“African Girl” Naomi Wachira Tells All About Living Her Musical Truth

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Photo by Bryan Tucker
       

As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 16 – Summer 2021 – Acoustic Amplified!

Kenyan American singer-songwriter Naomi Wachira is a deeply soulful, talented woman with a love for creating a welcoming space for her listeners to feel connected and identified.

Wachira has performed alongside colossal talents such as Ziggy Marley, Damien Jurado, Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie), Dave Matthews, Shemekia Copeland, Clinton Fearon, Valerie June, and many others.

Wachira released her poignant and powerful EP African Girl in 2012, stunning self-titled album Naomi Wachira in 2014, and her most recent album, Song of Lament, in 2017.

Wachira was named Best Folk Singer by the highly esteemed Seattle Weekly in 2013 and received the African Achievement Awards for Best African Female Artist Pop/Fusion in 2020.

We last chatted with you back in 2017 after the release of your album Song of Lament. You released a single “What If?” in early 2019, which is such a beautiful song—and the cello arrangements add so much to the emotion behind the music. Can you share with us the inspiration and songwriting process?

Thank you! The song was born out of helplessly watching as families were being torn apart at the border in 2019. The breaking point for me was the story of the father and daughter who’d drowned while crossing the border. As a mother, I was so distraught because I understand the hard choices you sometimes have to make in order to give your children a better life. It was so heartbreaking and honestly incomprehensible to watch families being criminalized because they wanted a better life. My intention was to create a song that would allow us to step outside of the politics of immigration and see these families as human beings searching for a more dignified, expansive, and liberating way of being. I kept thinking of the phrase “walk a mile in someone’s shoes.” and I wanted to explore what that actually looked like. And that’s how the song came to be. I wrote it in about 45 minutes, perhaps one of the fastest songs I’ve ever written. I remember my daughter coming into the kitchen in tears because she thought it was such a beautiful song, and that was by far the best compliment.

You released your single “African Girl” off your first EP titled African Girl in 2012. Here we are seven years later, and the song is still so relevant today. What would you like our readers to take away from this song?

There are two observations I have about this song. From a creative side, it is this testament that you can create a work and have it continue living and expanding years after it’s been created. To me, that’s what I hope to be as an artist; to create work that lives and breathes regardless of how long it’s been since it was created and even when I’m long gone. From a personal perspective, I think people are constantly coming to terms with the importance of owning all that you are if you want to fully embody the life you were created to live. It’s interesting because I feel like the song changes for me almost every year and certain lines have more meaning than others. Recently, I’ve come to understand the line “where I’m coming from” as the need to understand my trauma and all the childhood wounds I’ve been carrying and then working to heal them so that I can have better clarity for where I’m going.

When we recently connected, you mentioned that you have been in Africa since the pandemic hit. What was the reason for returning to Africa, and what have you been doing to stay creative, write music, and stay connected with your fans during this time?

My daughter and I came to Kenya in the fall of 2019. I had planned to take a four-month sabbatical so I could figure out what the next chapter of my career would look like. When we got home, we discovered that my mom needed an emergency hip replacement surgery. It felt like divine timing as I’d be able to take care of her during her recovery. This led up to around March 2020, right as the Coronavirus was starting to become a threat. At first, I thought it would be only a few months, but by October, I knew that we would be here for an indefinite time because the world felt so different, and I didn’t really feel the urgency to return to the U.S. I also felt a lot safer where we were. At the beginning of the pandemic, I felt the pressure to keep performing virtually, but something about it felt forced, so I decided to stop and became intentional about enjoying this rare gift of guilt-free free time. I gave myself permission to be without any purpose or plan. I ended up doing a lot of work on my mom’s house by repainting all of it, including the exterior. I also updated most of her flower gardens and also discovered that I had a knack for baking. But this meant that I completely unplugged from social media and my fans. I didn’t really interact with them that much, and in a way, I was okay with that. I knew in my heart that this season was just about me resting and doing some personal self-discovery journeys, and that felt like that was what the season was about. On the other hand, I was still able to do a number of virtual shows for private organizations, and that helped me stay afloat financially.

RELATED STORY: Afro-Folk Singer/Songwriter Naomi Wachira: I Know Who I Want To Be

What is one surprising thing you have learned about yourself during the pandemic?

At the beginning of the pandemic, I had this epiphany that I’m like an onion and every layer you peel has value. I was worried that stepping away from hustling and doing music all the time would somehow diminish my value as a human being. Instead, I discovered that my value didn’t really come from what I did but from who I am. There was something so liberating about looking at my life from that perspective.

You recently were awarded the African Achievement Awards for Best African Female Artist Pop/Fusion. Congratulations! What did winning that award mean to you?

That came as such a surprise, and it’s definitely an honor. This is my first-ever award, and it was so affirming, especially in a year where I barely did anything musically. It was this reminder that the work I’ve done so far has been good and that it brought value to people’s lives—and for that I’m truly grateful.

I saw on Instagram that you just recently heard yourself on the radio for the first time, and you were so excited and grateful. Where were you at the time?

