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

Naomi Wachira
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Naomi Wachira was born and raised in Kijabe, Kenya, an hour and a half from Nairobi. She describes a childhood and adolescence filled with music and faith; her father was a pastor, and she grew up singing gospel music in the church as well as enjoying the work of both African and Western singers and songwriters. She arrived in the U.S. at 19, when she relocated to Chicago to attend Bible college, following her parents’ wishes. After several years, ready for graduate school, she moved to Seattle, where she found a thriving, supportive music community and began pursuing her passion full-time.

She released her first EP, African Girl, in 2012. A full-length self-titled project followed two years later, with another acoustic EP, I Am Because You Are, in 2015. Wachira had prepared a new album when she found herself in songwriting mode again, deeply affected by the state of the world and in need of a musical outlet to accompany her waves of emotions. The result is Song of Lament, a deeply personal project that she released this month.

It didn’t take long for the Seattle music scene to embrace Wachira’s unique style and sound. She was voted Best Folk Artist by Seattle Weekly in 2013, and began receiving steady invitations to perform at clubs, festivals, showcases, and other events. As word got out, she was able to cast a wide net, touring in the U.S. and abroad while growing a significant fan base.

“I felt like I came out of nowhere,” she says. “There was interest in what I was doing, but it was not something I had thought about. I always knew music was my calling, but I shoved it far back in my mind, so when I started getting all these requests, I thought, I guess there’s something here. The invitations to do shows was an affirmation that this is what I should be doing, but I had so much self-doubt to get rid of. I didn’t think I could actually do this and have an impact, so it took some adjusting.”

You write in cycles, a group of songs at a time. What was this cycle like? What was going on in your life when you began writing?

I was hanging out with my sister, taking a little bit of time off, doing some traveling and touring, and figuring out what my next step was going to be. I was in Europe for five months. I was in Germany for maybe two-and-a-half or three of those months, stayed in Paris for a bit, played a few shows in some countries, and went to Kenya. I was trying to find myself and what I was doing with my career. I had hit rock bottom really hard. Watching the world around me crumbling, refugees, people drowning, terrorism — that became the setup for this album. I remember that week I didn’t want to do anything but write these songs. They were coming so fast. Normally, when I write, I hear the melody and then the words come, but this time I could hear the orchestration and the drums and how I wanted them to sound. That was a new experience for me, and I felt like there was a message that needed to come out.

naomi wachira song of lament

Was it a start-to-finish cycle, or are there songs that didn’t make it to this album? Some of the tracks you included were originally on I Am Because You Are.

That was part of the formation. I did that EP in 2015, when I was in Germany. I met someone who said he could help me put an EP together, so this was testing the songs to see how people would receive them. I reworked them quite a bit on the full-length album. They have a very different feel, but the message is the same. On the album, “Heart Of A Man” was written after the 2007 violence in Kenya, “Beautiful Human” I wrote in 2010, during my last year of grad school, and “Days Are Numbered” was written the day after my dad died, May 1, 2013. Those three songs I had with me, and they all fit in. Everything else was written during that week in Germany.

When you work in cycles, what becomes of the leftover songs, if there are any?

I have almost a full album, because before I released Song of Lament, I was going to release another one called Anthology of Love. It was going to be my take on love and relationships. Song of Lament came so strongly that I felt this is what needed to be released, so I have about ten songs waiting to be put into the next album, whenever that’s going to happen. I like that because it creates less pressure for me when I have to create. I like to ruminate over songs for a while and solidify the message and melody. So I have stuff that I might play once in a while but have not recorded anywhere, just waiting for whenever I get to record the next album.

This is your fourth recording project, including two EPs and an album. How is it your next step, your next chapter?

I’ve always seen what I do as a gift. It’s a calling. I’m a very spiritual woman, and for me, with what’s happening in the world right now, this is a message that needs to be spread out because there’s so much fear. I feel it every time I walk out. I’m an empath; I pick up on energy, and you can sense that fear. I think this album is about learning to understand people, learning to try and step into their shoes, learning to remember that we’re in this experience together, and there’s not one human being that’s better than the other, there’s not one religion that’s better than the other. It’s about understanding and kindness and empathy and love. It seemed appropriate for everything we’re getting to witness and what’s happening globally.

You recorded at London Bridge Studio with Eric Lilavois. This was your first time working together. How did that come about?

We met two years ago. He is part of the ownership of London Bridge, and I know some of the other co-owners. There is a group called London Tone Music, and the last couple of years they did a 52×52 series where they would release a single every week by local musicians. I was part of that group. I thought about doing another single with them, and that’s where Eric came in, but it fell through. When I started thinking about recording this album, he was the first person that popped into my head. I really like his energy, and I felt we had the same vision about humanity and people and the role of music in society. I spoke with him and he was more than excited to partner with me. I’ve been blessed to work with producers who allow my vision to come through, instead of the other way around. Eric was really good about it. I gave him the demo and said, “This is exactly what I want the album to be like,” and there were no questions. It was, “OK. I trust what you see and how you feel.” It was a great experience.

