Meet Native Dancer, a London-based and jazzy collective making music across all genres.
It was such a pleasure to speak with Frida Touray and Sam Crowe from Native Dancer. The band consists of 5 talented and jazz-passionate individuals who use their mutual love for jazz as a foundation to break into different styles of music, making them nearly genre-less. Band members have collaborated with award-winning artists ranging from Lianne La Havas to Jordan Rakei and have performed across a myriad of festivals such as Love Supreme Festival, Womad Festival, JazzRe:Fest, and AfroPunk. In this interview, Frida and Sam explain the band’s origin story, what it truly means to make music without anyone’s permission, and the creative process behind their new debut album TIDES, which drops tomorrow (10/23/2020).
How did the band you come together?
Sam: The band came about very organically; the original lineup for the band was a trio of friends who I met from the jazz scene. At the time, it was me, our bass player Jonathan and our drummer Alexis. In the beginning, we played a lot of jazzy fusion arrangements and Herbie Hancock tunes. Later, I met Frida while teaching at University. I remember hearing her sing for the first time and my jaw literally dropped; I was amazed and started writing with her. I thought it’d be great for everyone to meet and play with one another so I organized a session. When we played for the first time, it was incredibly memorable and special. The music scene feels big from the outside, but it’s actually an interconnected and intimate web; everyone is connected and I’m grateful that we all naturally found our way to each other.
Frida, how did you first start singing?
Frida: I was always singing; for as long as I could speak, I could sing. My mom would recall stories of me at 4 years old and confident, about how I would convince everyone that I’d be a superstar. Then, puberty hit and my confidence plummeted. I grew up singing in choirs but developed terrible stage fright, which I had even until the time I moved from my home in Sweden, to London. It took a year of being in London before I felt comfortable performing. But within myself, I always knew I had that bug to perform.
How did you overcome stage fright?
Frida: My defining moment occurred during my bridge year in high school. I was in Sweden working for my sister’s shop and I knew that I could never stay there, if I did, I felt like a large piece of me would die.
My dream school for University was in Los Angeles but it was too far away from my family. My second best choice was in London so I decided to study there given the ideal distance. Once I moved, it dawned on me that I had no other choice but to start performing; I had already moved to another country at 20 years old and there was no going back. I knew that I couldn’t do anything else with my life because I didn’t want anything else. Essentially, I put myself in a situation in which I had no other choice.
How others describe your music is very varied, from psychedelic jazz soul, to neo-soul jazz electronica. But, how would you describe your music?
Sam: We’re really hesitant to stuff our music into a genre because our music is influenced by so much of the world. From the start, our ethos was to avoid placing boundaries on it, and instead let the sound come out naturally. Capitalism requires musicians to neatly label their music into something easily digestible, and sell it off. We’ve had tricky experiences with labels because they don’t know what to do with our music. But we’ve continued to honor our core values, which benefits our creativity and sound.
Music fans operate entirely differently from the labels, it doesn’t matter to them how the music is packaged; if they like, they like it. The way in which we are evolving as a species, it no longer serves us to be placed in boxes. Whether it’s culture, music, or sexuality, for example, boundaries can stifle how we express ourselves. I see a future in which the arts and our expression of it are boundaryless.
Frida: Our music is so special and unique because it’s a true amalgamation of 5 distinct individuals and everything we’ve soaked up over the years. Whether it’s jazz, R&B, pop and soul, it’s all in there. We embrace every aspect of that.
How do you navigate being a band who values quality over quantity of music, in a fast-paced music industry?
Sam: We are completely independent artists, so we release the music ourselves and on our own terms. While we’ve had flirtations with labels who were interested, it’s never worked out. It was hard overcoming failed expectations, but in that disappointment, we’ve learned to let go of expectations. That in itself has turned out to be even more freeing and enjoyable since we aren’t beholden to anyone.
Frida: The pressure from the industry is debilitating and not good for anyone creatively or personally. But in letting go of that, we’re much happier now. We’ve stopped caring about the rules that exist, and just make up our own. We’re even more creative because of it and our music has continued to flourish. We’re at a point in our music journey where we are confident of our image and our relationship to fans on a local and global level.
What’s your music making process?
Frida: It’s always changing because there are four of us who write music. In most scenarios, Sam creates a little nugget, or nascent-stage idea, and sends it over to me. I write a lot of poetry which is a solitary experience; I’ll tend to topline many melodies on my own and then we’ll all gather in the studio to experiment with it. The songs change shape over time, just as we ourselves change. It’s such a mysterious experience in how everything comes together. But, it’s nice to think of our music as never being fully finished and ever-evolving, because there’s always something new to express.
Sam: At some point, we’ll consider a song final and release that version to the greater public. But, even after a song is released, we’re always evolving our sound for live shows. Since our backgrounds are all rooted in jazz, we know how to let the sound flow and riff off of different tempos or improvise additions.
How is COVID impacting you and the band?
