All I aim for is to make true pop music
David Numwami is spending his only week of vacation in a village in Italy, near the border of France. The NUMWAMI WORLD – to reference his recently released debut album – looks like a tall green mountain today through the pixelated screen. He tells us about reconnecting to his old self while touring, his first art-directing experiences, and the musical shift from Schönberg to Madonna.
What has it been like returning to the stage after the whole COVID hassle?
I’m very lucky to be on not one but two tours right now: my own and one with a French musician called Sébastien Tellier. I was supposed to play with him way before the virus hit, but the tour got delayed again and again. In the meantime, I started releasing my own songs. As soon as the gates opened I was on the road again. I imagined the first shows to be very different. I thought we’d all go collectively crazy. But then it wasn’t like that at all. I have to admit I was a little disappointed at first. People had to sit down and wear masks, it made us all go, ‘Ah, it looks like a show, but it isn’t, actually.’ But we’re getting there now.
As soon as the gates opened I was on the road again
It must be strange releasing your first record mid-pandemic.
I was cool with that part. Of course, since it’s my first one, I didn’t have to compare the experience, but I really enjoy working from home. It was the perfect excuse to go, ‘Yeah… I can’t come to your party tonight.’ But I have to admit I felt like I lost a whole range of feelings in isolation. Bringing the album now to people through shows is giving me the ability to reconnect with that side of myself. Shows are weird. You feel alone on stage and people are below you. The sense of hierarchy has always felt wrong to me. Imagine you’re at a dinner party with seven people and you want to say something to your friend, but suddenly everyone turns to you expecting you to address the whole group and say a meaningful thing instead of the joke you were going to pull. Stages do that to someone, too. Everyone looks up to you and it makes you feel silly. It helps, too: your voice is instantly validated.
The sense of hierarchy has always felt wrong to me. ... Everyone looks up to you and it makes you feel silly
Your videos and artwork have a distinct look. Are there people who you work with regularly?
Illustrator Camille Potte made most of the artwork for the singles and album. ‘Beats’ was supposed to be directed by a friend. Because of COVID, he couldn’t travel here so my manager suggested I do it myself. The simple fact that he thought I’d be able to do it, made me able to do it. I followed the storyboard that my friend had made for a previous video and felt like I could adapt it to my own concept. I’ve become much more invested in the visual aspect of my work. I even enjoy it more than making music. I can be more laid back doing so since I’m not an art director, so no one will judge me as if I were. I pressure myself much more as a musician. I’m more serious.
You can’t tell though. Your sound is very light and breezy.
To achieve lightness is actually very hard. I usually start with a much more complicated melody, but ever since I discovered pop music I realize I need to eliminate a huge part of my musical score.
I just really love Britney Spears
Were you classically trained?
Yes, I started music classes when I was five and grew up playing the classical guitar. I ended up studying musicology and researching composers like Schönberg. But honestly, I just really love Britney Spears. Also, albums by Madonna-like American Life and Ray of Light. And current pop stars like Charli XCX! The album she created in lockdown – it took her no more than two months and it’s incredible… I suppose pop music came to me in a reverse way: usually, pop music is the first type of music you’re bombarded with because it’s omnipresent. I didn’t consciously hear it until much later in my life and now it’s all I aim for: to make true pop music.