Singer-songwriter Marie Naffah: ‘I like finding the magic in the mundane’

Marie Naffah: ‘I like finding magic in the mundane' (Parri Thomas)
Marie Naffah: ‘I like finding magic in the mundane' (Parri Thomas)

Ennui is the currency of many a great songwriter. Bob Dylan wanted to “bid farewell in the night and be gone”. Iggy Pop was sick “of all the stiffs” and “all the dips”. Harry Nilsson was preoccupied by visions of “sailing on a summer breeze and skipping over the ocean like a stone”. Tracy Chapman dreamt of fast cars and “getting out of here”. West London artist Marie Naffah encapsulates that same, intrinsic need to escape the suffocating city and explore the unknown.

She was 14 when she wrote her first song, about an imagined heartbreak (she hadn’t experienced the real thing). Before that, it was poetry: “It was only when I started writing that I found a means of self-expression,” Naffah says, sitting in a sun-soaked pub garden in Folkestone, Kent. Now 29, she’s mastered the kind of evocative lyrical style that puts you in her shoes then tells you to run with them.

“Life can be bigger than this,” she urges on “I Want More”, the opener of her latest EP, Trains. Percussion kicks in, counting down the seconds as a guitar line pushes insistently, like the tide against the shore. On “Run Away With Me”, she frets over the days “we waste inside on a grey cloud nine”, suggesting instead: “We could be care-free or we do the Bonnie and Clyde thing.”

Storytelling is the backbone of Naffah’s music. On last year’s single, “The Cage”, she wove surrealist imagery into a classic tale of restlessness: “It’s dark and it’s dear/ And we'll live with the fear in our face/ In a cell of wanderlovers/ Trapped beneath the covers of haste.” The song darts along an east Asian-influenced guitar melody, jaunty bass line and breezy percussion. For the hazy “California”, Naffah sings in her low-humming purr, redolent of Carly Simon or Carole King, along with contemporaries such as Sharon Van Etten and Marika Hackman.

“There was a respectful homage to music in my house,” she recalls. “Artists like Jackie Wilson, Tracy Chapman, Bob Dylan… My dad liked to put a record on, sit back, and just listen to it the whole way through.” They watched music biopics together, too: “I became very interested in the kind of artists who could tell stories, the ones who could just stand on stage and win over a crowd.”

Naffah studied art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art, around the same time beginning to play live shows in London. “I started falling in love with love, drank a lot of cheap wine,” she grins. As countless wandering musicians had before her – from Dylan and Jimi Hendrix to Davey Graham – she took up residency at The Troubadour: “I met a lot of musicians and built my confidence among this amazing community of like-minded people.” While in her second year of university, she won MTV’s Unsigned Artist of the Year award, which sparked a wave of interest from major labels. But even they couldn’t pin her down. “When I look back on it, I just didn’t really know what I stood for,” Naffah says. “[The labels] were so image-focused, they were like, ‘You can wear a skirt and these heels and straighten your hair…’ And I remember thinking, ‘None of this feels right.’” She didn’t sign with any of them, choosing instead to complete her degree while writing and recording new music.

Finding the right producer was an opportunity to put her peripatetic tendencies to good use. Naffah journeyed to New York in 2018, before jumping on the 10-hour Greyhound to Indianapolis. She’d heard about the perfect studio for anyone hoping to get their message out into the world. “It was a converted post office,” she says with a laugh, recalling how the owners brought out “these incredible session players”. There, Naffah recorded early releases including “Let Me Wilt”, a beautifully wrought blues number of woozy Hammond organs and a lurching, Chrissie Hynde-meets-Joe Cocker-style delivery. Since then, Naffah has sought to fuse an Americana-blues sound with something altogether more contemporary, more London – something she succeeds with on Trains.

Working with producer Ian Barter, known for his work on albums such as Amy Winehouse’s debut Frank, Naffah found herself treading a line between hopeful and melancholic songwriting. “I want to make listeners feel as though they’re understood, and seen,” she says. “Everyone has bad days – but let’s not revel in total sadness all the time.” On “Good Luck (Mrs Tambourine Ma’am)”, she contrasts the visceral reality of wildfires caused by the climate crisis against the fickleness of the music industry, and something as seemingly insignificant as the return of the VHS tape. “There’s a level of individual empowerment I think is important in my work,” she says. “I like finding the magic in the mundane.”

The ‘Trains’ EP is out now