NoMBe discusses the history and stories, songs and sounds that comprise his debut album They Might’ve Even Loved Me.
If there’s one under-the-radar record you absolutely must listen to this year, it is NoMBe’s They Might’ve Even Loved Me (released March 23, 2018 via Th3rd Brain). Given a 10/10 here at Atwood Magazine, this unique debut album envelops listeners in a psychedelic soul rock fusion. Ambitious in both scope and scale, it’s a multicolored tapestry of influence and inspiration that establishes NoMBe at the highest bar possible, introducing us to an artist of incredible promise and unparalleled talent.
In commemorating this release, Atwood Magazine sat down with NoMBe to discuss the history and stories, songs and sounds that comprise his debut album. Dive deeper than anyone’s ever gone before in our exclusive feature interview with NoMBe!
They Might’ve Even Loved Me is out now on Th3rd Brain Records.
A CONVERSATION WITH NOMBE
Atwood Magazine: I know this album is a long time coming. Can we talk about where you were at the top of last year? It’s January 2017. Your last single, “Kemosabe” has been out just over a year, without its parent project ever quite coming to light. What’s going on in your mind?
NoMBe: At the top of last year, I was just excited about new music. I think those older songs were kind of isolated; I think they came from a really honest place, and they were a great introduction to my brand. But I always had a dream of making music that was a bit more upbeat and mature, in a sense, where I have such a great appreciation for everything from Led Zeppelin to The Beatles, and soul – proper soul music. I think that time that I was in before, I was very much influenced by the landscape, like James Blake. I feel like through this new project, I really began embracing the fact that I want to write soul music. I kind of evolved.
So at the top of the year, I already knew that my new music was a bit of a departure from that sound, but in a really good way: There was no doubt in my mind that what I was about to do, to me, was better and more authentic. I had a lot of the songs written already, and when I started working with TH3RD BRAIN, my new label, we were just…
We knew it was good, but we had no idea how it would react off the back of the other stuff – whether a lot of fans would drop off, or whether blogs would not talk about it because it’s a bit more rock-leaning, or has a bit more pop sensibility. But it was quite the opposite: I think people really felt a breathe of fresh air, and understood that there’s another dimension to my artistry. I’m not the kind of person that would give you an album with ten of the same records; I like variation with my music, and then from album to album, (I believe) there should be a kind of progression – and people got that! People got that right away, and I was really surprised. There was fear, but more like an anxious, exciting kind of thing.
For a long time, you were just releasing singles. When did the idea for this to become your debut album come about?
NoMBe: Right when I started working with my new management. I had an EP, which we teased for a while, and then I, kind of unexpectedly, decided to fire my management because it just wasn’t working out. I sent the EP to what is now my new management and a couple other people, and what I gathered was that, “California Girls” was the strongest song on that EP – it was all kind of beachy – but it wasn’t really giving people anything they hadn’t already gotten, if that makes sense. In the words of my manager, this EP may very well fizzle, and then it’s so much harder to get people’s attention back – you want to build. That caused me a lot of frustration, to be honest, because I still love the EP. It was more along the lines of Nick Hakim – more intimate, more soulful guitar licks, darker…
But I knew I was sitting on production: I already had “Bad Girls,” and a bunch of other stuff, so it wasn’t like it hit my ego in a kind of way; it was more just like, damn. I kind of sympathized with what they were saying, that this project could be stronger. So in all of that, I took two weeks to just write. I didn’t go outside, really – I was still hurt from how it went down with my management, and the new management possibly not wanting to work with me. So I just wrote a bunch, and in those two to three weeks, I wrote the songs “Wait,” “Freak Like Me,” “Young Hearts,” “Signs,” and I started a few others. I was making more and more, and I sent those demos to my management, and they went, “holy shit!” To them, it was like, they’d never heard this like, rock thing. I was hesitant at first to even play it for them, but my manager actually loved it! It started making sense in his head: You’re this guy from Europe, you’re mixed, you play guitar and you kind of bring back that Lenny Kravitz sophisticated rock sound that no one was really doing right now. They even got more excited, and I thought they would hate it! So that started a whole conversation about me signing to the label as well as management, and now that I knew I had their full support, I just went even further down that path. In that time, I was also writing for commercials – making rock stuff for Acura, that’s where “Can’t Catch Me” came from… Everything came together in this weird, organic way, and then at some point when I had the album, basically Jake looked up from playing on these demos, and said, “Do you realize that every song is about a woman?” I had never noticed that. There were songs about exes, hook-ups, my mom, and that’s when we started having that whole conversation – like, what if this is the angle? I am a very vocal person – I talk about equality in my circles. So everything was a little building block that we then took throughout the year, and fleshed it out. So in the beginning of 2016, I was writing all this stuff, and then we did all this prep, and in 2017 we decided to roll it out, one single a month. We had all these songs, and we had a story.
