Tyler sat down with Nora Toutain over Zoom to discuss reconciles her Moroccan heritage, Canadian residence and the influence of the pandemic in an amazing show of adaptation. The elegant songstress’ new album, Grounding Place, Vol 1. is out now on all platforms.
Finding your place in a constantly growing and expanding music industry can be tough. The unique voice that will make you standout amongst your peers while simultaneously feeding them is hard. As a fickle audience can be a challenge. Now in the year 2020, that task is amplified as the world is on fire. A year that has even had superstars change their approach to releasing music and marketing it.
COVID-19 has in many ways put the world on hold and left some artists at a wits end on what to do with projects that weren’t meant for a world like this. But through it all, some artists believe they have a unique voice that shines a light into this darkness: a light that pierces the soul and amplifies the light we have in ourselves. For Moroccan born, Montreal based singer/songwriter Nora Toutain, her debut project Grounding Place, Vol. 1, brings that joy and happiness in the form of extremely diverse production and vocals to shine that light.
Originally planned for release in May, the tape is the first part in a two pronged project to introduce the artist to the world with her style of emotive singing and songwriting showcasing what she brings to the table. Releasing her debut single “Bad at Love” last November, Toutain caught my eye with her exuberant production and dazzling delivery of vocals that just warmed the soul. Now, almost a year later, she’s here to present herself in full musical form.
Grounding Place showcases Toutain’s range. Bouncing from contemporary R&B melodies, to traditional rock chords, to experimental, explosive sounds, she shows she can do it all well but still have a sound that’s uniquely her. She’s a sun. Bright and hot that’s here to shine on the cold, creeping fall days. She’s lighting a match of fiery joy and raw honesty, Toutain is the spark that sets souls ablaze and helps them find peace in music. It’s a timeless attempt at bringing smiles to faces through rhythm and rhyme. Her connection to music is something spiritual and personal.
To get to know more about her and the project, read the transcript of the interview done over Zoom on October 1st, lightly edited for content and clarity.
Tyler: Been a long time coming. I think almost a year now since the release of “Bad at Love”. And here we are. Grounding Place, Vol. 1. How’s it feel?
Nora: Feels surreal. Particularly because before I released “Bad at Love” the whole album was already finished. So it’s actually been a longer time coming for me. It feels like “Oh, I didn’t even think of how I felt.” I’m just living with it and thinking of so many avenues to adjust to this COVID situation. But it feels good because I took my time to release what I thought were the most commercial tunes. I love that I took my time. To present the project bit by bit. This is now. This is Vol. 1, and it feels like good timing. I believe in divine timing, even more so, because the launch was supposed to happen in May.
I’m guessing the launch got cancelled after COVID?
Yeah, it was right after my songwriting residency. We were talking when I was there in April and getting ready for the launch in May. But all that got canceled. So it got pushed. And that allowed me to do a video for “Women”, which was not planned because I edited it on my own because I had time. It felt right. This is what COVID taught me. Surrender. Go with the flow.
The project sounds summer-y, bright. It’s optimistic. But I think what’s weird about it is even though it’s being released in the midst of all this, it’s such a positive record that I feel energized when I listen to it.
What is so funny is that you asked me this. I even wondered “What the hell are you doing Nora? It’s like a crisis and you’re just releasing like this, this party bop of a record.” So bright and all full of, like, bright colors. I was worried that it is up-lifting. It’s gonna be a big contrast, a bubble of an explosion of sunshine in the midst of all this.
Was it intentional? To release a record that was this bright.
It wasn’t planned. I was really adapting and adjusting. Because I used to think of seasons for release. I wanted to make sure I would drop and fit with the vibe, with the spirits. Honor the era that we’re in. Going with “Women” was, for me, very important at that moment to talk about bringing the woman back, to bring a queen back to herself and start really honoring our everyday woman. The ones that we forget to celebrate sometimes. Not the ladies we see on the billboards, but, like, our everyday women. So that was a topic that was very current. Same thing for “Not an interlude.” Women’s rights. But then something happened with COVID where I was like, “You know what, it’s all so scattered right now. The rules may not apply in the same way.”
