Photo by Miroslav Dufresne

Safia Nolin comes out from the dark

An interview with the celebrated singer-songwriter ahead of the biggest concert of her career.

When Safia Nolin’s 2015 debut album Limoilou was being considered by long list jurors for the Polaris Music Prize, a journalist from somewhere west of la belle province asked Quebec jurists if the lyrics were as beautiful and moving as she felt they must be, despite not understanding them.

“I think it’s an amazing effort, to begin with, for someone to pay attention to any art or music that is not in their native language,” says Nolin, who headlines les Francos this Sunday night for what will be the biggest show of her career so far.

The outspoken folk-pop singer/songwriter has always been an open book about her struggles with anxiety and depression, and while her music may too-easily be qualified as sad, to the naked ear, there is nothing superficial about the raw emotion she conveys through her stripped-down melodies and mot-juste observations, even if they are so personal that at times the listener can only speculate on where the feelings come from. Her 2018 sophomore, Dans le Noir, continues that stream of consciousness and her growth as a person and artist is audible.

We spoke by phone to catch up in an interview conducted mostly in French and translated here to the best of my abilities, hopefully without missing any of the nuance Nolin always brings out, whether on record, in her goosebump-inducing live performances or her always enjoyable, no-bullshit media appearances.

Darcy MacDonald: This winter I was Dans le Noir, pas mal. How about you? Are you in the dark, or in a good place lately?

Safia Nolin: No, not at all! It hasn’t been the same for me at all lately. I have a lot of anxiety and began treatment recently, and things are going a lot better. I’ve been getting up at five in the morning! I came out of a pretty dark phase. So things are really getting a lot better.

DM: When you wake up, does it feel different? Are you like, “Okay, I want this day, and it’s time to work!” Or how does it feel for you?

SN: I wake up and I sort of have a routine for myself. I do a lot of reading.

DM: And what was it before?

SN: Well, before I’d get up early but not too early, and kind of just whenever. Really what I wanted the most was to get away from my depressive thought patterns and from not being careful with myself. Waking up much earlier gives me time to avoid that.

DM: Were you ever a drug user?

SN: I quit four years ago all at once. I smoked a lot of weed and used other drugs, and I drank a lot after I quit weed. And I quit it all cold turkey, which I was pretty fortunate to be able to do, because it’s really hard for a lot of people to do that.

DM: There’s definitely a difference between being sober and actual recovery. Are you doing cognitive therapy?

SN: Yes, and I think it’s something that should be taught in schools. But there are problems (people can have) that are bigger and can’t be helped only by therapy.

DM: When I did cognitive therapy they asked us what emotions are and people said all kinds of things, but ultimately there are only five. It’s basically just that movie Inside Out.

SN: Yeah, that movie pretty much says it all!

DM: You’ve always been really open about your depression and anxiety. Do you remember the time a few years ago when you were gonna be flying (for the first time on an airplane) to tour France, after the concert shooting? I think we saw each other the day of the Brussels attack…

SN: Yes, Brussels was on lockdown then and there, that day, and I was freaking out. I was two seconds away from pulling the plug on going.

DM: If you reflect back on how your mind was working back then, as an example, how do you think you’d manage those thought patterns today?

SN: I’m a lot more rational these days. My ideas then were all over the place and my train of thought was really random. I think today I’d be more, like, okay, it sucks, but the chances I’m gonna get shot are not really that high, and that I’d want to go anyways because it was really worth the effort of doing.

DM: And how does your newer approach to dealing with emotions come out in the music you’re making now?

SN: It’s definitely a lot easier for me to describe and understand my own emotions and ideas, in writing and in the composition aspect of my music. It’s easier to see what’s real and not real, and the texts in my music reflect that. It’s amazing to have these tools. I mean I still have a long way to go but things are a lot more clear in my head and everything no longer feels like the end of the world.

My anxiety always brought me to the worst case scenario. My mind would go everywhere. I’d get a headache and think I was gonna die. I wouldn’t like a part of a song and decide that the album was gonna crash and burn. Stuff like that. It’s as if your mind is looking for things like that to focus on.

DM: I mean, it’s also normal for people to consider those things to a certain degree, but not to the extreme that clinical anxiety brings on. So it can be misunderstood. Do you have any advice for people who live with people who suffer from those kinds of disorders on how to understand it?

SN: One thing that’s fucking important is to accept and understand that it’s real. Many don’t. Saying things like, “It’s all in your head” doesn’t help at all. Regular logic doesn’t really apply, and thinking people are only looking for attention (when they actually suffer from anxiety) is just not okay. No one does it for attention. That’s the first thing. What’s normal for one person may not be for another and learning to accept that can help.

DM: There’s also tons of people who say they have anxiety as if it’s just a word.

SN: Yeah, it’s something that people can just say when they’re having regular anxious feelings and it can devalue the reality of living with it all the time. There are a lot of people who have it, but it’s like, for me, if I’m just all over the place, I’ll never say, “Oh, I have ADHD!” because I don’t, and there are many people who actually have it and it’s a real condition.

I recently actually heard someone say they were “a little autistic.” J’ai trouvé ça vraiment weird! I was like, “Ben, non.”

DM: (Laughing) It’s not funny but it’s like, “No, you don’t have ‘autism.’ You just don’t listen.”

SN: Totally. People claim they have ADHD but really they’re just on their iPhone.

DM: So, les Francofolies! Ready for the big show?

SN: I’m rehearsing non-stop. It’s a little stressful but I’m really happy. This will be the biggest show of my career so far.

DM: Did you see Loud at Bell Centre?

SN: Yes and it was amazing! I found it really like, a conquering feat! And hearing French music at the Bell Centre with a full house was incredible. It was inspiring.

DM: So the show for Sunday…

SN: It’s gonna be special. It’s a show we put together especially for les Francosfolies. We have a full band, and it’s gonna be really grunge. There are special guests that have been announced and others that haven’t been. I can’t say much else but it’s gonna be vraiment nice and I hope people come out because it’s the biggest show of my life! ■

Safia Nolin performs with special guests at Place des Festivals as part of les Francos de Montréal on Sunday, June 16, 9 p.m., free