Mixing elements of world music, folk and jazz with some pop music thrown in for good measure, Montreal’s NEeMA is a rare jewel in the Canadian music scene. Having just released her second record, Watching You Think, NEeMA is poised to break open to an international audience with her songs of love, life and observations.
Since releasing her debut record independently in 2006, she has toured through Canada, Ireland, Australia, England and the United States. That record, Masi Cho, was nominated for a Montreal International Music Imitative Award while her song “The Risk” advanced to the second round of competition in the 2006 International Songwriting Competition, based out of Nashville.
Speaking to the Times & Transcript from her home in Montreal, NEeMA’s time in such familiar surroundings seems to be an increasingly rare occurrence these days.
Having recently returned from a three-week tour that had brought her throughout Western Canada, she estimates she won’t have the opportunity for much down time prior to embarking on a tour that will bring her to Eastern Canada, including a stop at St. James’ Gate on Church Street in Downtown Moncton on Tuesday August 10.
One of the most talked about aspects of NEeMA’s newest record is the fact that the album was produced by Canadian folk-music legend Leonard Cohen in conjunction with celebrated producer Pierre Marchand.
NEeMA is welcoming the attention that her affiliation with Cohen is bringing her but notes that their friendship dates back much farther than the making of Watching You Think.
“I met Leonard approximately five years ago in Montreal on a total chance encounter,” NEeMA says. “It turned out that we lived relatively close to one another and eventually, we became friends, going for coffee and just hanging out.”
NEeMA says that approximately one year after having met Cohen, she started to share her music with him but that she did not feel inclined to solicit his opinion on her music right off the bat.
“I intentionally waited until we had become good friends before I felt that I wanted to share my music with him,” she says.
“In the beginning, he started giving feedback. Sometimes it was general, sometimes very specific. We did this back and forth over the course of a couple of years and once I had begun recording my newest record, he continued advising me.
“Frankly, he isn’t one to dish out compliments too easily,” she continues. “He pushed me hard to get this record to a very high level of professionalism. Songs ended up being worked and re-worked until they eventually had his stamp of approval.
“It has been a real blessing to have him by my side; he respects what I do and frankly, working with him has been an endorsement that money couldn’t buy.”
Born in Canada to parents of Egyptian and Lebanese decent, NEeMA admits that she knew some of Cohen’s material and respected his work but was by no means obsessed with the legendary artist the way that so many of his fans seem to be.
Having worked with Cohen has definitely had its share of perks though as NEeMA relayed an amusing story concerning Cohen and her father:
“Not too long ago, my Dad saw a concert of Leonard Cohen’s on television and not long after, he asked me ‘Do you know Leonard Cohen?’ So I told him, ‘Yeah, that’s who I made my record with Dad!’ and that really impressed my father,” she laughs.
“But it tends to be like that with your parents,” NEeMA muses. “It is as though it helps legitimize what I do. I think all parents need that validation to help reassure them that their child is going to be alright.”
The lyrical content of NEeMA’s material tends to cover the usual subjects of love and life however a number of critics have also noted that of her material also tends to draws much from the spiritual side of life as well. The artist admits that this is in fact the case but not exclusively so.
“I’m open to writing about just about anything,” she says, “but spirituality does play a big part in my life. I don’t so much write about spiritual things as I find the process of writing to be very spiritual.
“Writing songs is kind of a spiritual tool for me and aids in my understanding of life and trying to untangle those deep mysterious movements in life.
“When I am writing, I do my best to get to the essence of what I am feeling. Often, I will write many verses for my songs, some of which end up going unused; it’s my way of getting to the core of my subject.
As promotional efforts for Watching You Think continue, NEeMA anticipates making a video for first single “Escape” before the summer is through. Asked whether she believes that people are still interested in watching videos in today’s day and age, NEeMA stands behind her decision with confidence.
“In the world of today with the internet and all, I believe people still love their visuals. I’m not necessarily going to be making a video with a station like Muchmusic in mind,” NEeMA admits.
“But I do see it as a useful promotional tool for my website, You Tube and other outlets. I think the medium is still relevant in many ways; I believe that people are still interested in seeing videos, no matter where they have to find them.”
NEeMA’s upcoming show at St. James’ Gate actually marks a return to the city for the vibrant musician, having played Café Maelstrom on a couple of occasions in the past.
“I have had a wonderful time playing Moncton in the past and am looking forward to returning to the city with my band.”