Singer-songwriter Neev on taking ownership of her music and releasing her debut EP “Forgiving Light”

Singer-songwriter Neev is originally from Scotland, but now calls London home. Neev’s move to London actually inspired her stage name — after locals had trouble pronouncing her real name, Niamh, she started performing and releasing music under its phonetic spelling.

On Oct. 10, Neev put out her debut EP, Forgiving Light, a self-released collection of four heartfelt songs that explore various relationship dynamics. Her songs use a subtle blend of instrumentation — most songs have a backbone of guitar and vocals, and the EP is sprinkled with a delicate arrangement of piano, strings, and vocal harmonies. Neev began recording Forgiving Light in a studio, surrounded by a large array of collaborators, before the pandemic hit. Lockdown encouraged Neev to finish out the EP by recording in her bedroom in London, a change that allowed her to take more ownership of the songs’ production.

I caught up with Neev over Zoom to learn more about Forgiving Light, the EP’s inspirations, and how she dove head first into writing and performing music. Keep scrolling to read our full conversation.

Colleen Cowie: To get started do you want to introduce yourself with your name and your pronouns?

Neev: My real name is Niamh spelt with the Irish spelling, but my stage-name is Neev. Essentially, it’s a bit easier to spell and understand if you’re not Irish-Gaelic — which I’m not either! And my pronouns are she/her.

I know you’re originally from Glasgow, but now you’re based in London?

I’ve been in London for about two and a half years now. Before that I grew up in Glasgow and I went to uni in Edinburgh for 4 years and then moved to London.

When did you start playing music? Do you have any early memories that got you excited about making music?

I think I’ve been really lucky in that respect. I’ve been playing music on-and-off since I was about 12 or 13. My first instrument that I started on was actually piano, and I learned that formally under a specific method. I feel like all of that is gone now. It’s terrible, really. Because it’s just not as portable an instrument. But I picked up the guitar when I was maybe 14, 15. A lot of covers, a lot of tabs. And I did that up until the age of 18. I didn’t really write until quite late on.

But in terms of early inspiration, a moment that really leapt out to me was, there’s this festival in Edinburgh and it’s called Wide Days, and it’s similar to the Great Escape festival in Brighton, or a very very small SXSW. It’s a merge of the music industry and music performance as a festival. Basically I went because my mum, she is a director and she had worked with putting soundtracks to film. She was on a panel there. So I got to go along to this big festival with her, and hear about the industry and different musicians in Scotland. 

She took me to the staff party at I think someone’s flat in Edinburgh, and a folk singer called Rachel Sermanni performed as an informal thing in this living room. To this day she is one of my biggest inspirations as a singer and a writer and a performer. I was like 15 years old, sat on the floor of this living room. 

It was such an amazing performance and I think it was one of the first times where I thought about the effect that you can have with your voice and a guitar. That specific combination to me is so much bigger than itself — the dynamics that you can create and the different sounds. Since then that’s really been a big focus for me.

You’ve put out a couple singles throughout the past year, and now you have this EP, Forgiving Light. When did these songs come together?

They were all written around the time that I decided to start performing and releasing and taking that quite seriously. It really happened at the beginning of last year and no sooner, to be honest. Basically at the end of 2018 I wrote “Forgiving Light.” That’s one of the first tracks that pushed me to start performing and recording. My previous singles, “Across the Glass” and “Burning to Dust” were two rare, old songs that I wrote when I was 18, 19 and brought back and tried to revive. 

So I had these two singles and then I started writing “Forgiving Light” and “Excuse Me” came quickly after that. Then it was “Black Over Grey” and “Tunnel Vision,” but they all came in quick succession. It was sort of the process of starting to write, being encouraged by that writing, starting to perform a bit, meeting a lot of performers quickly, seeing a lot of performances, being inspired by that, and writing more. 

“Black Over Grey” was one that I wrote in conjunction with a friend who was filming a short film at the time in Denver, Colorado. And they did a film called “Bottle By the Sea.” So that was a little bit different. So it was basically the beginning of last year, and then I really fleshed out the songs by playing them live with my band, who I started working with in the middle of last year. Recording the first two singles as well I think really informed how I was going to record these, because these felt so much more like a group.

It’s been a pretty busy year for you, it sounds like.

It was, yeah. It was really crazy. It was like, “If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it. I’m going to go head-first.” It was just a year of learning curves in all of the best ways.

I know over the past year a lot has happened, there has been a pandemic. How did that influence your timeline and the creation of this project?

That’s actually a really good question because it did of course, like it did for everyone, in a lot of different ways. The biggest thing actually was, this final track “Excuse Me” wasn’t meant to be on the EP. It was going to be an acoustic piano track that I was going to do later down the line, because there was a piano version of it. That may still happen. But basically, it was meant to be another song called “Interim.” 

