What I realized during the process of preparing to release this album was that the sort of things that go into marketing a project were not congruent with the expression that I was trying to put forth.
By choosing to sacrifice that publicity, I was able to present my music in a way that further expressed the music itself. Starting with the release out of nowhere. I gave very little narrative or explanation as to what was going on or anything like that. That's what the album is about: not having that frame of reference, losing yourself in an unprecedented space.
A lot of people were messaging me when I started releasing it, asking me what was going on. That's the point, man, you're confused. That's what the music's about. I'm confused. I don't know what the fuck is happening. I've never really been able to have the way I presented my music be an extension of the inspiration and the music itself. And so it was really cool to be able to participate in it like this.
DECADENT: It's tough to navigate the art and music world when you don't want your work to just be a marketable product but you also have to promote what you're doing somehow. But it sounds like LOYA was something of a breakthrough for you regarding that particular issue that so many musicians face.
NAJA: In a Utopian world, we could all do exactly what we feel moved to do, the things that bring each of us to the highest version of ourselves and connect us with our spirituality. I'm very lucky, extremely lucky, because I'm a producer and a musician. Whether that's producing for people or doing session work, or lessons, or whatever, right? It's such a blessing.
Last night I was thinking about money and whether I would focus more on my personal artistic practice if you took money out of the picture, but the reality is I would still be doing all that stuff. Art for me is like therapy, it allows me to express things and get them out of me. It is a specific emotional process.
A different process is involved when I'm producing for someone. If someone tells me, "Hey, Nathan, I have a song and I want to make it sound good". I can do that for them. Then I see them get excited, filled with joy because their song sounds cooler. That is a totally different process. It fulfills me in a different way.
DECADENT: I love that you bring that up, because actually one of my next questions was about your feelings towards the creative relationships that you form working with other musicians. Has it been hard to find those people? And what about those projects makes them lasting experiences?
NAJA: Most of my life, my creative process was largely accomplished alone, totally in isolation, totally for me. Now, when it comes to releasing things, that happens almost exclusively online.
I've always maintained some musician friends. It was really not until about three years ago that I started to develop any kind of connection to the local scene. That really only started once I started performing about three years ago.
DECADENT: How do you feel about performing?
NAJA: It's weird. It's a weird thing to do.
DECADENT: Do you see more performance in your future? Or something else? What are you working on right now?
NAJA: My need to be very straightforward and confessional and my need to be more abstract fluctuates. My next body of music, which is already written and recorded, is more confessional but that isn't necessarily on purpose. I'm following the emotional trajectory set forth by LOYA. The space I occupied with LOYA was much more ethereal and confusing. There is a feeling of having failed somebody. But we move from a less defined feeling that seems to lack understanding to a more concrete understanding. This next body of work solidified those emotions. This is pain. This is loss. This is regret. This is grief. I have no idea how people are going to receive this work.
Listen to Naja's most recent release, LOYA here.
And check out his past album right here.
Give Naja a follow on Instagram too!
Thanks so much, Nathan!