The Voice Goes Beyond: An Interview with Odeya Nini

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I have already said this once, but it bears repeating: Odeya Nini’s voice has no limits. Whenever I listen to her debut album, ODE, my mind goes places. Focused and drifting as the music grows, it becomes an almost out-of-body experience. It’s hard to describe, but Nini harnesses something within herself that is powerful and ageless. ODE is a beautifully-realized culmination of this practice and expression. 

ODE will be released this Friday, October 7, via Populist Records. I can’t recommend it enough. Listen and pre-order HERE. She has also been part of Wild Up Ensemble’s crucial performances of Julius Eastman’s works – Femenine and Joy Boy.

What are some of your earliest memories or experiences related to music or sound? What are some of the real formative things from when you were young that have stuck with you?

What comes to mind is the sound of my family members. My parents’ and grandparents’ voices. There was a lot of singing in my home. Every Friday to this day, when we are all together as a family, we sing the Sabbath prayers in a Yemenite Jewish mode.

My father has an exceptional voice and can sing very high pitches in an angelic way. I remember him singing these three songs on rotation – You Are my Sunshine, Summertime, and Motherless Child. He sang them with a lot of soul that drew me in as a child. Motherless Child has become a song I bring into my improvisations a lot. I actually recorded a version in the studio when I was recording ODE

My mother was very passionate about opera. I have early memories of her listening and getting very emotional during the big arias. She loved Pavarotti especially and took me to the Met as a young child to hear him sing several times. I was amazed by how moved she would get, often crying at the beauty of the music and especially the voice. 

Both my parents really appreciated vocalists – I remember them saying about artists they loved, “what a voice.” They were and still are drawn to voices. 

Photo by Michael Thomas

What made you first realize just how powerful one’s voice can be?

When I began leading vocal sound meditations, Voice Baths, I really realized how powerful the voice can be. It was not just the sound of the voice, but the voice riding the current of my intention, my imagination, and my visualization – how it really made an impact on the body and mind. I truly felt its transformative healing qualities – on myself and others.

Did you grow up in an environment that was supportive of your practice?

I grew up loving the arts, especially theater. My parents were always supportive and followed my lead, giving me piano and voice lessons and buying fancy markers for all my art projects. They took me to Broadway shows and plays regularly, nurturing my love for performance. 

Something that I keep thinking about with ODE – and I apologize in advance for getting longwinded here – are the physicality of your performance and that connection between creative practice and our physical self. It’s something that’s kind of been in my mind a lot in recent years, but with ODE, it’s such an upfront, visceral thing. This otherworldly feeling blooms when you sing as if entire universes are created. Still, it’s borne from muscle and tissue… so I wonder how this physical connection between your body and your art permeates your work and even grounds it in a way that allows it to become expansive, otherworldly?

I have been practicing yoga since I was a teenager and have also taught it for 12 years. Being in a flow of movement, guiding people in movement awareness – both have taught me so much about linking my physical body to my mind and the deep release that comes from the physical meeting the mental with a wide channel of breath moving through them. 

The body can express what words cannot. I speak through it and become through it. I feel it generating and radiating and absorbing. 

Being in the body keeps me in the abstract where anything is possible, and I can dwell in constant creation and discovery of this beyond definition. 

Before performances, I warm up the voice by practicing constant movement and breath. I call it “stream of consciousness” movement. It’s important that my breath is even and long and that I inhale while I move as opposed to pausing on the inhale. I find that after several minutes of doing this, I change my composition. Everything inside of me has shifted, and when I open my mouth to sound, I can be anything and anywhere I choose for that moment. 

That’s really all I can speak to – how I enter the creative practice and how I use the breath to put me in a new state. Once I am there, what happens in that generative space is beautiful beyond words and explanation. 

Photo by Elena Ray

And from there, how do you think this aspect of the voice allows it to have such profound energy and power? Or, more succinctly, how does this imbue the voice with its healing qualities?

