Ndidi O - bio preview

Ndidi O - Biography

Who is N Didi ?

Sitting at a table outside a cafe near the Bastille, a few steps away from where this fine-looking girl has finally chosen her Parisian home, Ndidi seems in a hurry to confess. Yet even her name means "Patience"! "It's the opposite of what I am in real life," she smiles, for she finds such contradictions amusing. Her surname, however, fully justifies her being a singer: Onukwulu, the word the Inuits have for "soft voice". The Inuits are Canadian Eskimos, one of the most important nations in Canada, where she grew up. The word also means "story-teller" in the Ibo language, that of her father, who originally came from Nigeria. He was a drummer playing jazz and other afro-beat rhythms. Ndidi hardly knew him. She lived for a time with her mother, who came from Germany and was a fan of the great voices heard in the other part of North America: as a baby, Ndidi's bottle was filled with the sounds of Leadbelly and Chuck Berry, Tina Turner and Donna Summer, not to mention Bessie Smith or Billie Holiday; the latter's voice, in particular, comes naturally to mind when you hear the slight roughness in the grain of Ndidi's song...
As a girl, Ndidi's mixed origins quickly showed a natural gift for dark songs, like Goodbye My Friend, the one she sang at a vocal competition when she was young. It was a period when she also took up the trumpet – playing for six years – before she picked up a pen to put her ideas into words. "I was into books, and theatre, and stories in films. The words caught me more than the notes." As an adolescent she loved the Encyclopaedia Britannica, poring over it letter by letter. As for music, she considered it more distractedly: mainly classical music, but also Michael Jackson's "Off The Wall", Led Zeppelin, and Black Sabbath… So Ndidi began with a pen, long before she picked up a microphone. "In college I sang one of my poems for some friends, and their jaws just dropped!" She remembers that moment well; she was studying theatre, social science and linguistics, and nothing was further from her mind than a career as a singer.
In 1998 she moved to New York "to face a big city all alone", and it was there that her remarkable voice stood out from the rest: at the "open-mike" nights in town, of which there were many, her timbre sent shock-waves rolling through the audience. "They said, 'interesting'! What does that mean? They said, 'Unique'." She began writing for rappers, and she constantly received calls from producers who wanted to get her involved in R&B. "What I wanted to do was tell my own story, not churn out stuff for morons." So in 2001 she went back over the border to Toronto and settled down, piqued but comforted in her destiny. She went through very rough times, sometimes leading a miserable existence; but she never showed bitterness, and the experience strengthened her character. She could feel that strength in the subterranean passages that lead to fame, working on different projects while finding her way: an electro project with a minimalist (classical) pianist in which she declined "songs about the human condition with very light music"; an indie/hip-hop/electro collective named Stop, Die, Resuscitate – she made one record, a hit with the critics; and she worked as a duo with the guitarist Slim, from Madagascar, "my first mentor in music", revisiting blues classics in the styles of John Lee Hooker or Robert Johnson, all the while refining her own song-writing...
Ndidi muddied the trail. Indefinable. It was an expression that couldn't be reduced to a style, and so she polished her own, singing her troubles with melodies of her own composing. The result was No I Never, her self-produced album of 2006, which she made with her friend Sam Goldberg. It marked the beginning of recognition for Ndidi, who'd now started to play the guitar. Two years later she wrote the lyrics and music for her second collection The Contradictor, a title that describes a part of her which, at the time, was a woman capable of changing her mind at the drop of a hat. Capable of everything and its opposite, she enhanced this natural ambiguity by tackling every register in her own, unique manner. From the most intimate confessions to the most universal inflexions, from blues to cabaret, folk, rock, soul and jazz, her songs exorcised the fears of her rough handling in childhood, and in them this woman born in British Columbia pursued the ghosts inhabiting her dreams. It was an album that would take her across the Atlantic, with a few more titles added and a new title, Move Together, when it was released in Europe in 2009. It had something of Shirley Bassey between its lines, and it marked the beginning of a second existence for the woman born among grizzly bears.
