Interview : Nia Wyn
'A hip hop soul in a blues body.'
I first came across Nia Wyn on the bill for Ymuno 2016, where she stood out with her timeless authenticity, edge and the presence of more than just a little protest and anger in her music.
Now London based, Nia is 23 years old, comes from Llandudno, and looks every inch a diminutive framed North Walian - it is a complete shock when you first hear her powerful and emotive singing voice.
A fascinating musical heritage sits behind her work. Her most outstanding song is I Can't Breathe - which is an outraged urban folk blues - and when I caught up with her recently how she came to this musical form was the first question I had to ask.
Her specific blues interest dates back to just before she left Llandudno for University in 2011 - and stems from the Bala based guitarist in her backing band at the time suggesting she listen to the blues harmonica player Little Walter:
"..it opened me up to the blues, before then I had a lot of country influence .. and folk ... I started out listening to Bob Dylan as a teenager and a lot of other 60s music and then looked backwards to see what had been the influences behind what I was hearing - eventually finding quite a mixture - but a lot of female blues singers - especially Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Sister Rosetta Tharpe - and then male blues artists too such as Lead Belly. At the moment I am listening to a lot of hip hop, and exploring its history with the blues"
It is a journey she made very much on her own at first:
"My dad was always very much into Northern Soul, his fascination with an underground music scene was a very definite influence on my willingness to explore."
The unexpected breadth of her hinterland, and being willingly carried by enthusiasm to wherever she finds inspiration, is demonstrated in her first rate version of Will the Circle be Unbroken - originally learnt by listening to Jonny Cash and June Carter sing it.
With this readiness to explore the past she also has a very modern passion and anger in her work:
"I like to story tell with my songwriting about things that matter - for example I wrote I Can't Breathe because when I first moved to London the riots had just taken place and I heard a lot about what was going on, much of it raw through social media. I wanted to pull this together into a song and it developed from there."
She does not avoid politics either:
"I just don't see music and politics as separate. I want to bring protest and political material back to the mainstream - there's a lot of people doing this stuff .. but they do not get a platform ... outside certain events."
Which brings us to her imminent appearance at Ymuno, the location of which which may have induced ambivalence before now - the raw emotion you can hear expressed in her songs does unfortunately in part reflect from her past - she puts it simply: "Growing up in North Wales was very hard for me".
But wounds heal and the positive memories she has of first starting out on the Bangor music scene, and the enthusiasm she met there, are important to her. She is pleased with how many people from that time have got in touch since the Ymuno date was announced. Today she is very excited about coming back to perform.
For the rest of 2016 she is planning to continue a very regular live schedule and to work with other artists to develop her own writing; she has a collaboration with the rapper St Jude - a song about the refugee crisis in Calais - out next month, and has her own EP in the pipeline towards the end of the year. All very much worth looking forward to, but at the end of our conversation we came back to passion and politics in music, and how it is rarer now than at any time in the last four decades, she baldly (and quite correctly) states:
"Anger can be very productive .... in music, especially if responding to violent situations - it's right to be angry about that - it can be very constructive."
Anger is an energy - talking to her you feel that music is absolutely essential to her life, part of her essence - she is full of character and ideas, and as open hearted in conversation as in her music; Nia Wyn has something about her that is heartfelt, remarkable and honest, and that comes through clearly in her songs.
NIA WYN I I Can't Breathe