I wanted to take the advantages of the EP being self-released. I can meet my own deadlines, which was really nice. A lot of the songs came out as they were ready. “Interim,” was meant to be the fourth track on the EP. It’s a really, really big track. It has probably the most instrumentally that I have on any songs. I had a lot of help and collaboration from a lot of great people. But the final thing that was meant to go on it was drums, and basically everything started to lockdown when we were going to record the drums and I really, really wanted loud, recorded drums on it. So because of that, and because it’s a very big song, I’m quite happy to park it and come back and release it when it should be released. I think it could definitely be a single because it’s much bigger. So I decided to park that and “Excuse Me” was recorded where you are seeing right now [Niamh’s bedroom], this exact space, which is a big change for me. 

The EP itself, the way in which it was made and recorded is very much an evolution of how I learn. The first couple of tracks were done in a studio with a lot of help in terms of production and engineering. But as the tracks go on, it becomes more and more of an independent project, partly because of Covid, partly because I wanted to take on those roles. So instead of “Interim” it is a fully done myself DIY track from my bedroom called “Excuse Me.”

That’s cool that you get both of those approaches on this EP; you have those tracks that were recorded in a studio with more collaboration, and then this newer song that you recorded at home in your bedroom. How was that process for you, going from a studio to recording and doing everything yourself?

I was really grateful for the process itself, because I think I’ve always wanted a bit more ownership in terms of recording and production. I’ve gone into production from the beginning, even if it was someone else doing it, wanting to learn and wanting to own that process myself at some point. Mainly because it gives you a lot of freedom. And I found it really has. 

I would never have done it solo from the beginning at all, because you meet so many fantastic people who you want to work with in the future. I am a real collaborator, I really love to collaborate with people on my projects, on other people’s projects — it’s a really big part of why I’m doing this at all. So in terms of collaboration and meeting people, it was a really, really great first step. But I think I’ve always wanted ownership over the process. 

Covid kind of pushed me to learn that stuff faster and concentrate on it a bit more, and give it a bit more time, because we all could. So lockdown did mean that I was really concentrated on mixing and production. Actually looking back now — because everyone’s concept of time is ruined by this year [laughs] — but actually looking back, the amount of demos that I turned out and writing that I did because I just got my head down, it really gave me the chance to develop my own skills in that area. 

It’s really exciting, and it’s a much more sustainable thing for me really, being able to do a lot of it from my bedroom. I’m really lucky in that a lot of music that I do, I can do from my bedroom. A lot of it is just vocals and guitar and maybe the odd hitting pieces of my furniture here and there for percussion. So it’s been a great development and learning curve. 

Those are really useful skills to have; to be able to record on your own and produce your own music. That’s really valuable and I bet that adds another cool layer — you’re writing these songs and coming up with the lyrics but you also get to imagine, “What kind of sounds do I want? How do I want the tone to feel in this section?”

I actually think that that’s probably one of the most valuable things — you’re able to think about songs as you write them, and how you’re going to record them. A while ago, I sent a song called “Bookmark” that I recorded a small demo of — I think it was at the end of last year — I sent it to a friend who has been mixing and producing much longer than I have and he was like, “I can tell that you’re beginning to think about your songs in the way that you will record them.” I don’t even think it’s something that I got at that point, but this year has been so good for it. 

Yesterday I recorded a song in its entirety, and I’d written that song the day before. That’s a really big thing for me, I don’t want to say that as if it were second-nature at all. It’s just being able to have that thinking and as you write you’re able to actually hear it. That turnaround is lovely. 

I think a lot of people are probably trying to pick up those skills right now, especially with lockdown and having more time on their hands and also being able to just download a DAW from the internet and learn some of that themselves. Do you have any tips or advice for people who are trying to learn this themselves or pick up some of these producer skills?

I think the encouraging thing to remember in learning how to mix and produce is that, I actually think the only way you can learn is by doing it and making mistakes and fixing those mistakes and spending time on it. I really don’t think you can do a sort of step-by-step class and then know. Because it depends on your music and it depends on what you want. If it’s sounding how you want it to sound, then you’re doing it right. That’s basically what mixing and production is — it’s getting music to sound how you want it to sound. So if you’re doing that, you’re doing really, really well. 

I’d say that the two things you just have to learn the hard way are compression and EQing. I sent my producer-mixer guru a voice note the other day like, “Could you just give me a bit of advice on this?” He was like, “Those are the two things you just need to work out yourself.” I think that’s actually a really encouraging element of it — it is really DIY. Keep going, keep spending time on it.

