Making some noise for the Noisettes
The two-piece band are back with an album full of catchy feel-good songs. They talk to Elisa Bray
It's a scorching day and Shingai Shoniwa, striking singer and bassist of pop band Noisettes, disappears into her Chelsea flat to freshen up. Named "Paramount Studio" by 30-year-old Shoniwa, it's an artistic, colourful treasure trove filled with photographs, random objects and costumes – just as you'd hope from an imaginative artist whose high energy performances are known for outfits as outlandish as Grace Jones. She emerges, elegant in a backless peach silk jumpsuit, before showing off the heart-shaped costume she wore for their pre-Olympics show.
The Noisettes have been hailed the "best live band in Britain", and costumes are as integral to the shows as the songs. "There's always something you're sketching on the tour bus", Shoniwa says. "I don't think there are enough gigs to facilitate the stuff in our imagination." The other half of Noisettes, joint songwriter and friend of 15 years, Dan Smith, nods enthusiastically.
He is a painter as well as multi-instrumentalist, and the pair have free rein over each other's ideas-filled notebooks. "We have free rein over each other's handbags", jokes Smith. "That's why our collaboration has been so good", Shoniwa adds. "There are so many things you've written and dismissed and as soon as I've heard it I've said 'that's got to stay'".
The duo had a Top 10 hit with their 2009 album Wild Young Hearts, and a No 2 single in "Don't Upset the Rhythm (Go Baby Go)". Their new, third, album Contact is brimming with radio-friendly songs, and is as colourfully eclectic as their costumes, bouncing from its orchestra-backed opener to the pure 1960s girl-group pop of "That Girl" and the mandolin-accompanied country ballad "Ragtop Car". "I can't imagine that the album wouldn't be like that", says Shoniwa. "This is the third one that we will have released in five years; the more we learn the more hungry we are and you can hear it in the songs."
The album is filled with instant feel-good songs. The spectrum of emotions from melancholy ("Travelling Light") to jovial and the overriding carpe diem lyrics, could be put down to the diagnosis of Shoniwa's mother with breast cancer and her recovery, all of which happened during the making of the album.
After her father died when she was 11, Shoniwa's mother brought her up. Not that Shoniwa was aware of the songwriting process being a cathartic outlet of emotions at the time. "I am such a sociable person, the reality is I spend one day every two or three months on my own, and it's not until that day that I can have a good cry", she says. "I think there were certain lyrics I was writing when I didn't know that part of the usual process was helping me deal with shock and grief. Now I can look at a few songs and say 'yeah, "Travelling Light" is about forgiveness'. It was probably my subconscious just trying to nurse me because it knows I'm not going to get time to deal with those things until a lot later on."
The single "Winner" conveniently coincides with the Olympics, and for Smith it represents forging an identity of one's own, a life-changing moment he experienced when he moved to Brighton and turned 30. "I started buying old radios and threw the TV out. That was my 'Winner' moment."
They met at the BRIT School in Croydon, when Shoniwa was a 15-year-old drama student (and contemporary of Adele) and Smith was a 19-year-old music student, and share equal roles in the band – not that you'd know from Shoniwa's dominance in today's conversation. Their musical connection stems from their first meeting. "I remember really vividly – and it's always been this way for the last 15 years", recalls Smith. "I'd borrowed a guitar and I sat in the foyer playing and Shingai sat next to me. After a while she just started singing. and we were both improvising and it was intuitive. I know what she's thinking and she knows what I'm thinking."
It helped that both come from creative, musical families. Smith's parents are artists, and his harmonica-playing father started a blues band aged 40, jamming with his old school mate Jimmy Page, the catalyst for his 14-year-old son to turn to music. "That was the point where I said 'wow, if it's that easy to get to jam with Jimmy Page, I want to be a musician.' I decided there and then: forget university."
Shoniwa recounts the many musical members of her family: her uncle played trumpet with Hugh Masekela's band in the 1980s. For her, music was a way of life. "I was always waking up at festivals backstage with all the other kids of the festival promoters. My earliest memories are nights at the Africa Centre. Someone would shove an instrument in my hands and say 'play!' It was so normal that I never considered this a dream career. I didn't take it seriously. And to be honest I still don't and I think that's why it still excites me."
Shoniwa's African roots have found their way in many a Noisettes song, and a highlight for the duo was performing at the Lake of Stars festival in Malawi in 2010. They will once again be a part of Damon Albarn's Africa Express tour this September. Collaborations are integral to the band's never-ending quest for musical exploration: Contact features Ne-Yo, while they've worked with artists as varied as Peaches, 1950s baritone Andre Williams, and Patti Smith. "The goal is to enjoy the journey and meet as many amazing people and entertain as many people as possible along the way," says Shoniwa. "Anything else is a bonus."
The Noisettes' new single, "That Girl", is out Monday; the album 'Contact' follows on 27 August
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