So for sure, I won’t lie. I was disappointed when that happened. It was meant to be spring to welcome us into the summer. And then Vol. 2 is supposed to come out in the winter because that’s literally the opposite. So I was disappointed for sure. It kind of messes up with the colors that I want to play with in those seasons. But then I was like, you know what, just let it go. And, you know, move on to the other project. I proved I prioritized them because of what I had built up with my fans. I didn’t want to let them down. I’m just starting to see a little engagement. Like I’m starting to really build my little village slowly but surely. And so I was like, I want to continue to feed that. That’s where it came from.
It’s a gradual process. And I think you’ve let your fans into your life with this project. With that said, What did you want to say about yourself with this project? You showcased some of your Moroccan heritage in the “Women” video? What other aspects of you did you want to make sure clearly translated over?
Honestly, this first project is really just sharing my debut in every possible way. It’s my first time releasing singles. It’s my first time releasing an album. I’m really revealing myself for the very first time.
All the songs are your first you’ve ever recorded?
There were the first songs that I wrote. So they have very fresh energy. That’s why I attributed this album with words like sun, fire. It’s circular in movement. It’s Africa. I was born and raised in Morocco. And then I came here [Montreal] at the age of 18. It’s the beginning of the journey. There’s impulsive energy to it. This is me. Nora. Birth is Vol.1. Then Vol. 2 is another vibe. It’s introspection. It’s like, okay, I did my little explosion. Like a little coming out party. Now let’s get to another layer.
Reigning in the energy of the explosion and harnessing it to look deep inside.
Exactly. So to answer your question, what I want to say is that I didn’t want to say much at all. It was a natural, impulsive desire to just share my experience. This truly the beginning of the journey.
About the record itself. It’s so fast. It’s a short record. But in terms of musicality, it has range. What would you say are your biggest musical influences?
It ranges from record to record. Michael Jackson, D’Angelo, Hiatus Kaiyote, to traditional Moroccan rhythm, to some experimental stuff I heard when I was a kid that I can’t even recall now. And then obviously a lot of 90s sounds.
I can hear it on the record. “Not an Interlude” stands out.
I remember channeling the ‘90s for that in the chorus.
The instrumentation all over the album has this feeling of soul to it.
Yes, exactly. It kind of takes it there. And then you know, “Victoriaville” too and “Women”…
You know, a funny story. Actually. I don’t know if I told you this. Malika [her friend and publicist] might’ve told you. But when I wrote “Women”, there was this thing. One of the latest albums of D’Angelo, I think it’s called…
It was Black Messiah if I’m not mistaken.
Yes! So do you remember the song “Betray My Heart” on that album?
Yes, I do. I actually have the whole album on CD.
Really? Awesome! Okay, so you know how it goes.
[She imitates the beat and we sing a bit of it together.]
There’s this swinging bassline. Then it hits you with a bad beat. So when I wrote the song, I heard the instrumentations, the chords, the lyrics. But what’s so funny that when I was hitting the chorus, I also heard “Man of the World” [by Fleetwood Mac]. But I heard that swinging baseline that was inspired by that song by D’Angelo. And then you know, what’s so funny when I brought it to the studio to Chris he had another reference from the same album.
That just shows how much you both almost related on that level. Like it’s when you create with someone and you meet creatively. You just connect.
That’s exactly what I told myself. And this is why for me, it’s more than just you know, work. Collaboration is like symbiosis, like, Okay, are we on the same wavelength?
Bridging the gap and becoming one with the process.
Exactly. It’s beautiful.
So this project showcases the spark of what became Nora. It’s a fresh springtime. I think these are records that can not only uplift but help appreciate life. People have a hard time looking into themselves and finding a light during these dark times.
Absolutely. If it brings some joy into people’s hearts when they hear it, then it’s worth it. That’s the power of music. I just write from the heart. Like, I don’t think of what it’s going to do to people. I just tune into my emotions, and then I just share them unconditionally with all the love I have of music. So I would hope that it would, it would speak to people because it comes from a genuine place.
I feel that in the lyrics. Speaking of lyrics, the majority of it is in English. Other parts, French, and the last part?
[laughs] Arabic yes from what I grew up with.
On “Café Au Lait”. It’s beautiful. What did that mean to you?