A lot of those songs you wrote in that two-week period are some of your most introspective songs. There’s a lot of depth in the likes of “Freak Like Me” and “Wait” – you’re very real with your emotions.
NoMBe: I think that’s also where I think the progression happens, where you naturally step into it more… I hate using the word “pop,” but it becomes a bit more accessible, right? Because you’re just saying things how they are. I find it really interesting, because in “Miss Mirage,” for instance – which I love; it’s one of the songs I’m most proud of – but it is so metaphorical throughout, that you almost need this code to decipher what it means. Bon Iver writes like that a lot; Gallant used to write like that more.
There’s a point where I just want to find poetry in saying things in a really direct way. That’s the cool stuff, to me; a lot of the artists I love, like Bill Withers or Frank Ocean… These artists manage, in some of their songs, to really bridge that gap – using really clever metaphors, but you also know exactly what they’re saying. That’s what I love about the style of songwriting from the ‘60s, like The Mamas and the Papas. I was just talking to my dad about this lyric from “California Dreamin’,” where it talks about this lyric:
Stopped into a church
I passed along the way
Well, I got down on my knees
And I pretend to pray
You know the preacher like the cold
He knows I’m gonna stay
I love that line because it’s so literal: You know what he’s talking about, you can see it, and how he’s stopped in the church, but at the same time there’s this huge commentary about church needing to feed off of people, being in misery. The church can only be full as long as there’s problems in the world. So the creature likes the company, so-to-speak, because it’s cold outside. That’s the kind of lyrics I want to write more; I’m not that interested in writing lyrics that no one can understand.
Speaking of words, I love your album’s title, They Might’ve Even Loved Me!
NoMBe: Yeah, what do you think what that means?
I think it could be you talking about these various women in your life, and their relationship to you; what’s clear is that you have a lot of love for all these different people, whether they were transients just passing through, or there for the long haul. I think you don’t write a song about someone who doesn’t mean anything to you. And I think it’s at least somewhat of a play on that, and looking at things from the other perspective: How much of what you’re putting into the song is reciprocated on the other side? But I suspect that’s too literal of an understanding.
NoMBe: That’s cool that you picked that up, I appreciate your point of view on it! It’s funny, because the actual phrase, “They might’ve even loved me,” was coined in a completely different context. I had an audition for acting, where I just had no real read on whether I did well or not. I was nervous, I was late, and I did my little bit… and the casting agents were encouraging and thankful, and told me they’d be in touch. I had been in enough auditions to know that a lot of times they’re fake, and they say that to everybody… but when they say it to everybody, how would you know when they’re being genuine?
So when I came home and walked in the door, my girlfriend immediately asked me how my audition went. I said, “You know, they might’ve even loved me,” with this uncertainty. Love is so strong – it’s a funny thing to say, and when I said it, I realized, that’s a weird phrase – let me write that down. I had that phrase among lyrics and other phrases for a long time, like two years. When talks about the album started, I already knew I wanted to call it that, because it does apply: When you look back on something and you couldn’t read a situation or person, who might’ve done something to lead you to believe, in the moment, that it wasn’t going to work out… And then you realize later that they actually really cared.
My parents split when I was two years old, and my mom wasn’t there for most of my childhood – she wasn’t physically present. But at the same time, there was tremendous love. She’s hard on herself for that now… That’s where They Might’ve Even Loved Me has that bigger context, where – like you said – I cared greatly about every person I’d shared a connection with, and a lot of times that didn’t end too well, either – which is something I talk about in songs.
So it’s a very personal diary, so to speak; I think the album is better described as a diary from the point of view of my relationships. It’s not so much a feminist album; I think those are two things to differentiate, as a lot of people this past year have hailed it as this feminist record, but it’s not a political album. No exactly. There is the song “Man Up,” which definitely has that message, but they’re stories. I’m a feminist, if you talk to me; but they’re stories from my life, and a lot of times I don’t come out as the cool guy. A lot of times, women broke my heart, so it’s all across the spectrum.
“Rocky Horror” is about your mother, whom you mentioned. Can we talk about that song? It’s one of the most unique songs on the record, as an acoustic ballad littered with metaphor. You drop your defenses on this song – you manage to be both metaphorical and vulnerable at the same time.