Now, two years later, she's back with a third album in which she tells her story through the eyes of others, a harsh life from which she's hardly escaped unscathed. Ndidi has had a rough time; she's travelled widely before finding herself as she is now, sitting in a cafe in her newly-adopted city of Paris. "It's like being reborn. I can finally put my suitcase away." She's in the process of putting down markers in order to dig herself in for good. "Three decades of moving every which way... it was time I found myself. This is the first time I'm really me. This record corresponds more to who I am onstage; more rock than folk; it's my personal story." This is how the title The Escape should be taken, like a projection into the future instead of a reaction to the past. There's no longer any question of fleeing. "Escaping has no end to it. You have to understand it as something positive, like a beginning, not an end. I'm leaving my past behind me, along with all the other bad sides of my personality, the hardness of reality, to touch something that is more real." This new album is like the transition between two lives, two cities, because it was written between Vancouver and Paris. Or, to be precise, between Britannica Beach, the little town an hour away from Vancouver where her house faced the ocean, and Normandy, where she spent many long, peaceful hours facing the sea. "I need a retreat so that I can write. On the other hand, I can compose with noise all around me, even if most of the melodies and the structures of the songs fill my head when I have complete silence. Then I pick up my guitar, or play the piano, until I can make them exist outside my head." On this new album she even plays guitar and piano but, most of all, she's written most of the arrangements and material, both music and lyrics. "When I was writing this, I was thinking of the progression in the sound, in the stories that come one after the other, answering each other. All these songs were born when I was moving somewhere: in a train, in between planes, in a car, back in a train... And they all speak of change, movement."
"My head screams all the time, and my heart provides a reply. But the soul and instinct remain silent. Yet it's those things which guide us along the right path. To get there, you have to know how to listen to them." From bits of conversations picked up here and there by chance, and ideas born of life's twists and turns, Ndidi has asserted and refined a narrative style anchored in everyday life, "my main source of inspiration. I observe how my inner world mingles with the world on the outside." She works like this: she'll scribble a first draft in her note-book, and then quickly sketch the melody on her guitar or a piano. Like a storyboard, this framework is her raw material; she puts it to one side, leaving it to mature before putting the finishing touch in her secret garden, facing the waves nourishing the melancholy that lies in the soul of this nomad spirit. "I let myself be carried in the direction the music takes me." There are shores to be found inside these tracks: shores with the light swing that irrigates The Whisper, a song that goes to the head, and shores with a groovier tempo like the next title, On The Metro; there are ballads in a more country/pop or rockabilly style, and also divine incantations worthy of the divas of the blues, sung in a voice pitched up high or plunging deep into the lower register, often dark but never sad... Anything but a pitfall, this apparent eclecticism finds its unity in the coherency of her vocal vibrations, in the sound, "something special, simple and honest at the same time, but sophisticated enough for you to feel the permanent movement, the variety in the atmospheres."
Recorded in six days at Black Box – "a studio near Angers where we could all live and vibrate together"– during sessions that produced seventeen songs in total, twelve of which are featured here, this album benefits from the presence of Craig Street in the cabin. "He was very enthusiastic about the project right from the beginning. He listened to my ideas and helped me explore all my abilities." Street has benefited other voices (Cassandra Wilson, Norah Jones...), and together, he and Ndidi brought together a team equal to the situation, all of them with references that speak for themselves: the foundation is provided by bassist/guitarist Chris Bruce ( HYPERLINK "http://www.artistdirect.com/artist/jeff-beck/402392" Jeff Beck, HYPERLINK "http://www.artistdirect.com/artist/robbie-williams/571827" Robbie Williams , HYPERLINK "http://www.artistdirect.com/artist/meshell-ndegeocello/466776" Me'Shell Ndegéocello Aimee Mann, Lizz Wright, Bob Dylan, Seal…) , guitarist Kevin Breit ((Norah Jones, k.d. lang, Cassandra Wilson, Molly Johnson, Lou Reed, Ani DeFranco…), and drummer/percussionist Earl Harvin (Air, Jeff Beck, Robbie Williams ,Seal, Tindersticks..). They all have at least two things in common: the ability to transcend quarrels between musical cliques, and a particular gift for tackling a variety of registers by bringing in a specific identity. Together they all worked towards this sound; it is unique, and yet it contains all kinds of music, underlined by the mixer Joe Barresi, known for his work with the Melvins or Queens of the Stone Age… You can hear this quality all the way through to the final mastering entrusted to Creg Calbi, a goldsmith in sound whose work is known to everyone with taste. This finely-polished setting gives the songs their permanent, timeless feel, one from which it will now be difficult to escape.


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