[Cover story] Nanette is only getting started

Rising South African R&B star Nanette on her debut album Bad Weather, her deal with UMG and the future. “Right now, emotionally, I am feeling dangerous; many would call it autopilot, as I deal with emotions for five seconds and I move on. Nothing and no one can stop me,” she says. 

Written by ubereatzz

Photography by Jaydin Stacks

Nanette is coming up. After the release of her debut album Bad Weather, the R&B singer, who’s signed to Universal Music South Africa, was announced as Apple Music’s Up Next Artist for South Africa, an incubator programme by the streaming platform that has shone the light on artists, some of whom have since become stars – think Blxckie, Lucasraps, Una Rams and several others.

 “My stage name is my first name, and it means ‘God is gracious’, which is so powerful, and I wanted to keep that within my career. I am just a young kid trying to figure out this music scene,” says the artist, who was born Nanette Sphesihle Nobethu Mbili in Durban.

Her style draws heavy inspiration from past eras. “I’m heavily influenced by older R&B songs, especially the types of instrumentals that were really big back then or in certain genres similar to it, like soul, but I love adding my own touch and spin to whatever I make. I think that’s really dope. But beyond that, to be honest, I just make what I want to make, man, as whatever song or songs I make are also influenced by my mood on the day.”

It makes sense that one of her dream collaborators is Brandy, who the singer describes as the artist she listened to often in her childhood. She would also like to work with Stromae and Tiwa Savage. “I love me some Tiwa Savage; okay, I am a Tiwa Savage stan, honey,” Nanette admits.

Musical siblings

She takes this love for both the old and the new into Bad Weather, an album that – with all its vintage leanings – doesn’t sound dated. She crafted it with producer Lee Global, whose tag can be heard throughout the album. “I met him through Rich Mahog, who is my mentor and the person who ushered me into the industry. Rich had been working with Lee and felt like he was the best person for me to work with. The day I met Lee, I didn’t know what to expect.”

Their artist-producer relationship takes on the form of musical siblings: “He really just became like the big bro to me and is one of those people in my inner circle who I can call when the sh*t hits the fan.”

Lindelani Makeba Lee, also known as Lee Global, is a hip-hop and R&B artist, producer, songwriter and creative director who has worked with a wide range of artists such as Mo$hpit Cindy, the late HHP, Rouge, Costa Titch and the late Tumi Tladi, to name a few. Music runs in his veins, as he is the great-grandson of the late Dr Miriam Makeba.

Nanette and Lee Global have a studio tradition that involves a smoke session and her warming up while the beat plays in the background. She mentions that Lee put her on to some vocal exercises by British Composer, Ken Burton. “If people come to my sessions, they’ll see me warming up all crazy. The vocal training does seem a bit extra, but there’s a point to all of it.”

What strikes me as I interview her is her eagerness to become a well-rounded musical creative, even though she has access to a producer like Lee Global. Nanette is not only a singer and a songwriter, but has also dabbled in production for her own music – many of those tracks can be found on her SoundCloud.

“I’m still a baby in production. The first song I did was ‘Wounded’. I put it up on SoundCloud. I was using GarageBand at the time. Since Lee is more clued up than I am, he and Marsbaby actually taught me how to use Ableton. But I work on Logic now.” The reaction she received from her fans since has been her biggest motivation to continue building on her production skills.

I would not classify her level of production as being at “baby” level – she is quite outstanding at it. Nanette has definitely tapped into another creative side of herself that she’s equally as good at as she is at singing and songwriting. She produces dope R&B beats that stay true to her soulful sound. 

SoundCloud has played a huge role in Nanette’s career. It was through covers posted on her social media, and music she made in early 2020 posted on her SoundCloud, that she captured the attention of a few record labels, A&Rs and industry folks. She ended up landing a deal with Universal Music Group within a year of her deciding to fully pursue music. “Funnily enough, when we first started recording together, we were about three sessions in and Lee Global started having the conversation with me about getting used to the idea of signing, and I was like: no, I am independent; I’m for the streets; eff a record label – I ain’t signing,” Nanette says.

But don’t most artists go through that phase in their careers? “It was actually coincidental that when UMG reached out to me, so did SONY at around the same time – early 2021,” Nanette says. “I had a conversation with DJ Vigi, and from there, I decided to take UMG’s offer into consideration. There was a lot of back and forth, as I wanted to read my contract, which was a very crucial thing for me.

“I would advise any artist who wants to sign to understand the terms of the deal; negotiate with whoever you are dealing with but, remember, you won’t get everything you want. You must also take some time before you make decisions like that; don’t let them rush you. You have a right to ask for like a waiting period – I took about two weeks to sign.”

One thing that stands out is how clued up Nanette is about the music industry, even though she is a rookie. This is thanks to the mentorship of producer and South African entertainment key player, Rich Mahog, as mentioned earlier, who assisted her greatly in her decision to choose and sign with UMG. 

