In the intro on her Facebook page, there is a note that says “Pronounces name NEE-noh uh-ROH-buh-li-dzuh.” While many outside the local indie-music scene are just hearing of her, it may be a safe bet that Nino Arobelidze is a name that you’ll hear a lot more going forward.
Her name may be hard to pronounce, but pinning her down to a single musical style may be more of a challenge. Arobelidze first discovered one of her many musical influences, Billie Holiday, when her high school choir teacher told her that her voice sounded like Holiday. Listening to her, Holiday does come to mind, along with Madeline Peyroux, Amy Winehouse, Dessa, M.I.A. and several others. But simply describing her as similar to another singer is to short-change her. She possesses her own strong and distinct voice. And while she has a long way to go to reach the status of Holiday or popularity of Peyroux or Winehouse, all three of those singers started in humbler venues than Arobelidze is currently playing. And she is more than a singer, she is also the songwriter and arranger for songs she performs with her husband Pablo Gordy and drummer Meg Thomas.
A graduate of DePaul University’s School of Music, where she studied classical vocal performance, Arobelidze has lived in Chicago for 18 years now, more than half her life. And while she loves Chicago, she’ll forever be linked to her birthplace of Tbilisi, Georgia. Born while her country was part of the Soviet Union, Arobelidze came to the U.S. with her brother and parents in 1998 when her biochemist mother got a job and an opportunity for her family to leave a country that was reeling from years of civil war.
Currently touring in support of her latest project, “Girl Named Nino,” it is the second album under her name. Before her 2014 debut “Nomad,” Arobelidze also played on an album called “Urbanismz: Forbidden Knowledge” in 2012 which had a lot of electronic beats intwined and an EP called “Strange Brew” with The Crossroads Project in 2011.
The Chicago Ambassador’s Bob Chiarito recently chatted with Arobelidze about her music, attitudes about women in music, jazz and more.
CA) You’ve been in the U.S. for almost half your life, but Georgia is still a big part of who you are.
AROBELIDZE) It’s my make-up, it’s who I am. I really don’t think of myself as a citizen of one place or another. I identify very strongly with the intellectual and artistic underground, but it’s an underground that is very much in touch with the mainstream. It’s because of how I was brought up. My parents grew up after World War II, so as a kid there were things that I heard them talking about, I felt like ‘are you going after them?’ They were reading books that were being passed down and smuggled. Sometimes hand-written copies that were passed from a group of friends to another group of friends. That’s how knowledge was gained. So it’s really amazing to have access to culture, whether it’s music or art or actual news. My parents were professors, my dad was a hydrologist and my mom is a biochemist, but they believed that art is what influences everything else. I find that with the artists in the underground more than in the pop culture, but it’s starting to change with people like Chance The Rapper. A lot of who I am has to do with how I was brought up and my heritage. I’m really proud of my heritage.
CA) Your parents appreciated culture but were not musicians. Are you an only child?
AROBELIDZE) No, I have a brother.
CA) Is he involved in music at all?
AROBELIDZE) No, I’m the only one in the family who went into the musical direction. But it was popular in Soviet culture for people to go to music school. I was one of the few people that didn’t have that luxury as a kid because it was in the 1980s and things were really bad. After the Berlin Wall came down and the civil war in Georgia started, my family was in survival mode. I had some friends who were from affluent families, I had a friend whose father owned a casino. It didn’t matter that we played together, we went to the the same concerts, but my family didn’t have the cash to take music or dance lessons or things like that. I unfortunately had to find alternative sources of learning, which kind of makes me relate to the whole urban culture; hip hop and the DIY self-made performers.
CA) I know your father was a jazz fan, but you had a nanny who was into a lot of different music as well and influenced you, correct?
AROBELIDZE) There as a lady who lived in our building who was very lonely. She was a huge animal lover and would rescue animals from the street. She wasn’t working and my parents were both working so she asked about watching me. So, it became something that just happened. She was my introduction to multiculturalism because she was Armenian. So, soon I was able to speak three languages, Russian, Georgian and Armenian and was exposed to all sorts of different music because of her.
CA) When did you get into music? Did you sing as a child?
AROBELIDZE) I did, but it was quite discouraged in my house because it was so loud. [The movie] Amadeus came out when I was born and came back into my life when I was five or six-years old. I saw a PBS-type show where the host would talk about a film and then show it. So, when I first saw Amadeus, and I can’t pinpoint one event, but my jaw dropped and my heart flew out of my chest. That was it and my family gave in after that.
Later, as a teenager I didn’t know if I could get into any music school because I was brought up with this idea that you start at 2-years-old and by the time you’re 15 you may be a prodigy at a conservatory, so I thought I had a limited opportunity. But around that time I read a book called “The Art of Possibility.” I had been into quantum physics and creating your own reality. It hadn’t really been a part of my thinking but that book focused on just a few people, not necessarily musical people either. It got into visual arts first, then I got into choir because that was free. I had good ears so I landed in good choirs and I had a really good teacher. He told me that I sounded like Billie Holiday and that was the first time I had ever heard her name. In the auditions he told me that I had a really stunning, unique voice and that I have to ‘sing out.’ He said, ‘You can’t be shy, you have to share your gift with the world.’ It was the first time anyone was so nice to me because at the time I had only three months of English lessons and spoke largely with my hands.