What was his role? You’ve worked with other producers, you have self-produced, and your music obviously does not need a lot of anyone else’s input.

For the most part, his was the technical aspect of it. When I record, I usually do live takes. I don’t do separate tracking of my vocals and my guitar. It took two days to track my parts. The first day is guitar and vocals, and the next day I come in and do the background vocals. Eric helped me through that, making sure we had the right mics to pick up my vocals really well, making sure we could record the best sound possible that would allow the vision to come through loud and clear, and also working with the musicians, because I wasn’t there. I was traveling. His job was to help the musicians bring my vision to life. He guided them through what I wanted. It was amazing when I heard the record. They kept all the ideas that I had and the integrity of my vision.

Did you know the musicians he selected?

Yes. I didn’t know the one who played the Hammond, and I didn’t know the percussionist. Everyone else is a friend, and I’d worked with them before. They are people I’ve known for the past six years and who have played with me on several occasions. They know my style and what I like, so it wasn’t hard to direct them.

Your music is culturally rooted but created in Seattle. Let’s talk about that balance and dichotomy.

In regards to my roots, I grew up in the church, my dad was a pastor, and I’ve always had a positive message. My music is about empowering people, inspiration, bringing love and light. That’s one aspect. Another aspect is growing up in Africa. I did listen to a lot of Western music, like Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, more in the R&B style. I was also influenced by a lot of African women, like Mbilia Bel and Miriam Makeba. I liked Odetta and Tracy Chapman, and we listened to reggae quite a bit growing up. All those genres have influenced the way I write and helped create the sound that I call Afro-Folk. I’m not pure folk, I’m not rock, I’m not blues. It’s the melding of all these genres that helps me create what I do. It was providence that I ended up in Seattle. When I came here, it had nothing to do with music. I came because I needed a change from Chicago. I was going to graduate school, and music didn’t come in until later. I didn’t even know how rich of a music community there was in Seattle. It has allowed me to be the artist that I am, and really supported me with local coverage and meeting people in the industry that see my vision and understand what I do and are cheering me on. Seattle has worked, and I want to stay here as long as I can. I love the city and I love the music community. I am very supported. I know almost every musician in Seattle, and there’s a sense of camaraderie that I don’t think I would find anywhere else.

Naomi Wachira promo

This album is a social statement, a statement of lament — as the title notes — and a statement of hope. How do you connect all three?

I’m a big believer that sorrow and hope go hand in hand, and you can’t have one without the other. I think it’s very important to be able to sit with sorrow and navigate through lament in order to find hope. This album is about that. Some of the songs are about struggling to understand the darkness. It’s easy to demonize and vilify people, but I want to know more, what’s behind the actions, and maybe from there I can move into hope, after I’ve wrestled with all those issues. In a social media context it’s so easy to call people out and point fingers at everybody, but I think there’s a need for us to sit with everything that’s happening, ask questions, allow for empathy and compassion to come in, and then it can lead us toward hope and light and something beautiful. In terms of social justice and music, trying to follow in the footsteps of women like Miriam Makeba and Tracy Chapman and the issues they talked about, what’s happening in our culture and how can we, as musicians, bring light and hope, and not get sucked into the fear and dark emotions that make us forget that there is goodness in humanity and goodness in the world. There are so many people doing amazing things and it’s important to remember that.

You speak about kindness, spirituality, and shared humanity, but you also speak about being an introvert, battling depression, and questioning your faith. You are complex!

Absolutely. It’s easy sometimes to succumb to the darkness and say, “That’s it, I give up, I’m not going to do anything about it.” Then I say, “OK, what am I going to do?” Today I woke up with a lot of anxiety, and I told myself, “You can either succumb to this or you can try to find strength.” I know there’s strength in me, and I have to pull it out of myself. That completely changed the way I woke up. It takes a lot of work to do that. You constantly ask, “Where can I find strength? Where can I find hope? Where can I find light?” It’s exhausting sometimes. That’s the thing I deal with countless times — making a choice, which direction am I going to go. I hope I always get to choose hope and light and not the darkness. It is purely being human; it’s a constant wrestling, and there are two sides of me that live inside this body. I became an American, so one foot is in America and the other foot is in Kenya. My whole life has been about balancing and learning to hold all of these things that sometimes look like they contradict themselves, but they are part of who I am. They are part of my story, and the lesson has always been, “How can I hold both well?” Sometimes it gets complicated and I’m like, “I give up, I can’t do this,” because it’s hard. But I know that what enriches my life is when I’m able to see everything, put everything out, and I’m like, “OK, this is what I’m doing, this is what I’m wrestling with, and how do I navigate through all of this to make sense out of my life, to make sense out of society and people.” It makes for a very interesting existence, that’s for sure.

