Noya Rao Talk Trees, Karate, and The Creative Process

From the fertile ground of Leeds’ verdant music scene springs Noya Rao. The band, whose name refers to the mystical Amazonian ‘tree of light,’ describe themselves as ‘electronic soul’ – deriving their sound from the playfully fluttering vocals of Olivia Bhattacharjee, the OB6 synth, and a rhythm section that specialise in getting heads nodding. It was their Owls EP that first got my attention. But seeing them live – before lockdown began, and before the release of their latest EP, Stay – was what really got me hooked. I wanted to find out more. Here’s what they had to say for themselves.

Listen: Noya Rao – Stay

What’s the new record all about?

Tom: The tracks have each got their own story. It’s usually an insight into Liv’s world and mind, being the lyricist, but the lyrics are usually one of the later things to be written and so the words take great inspiration from the tonality and character of each piece. It’s a very responsive way of writing lyrics.

Liv: Each song is about human emotion or a human condition – lustful love, unconditional love, struggle, and loneliness. Aurally, it’s the OB6 synth that links the tunes together. It features heavily and is such a monster of a synth.

The EP represents a new era for our band. We had a turbulent year with leaving Gondwana Records and our bassist Jim leaving the band. The band had to grow and change and the new EP represents a fresh start. It’s still the Noya sound – I don’t think we could ever venture away from that as it’s so intrinsic to the members and Tom’s production skills – but the sound has grown and evolved. We selected the songs on this EP for their energy, and hope they exude a tone of the season.  It’s music that you want to listen to as the sun sets on a warm summer evening. It’s music that makes you feel something.

What specifically does it make you feel?

From feeling relaxed, to discomfort, to confused, to feeling comforted – I think there are a lot of different emotions that the music on this EP can evoke. I still feel these things even after listening to the tunes many times over.

Take our song ‘People,’ for example. The beat emphasis through the intro can be jarring at times until it settles into a groove. It has moments where it’s harmonically odd – that’s when a listener might feel discomfort. But there are moments of space and harmonic beauty with the swelling vocal harmonies where you can feel deeply comforted.

‘People’ was actually inspired by an old school friend who I had lost contact with for a long time, but who I reconnected with when she started appearing at Noya Rao gigs twelve years later. We had grown up in Dorset, but she had moved to London aged thirteen.

Our conversation about growing up in a place where she didn’t feel like she could be herself, and therefore never really knew herself, stuck with me. It was her opportunity to go back to South Africa where her parents are from that led her to find her people and her true self. I often felt like this through my childhood – so ‘People’ is about finding your tribe. And, if you haven’t already, being content that you find your people in time.

Have you found your tribe?

Yes, I think I’ve found my tribe. Mainly in my twenties, when I was catapulted into a world full of creatives. Growing up in the countryside, I was around nature a lot, but didn’t find anyone to share my love of music with until I went to university.

Noya Rao is the name of a mythical tree in the Amazon. Tell me everything about why you named the band after it.

Tom: Back in the early 2010s, my brother went to the Amazon to do a six week Ayahuasca retreat. He showed me a picture he had drawn of the Noya Rao – a tree that connects two worlds, an upper and a lower dimension. I liked the idea of a tree that took you to another world – it had a feeling of magic and mystery.  At the time the band was making more wonky, trippy music, so it seemed very fitting.

I also grew up with a huge eucalyptus tree in my front garden, and the Noya Rao is part of the eucalyptus family. So there was a lot of synergy that made the name seem right for the project.

I’ve read about Liv’s passion for Karate, and seen photos of her kicking the guys in the band in a majestic artful way. What’s going on there?

Liv: I’ve practised Go-Ju Ryu karate for three years very intensively. I stumbled across a club in North Leeds and became completely obsessed – I’m grading for my black belt this November.

It’s the perfect tonic for a life that’s lacking in structure. We learn combat through Kata – sequences or routines of movements – and so the training is extremely repetitive, structured, and meditative. Within those thirteen sequences is a lifetime of wisdom and a deep education into body movement, energy manipulation and power. I honestly think everyone should practice martial arts, as what you learn in the dojo can be applied to every aspect of your life. The battle is never with an opponent – it’s with yourself. Just as life, it teaches us to be patient, humble and driven – to be strong, confident and relaxed. Ironically, I’ve become more peaceful through learning to weaponise my body.

I honestly think everyone should practice martial arts, as what you learn in the dojo can be applied to every aspect of your life. The battle is never with an opponent – it’s with yourself

We all like sport and exercise – before lockdown we used to interject writing sessions with bits of exercise training – either with homemade maces or stretches, using different circuit equipment or pull-ups. We also climb together after rehearsals sometimes, as there’s a climbing lab next to the rehearsal studio in Leeds.

On the photoshoot, I think I just started messing around pretending to kick Tom, then it turned into getting a shot that looked like I was kicking all three of them out the way. There’s nothing more behind it really other than representing our silly side. Just messing around and looking for something different – that’s usually how our creativity begins.

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