By Daniel de la Bastide

Ni’s story Reflecting on debt, therapy, BLM and hope

In this series, we’re checking in with creatives to see how the pandemic is affecting their work and wellbeing.

Published 02/02/2021
Photography By Daniel de la Bastide
“Hope is pushing forward, towards your dreams, rather than letting the past hold you back”

Ni is a 21st Century Jazz singer. Her project The Wombat Jazz Club is a beautifully crafted, inclusive series of home concerts, allowing her to engage with others, whilst channelling her own reflections. Unifying optimism and hope.

I stumbled across Ni’s instagram during the early months of April and was fascinated by the intimate moments of friendships framed around a candle-lit table, with great food and music.

From her Anfield home, pre-pandemic, herself and boyfriend, Kieran hosted multiple events. From a ‘Daal & Jazz’ supper club to ‘Bath Tub Jazz’.

Despite the challenges Ni’s faced, whether that be through debt or anxieties in light of the BLM movement, she remains sanguine during the pandemic and is inspiring.

How has this pandemic impacted your creative practice as a Jazz Singer? Has social media played a part in this?

I’ve always loved to sing but it never really felt like a feasible career path for me.

I was working, when Covid hit. But had to step back due to the toll the pandemic was taking on my mental health.

I was in a really low place and I felt really trapped by my circumstances so turned to songwriting, with advice from an incredible art therapist I’ve been seeing. Plus a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist.

I realised, through this experience, that I really needed to somehow make singing my bread and butter. Still working on it…

So what challenges have you had to overcome since the pandemic struck? 

I feel like 2020 was a big year for me, in terms of overcoming things but I’ll share just a few!

Over the years, I managed to get myself into a huge amount of debt; helping out at home, keeping up with trends (in the hope that it would boost my self-esteem). Living the ‘millennial lifestyle’ of brunching and nights out and like many of us, dealing with a bit of a dependence on drugs and drink…

I had a huge wake-up call when the bank asked for me to pay all of it back within 28 days. At the height of the pandemic. Not only did it force me to confront the reasons why I ended up in debt in the first place but it also forced me to put myself out there and use my ‘gift’.

There were a few moments where I panicked and I became a bit obsessed with fundraising. But I used my resourcefulness and decided to go busking. That’s what people do when they need to raise money, right?

As well as busking on Bold Street, I hosted a few ‘Bath Tub Jazz’ sessions on Instagram Live where I shared my story and some of the new music I’d been working on in lockdown and directed people to my Crowdfunder page.

At first, I felt really vulnerable putting my story out there. But overall, it was worth it. It taught me that if you need help, you should ask for it and try not to worry about what people think.

Because if anyone judges or laughs at your misfortune, that is more of a reflection of their own inadequacies than it is on you.

And you’d be surprised how many people actually really care about you and want to help. It was really inspiring!

I found myself feeling really emotionally overwhelmed by the Black Lives Matter movement, sparked by the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

Waking up to the news of black people being murdered and seeing the footage was really triggering.

It left me with so many unanswered questions and realisations about the way in which racism affects black people around the world in such a huge variety of ways.

For a long time, I have really struggled with my identity.

As a teenager, I struggled to find where I ‘fit in’ in society (within the microcosm of school) and carried this into my adult life for some time. But the pain I felt in witnessing black people being murdered really strengthened my relationship with my blackness.

It reminded me who I am. Forcing me to take a step back and look at all of the injustices black people face. Including the injustices I’ve faced as a black woman.

There was a lot to confront.

One day, when I was in the studio with the boys. I was reflecting on what was going on in the world. And it was making me feel down.

The boys started playing a piece they’d come up with in a previous jam. And I started writing down the words that were coming to me, as did Kieran. We took it in turns to sing and a song was born. It just came together. Like a conversation, like many of the songs I have co-written.

I wasn’t in the position to join the Black Lives Matter protests at the beginning of the year, because of my anxiety around the virus, but I wanted to protest, through song. I think that what we came up with was really powerful and I am looking forward to releasing it into the world.

Another challenge which I overcame in 2020 was constant rumination about relationships in my life that had broken down. B

Being in lockdown and seeing everyone on social media, while feeling isolated was triggering for me at times. It led to me overthinking things and ending up a bit of an anxious mess.

I had to take control of what was coming in so I did a big Instagram cull.  Not to be rude, but to protect my psyche while I worked through some traumatic events

It sounds trivial but it really helped!

Part of that process involved writing a song called ‘Old Friend’ which, I guess, is an open letter and will be released at some point this year. I’m not sure if it will be a single or part of my album but we’ll see. Watch this space!