It’s actually crazy that after nine years of being in the music scene, this was the first time I’d heard myself on the radio! I had been checking on my Twitter and saw my friend Gabriel, who’s the early morning DJ on KEXP, had just logged on. I decided to see if Alexa would play KEXP, and she did! I then messaged him that I was listening, and he gave me a shout-out on air. Apparently, a fan of my music heard that and requested “African Girl.” It was such a special moment for me—again, another affirmation that the work I’ve created continues to live and breathe.

How and when did you first become involved in music, and when did the guitar enter your songwriting?

My mom says that I started to sing before I could talk, and then when I was around five, I joined a choir my parents belonged to called the Brethren. At around 15, I wrote my first song and that became a thing I did all through high school. When I went to college, I didn’t really do much with music, though I did sing in the Women’s Choir for a year. It wasn’t until some friends introduced me to Patty Griffin and Eva Cassidy that I returned to music. I was so struck by the simplicity of their guitar playing while they told such complex and powerful stories. At 27, I bought my first guitar and, with the help of some friends, learned how to play some songs I’d come to love from these women and other artists such as Ray LaMontagne, Sia, Tracy Chapman, and Macy Gray. This then naturally led me back to writing my own songs.

Who were some of your early musical influences?

I remember when I was younger, I was so deeply drawn to the music of Whitney Houston. There was so much power in how she sang, and I feel like it was imprinted in me the type of delivery I wanted to have as a singer. Later on, I was drawn to women who had powerful delivery of their songs, whether that was Tracy Chapman, Miriam Makeba, Ella Fitzgerald, Odetta, Eva Cassidy, or Patty Griffin.

What is your “go-to” guitar for songwriting?

My first guitar was a Takamine; I fell in love with the guitar and have been using them since then. Currently, I play a classical P3FCN. I have a great story about my relationship with Takamine. I’d reached out to them once requesting a discount on a new guitar, and a man named David Vincent responded and offered me a great discount on my first classical guitar. A few months later, I happened to be touring in Nashville, and David said he’d come to see my show. After my performance, he came to say hello, and after a bit of chitchat, he presented me with a case he’d been carrying. In it was this incredibly beautiful classical guitar. He told me that it was his personal guitar he’d owned since 1999, and when I reached out to him the first time, he instinctively knew that that guitar belonged to me. He decided to wait until he met me in person to give it to me as a gift, and I was so completely moved and blown away. I named her Estella. Sadly, Estella was damaged in 2018 during my Europe tour, so she’s currently out of commission, but the best part is that Takamine saw my story and offered me a new guitar which I love so dearly. Anyway, long story short, Takamine is my go-to guitar for everything!

What is your definition of guitar tone?

So I have to confess that I first had to google what “guitar tone” was because it’s really not something I’ve ever considered. I remember after I’d met Damien Jurado, he suggested that I switch to a classical guitar because he thought it’s warm tones would better complement my vocal style. So I’d say my guitar tone is warm, understated, and imperfect.

You’ve had the opportunity to work with so many amazing musicians. In particular, we’re interested in hearing more about is Valerie June, who is featured in this edition. Can you fill us in on some of your work with her and some other artists?

I got to open for Valerie June in 2016, and I remember she was extremely kind to me. I later ran into her at Bumbershoot in 2017, and we had talked about connecting after the festival, but that never happened as life just took on new forms. I’ve been so privileged to work with some amazing musicians in Seattle like Damien Jurado and Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie). These were musicians whose music I listened to long before I had started my career, and to now consider them as peers and friends is so mind-blowing. I remember the first time I played at an open mic, Damien happened to be in the audience, and I was awestruck when I spotted him. Months later, he requested I open for him, and that began an amazing friendship. He came on board to produce my first full-length album in 2017, and he also requested I support him on his U.S. and Europe tours in 2018. I still shake my head in disbelief that we are now friends.

Earlier this year, we celebrated Black History Month and Women’s History Month. Can you tell us what those two months mean to you and why they’re important?

It’s actually interesting as this was the first time I wasn’t in the U.S. for both of these. Being in a country where everyone is black, I found that there was little emphasis on celebrating Black History Month, which is a reminder of how I grew up. I don’t think I ever considered myself as Black until I moved to the U.S., and that was such a different experience than what I was used to. As for Women’s History Month, that is definitely more visible of a celebration. But overall, they both felt subdued because the world just doesn’t feel like the same place.

What’s one piece of advice you would like to share for aspiring musicians to navigate the music industry?

Get to figure yourself out as a human being first, and then understand what your mission is with your music. It’s very easy to get swayed in this industry, and if you’re not sure of yourself or your mission, you’ll find yourself in places you never wanted to be in. Also, learn to be patient because the journey never quite unfolds like the picture in your head. As grounded as you can be in your mission, it’s also important to find balance with being flexible as your career unfolds. To cap it off, enjoy this privilege because not everyone gets to have the kind of life most musicians get to have.

I know we’re all hoping things will be returning to normal soon. What are you most looking forward to when life returns to “normal”?

The chance to tour again. I’ve definitely missed traveling to different places, and that is the one thing I’m looking forward to doing again.