Naomi Wachira - anywhere you go
Hearing Naomi Wachira sing and sitting across from her talking about music are two different and equally powerful experiences. On stage, her strong melodic voice carries equally strong messages about love, politics and the human experience, touching the heart of anyone with a pulse. Sitting across from her, I’m shocked by how petite she is, but her smile and laugh and heart make her seem as big as her voice and her message. A preacher’s child from Kenya, Naomi is making a big name for herself here in Seattle and around the world.
What was it like growing up in Kenya?
It was great. I had a great childhood. I grew up in a very small village about an hour outside of Nairobi. I had a good upbringing. My dad was a pastor; my mom was a business woman. It was a good, normal childhood. As normal as it could be. (laughs)
You started singing in your parents’ choir as a child?
Yes, my parents had this crazy thing. It was 11 or 12 families who were friends. They started getting together and started singing and there were a few pastors in the group. One of the memories that I have of it was of us traveling across Kenya going to different churches and we would sing and someone would preach.
How did you find your way to folk?
That’s a long journey. I had such a strong pull toward music. When I was in eighth grade I tried to convince my parents to let me to pursue a career but my father was like, “Uh, no… That’s not happening because music is not a real career.” So I had to tuck that away and did that for a very long time. It wasn’t until my early thirties (that) I really started to separate myself from my parents and what they wanted me to do and started claiming my own life.
You moved to Seattle from Chicago?
Yes, I was in Chicago. I came for graduate school to study theology. And then I discovered this whole music scene and I started doing open mics here and there. Just testing my material out and slowly I think I started taking my writing seriously. I thought, “OK, I really want to write good music. I really want to write songs that are about my life and what I see around me.” In 2012 I did a three-song EP and it was so well-received that I was like, “All right. I guess we’re gonna try and do this!” And I started playing a lot in the local scene. I believe that this is what I was created to do.
Your songs seem both political and personal. Do you consider yourself an activist?
Yeah, I would consider myself an activist, but sometimes I shy away from that word because it can mean you’re out with a placard damning everyone. But that’s not me. At the same time I want to be the singer who advocates for people. Whether it’s people who have no voices. I want to stand on a platform for their voices to be heard.
Do you think music can be more powerful than activism?
Oh, I think so. Absolutely. Because I think it was Angelique Kidjo who said, “Even your enemies listen to the same type of music.” To me that is the most powerful, most potent way of looking at music. There’s something about it (music) that tends to calm people and create this space for a dialogue or a sense of humanity. I think music is a very powerful tool.
Do you have any process to your songwriting?
No, it’s different all the time. But it always starts with something. An event. A look on a face. When I was in Germany when the migrant boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea with something like 700 people on board. There was a picture of all these Africans and to me there was so much history in those faces. And from there I wrote the title song to my next album, called “Song of Lament.” I felt “I have to write a song about this.” So I picked up my guitar and started messing around and the melody came and then the words came. I wrote that song very quickly. I think I wrote it in two hours. When I let inspiration lead, I can write a song in two hours. If I sat down and said, “Ok, let’s write a song about poverty,” that’s not gonna happen. So I’ve learned to just rely on the inspiration itself. I become the conduit.
Do you think music can change the world?
I think it can. I absolutely think it can. I think it’s the most non-judgmental way to talk about what’s happening in the world. It’s that thing about being able to hold someone’s soul in a moment and convince them of something that they may not believe or think. And the possibility lies that you could change their mind. Or you could change their heart. Which is why I stay away from metaphor. I just keep it as simple as possible. I’ve always had that idea that I wanted to write music that someone in Nepal, who spoke a little English, could listen to my music an be like, “Yeah, I know exactly what she’s talking about.” It’s about the human experience that is so universal. And that’s what I’m targeting. Knowing what it’s like to be heartbroken. Knowing what it’s like to be loved or wanting to have a better life.