NoMBe: That’s my favorite song I ever did, to be honest. I don’t think I’ll ever write something better than that, because it hits a lot of places. It’s a narrative of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, on the surface. It tells the story of people being stranded guests at someone’s house, and they’re not allowed to leave.
While I was writing that, I was very conscious of the fact that I wanted this format to also fit my mother’s life, in a sense. She was incredibly gifted, a very intelligent, beautiful woman who was missing a lot of chances and dealt with a lot of hardship in her life. Towards the end of my teens, she also went to jail for awhile in Miami. Her stories from her time locked up went into the song, because it’s this thing, where I think a lot of times we’re punished. The way our prison system is, it’s like you’re a guest; you’re served meals three times a day, and you can do this and that, but you can’t leave. It’s a horror scenario, but it’s also a lot like the Rocky Horror Picture Show. So I think it speaks to the captivity we put on ourselves, on society, on literal captivity… there’s a lot of layers to it, where you can listen to the song in a completely different context and it still works. I think that’s something where, as writers, we only get every now and then.
That’s a homerun, if a song like that is also a commercial hit; that’s the most fulfilling thing, like Hozier’s “Take Me to Church,” which has incredible writing and visuals that tell a story, but it has this political context and is a number one alternative record. That’s so cool – but yeah, “Rocky Horror” is for my mom. She loves the song, and at the end of the day, that’s all that matters.
Let’s talk about your album’s track list: What’s special about its flow?
NoMBe: We picked the song “Man Up” to kick it off because of the message. It’s a huge part that I want people to take away from the record, especially in current times. The rest of the album pretty much flows sonically, more than anything in terms of meaning or story; it’s not chronological, or anything like that. Because it’s such a Frankenstein album – because it takes influence from everywhere, and is a bunch of singles – I wanted it to flow sonically. There was no other way for me to make it make sense. I knew I wanted either “Wait,” “Man Up,” or a poem to come first, and I knew that the song “Sex on Drugs” had to be last.
I also knew “Freak Like Me” shouldn’t be in the top five; I have no idea why – I just knew that a lot of bands I liked put their hit seventh, or something. But there is a trend of putting the hit second, so I decided to bridge that by putting “Wait” second – another fan favorite – and putting “Freak Like Me” seventh, because of the vinyl: The way vinyl is cut, you can only put around six songs on a side. So every seventh song is the first song on a new side of vinyl. I like the idea of “Freak Like Me” being the first song on the second side of the vinyl.
From that standpoint, I did that again with the poem for “Sex,” which is the thirteenth song and the first song on the second disc or “C” side. I think you can even listen to the album in groups of six, and within each group, I made sure that sonically, it just flows well.
The first half starts off with “Man Up” and “Wait,” and it’s up-beat, and then takes you to a more intimate place that ends with “Young Hearts,” and it’s a beautiful piece together. Then it hits you with “Freak Like Me,” and then all of the rock songs come. “Signs,” “Can’t Catch Me,” “Jump Right In” – those are all on the B side. Then “Sex on Drugs” had to be last because of the outro and everything; I have a really beautiful solo thing going on, and then there’s birds chirping which I thought was really cool. It’s something D’Angelo did on Voodoo – there’s this song called “Africa,” and if you listen all the way to the end, there’s elephants and lions roaring, crazy bird stuff going on… So I wanted it to be my end, and it felt like a great ending.
We can talk all day about your music and this album as a whole, but I’d love to dive into the highlights and talk about some of my favorite tracks. “Young Hearts” is such a heavy, heartfelt ballad.
NoMBe: That one’s interesting; it’s one of my favorites, and a lot of fans and artists comment on that. Most musician friends call that one their favorite, for some reason. It’s an interesting song from how it was conceived: The progression was going to be the bridge in a song that might actually be on my third album – which is more like a John Mayer-y song. When I wrote the bridge, I found the chords so interesting and got distracted, eventually writing a whole new song which became “Young Hearts.” It’s so reminiscent – the chords are the same as Pachelbel’s Canon in D, or the traditional wedding march… and maybe that’s why subconsciously, I wrote a love song. I didn’t realize it consciously until my buddy pointed it out. That’s probably a subconscious thing, and it’s the most straight-forward love song on the album, I think – about a relationship, and dedicated to a loved one.
“Signs” really gets to me. You don’t hear a lot of those high harmonies these days, and it strikes me as one of the standout points on the album!
