Growing up in the Eastern European nation of Georgia, Nainnoh dreamed of one thing: freedom.
“I was a free spirit as a child, a rebel,” she explains. “Looking back now, I realize that I owe a lot of the innocence and sincerity in my musical DNA to Georgia, but when I was young, the country had very strict traditions, and I felt like a bird in a cage.”
Now, with the release of her gorgeous and wildly creative self-titled debut, Nainnoh is finally able to spread her wings. Recorded in her adopted hometown of New York City, the collection showcases Nainnoh’s voracious musical appetite, mixing dreamy pop and droning rock with Georigan folk and experimental psychedelia to create a mesmerizing, cross-cultural meditation on mortality and humanity. The songs here are rich and deeply layered, drawing on Nainnoh’s love of poetry and philosophy to explore the ties that bind us—both to each other and the natural world around us—as well as the artificial walls that all too often keep us apart. The album’s arrangements are lush and cinematic to match, hinting at everything from Sigur Ros to the Velvet Underground with bold, adventurous production that blends organic and electronic elements into a captivating swirl. Seven years in the making, the record marks the culmination of a lifelong journey and the start of a brand new chapter for Nainnoh, who headed into the studio not only for herself, but for anyone who’s ever been counted out because of who they are or where they come from.
“I remember the first time I was ever discriminated against as an immigrant,” says Nainnoh. “I was told I’d never make it in America because of my accent, because I was different. I felt like my spirit died in that moment, but it ultimately led me to this awakening where I realized that I needed to do something to change people’s perceptions. I needed to make an album that could serve as an example for all the other girls who come here from other countries, for all my Hispanic and African American friends who were born here but still feel like outsiders. I wanted to show what we’re capable of.”
That fierce sense of determination has guided Nainnoh from her earliest days. Born in the small, industrial city of Rustavi, Nainnoh was raised to follow her dreams in a culture that, at the time, generally discouraged such individuality. Her mother, a biochemist, sang Georgian folk tunes and woke her up in the morning with secretly-obtained American jazz records, while her father, an architect, introduced her to the great poets and writers of the world. At seven, Nainnoh enrolled in music school, and though she loved to play piano, she despised the rigid discipline of the conservatory.
“Teachers back then were very strict in Georgia,” she explains. “I wanted to play in my own way, but if I wasn’t precisely following the notes on the page, they’d yell and hit my fingers.”
When Nainnoh turned eleven, her grandmother presented the family with a piano of their own. More than just an instrument, the gift proved to be a doorway, a portal to another dimension where anything was possible. With no one to dampen her creativity, Nainnoh began writing her own songs, and the more she created, the more she dreamed of life in a land of freedom.
“One time in English class, I wrote an essay about wanting to see the Statue of Liberty,” Nainnoh remembers. “My teacher told me not to dream so high, that not everyone can go to America. I said, ‘You’re wrong! I will go to America someday!’ I saw it as my ticket to freedom.”
Nainnoh did indeed make it to America, settling down in New York City, where she found herself blown away by the deluge of self-expression. Musicians played on street corners, singers performed in the subways, painters showcased their work in the parks. Nainnoh dove in headfirst, befriending a host of avant-garde jazz and experimental artists, winning an Editor’s Choice Award from Poetry.com, and recording songs at home until she was introduced to celebrated hip-hop engineer/producer/composer Daniel Lynas (A$AP Rocky, Heems), who invited her to record in a studio for the very first time. The experience was utterly intoxicating, and it only served to fuel Nainnoh’s fire to create a full-length record. A few years later, she met the man who would help her make it a reality: internationally renowned multimedia artist, composer, and sound designer John Sully.
“John’s just the most amazing, awakened human being in the world as far as I’m concerned,” says Nainnoh. “He became such a mentor and an inspiration. We didn’t always see eye to eye on everything in the studio, but even when we clashed, it just elevated everything and made it that much more beautiful.”
For Nainnoh, recording with Sully felt like being back in school. The producer was a fount of knowledge, a musical encyclopedia with endless stories about the New York underground. The two slowly chipped away at an album for the better part of the next decade, and though Nainnoh found herself frequently pulled away by personal trials and tribulations (the passing of loved ones required multiple trips back to Georgia), she always returned to the record, determined to finish it no matter how long it took. The final result, which was mastered by GRAMMY-winning engineer Chris Gehringer (Lana Del Rey, St. Vincent), is an album that defies easy categorization, a collection that nods to tradition even as it pushes daringly into the future. Dreamy opener “Cambium Rings” sets the scene, with gently plucked guitar giving way to ethereal synthesizers that seem to drift through space, riding the currents of Nainnoh’s dark and dusky voice. Like much of the album to come, the song is slow to unfold, subtly growing and evolving as it explores the symbiotic relationship between man and nature. The soaring “Threads,” for instance, grapples with our more animal instincts, while the hypnotic “Colors” questions if there’s more to the world than the human eye can see, and the trippy “Water,” inspired by an old piece of Georgian folk poetry, contemplates the circle of life.
“We’re all a part of a living, reciprocal universe,” she explains. “Water gives life to soil, soil gives life to plants, plants give life to animals, animals give life to humans, and humans take each other’s lives? It all comes back to water and soil in the end, and we need to be sure to love and care for each other because we’re ultimately all connected as one.”
That insistence on love and acceptance in the face of pain and suffering is a key element of the album, which draws much of its spiritual center and moral compass from Nainnoh’s experience as an immigrant. The spellbinding “Velvet Mode” muses on everyday battles against racism, sexism, and discrimination, while the stirring “Run,” which features Sully playing a traditional, recorder-like Georgian instrument know as the Salamuri, seeks escape from toxicity, and the fiery “Break Apart” searches for peace and healing in ourselves and each other.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the mysticism of the Georgian language,” says Nainnoh, “and the Georgian word for ‘god’ actually originated from the phrase ‘deep one.’ I want people listening to these songs to realize the depth of their powers to love and heal and unite, to realize that we could all be gods in our own ways. I want my music to be that kind of awakening.”
It’s a bold mission statement, to be sure, but Nainnoh’s never been one to shy away from a challenge. After all, when you’re free, anything’s possible.