CA) You can definitely hear Billie Holiday in your voice. I also hear Madeline Peyroux, who has been compared to Billie Holiday so that makes sense. I also hear some Amy Winehouse. Have you ever been told that?
AROBELIDZE) With the Lady Day comparison I literally never know what to do with myself. It’s such high praise but it’s impossibly humbling. I think that I usually get the Amy comparison because of my attitude on stage. I also think it’s because she was a Dinah Washington fan and a Sarah Vaughn fan. Who was the other person you mentioned?
CA) Madeline Peyroux.
AROBELIDZE) Oh yes, I love her too. I get that as well and find the comparison totally flattering. I really admire Miss Peyroux’s artistry.
CA) Your husband, Pablo Gordy, plays [electric guitar] with you. Did you meet him at DePaul?
AROBELIDZE) No, he came to one of my shows in 2012 after meeting through social media. We had a lot of Facebook friends in common. We became friends immediately and started playing music together.
CA) That was about the time he started his record label, Ni Fu Ni Fa Records, correct?
AROBELIDZE) No, he started that about two years before he met me.
CA) I know “A Girl Named Nino” is on Nu Fu Fi Fa. Is your first album “Nomad” also on it?
AROBELIDZE) Yes, “Nomad” is on it and “Urbanismz: Forbidden Knowledge” is on it. My first EP “Strange Brew” [with The Crossroads Project] isn’t. —I started a group in 2009 while at DePaul which I called The Crossroads Project. I called it Crossroads because my native city of Tbilisi, Georgia historically was referred to as the crossroads between central Asia and Europe. Crossroads as a name also appealed to me because I worked with a lot of trans-cultural musicians and I didn’t want to put my name on the band at the time because it seemed too self-indulgent. Then when I played as a solo artist singing under my name, I noticed a lot of misogyny that went on. Some people thought I was just a singer in a band and everybody else wrote the songs. I was like, ‘How dare you, how dare you?’ You know how much work goes into being a bandleader and booking shows and putting arrangements together? Also, they didn’t know that I was still a student so there was that dynamic. People also expected me or wanted me to have another girl in the band or almost preferred me to just be eye candy in the band. It was ridiculous, it was 2009 or 2010 and people had these attitudes like we were back in the 1950s. The reason I started to use my name is because I wanted to claim it. I’m not ashamed to have my name on it, I just thought initially that it might be a little selfish but then I realized it was a great way to be visible, and that’s what I want.
CA) It was interesting that you joked to me [in a previous conversation] about using the last name Clark as some sort of alter-ego. I think it’s cool that you’re using your name and think that people will know it. Your joke reminded me of how producers would give artists a stage name in the 1950s, which went along with the same attitudes that you just described. How important is it to you to keep your integrity and not to “sex up” your act like some artists may have done in the past?
AROBELIDZE) I think the music I write is very much in line with who I am, so while I don’t think sexuality is something to be ashamed of, I’d rather be subtle about it rather than just throw my tits out on stage. But by the same token, as a performing artist I’ve studied enough theater, (I was really committed to studying modern dance for five years) to know that someone could be completely naked on stage but the focus won’t be on their breasts, it would be on what they are trying to do. There has to be a separation. I like to to think if that if I were to do a video that there would be a burlesque element to it more than anything else. I think the mystery is what triggers people. If there is an over-saturation of actual access to cheap sex, then it loses value. We are in the business of mystery. It’s story-telling and mystery and joy. It’s vibrant and inviting because it gives you something. So, when I think about people who give a lot of flack to Miley Cyrus, but what she does fits with her demographic and her crowd. Prince in the late 1970s and 1980s was taboo and people secretly liked Prince. You couldn’t be a Prince fan without catching some flack. Now I’m not comparing Miley Cyrus to Prince, but that girl is a musician. She’s a musician and an actor and comes from a musical family. What she wanted to do was break down her Disney character and separate herself from that and it’s not different from what Bowie did by killing off Ziggy Stardust. To get back to the sexuality part with my music, I just don’t think it’s my brand. I don’t think about what I do as a business production. I probably should but I don’t think of that as I write music. You can’t lose sight of your vision because then you’ll lose who you are.
CA) Before focusing solely on your own music you taught voice lessons. Privately or at a school?
AROBELIDZE) Both. I think private teaching was my favorite but it took a lot out of me. You had to make sure you weren’t going to some creep’s house. I worked by recommendation only or with people I already knew. In terms of schools, I taught at the David Adler Music and Arts Center for three years. I also taught at The Bloom School of Jazz. They have done a lot for the jazz community and for people who want to take their voice to the next level. Part of my original website was a section about teaching and how there is no one way of finding your voice. All music is good music and you have to be connected to your identity in order to find your voice as a singer because it’s connected to your voice as a person. So even if you’re not a musician or an aspiring singer, you can take lessons in music and voice to be more connected and more aware to your own identity.