That’s a big one. I kind of wish I had revealed it as a single. Post album, I’m going to do like a little section of just explaining it. So this is our rock fusion song. You hear the drums and this bit of distortion. So production-wise, we drew some inspiration from “Don’t Hurt Yourself” by Beyonce.
Okay, I can see that. Mostly in the drums and guitar.
This Jack White feel. Chris, my producer, drew some inspiration when he heard that pretty rocky riff. But the rest is directly inspired by Ganesha, which is a Moroccan style that’s influenced by SubSaharan cultures. So straight up like Africa, it’s like the ancestor of the blues that we have. It’s a heritage of the blues that we have as one of the traditional sizes in Morocco. That’s played with percussions. Actually, hold on a second. I have them right here. I’m going to show them to you.
Nora Toutain – Women
Wait, what? You have the instrument.
[Nora proceeds and grabs her instrument called the krakeb. They almost seem like small black tambourines, linked and played in twos] I’m gonna play them right now because they’re so loud, but it’s their job. [Notices other people outside during the zoom call.] Yeah, so I’ll just play very quietly.
[We laugh. Nora plays and tunes it to start doing the percussion section of the song.]
We have a heritage or tradition that we have in Morocco.
[The tune changes and gets slower]
Its slaves from the Sub-Sahara that were coming from Mali from Senegal. That came to Morocco, a very, very, very long time ago. And these sounds were supposed to imitate the sound of the chains. They put them in dresses. They would wear like traditional blue dresses that would refer to the ocean referring to freedom. And the thing is a lot of these slaves that came from Africa, were from the sub-Sahara, because Morocco isn’t Africa. But these days it comes from the south, a lot of them stayed in Morocco, they never ended up there. Being they never ended up traveling.
The cultures seemed to fuse and got joined at the heart.
Yeah, they never left to go to Europe and just stayed in Morocco. This is how it became part of the Moroccan ethnicity because this was a very long time ago. So this is why in Morocco, for instance, if you go to the south, you’ll find the population in Morocco is mostly brown and black sometimes. In the north, it’s more whites because it’s more heritage people that came from the Middle East. We’re talking about ancestry. A lot of centuries ago. So all this to say that the south of Morocco is very inspired by SubSaharan music. It’s a style that speaks to me like crazy when I discovered it when I was a teenager, when I went to the cradle of that genre in the south of Morocco. I was grateful enough to spend about a whole week with a mentor there that taught me. He taught me the meaning of the lyrics. It’s a very spiritual style. It’s supposed to bring people into a trance. It’s a piece of healing music.
It’s really the ancestry of blues in a sense. They have like these whole rituals, where they’ll put the people that run the ceremony, they’ll see the aura of the people that are falling in trends. They’ll put a cloth on them to sort of protect them during their trip.The cloth will have vivid color. That is the color that will be representative of what they’re going through right now. Like how Indian medicine has each chakra have a specific color. So they’ll put specific color on them just to like as a way to protect their spiritual journey right now.
So each color means something in order to protect them. Either it’s as healing or as protection or as bravery or it can be like courage, anything of that nature.
Absolutely. Like if someone, for instance, is in the room. By the way, first of all, they don’t let anyone come into the room. They check your energy and your sort of your aura. And they don’t let anyone come in because it’s very sacred. You have someone that just checks and he’s like, you can go you can come and then sometime they will not let you in. It’s super spiritual, maybe like they won’t let you in because they can sense that maybe you’re not ready for that shit. Like you’re not ready because what you’re about to go through right now is so deep. Maybe you’re not ready, because it’s intense. You got to be like guided by a spiritual guide. So it’s heavy.
It’s like one big vibe check. It’s like they’re scanning you before you go inside and bring new energy into the environment.
Absolutely. Absolutely. Absolutely.
Oh, that is amazing. It’s funny that in spirit experience with color, it’s almost important to you now because you were mentioning before how you want to bring a certain color with your music. Everything is guided by color.
Absolutely. So, to go back to “Café Au Lait”, this song where I play these percussion and the title contains cafe, which is French. But the song is in Arabic and in English. The title means coffee with milk. It’s because, in Morocco, they will always call me like that to insinuate that I was half European, half African. That’s how they would call me. Like, you know, the people in my area. A highly Arabic speaking place.
