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nina gala on “we looked like angels,” Her New Album, and Baltimore

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I don’t have synesthesia. I don’t “see” sound or music in color, floating out of the speaker in a rainbow mist. But I do strongly associate colors with music, to the point where it’s self-evident in my head; a song can be blue, as plainly and simply as my bedroom walls are gray. A song like “Fool in the Rain” by Led Zeppelin is bright red, like a tropical flower; “Cybele’s Reverie” by Stereolab is a sunny shade of yellow; “This Must Be the Place” by Talking Heads is a pointillist mottle of orange and pink. Sonny Rollins’ saxophone sound on “St. Thomas” is maroon, and Stan Getz’ sax on “The Girl from Ipanema” is mint green. Joni Mitchell’s voice is faded cream, and Nico’s is bruise-purple.

As for nina gala’s voice, I knew from the moment I first heard her: silver. Not silver as a synonym for gray, but the kind of dazzling, vivid silver that, when the light hits it just right, almost hurts to look at. gala is an excellent songwriter, and “we looked like angels” (no capitals) has plenty to recommend on that front: she dabbles in color association herself when she sings that she “feels like lime green/so special,” and “wet thighed and sky blue” is a hell of a potent image. But the star of the show is that marvel of a voice, wounded and wounding in equal measure, vibrating in the air like a set of church bells.

Tell me about the creation of “we looked like angels.”

I wrote “we looked like angels” and the entirety of my debut, swan heart, shortly after the end of a long term partnership. I was in a place where I was thinking a lot about the closeness and intimacy I shared with the person I let go – at first a really painful experience. Writing “angels” helped me to process those feelings. It encouraged me to go deep into the memories I was avoiding, and appreciate their beauty, even though I knew I would never experience them again. It was a powerful moment I am grateful to have documented in the song.

When I went into the studio with Erik Schwarzenberg, who co-produced the album, and was the principal engineer, we focused on capturing that story and the emotional essence of the song. Erik was great at creating a gentle environment where I could relax and channel those emotions. Once we had what we felt like was an authentic rendering, we thoughtfully added other elements; bass, percussion and vocal harmonies, which created a heavenly effect and made the song shine.

I absolutely love the vocals on this. Do you have vocal influences, or do you just channel something inside you?

It’s so special to me when people connect with my voice, so thank you. Singing and songwriting for me, more than anything, is a matter of internal channeling. It connects me to my soul, my inner child and my wisdom. My voice can be a bit rough around the edges for some, but I appreciate its rawness. I once heard beauty is the enemy of art, and that stuck with me, because my songs aren’t beautiful all of the time, but neither is life.

You came up in the Baltimore music scene, which some of us may not know much about. Tell us a bit about what it’s like?

Having grown up just outside of the city, I always understood Baltimore to be an artistic place, but it wasn’t until I moved here about eight years ago that I discovered just how rich and unique Baltimore’s underground arts community really is. For the first time in my life, I was seeing bands perform in living rooms, experiencing mind-expanding art pieces in warehouses, and listening to tender poetry readings in dive bars. I was equally stunned and enamored.

Part of me always knew that I wanted to be a songwriter. I just never found myself in a place where it made sense or with people that supported that dream. I remember standing in some of those rooms thinking I can do this, and everyone around me echoed that sentiment. By the end of my second summer in the city, I played my first show at Charm City Art Space, a venue that resembled a garage and I believe was mostly run by high school kids at the time. I went home after that show and I couldn’t sleep the entire night. Being invited to share my gift and participate in a community that I had grown to love so much was one of the most exciting things to ever happen to me.

Do you have an idea for your next album?

With swan heart premiering this fall, I’d like to take some time to really honor that work with a slow and intentional release. It took two years to create so I’m not in a rush to start making something new. At the same time, I’m always writing, and I know that new work is always on the horizon. I think writing songs will be something I do for the rest of my life, so they’ll always be seedlings of ideas in my mind- phrases, riffs and stories, growing slowly, waiting for their time.

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