CA) Kind of like how a lot of people take classes at Second City but have no desire to get into comedy?
AROBELIDZE) Yes, exactly. It’s exactly that. In improv you can never say no. It’s the same as music, you can’t say no because it kills the vibe and kills everything in the room. So you have to say, ’yes and..’ Essentially, improvisation and Blues is at the heart of Jazz music and it’s one of the reasons that I love that art form. But the actual inner-politics of this genre certainly leave much to be desired.
It reminds me of how a couple years ago I went to Jazz Fest here in Chicago and the act that I was most excited about seeing didn’t even get mentioned in the press. I thought it was crazy but it wasn’t viewed as a ‘good fit.’ But what is jazz? It’s almost a bad word. People close up if you say you’re a jazz singer. You have to almost prepare people. I don’t describe myself that way but when people hear me singing they say, ‘Oh, you’re a jazz singer’ or ‘You have a jazz voice.’ What’s a jazz voice? A powerful voice? I think the genre label is just a way to categorize artists and obviously to market them appropriately, but at the end of the day for an artist the genre dictates what industry politics you have to work with and what type of gate keepers you have to convince of your validity. That’s all fine and dandy but it’s not a game I am here to play. I’m here to make music and connect to people. One record at a time, one show at a time.
CA) What would you describe yourself as?
AROBELIDZE) I’m a musician, that’s the first thing I say. I’m a musician and a song writer. I try not to say composer because it’s an alienating term.
CA) Speaking of composing and arranging, can you talk about the song writing process on “A Girl Named Nino” versus “Nomad”?
AROBELIDZE) “Nomad” was completely written and recorded when I was expecting my son [Now 2 and a half]. So, I had this project in the works — a project in my womb and a project on the table. That’s when I said ‘this is a solo project.’ You know the Miles Davis quote ‘You have to play a lot to play like yourself.’ Eighty percent of playing is attitude and twenty percent is skill. The project was like, ‘This is where I am musically.’ I was like, I think I’m ready to put my name on something. It wasn’t a moment of pride or something like that, it was more like the fact that I was ready to call myself something. That was a Nomad because it was the first time in my life that I felt like I was finding a home for myself, I was going to be a mother and I felt like I was going to lay down roots for the first time. It really did feel like that because I’m very nomadic in my explorations, whether it’s art or whatever. I don’t feel like I belong in one place. I belong on earth and I belong among people, among nature. I know I love my cities, I love Chicago. But at the same time that was my identity. It was kind of a self-portrait. So of course it wasn’t an entire album of only love songs. I ended up writing a lot more to fit into that album. It was challenging because my voice and weight was fluctuating and my voice was constantly changing. It was a lot of factors to maneuver and it deeply influenced how I approached recording each track. So, I’m very proud of that record because I feel like I emotionally documented my life at that time. But if you don’t know the context, you won’t know that by listening to the album, which is what I like.
On the second record, “A Girl Named Nino,” I had songs that I started writing right after “Nomad.” I never stop writing. Sonically, this album is a break-through release for me. I also cut the album live with Pablo Gordy and Meg Thomas in Meg’s home studio. Gordy engineered and co-produced the record with overdubs done in our home studio. It was a life changing project and I’m so proud of what we’ve prepared. Touring in support of it has been unbelievably fruitful.
CA) Do you typically write the music or the lyrics first? Is the process the same or does it vary?
AROBELIDZE) It changes all the time. I think I’ve become a better instrumentalist. I’m very connected to rhythm. I’m also very attached to language, so it could be a word, the rhythm of a word that gets into my head. I’m always thinking of songs when I read or listen to an interview. I’m a word collector and when you put it together with rhythm it is fascinating to me. Sometimes I’ll come up with a groove on a guitar or on the piano. I can be walking around the house playing a guitar or a ukulele —and I record things constantly. I play the grove and sometimes just sing gibberish over it. I do that because I don’t know what language the song is going to be in. [On her latest album, Arobelidze sings a song, “I Wish,” in her native Georgian]. I’ll sing gibberish and figure out the progression. Then sometimes one line comes out…I have papers with scribbles on them everywhere. I have notebooks, napkins with sketches on them. It’s everywhere.
CA) You’re doing a lot of shows in support of “A Girl Named Nino” but you said you’re constantly writing. Are you working on a new album already?
AROBELIDZE) Yes. [laugher] I don’t think of it in terms of cycles or album releases. I think of it as you have to keep writing because the more you write, the better you get at it. I have a lot of notes but I make myself say goodbye to a lot of things if I’ve had it for a couple years and still haven’t used it. We live in the city, we can’t afford to have random hoarder space. I have accordion folders were I keep the most precious notes. Sometimes I’ll rediscover something that I wrote down 10 years ago and will want to use it now. That’s so exciting. It seems like an old friend that comes to see you.
You can see Nino Arobelidze at her three upcoming Chicago area shows. She will be performing at Julius Meinl September 10; The Adler Cultural Center in Libertyville September 24 and at the House of Blues Foundation Room October 26. For more information, click here.