Bad Weather

With Bad Weather, Nanette managed to create a conceptual album, centred around her feelings and her temperamental surroundings. “The melody for ‘Vent’ was actually supposed to be a more upbeat, happy song,” she says, “but, like I said, I make music depending on my mood and, that day, I was having a very bad day, as I was stranded earlier, so when Lee played the beat again, I just wanted to release and rage. Then it ended up like that.”

The cover art for Bad Weather is a striking image of Nanette posing nude against a white backdrop while water flows around her. It made me feel like the album was definitely going to be a tear-jerking experience, as the water around her seemed to represent tears. It was creatively directed by accomplished visual artist Shala the Unicorn. “Shoot day with Shala was quite stressful. We were behind schedule,” Nanette says. “I was super nervous, ’cause it was raining, and she had me walking out of the bathroom in my panties. I want to just commend Shala for making me step out of my comfort zone and fully allowing me to detach myself from the notion that I can’t use my body as art. So, I was as vulnerable on the cover art as I was in my album.”

 

I know I’m not the only one who assumed the title was more about the series of emotions she goes through in the album, and how they change as easily as the weather does. Surprisingly, the name came about because of a phobia she has. “The name for my album came about because of my fear of thunderstorms, as – when I was younger – my grandmother (who was a nurse) would work night shifts and I’d be left home alone, so, whenever there was thunder, I would be sh*t scared. It sort of turned into a thing I’m very scared of, like getting into a catastrophic event. The weather is also more powerful than people think – if you wake up one day and you’re feeling great but, as soon as you step out, you see that it’s a bit gloomy, your mood will change.”

The album opens with a soulful intro where she details her emotions as an extension of the weather, as she sings, “It’s dark outside, and I’m staying in my bed.” The mood shifts to upbeat on ‘Vent’, which has Nanette opening up about being stood up for a date, as she sings, “I’m getting hot in this purple dress/ You stood me up, and now I’m so upset.” This is a fan-favourite, as it recently hit 50K streams across all streaming platforms. “Also, the dress wasn’t even purple,” Nanette says. She changed the colour, so the person wouldn’t necessarily pick up she was singing about them.

‘Same Mistakes’ comes in as a song detailing warnings she has received about relationships: “Mama said I’ll learn this thing when I’m older/ But I’ve made the same mistakes over and over,” she sings.

“My imagery of uMama is very plural on ‘Same Mistakes’. I was actually speaking about the three mother figures in my life: my grandmother, my birth mom and my stepmother. They’ve all been in my life, but my grandmother was always the one who was saying all these things about boys the most.”

What these stories behind these songs reveal is that Bad Weather is a relatable project, purely because Nanette sings about her own experiences with the honesty required for a therapy session. “I actually describe the album as ‘an exercise in finding refuge in cathartic artistic expression’ as that’s how I felt while making it. ‘Cathartic’ is just a fancy way of saying ‘therapeutic’.”

A great example of this exercise on Bad Weather has to be the song ‘Fire’, which features Idahams. “I took a really bad situationship, which was a waste of my time, and I characterised it as a fire because of how it felt,” Nanette says. “Every time I went back to this person, I’d get burnt, like when you touch a hotplate.” The singer harmonises with Idahams on the hook, which goes: “We’re like fire, dangerous desire.”

The same honesty carries on in the old-school, R&B-inspired ‘The Nice Guy’, ‘You don’t know me’, ‘mama’s boy’ and ‘Good Girl Gone Sad’. The former is a vulnerable ballad, directly linked to ‘Good Girl Gone Sad’, in which she addresses being nice her whole life even when it’s unnecessary. “Baby, put the mask on/ Bonis’uthando and don’t front,” she sings. While on ‘You don’t know me’, she flips the script and drops a bombshell that her lover also doesn’t know her as well as he thinks he does.

She closes off the album with ‘Good Girl Gone Sad’ – a personal favourite – in which she wears her heart on her sleeve and opens up about her fears about how, even after behaving and doing all the right things as a young woman, she still struggles romantically and ends up sad. She sings, “Good girls don’t talk back/ Don’t give them no slack/ Tired of living a lie, I’m the first good girl gone sad.”

Bad Weather is one of the best South African R&B albums to drop this year – a year that has seen strong releases from the likes of S B X, aifheli, AFRIKA, 2AM, Monelle and Namakau Star.

So, what’s next for the charismatic singer? “Visuals, of course,” she says. “I also have a couple of songs that I perform as leaks that are yet to drop. I am also planning a little EP, as I have a lot in the vault. Plus, I have been collaborating with Kelvin Momo and I am about to drop the hottest ’piano song in the country.”

With so much in store for her fans and supporters, I wonder where she is emotionally, especially after the release of a “therapeutic” body of work that was made with raw emotions. Right now, emotionally, I am feeling dangerous; many would call it autopilot, as I deal with emotions for five seconds and I move on. Nothing and no one can stop me,” Nanette concludes. 

This interview appears in issue 22 of the monthly HYPE ezine available for purchase here.

Join the Hype fam and sign-up today

Newsletters • competitions • events