Again, words cannot do this experience justice, but what I can say is that the voice is propelled by the power of thought. The sound of the voice needs to ride the wave of intention and visualization and deep desire to reach, touch, be heard, move and love. The physical body acts as a vessel and a channel for the energy to move into, within, and out of, with resonance. 

Another thing that’s on my mind a lot these days is the transformative and transportive nature of sound, and the way it can, practically in an instant, take listeners to a whole new place and experience any feeling imaginable. One thing I love about your practice is that it does all these things, yes, but I feel like one of the strongest emotions I experience from your work is joy and this appreciation for simply being. How does expression or feeling of joy play a role in your work?

I am so thrilled that you feel that way and that joy comes through strongly for you! The word I use is pleasure; I lead from pleasure with everything I do in my creative process. The pleasure of moving, breathing and stretching, and opening my jaw, the pleasure of sounding and expressing and getting it all out. The pleasure of sharing space and embodying and feeling so deeply. The pleasure of moving through a dark sound, a cry, a yell. The pleasure of contracting my body so intensely, feeling empty then full again. The pleasure of being in the unknown and also knowing. The pleasure of playing and searching and finding with such presence that it all feels so very clear.

The more I enjoy what I do, which can look like many different things, the more I embody. The more I embody, the more a person witnessing my embodiment can experience it in their own body and mind and feel transported. Of course, anyone coming into that space would need to want to receive and be on their own journey, definitely not mine – meaning they aren’t asking themselves, “What is going on with her?” but allowing themselves to feel and make it their own.

Let me ask about ODE specifically. It’s quickly become one of my favorite albums this year, and it’s really unlike anything I’ve heard in a long time. How did the idea of this album first come to you, and what was the impetus to finally record it? 

These are pieces that I have been working with for several years. They have road maps but are improvised within a structure. Some are pure improvisations – like Double Helix. The pieces will always be different and evolving. I wanted to document this work in a way that can be shared beyond my physical performance and craft it as a listening experience. 

I love that you describe the pieces on the album as ‘sound poems.’ That feels so right to me. I’m curious, though, about how the actual songs came into being because when I think of something like a sound poem, it hints at a structure, perhaps, yet these pieces feel so free. Are these songs improvised or composed (or some combination? I’m really curious what the process was like in creating them…

Yes, they are both composed and improvised. I like to think of an improvisation as a composition in real-time. I journal a lot about my pieces – what are they, what do they mean, why am I sharing them. It’s important to me that I know why I’m doing what I do. In the act of performing them, I both know them and enter the unknown in them. 

What makes them poetic is the language I am using through sound and movement that are combinations of gesture and tone, open to interpretation. I want people to have their own interpretation and make it their own. The poetry I love leaves me feeling in awe of how something was expressed, described, and shared in a way I could never find such words for. Poetry leaves me in awe of the power of metaphor and imagery, allowing me to see the world and myself in a whole new light, even if only slightly. One of my favorite books of poetry is Sharon Olds – Odes.  

What was the biggest challenge for you in making ODE?

Actually being in a studio and not having the other elements of my performance be a part of my music. But [producer] Lewis Pesacov is brilliant and helped me feel the freedom of expression I needed even in the studio. I am super excited about how this album came out. 

 One last thing I wanted to ask about is Wild Up and how you got involved with the group? The Julius Eastman pieces you all have done in the past year or so are truly incredible, and I am so thankful those interpretations exist (and I look forward to more, I hope!)

My husband Archie [Carey] is the bassoonist in the group and one of the original core members. I met Chris Rountree around the same time. Many of us who are now in the band have been friends for over a decade since the ensemble began.I had been part of the group as a composer and vocalist on certain pieces over the years, but I only recently became an official member, which I’m so thrilled about. And yes, being part of Julius Eastman’s Femenine has been a true honor. There is a lot more to come!

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