NoMBe: Really? That’s awesome! That’s one of my favorites, and it kind of went under the radar; I thought that would be the most successful song, and thought it was way stronger than any other song on the album. It kind of has this Billy Joel vibe about it. That one’s really interesting – I had the intro riff for a long time, and I would play it and think it was a cool Alabama Shakes thing, but I didn’t think that was me. One day, I just decided to start producing it.
That happens a lot with my songs, actually; I’ll be working on something and get frustrated, and I’ll just start playing guitar, and some riff that I’ve come up with recently.
The third side has this sobering quality to it, that starts with this powerful poem – which feels like a throwback to your previous writing style, too.
NoMBe: It’s funny how you pick up on these things – I wrote “Sex” the same month I wrote “Miss Mirage.” I wrote the poem later, but I wrote the song, the drop, everything around that time. They’re from that same era, for sure.
The poem “A Million Miles from Crescent Skies” is very sobering.
NoMBe: It’s an exaggeration, an homage to sex when you’re in love, which is its ultimate form. I think we can all agree that when you’re really in love with someone and you make love for the first time, it’s like this other experience. It’s not the same as some one-night stand, or whatever. It’s me being kind of silly, and also exaggerating to say, “This is it: This experience is so incredible, that I’m fine with dying. This is the greatest thing, being with this person.”
If this is it I’m fine with dying
Say goodbye to everything that I am
It’s just trying to put the icing on top, because this is more than just sex: This is us flying through the night air, this supernatural experience. While I wrote that, I thought a lot of angels – like, if angels had sex while they were flying. I thought of that – and after they’re done, they’re so exhausted that they just fall to the ground. That’s the whole idea.
Surprised I got this high tonight
The first verse of “Sex” the song is a continuation of the poem, right? The rhyme scheme,
Surprised I got this high tonight,
But I’m fine to drive to a time you like…
Baby from 9 to 5 AM our stars align
When I wrote the verses, I wrote so much verse. I couldn’t settle on whether the poem should be the verses or not, so I made half of that the poem. That’s why the rhyme scheme of the poem fits into the song. But as I talk about,
And as we fall back down to our demise
To a pillow case and a mighty sigh
That’s what that means – the idea that after we have sex, we just fall back down; and the way you fall into your pillow. So it’s this grandiose thing that’s supposed to paint a visual image that’s larger than life.
Meanwhile, “Sex on Drugs” feels very bittersweet to me.
NoMBe: “Sex on Drugs” is also not a song about sex! I think the title is a little bit misleading; it really continues off “Young Hearts,” which also has a melancholy to it, I think. “Sex on Drugs” is something I started as this kind of Jason Mraz-y, kind of island-y guitar thing. I had this line in my head: “I wrote a pretty, pretty song, about a pretty, pretty girl last night,” and it just came from there. I’m very proud of it, lyrically; I think if I change it, it could be a pop song – a commercial single – but then the song went into this left place, and I decided to leave it at that.
What songs were the fastest for you to write?
NoMBe: I wrote “Man Up” in about two hours, and it was the same thing with “Do Whatchu Want to Me.” Once I knew what the song was about, I just listened and wrote, and it was done. “Rocky Horror” took me a few hours to write, but that was in one night, for sure.
Honestly, I only write fast if I’m really inspired and I know what the song is about; I’m also known to take forever with lyrics, or take forever to find a concept. I had the production for “Man Up” completely finished and mixed for about two years, but it had a different song on it that I didn’t like. One day I listened to it, lyrics popped into my head – this world was never meant for us – and I just stabbed that out. It hit me, and I thought, maybe this a political song about men and females, and empowerment. The verses wrote themselves. Women and children first; this is a sinking ship – the whole idea of a sinking ship was interesting to me. So I was able to write that super quick, once I knew what it was about.
I wonder who’s to blame
For the world of the present
Ten bucks say it’s a man
Far from love and affection
This world was never meant for us
Nah-nah-nah, it’s for the
Girls and children first and then men
Boys, man up
Nah-nah-nah, it’s for the
Girls and children first and then men, last
I love how you take me through your approach; it’s really interesting!
NoMBe: It’s funny, I don’t know; I think all writing is like that. My mom writes literature, and she talks about it a lot: Only because you wrote a best-seller, doesn’t mean you’re going to write one again. It’s this chase, over and over. That’s the funny thing about creativity, which I think professional creatives realize, is that you’re not really in control of what idea you have. You only have control over making yourself available to have them more often.
What song do you think took you the longest to perfect?