Sam: COVID birthed a new norm and I had personally forgotten how much energy I get from being physically immersed in the music scene. I went to a show recently for the first time in months, and it felt so special; all of the feelings I hadn’t experienced in so long came rushing right back. I’ve realized that the energy buildup from the scene sustains my creativity. This time has come with a lot of mixed emotions for me; while sometimes I feel like making music, other times I feel flat and require outside energy to inspire me. It’s been hard but I’ve learned how to appreciate the tangible moments surrounded by music and people so much more.
Frida: I’m sort of the opposite. For me, the lockdown eliminated so many distractions from my life, in a way that’s allowed me to delve inwards and write even more. While it’s a silver lining and the situation created so much hardship, I try to focus on what I can do to sustain myself, and writing more has helped immensely. As a person, there are many parts of me that need human and social interaction with other people and creatives and I miss watering those parts of myself, but hopefully the situation will improve sooner than later.
What can people expect from the new album?
Sam: Our debut album, TIDES, is a progression from our previous work, while still sounding like us. The most noteworthy aspect of the album is the production, which drastically jumped levels for us. Miles James is a wizard and produced a record for us in the past. We went on such a journey with him and while our music was good initially, sonically, it wasn’t where we wanted it to be. Miles helped bring us there through a lot of experimentation, and we brought those experiences with us for this album. For TIDES, we mixed the record with Ben Baptie, who mixes Moses Sumney’s records amongst others. Ben is a massive part of that sound and after the music was finished we gave it to Ben, who elevated it to another level and carved it into this really stunning, spatially beautiful experience we didn’t realize it could be. We were at a point where we lived with the music for so long and while we knew it was good, we weren’t excited about it because we were just so fatigued. When the versions came back from Ben, we were blown away.
Frida: When listening, try not to have any expectations. It’s not a smooth ride, it takes you through these turns that will surprise you. But that’s also what we do and it’s essential to the identity of the band. Whatever comes out, comes out and that’s what it is. But we’re so excited and relieved that it’s happening because we’ve lived with the songs for such a long time and created such a great relationship with it. It’s like our baby and we’re finally ready for it to go to college.
What’s been the hardest part about creating the album?
Frida: For me, the hardest part in creating the album was that at some point in the middle of the album, I realized that we were trying to pigeon-hole our music within specific boxes and it affected the way we wrote and thought about the songs. What was even more difficult, was letting go of those notions in the middle of the album and re-learning to respect our ethos of allowing the music to come out as it wants to and not manipulating our ears. The music has a spirit when it’s written and to keep that spirit as-is, is a challenge. But in the end, we got there.
Sam: You really have to catch yourself before you mess with the music, because it can spiral. It’s easy to start questioning everything you created, especially after you’ve listened to it many times and it’s no longer fresh. You can get caught in the cycle of wondering if a drum sound should be changed or if the tempo needs to be different. Change can happen so fast because if you change one part, the other parts will feel different and you’ll need to change everything else. There were massive lessons in that experience of actively learning to trust yourself, the music and band in order to know what to change, and what should stay as is.
What has been your proudest music moment?
Frida: It’s hard for me to choose just one moment, because I’ve had so many wonderful musical experiences. Overall, I’d say that it’s collaborating with such incredible artists. The London music scene is a lot smaller than I originally thought and being friends with everyone makes it even more special. I really enjoyed working on Lianne La Havas’s self-titled album and live recording a piece for Jordan Rakei’s “Origins” record with Jordan’s band; it was such a surreal experience for me. But, I think my proudest moment is yet to come, and will be on October 23rd when our record is out.
Sam: For me, performing with ND for Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance) Festival was uniquely special for me; I always knew that the festival was extraordinary, it has an old-school hip spirit about it that can’t be put into words. Working on Lianne La Havas’s record was also an incredible experience for me.
How can people support you?
Sam: People can support us by pre-ordering and buying the vinyl. While we’ve received some grants, it all went into making the record. We really wanted to release something for people to enjoy that represented our sound tangibly. The vinyl is beautifully designed, sounds incredible, and obtaining it would be a great way to support us.
Frida: For those in London, come to our album launch on November 11th at the historic Jazz Cafe. That’s also a great way to support us.
What’s your long term vision for Native Dancer?
Frida: I envision that we’ll continue to make unique music while continuing to make our own rules in creating and releasing it. I’d love for us to increase our fan base so that we can travel and host more live shows.
Sam: I want to continue breaking to new grounds with the music. Apart from that, I try not to have too many expectations and just focus on the art. It’s always such an honor for people to get in touch with us and be really excited about the music, and with that I couldn’t ask for anything more. I love how the music finds its way into people’s hearts and lives and I want to continue that.
Who are you listening to right now?
Frida: I’m listening to a lot of Jennah Bell; I absolutely adore her music. I’ve also been listening to a lot of Gabriel Garzón-Montano, whose music I also love.
Sam: I tend to jump around between old and new music. Perhaps a mix of jazz records, and my everyday playlist that includes flamenco, reggae, jazz, hip-hop and everything else. However, there are a couple of London-based artists releasing new and amazing content that I’ve been digging into such as Demae, who I know from playing with Fatima. She just released a record, “Life Works Out…Usually” which I think is really cool. Nubya Garcia is another great London-based jazz artist who I admire.