I want to dig into the lyrics a little bit — we’ve been talking a lot about the production. I know there’s an overall theme on the EP of relationships and conflict-resolving between people. Was that something you were thinking about intentionally as a theme, or did it just kind of happen?

It’s actually such a great question because it definitely wasn’t an intentional thought process at all. I’ve actually been speaking about this with my friend this weekend (we’re working on an EP together — it’s for her, but I’m helping). She was talking about the idea of theme and what it should look like as a package. I basically said to her, I wouldn’t think about that element of it too much. Because the theme that other people take from it can be completely different, so you can only go into this with your perspective, your music, but it will become someone else’s very soon. And also, it actually was subconscious, I think because they were all written around the same time, the theme came out very organically. 

I think there was an element as well of exploring metaphors or ways to communicate things and liking those things. Elements of light and dark that come through in a lot of songs and the way that I talk visually. I was also gigging a lot, and a lot of the songwriting that you’re doing is about how you are saying that to an audience and I think that factored in a lot. I think the idea of conflict-resolving and interaction within a song has a lot to do with how you interact with a crowd. The song “Interim” that is not coming out on the EP but will soon is very much a dialogue with the audience. I think that’s how that theme developed. 

I think folk music and the singer-songwriter genre lends itself to the idea that the interaction you’re relating to is somewhat romantic. What I was trying to explore at that time was writing about a whole variety of relationships — familial, though friendship, even strangers that you’ve met. I think all of those things really informed that period of songwriting.

I like that a lot. I think a lot of my favorite songs are ones that explore all of those other relationships. Because so many folk, pop — so many songs center on romantic relationships, but I love listening to songs that are about friendships or parent relationships. There are so many other dynamics to explore there. 

And I think arguably, those relationships have a lot more substance. “Interim” is a song that is about a relationship with someone that you know you’re always going to have a relationship with, whether you like it or not. There’s something about songwriting that explores all of those different avenues. Songwriting is a really good channel to do that. The problem is, with the form and the tradition and history of folk and singer-songwriter, it comes across as a romantic song so much. Because of what people’s assumptions are. I do that all the time. There are so many songs I’ve listened to, and I’ve gone, “Oh that’s heartbreaking” or “That breakup must have been terrible.” And it’s about grief or it’s about a friendship. It’s an interesting thing to try and explore. And I continue to, I do try to.

Is there anything in particular that you miss most about playing live now?

Everything. I’m one of those people where you can take me to a gig where there’s 4 people int he audience and the music’s a bit weird or it’s a bit of a dingy place, and I don’t care. I just really love live performance. It’s something that I’ve always really enjoyed — not just as a performer, as an audience member. I just think it’s such a great way to communicate and connect.

I think probably the thing I miss most about performing is [playing] with my band. It was just such a great exercise last year and this year. It just brings so much to music, through collaborating with people. I think one of the greatest things about getting into music and performing and recording is I get to work with my friends.

“Tunnel Vision,” which is the first track of the EP, the people doing strings on that song are my two aunties. When they were around in Scotland for Christmas we just all did it in the living room one day. I love being able to connect with people through music, so I think that’s probably what I miss the most.

That’s so cool though that your family just jumped in on this EP, that they get a spot.

Yeah, I really enjoyed having them on. “Tunnel Vision” has so many people on it. It has my friends doing drums, I have two friends doing harmonies, I have friends that pitched in doing engineering. As I said, I just love to collaborate. And my aunties — that’s definitely not the end of them being on a track. 

Where can we find you on the internet, on social media?

I’m kind of everywhere, really. You can find me on Spotify under Neev. I’m on Instagram as well, under @NeevMusic. I’d say I use that quite frequently, that’s a good one to find me on. And my YouTube channel, which I’m trying to build and contribute to more frequently. And that’s the same, Neev Music. I’m trying to work more on video actually, just video content. So look out for that on my YouTube channel, there will be more shortly. 

To close out, is there anyone who you would want to give a shoutout to?

I think the main person is my musical partner in crime, who’s been around this weekend and I’ve been working with a lot. Her name is Frankie Morrow, at the moment that is her stage name although that might be subject to change. But you’ll have to wait to hear more on that. We met basically when I started performing and she is an unbelievable collaborator. All she does is bring fantastic things to the table. Her backing vocals are on so many of my songs. And her clarinet will be on a track, we just recorded some today. She’s just a wonderful person to bounce ideas off and improvise with and collaborate with. A lot of thanks goes to her.

Thank you so much for chatting with me today, this was really fun.

No problem, I really enjoyed it. 


Forgiving Light is out now on Spotify.

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