She first broke into the UK’s funky house scene around five years ago with her debut, self-released track Frontline.
Bypassing publicists, record labels and pluggers, Nyah shunned the well-trodden route to radio and instead went round her favourite clubs begging DJs to play her track.
Soon she was creating bespoke versions of Frontline for DJs up and down the country who wanted her to sing their name in their track. From there she got her break on BBC Radio 1 and 1Xtra.
Since then, Nyah has worked with Wiley, Ghetts, Major Lazer and more recently, Grammy Award winning US songwriter Angela Hunte, who co-wrote Empire State of Mind for Jay-Z.
After a lengthy hiatus from the limelight (when Nyah was busy establishing her clothing line Binghi’s Boutique) she’s now preparing to re-enter the urban pop arena.
Champion, her new track, is set for release on 7 September. It was co-written with Angela and features Miami’s Llama Beats on production duties.
Here, the self-styled urban princess spills the beans on her impressive DIY breakthrough, the rollercoaster career that followed and her latest plan of attack...
I remember my first musical crush was Neneh Cherry. My mum told me she got married in a pair of trainers and I remember thinking it was the coolest thing I’d ever heard. One of her first tracks I remember hearing was Buffalo Stance. I performed that song at carnival and I felt as if I was her! From that moment on I knew music was something I really wanted to do.
Was it the performance element that drew you to music then?
Initially, yes. I was definitely drawn to the buzz of being on stage, holding a microphone and telling a story. I thought, if I could make a song and affect somebody, then it would feel amazing.
How did you first get into songwriting?
I wanted to be a rapper at first, so I would write loads of lyrics. I started writing 16-bar raps and recording it myself – that was my first taste of music really.
I looked up to Estelle a lot – she was the first UK person that made me think I could do it myself. I also saw Queen Latifah, MC Lyte and the Foxy Brown’s of this world and got inspired. But they were so far away across the Atlantic, so when I saw Estelle, I thought, ‘Hang on a minute, maybe I can do this’.
When did your break come?
The first thing I wrote that really got noticed was a song called Frontline. It got me a little bit of airtime and introduced me to PRS for Music and the concept of getting paid when your music is played on the radio.
How did that song get picked up?
I had no idea what was about to happen… I literally recorded it and went to the club with it. I loitered round the DJ booth and asked them to play the CD but they wouldn’t because they hadn’t heard it before. But I’d put my phone number on the CD and the next day they called me. They loved the song! And it went from there. It all got a bit crazy.
You’re known as a self-starter. Would you say you are a DIY artist?
Yes definitely. I went through the club route to radio. Initially it was just me and the producers of the track. My business, Bhindi’s Boutique, helped with contacts too. DJs started to ring me, asking for the song, and people started booking me for club gigs up and down the country. They weren’t paid but they got my song out there.
Normally you go to radio first, but this was really organic and gradual. I didn’t even think about what I was doing. I just went for it. I never mailed out the track to anyone; I only gave it to DJs on ‘a special’. A special is when you sing the DJs name in the record so it’s just for them. I was charging £50 a time for them. I did so many dubs - because the song was personalised, it made people want it. I didn’t really realise what I was doing at the time, but it really worked! I put a version up on YouTube and actually sang something about YouTube and put my name in it so no one could rip it off. Then I was out in a club and heard that version! Some DJ was playing the rip from YouTube. It was a really unconventional way for pushing music.
How does it work in the studio? Do you stick to top lines or do you like to get involved in the music and production?
When I first started making music, the production duo I worked with would build the music around what I sang so I felt very much part of the DNA of the tracks. Although I wasn’t playing instruments, I understood what I wanted the music to sound like.
You’ve spoken before about the challenges female top line writers face. Do you still think that’s the case now you’ve gained more experience?
I have a songwriting mentor called Angela Hunte – she wrote Empire State of Mind for Jay-Z. She’s a really decorated songwriter. But I think the limitations put on women songwriters are really crazy.
It’s nuts to think that some of the biggest songs performed by women are actually written by men. I don’t understand why that is. Do they have more of an opportunity to write? I have no answer. I suppose you have to understand what you want. Do you want to be famous or do you want to be a creator – or both? It’s important for young girls coming through to think about that. A lot of them just seem to think about fame and don’t want to do the hard work of writing. I don’t want to say that – because I’m very team woman – but it seems to be the case.
I never really thought about it in that way when I was growing up – I just presumed everyone wrote their own stuff when I was younger! I had no clue, even when I started writing, that it was normal for people to sing others’ material.
What do you think about your rollercoaster career so far?
After Frontline, I didn’t have time to stop and think about what I was doing. After a while, when things slow down as they inevitably do, you start to notice you’re not moving as fast as you were before. It’s then that the pressure starts kicking in to listen to everyone else and do what they suggest. The initial reason for doing music was to tell my story. And it seemed to work for a while.
Then, all of sudden, you have lots of eyes on you, lots of new people and lots of opportunities that get presented to you. And you start to derail and you get put in a place where you’re still working as hard as you’ve always worked but you’re working in areas that other people have suggested. You lose sight of what you set out to do. It’s about doing the music that you enjoy. That’s how the last five years have been. Massive highs and some huge learning curves.
What have you learned?
You meet people along the way who want to cash in when the going is good and then cash out quick – and if that’s what you want too, then great. But if not, it won’t serve you well to get involved with those people.
I know now that want to do it all myself, I want to release my own records and tour off my own back. If it elevates me to a place that is really lucrative, then great. If it doesn’t, then I’ll have been true to myself and that’s more important. I’ll know that I gave it my all, on my own terms.
I fell down when I got caught up listening to Radio 1 and tried to figure out the sort of stuff that Zane Lowe was playing and what the ‘music of now’ was. It’s impossible to do that – you’re always going to be behind. Rihanna has the best writers in the world. They all go to songcamps and put loads together. Then they chuck out the worst ones and keep only the best. What chance do you have of competing with that? You’ve just got to do your own stuff and find your own voice.
What has it been like to work with Angela Hunte?
I went to New York twice last year to write with her and it was great. I’ve had a lot of constructive mentoring that has helped me figure out how to sound better. I’m making songs that I feel are more timeless now, rather than songs that fit into a particular scene, which is how I did things previously.
I’ve been in really good hands. She’s helped me realise I need to stick to my ethos. Her whole story is really inspiring.
What are the main things you’ve learned from her?
Everybody always wants more. She’s a Grammy Award winner. To me, she’s made it. But she has so much more that she wants to do. Everyone wants more!
Her work ethic is amazing. She writes constantly in her spare room - she is a write-a-holic. When I came back I set up at home too and try to write at least five times a week to make sure I’m getting a bit better all the time.
What about her technique? What have you picked up?
I always used to write with a pen and paper but now I use a laptop like her. She writes all of her lyrics on hers, so she can edit and save and file things. It helps.