Ahead of her debut album, the singer tells us how music from the far corners of the Earth inspires her sense of purpose in life
Nabihah Iqbal: ‘I’ve discovered so much cool music from speaking to taxi drivers around the world’
When the reviews start coming in for Nabihah Iqbal’s shimmering debut album of hazy, guitar-inflected synth-pop, there will be plenty of critics – and fans – trying to count the reference points. They might mention New Order, Pet Shop Boys or, on excellent current single Something More, any number of hip shoegazing acts. Not many, however, are likely to connect Weighing of the Heart with indigenous trance music from the Balochistan region of south-western Pakistan – least of all the people who make this transcendent music themselves.
But as Iqbal put together this first record under her own name, the track she found for her show on the online radio station NTS (Sowt ‘Leiko Kamam Bian Tara Lod Biaran’ by R & R Zangeshahi) – a fascinating bi-weekly adventure into the musical traditions of different countries – gave this intriguing British-Pakistani real direction.
“I played about 15 minutes of that track on the show, but there’s over an hour of it,” she explains. “And honestly, even if you’re just listening at home on your laptop it really does make you feel like you’re being transported into another realm. It’s so strange, given you’re so far removed from the context of it. But it still has this quite profound effect.
“So that definitely influenced me in the process of making this album. Not necessarily about how I wanted it to sound at that point, but how I wanted people to feel from listening to it, to provoke some sort of emotional response from the listener.”
Weighing of the Heart certainly achieves that aim. It’s an impressively atmospheric album – taking on ideas about the happinesses and frustrations inherent in everyday life – and a coherent body of music to relax into in one sitting.
Influenced more by the guitar music from the 1980s and 1990s she listened to as a teenager than the experimental dance music Iqbal made under the moniker Throwing Shade, it’s also the product of a thoughtful, intelligent and inquisitive mind constantly questioning and celebrating the function of music. And you’d expect nothing less given her degree was in ethnomusicology. She also boasts an MPhil (Master of philosophy), predominantly in African history, from Cambridge and has worked in human rights law.
The change to recording under her own name is just as interesting. Without being at all self-important – “I’m no Adele,” she laughs – Iqbal feels she is “trailblazing” as a female British-Asian artist. “People are already looking up to me, getting in touch with me, simply because there are still not enough ‘brown people’ in popular media and there are no real female role models,” she says. “So recording under my own name was a chance for me to be transparent about all that.”
So though there are few overt clues on the record as to her heritage, cultural or otherwise – and nor indeed, should there have to be – it still tickles Iqbal that people take a look at her and are surprised at how the music she makes confounds their expectations.
“Even one of the engineers for the album told me it sounded like I had the same tastes as a 50 year-old English man. But it’s 100 per cent me. You can’t generalise people because of how they look. You want to be able to say ‘I’m a British-Asian Pakistani female,’ and still make this kind of music. I was born and bred in Central London so that encompasses this record.”
Even so, she still is more than aware that her parents’ generation are somewhat baffled that with her CV, she isn’t a doctor, lawyer or a banker.
“I can understand that though,” she admits. “My dad came to London as an immigrant with absolutely nothing. He’s only recently started talking about it, how he studied part-time so he could work to pay the rent. Now he’s a successful businessman, and we’ve had such a good upbringing. I’m so grateful for that.
“But what I’m doing, you can’t really measure in direct monetary terms. I’m not on a monthly salary. I think he finds that difficult to grasp, even though they were happy to give us loads of different opportunities in music and sport.
“At the same time, though, when I’ve given lectures at schools and universities, I’ve always advised that students complete their studies, even if they love music and want to make something of it. That comes first, I really believe that – nobody can take education away from you and it gives you so much confidence.”
Which is, in the end, Iqbal’s story. She went to SOAS University Of London (formerly the School of Oriental and African Studies) to study history, and in her first week saw a performance by a musician playing the kora. Captivated, she tracked down the head of the music department and pleaded with him to let her change her course. Little did she know then that 10 years later, that small encounter would lead her to her radio show, DJ’ing and the record deal. “It’s crazy where life takes you,” she says, laughing.
The ethnomusicology department at SOAS still informs her NTS show, thanks to its huge archive of interesting, rare field music from Asia, Africa and the Near and Middle East. This is not music you can find on YouTube or Spotify. But she also has another, less obvious source. “I’ve discovered so much cool music from speaking to taxi drivers around the world,” she laughs. “If you think about it these people in South Korea, Japan, China, America – wherever – are listening to the radio constantly. You have time to pick their brains, and they’re always excited that someone wants to know about their local music.”
What’s so refreshing about Iqbal is that none of this is about showing off her impeccable taste. For her, finding these tracks is about sharing sounds and meanings with an audience that has steadily grown over the past four years.
Maybe, too, someone will happen to come across her impressive album and celebrate the fact that it’s been made by a British-Asian woman keen to break down barriers.
Weighing Of The Heart (Ninja Tune) is out on December 1. The single Something More is out now. Nabihah Iqbal has two DJ dates in London and Bristol this November. For more information, see ninjatune.net/artist/nabihah-iqbal