You were still in your teens when you arrived in Chicago. Was it an awakening, making such a big life change? Who were you then and who are you now?

When I first moved here, I was 19 and very naïve. I grew up in a conservative family and lived a sheltered life, so traveling to a new country — it took me four years to finally come out of my shell. There’s so much about those four years that I don’t remember because I was on autopilot. The whole thing was, “I have to survive. I have to assimilate. I have to find a way to make this happen.” When I hit 25, that was the beginning of the awakening and “I’m here. What am I doing with this life?” That began this journey to be the woman that I am right now, where I feel like I’m mostly sure of who I am and what I want to be, learning to embrace myself, to love the skin I’m in, to love my story, where I’ve come from, the hardships, the obstacles, and this belief that I was created for a reason, I’m in this world for a purpose, and I want to make sure that I get to finish that purpose. One of my inspirations was my father, who passed away in 2013. At his funeral I remember so many people coming to us and saying, “This is what your dad did for my life.” That was the inspiration for me to finally jump into music. When my life is done on this earth, I want to know that I did something that helped someone and uplifted someone, inspired someone to live a good life, to own their life and live their calling. It’s been a hard journey, but I’m so grateful for every hardship I’ve gone through, because it’s allowed me to be the woman I am, and to be the mother I am for my daughter, set an example for her, and say, “This is how you show up in the world. It’s not always perfect, but it’s all about owning and embracing who you are and correcting mistakes when you make them.” I’m very grateful for where I am and who I am at this stage in my life.

Why Chicago?

I went to Bible college. That’s what my parents wanted me to do. They wanted me to be a broadcaster, and I wanted to honor their wishes. I went to Bible college in Chicago and studied communications with an electronic media emphasis. My parents gave me options, but they thought this was the best one. It was a little bit cheaper than one in Illinois, and it was closer to some people they knew there.

It’s a different time and a different world. Would you allow your daughter to do the same thing?

It will be 21 years this August. Yes, absolutely. She is 7 years old and she spent time in Kenya with my mom, so we’ve been separated. Especially in this day and age, I feel it’s crucial for children to grow up with a big view of the world and an understanding of how to navigate with different people. I didn’t get that privilege when I was growing up, and now that I’ve experienced it, it’s incredible. You learn how to accept people of all walks of life. Also, learning independence is a valuable thing.

What are some of the challenges you encounter while raising a child in a world full of fear, as you described it earlier?

One of the things we do is we have conversations about everything and anything. We talk about current things, about people who are different from her, about respecting people, listening to her intuition and her gut, honoring that, and the idea that I don’t want her to walk around sheltered and afraid of the world. There is goodness, but there are bad things happening, and you have to learn to balance it out. She comes with me to every show that I do. It exposes her to different places and people, and allows her to practice the things we talk about. Watching her blossom and come out of her shell is the most amazing thing.

You visit Kenya once a year. What has changed most about home? Do you sometimes feel like a stranger in a strange land — again?

I go at least once a year. My mom still lives in Kenya, and I would like for my daughter to stay connected to my family there. I feel a little bit of a stranger, probably because all my friends moved to a different town, so I don’t really know anyone. When I go home, it’s all about family. I’m still myself, but I notice parts of me that have really changed. Even when I go out, I still speak the languages fluently, but people tell me there’s an energy about me and they know I don’t live there. So it’s home, but it’s very different. Mostly I stay home and relax and eat all the food I’ve missed!

The song “African Girl” resonates with so many people around the world, and certainly with listeners in the U.S. Is it taking on a new meaning for you, and your audiences, five years later?

Absolutely. In the song I talk about “I know who I want to be,” and I realized when I wrote that, it was prophetic. Now I’m certain about who I want to be. I want to be a woman who is standing up for what is right, standing up for goodness and light and hope, and embracing my identity. When we talked earlier about all these complex places that I have to be and that I am, it’s being OK with all of that and not feeling like I have to defend one or run away from the other. For my audience, because of the fear that’s propagated toward people who are different, I feel like people are embracing that song even more. The message I get from them is, “It has allowed me to shine my light and be OK with who I am, and not feel like I have to apologize for one part.” That, to me, is so beautiful. This song is such a personal story about my life, and to see how much it’s resonated with people from so many parts of the world blows my mind all the time. I think it’s about people being OK with who they are and not trying to change, and that makes me very happy.

— Alison Richter

In the studio and onstage, Naomi Wachira relies on Takamine guitars, including her P3FCN, with smaller body and nylon strings. Learn more and watch her perform here.

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