What has kept you inspired to stay driven during this period? Do you have any particular influences?

The prospect of the future.

I learned this year that rumination has always been a big issue for me. After learning the word in therapy.

But it put a lot of things into perspective for me and made me realise how important it is to look to your future and take control of it rather than letting mistakes in your past consume your present and limit your potential.

My therapist(s) have been a huge inspiration in this sense. As well as Kieran and the musicians I’ve been working with on my original music: Dan, Jack, Paddy and Max who are helping me to realise my dreams!

I have so much appreciation for every single one of them!

Has lockdown helped your work output in some way?

Lockdown has completely changed my life. For the better, I think.

I’ve learned to say no to work and social commitments that I can’t keep. And I now allow myself to rest when I need to. I used to think I needed to be productive all of the time, by working, to be worthy of life.

I have work to do in terms of prioritising self-care, particularly when I am feeling down. But I’ve started looking after myself more which inspires me to write and create.

While I’m yet to release original music, the busking on Bold Street landed me some gigs at Ropes and Twines as well as a COVID wedding gig (crazy experience) and so far, one wedding booking for 2021.

It’s such an honour to be asked to sing for people on their wedding day and I don’t think this would be happening if I hadn’t been forced to put myself out there. There is always a silver lining, I guess!

What’s your ‘go-to-method’ when things all get a bit too much during lockdown?

Journalling, 100%.

Spending 10 minutes, or an hour or however long you feel like you need to, writing things down and gathering your thoughts works wonders.

I know it’s a cliche but it has really helped me to understand where I am at and also to keep track of my progress

Spending an hour in the bath with some candles and some jazz is my ultimate self-care go-to when things get too much.

I use music as a form of therapy and would recommend all of Moonchilds’ albums – They have got me through the lowest points in my life.

The UK was quite late to the ‘lockdown party’ back in March, were there any stand-out memories you had just prior to the government announcing the covid measures?

Yes! The Wombat Supper Club! We’d hosted ‘Burgers and Jazz’ and ‘Daal and Jazz’ which were really fun and hectic but overall, successful nights. I mean, I think everyone was happy!

It seems crazy to look back at January and February and think of how many people were in our home, squeezed in around a table, enjoying food and live jazz and we SO can’t wait for that to be possible again, although, we do have big plans for The Wombat Jazz Club, in the future!

‘Light at the end of the tunnel’ seems to be the phrase that’s keeping us going; what does ‘hope’ mean to you during this phase?

Hope means finding the thing that makes you happy and makes you want to get out of bed in the morning and working with what you’ve got to make your dreams your reality.

Hope is pushing forward, towards your dreams, rather than letting the past hold you back. Hope is believing that life is in constant flux and that good times always follow the ‘bad’ in the cycle and that in every negative experience that we have in life, we have learned something valuable which will help us to make the world a better place in the long-run.

How has the conversation around mental health changed over recent years in your opinion? Has the pandemic impacted these conversations in any way?

I wish mental health had been more of a teaching point at school.

I had no idea why I used to faint in the morning before school and have migraines and sometimes feel like I didn’t want to go in to school (or carry on with life). But looking back, it’s quite clear I was struggling with my mental health.

I don’t know whether the conversation has changed or whether I’ve just been more exposed to it through social media.

My wish is for children and young people to be taken seriously by the institutions (like schools and the NHS) when they approach them with an issue. Or issues, inextricably linked to poor mental health. And for poor mental health to be recognised as a valid issue in children and young people and dealt with sensitively and appropriately.

While mental health has become a bigger talking point amongst the ‘woke’ left, I think there’s still a lot of work to be done in terms of actual education around unconscious bias, discrimination and exclusion. And people taking accountability for their actions which impact others’ mental health in a negative way.

It’s something we’re all guilty of because life is like that. We all get hurt and hurt people along the way. But we need to be better at recognising when we’ve hurt someone and apologising for it as well as dealing with our own insecurities through therapy so that we don’t lash out.

I also think that there’s work to be done in eliminating the stigma around asking for help. Every single human being needs therapy and should have access to it.

This is something which needs to change on a systemic level and I don’t just mean through conversation, but through proper funding and training for people working within education, healthcare and beyond.

Has your outlook on life changed?

I don’t actually think the pandemic has changed my outlook on life, no.

But, I do think that 2020 has helped me to grow and to understand why I see things in the way that I do which has been a really positive thing for me, overall, and I hope that if you got this far in reading this, that you were able to take some positives from 2020 and continue to grow through the next lockdown (and any future lockdowns) too!

@jazzbyni

@thewombatjazzclub

@danieldelabastide