NoMBe: I think I went back to “Milk & Coffee” a lot – it was an ordeal, actually; a whole journey. That’s funny, because now it seems like it all just makes sense, but I remember struggling with that for a long time. I had the hook, and I had a few lyrics, but I could not for the life of me figure out the verses! It can sometimes be a curse, if you have a good hook, just because you want to finish it. But writing mediocre verses doesn’t feel right, and I went back to the verses again and again, and I had three different versions of the verse production. I had one version where the verses are funky, like a live band thing. I had a version that was really bouncy electronic, almost hip-hop. If you took them by themselves, they sounded really awesome, but then the rock hook felt disjointed. I wanted this to be a radio smash – I felt I had something special and didn’t want to sabotage it with formulaic verses. If I played this with a live band, instinctively, what would the band play coming out of that hook? I kind of had to, as Robin Hannibal says, “kill my darlings.” If you listen to the verse now, I might even question myself, but… sometimes, you’ve just got to serve the song. Once I did that, the verses came a lot easier to me, to write about the girl who wants to wait and take it slowly.
That song is also interesting, because the point-of-view changes. The verses have me singing, and then the pre-chorus and chorus are the girl.
Don’t wait for promises my love
They can’t be measured up in gold
You weigh your heart so heavy
That’s why you fumble when you walk
Then it switches, and the girl says,
If you want me today’s your day ’cause
I’ll make it worth your while
You seem special but have some patience
There’s just one thing I need to know
Will you still love me in the morning?
The scene you have to imagine is you meeting an incredible girl, having a great time, and ending back at her place. She stops at the door and is like, “Just so you know, I’m not a one time kind of girl.” It’s that inner conscience you have as a guy, to say whatever she wants to hear to get into bed with her, but obviously there’s more to it: You want to give this a chance. It’s kind of a back and forth, which I purposefully haven’t told many people, because I also think it’s interesting that people think I’m saying, “Will you still love me in the morning?” making me more vulnerable than in the traditional setting.
I think you’re one in a slim minority of artists I’ve spoken to, who thinks as deeply as you do about your own music.
NoMBe: I definitely put a lot of thought into it. I just think it’s all poetry, you know? Even if it’s a pop song, I think it needs to be clever; I like music that is clever. That being said, I used to be such a snob hating on pop music, but I’ve realized what it is: I just like when there’s thought in something. If something’s there just for the hell of it and it goes all over the place, I find it hard to enjoy – if I can’t tell that the person actually put thought into it. That’s really what it is.
Winding down, I want to talk about your sound. It’s so distinct, and we’ve discussed differences in the music, but you’ve got this “sound.” I’ve described it as this strain of psychedelic rock, a watery guitar-driven vibe thing. How much thought do you put into it?
NoMBe: I’m not sure; it’s definitely very organic. I’m a producer first. I work on hip-hop beats, I have Korean trap beats, songs where I’ve replaced Martin Garrix songs, big room house things. If you listened to them, you’d never think that it’s me. I pride myself on being able to do anything: If I want to make a Brazilian bossa nova record, I could, but.. With my sound, what comes from the heart is this nostalgic feeling where the chords are really important. That’s kind of what you see on “Young Hearts,” where I think that embodies what I feel and how I want my music to feel. Within the process of finding something like that, that’s special to me, that’s when I go into the toolbox and think, okay what would this person do? What would something sound like if Flume did this?
The process is kind of like the Wild West: You might have a song on piano, and then you decide it’s better on guitar, but when you’re producing it you might go off a sample. I’m very logical about how I navigate, but it’s very organic how I conceptualize things, and what I love and end up pursuing. It’s both halves of my brain working together, I guess… does that answer your question?
It does! It’s cool; I get it. The artist NoMBe is something you’ve created, but at the same time, you can’t help but create NoMBe music.
NoMBe: Totally, that’s what it is! I think that’s the cool thing, when you find your niche and your audience really likes what you do, as opposed to chasing a sound. The cool thing is that it’s really not hard for me to do NoMBe things. Like, it may be hard for someone else to try to write like me, the way I would have a really difficult time being Frank Ocean. But to Frank, he’s just doing what comes to his mind, and matches his style. Or Tame Impala – it almost feels like Kevin Parker is this creative genius, because he just writes one smash that fits the Tame Impala brand, but that’s what comes naturally to him. When you fall in love with someone, you really fall in love with it.
We talked about how you went for an album that encompasses a lot. You took everything, but you made it your own: It’s NoMBe’s rock. It’s NoMBe’s soul. Congratulations on the debut!
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? © Jack McKain