So for that song, I opened up about the beauty yet to the complexity of what it is to have been brought up with two different nationalities, two different cultures. You feel like you fit everywhere, but at the same time nowhere because it’s just an identity quest. Especially because I lived in India on top of that for three years. And then later on I came to Canada. So it’s this big, you know, cultural mess and beauty at the same time.
You gave multiple parts of yourself. Showing your family in the “Women” video. How’s the support from family and friends?
Huge. I was not expecting that. Especially for women. Like, I was amazed by the love I received from Morocco. Like even press wise. I was not expecting all that. When I write songs, I just immerse myself so much in the creative process. I never think of, like, the reach. I just write from the heart. And I’m, sometimes I’m even shy to share these songs. You know how it is, you’re a writer.
I do. You’re giving up a part of yourself. And as they say, artists are sensitive.
When you start off, you have no idea what the repercussions are gonna be like. How are people going to receive it? Sometimes I even wonder, are they even going to like it? Do you know?
It can be nerve wracking.
That’s why I was like, Well, I was reassured and humbled and obviously so happy, to have had all these beautiful responses from Morocco for a woman. Then seeing the reach on social media. Growing slowly, but surely. This is extremely humbling.
I think you’re doing a great job, you and your team. You’re very understanding of rhythm and time. And I know you went to school for music and were raised by it. How has that influenced you now?
It completed another aspect of my journey. Because in Morocco, I played music in a very self-taught way, with the ear. We would jam throughout the week. Theory is not at the forefront of musical practice. It’s very intuitive. Well, you know, like a lot of black American music in the states as well was like that. But initially, it’s a lot more about the instant expression. So, what it did is that it definitely completed a circle in me. It nourished that whole intuition, ear based aspect of me as a musician, and brought that whole comprehension of music, the technique for me. It really added a lot to my vocal technique. This is where I feel like I grew a lot by going to school because I was accepted in performance so that program was actually very hard to get into. You have a one on one on one lesson every week with a teacher.
So this is where I feel like school added a lot. And then when I emerged, having immersed myself for four years in jazz, I knew what to do. We would study jazz standards, I would jam with other school folks, and afterward, we would do combos. I love jazz. I miss it. I think, maybe one day like in five years from now, a straight-forward jazz record will be made. Going to music school allowed me to become a better musician in technique and jazz vocabulary.
What do you say? Are you more inclined to the intuitive/feeling or the inquisitive?
The feeling but you know what, it’s funny. I do have a science degree before going to music University. So I love exploring theories. [She stops to think.] Let me be specific. I can lean on a little bit more to the theory side because I can be like a music nerd. Like, I love extensions, and harmonies, and cool baselines. So when it comes to theory, I feel like I can insert educational aspects of music. But when it comes to rhythm, and groove, this is when I’m full-on intuition. It’s raw. You feel it. This is what describes the first album. The music kind of reflects these two elements. So they are very primal and instinctive.
It’s like the A and B type personality. It affects the music-making process too. It’s said to be distinct but we’re a mixture.
We are a mixture. With music though, I’m more of the feeling. I think we built such a positive record. Usually people, like, associate that with sadder records like positive records. I just kickstart something in the brain. That’s how I got Vol. 1.
Nora Toutain – Bad at Love
So for my last question, if you could associate three words with the album, what would they be?
Three words. What would it be? That’s hard. Can I do five?
[laughs] I mean you can go ahead.
Okay, let me start with three. Maybe I’ll add another word. Sun for sure is number one. Hmm. Sun because like Vol. 2 is the moon, you know? So sun…fire too. And Africa.
Travel and beginning. Yeah, I would say five words. Sun fire, Africa, travel in every possible way, like physically traveling, but also movements like dance, it’s because it circulates a lot. So that’s why travel is important. Also traveling like with yourself, like, going for your dreams. Dreaming that like there’s a lot of it moves a lot. Then beginning because it refers to that first part. You know, they can get that first energy that’s, like, impulsive. It’s a burst. When kids just like to say impulsively what they feel. It has like that energy. It’s not thought out.
Are you feeling that moment?
I am. I’m feeling my beginning.