Ones to Watch: Naomi Wachira

Photo by Jason Tang

Naomi Wachira’s New Album Does Seattle Proud.

If you follow Seattle’s thriving music scene, chances are you already know this name. And if you don’t, well, you really should. Though Kenyan-born Naomi Wachira has already made some major waves around the Pacific Northwest (Seattle Weekly coined her the city’s “Best Folk Singer” last year), it seems just a matter of time before this soulful talent is truly discovered.

Fans use words like “uplifting,” “graceful,” “inviting” and “empowering”” to describe her honest lyrics and beautifully emotive voice. See/hear for yourself at Naomi’s upcoming gigs at Portland’s Alberta Street Pub (4/17), the Bumbershoot announcement show at Neumos (5/8), the Fremont’s Abbey’s Round (5/13) and the Northwest FolkLife festival (5/26). We were thrilled to recently have the wise and kind performer participate in an insightful Q&A.

Photo by Jason Tang
Photo by Jason Tang

Seattleite: How did you land in Seattle, and what do you enjoy most about your new home?

Naomi Wachira: I came to Seattle for grad school in 2007, and honestly, I was just ready to live in a new city since I’d lived in Chicago for 11 years.  I immediately fell in love with the beauty of Seattle – being surrounded by mountains and water. It’s so serene and calm, and that’s something I appreciate so much, yet it doesn’t feel like I’m in the middle of nowhere.

S: What is your idea of a perfect Seattle day?

NW: When I go outside on a clear sunny day and see the Cascades or Mount Rainier in full view.

S: What do you miss most about your Kenyan life, and how do you weave the rhythms and stories of home into the music you write?

NW: I miss the feeling of community and the slow pace of life. I miss the optimism that people embody in their daily life, at least that’s how my parents were and raised me to be. I’ve always loved the percussive style of African music, and it always seeps through when I write music. I’m also a huge fan of harmonies. When I was young, my family would often sit, after dinner, and sing songs, and it was always in harmony – that’s always my favorite part about singing.

S: Can you talk about some of the themes you explore (like the Zulu idea of Ubuntu)?

NW: I’ve always wanted to explore themes of hope in the music I write. I grew up with parents who were optimistic about life, who always tried to see the good, even in the worst of situations, and that definitely influenced my worldview.  The idea of Ubuntu is the definition of recognizing our humanity and realizing that we cannot exist without the other… that what really makes us, for better or worse, is the connection and relationships we have with our fellow man.

Photo by Jason Tang
Photo by Jason Tang

S: Congratulations on releasing your first full-length album! Can you explain the process a bit and how Damien Jurado came to produce it?

NW: Thank you! It’s pretty surreal to think that I was actually able to release it, and successfully at that!  Damien and I have been friends for some time now, and I remember contacting him last fall because I had hit a wall in my recording process and, after he offered his advice, he said, I can produce your album if you want me to… there was no way I could say no to that.  It was one of the easiest recordings I’ve done, and the emphasis was just to be myself and not to be someone else.

S: What makes you feel that a performance has been a true success?

NW: What makes a performance a true success is when I get to interact with people of different races, ages, gender, religions and hear how they connected with my music.  It’s that affirmation that we truly are alike, or at least there is a common thread that binds us, and that’s what I like to focus on.

S: You recently posted a very honest note on Facebook about having a “mixed bag” week and facing challenges that make it difficult to stay focused (when you’ve taken risks that don’t pay off). How do you keep moving forward through these difficult periods when obstacles seem to block the way?

NW: I feel like I’ve been really lucky to have a mother who believes in me. Even though she lives 10,000 miles away, she’s been encouraging me a lot, especially on those really hard days. I feel like she sees beyond this moment and always speaks to me from that place, and that helps me not to give up. I also have a very solid core group of friends that I can vent to and share my struggles, and they are always so good about helping me process those difficult moments and also keep the fire aflame. And I have a lot of conversations with myself,  always evaluating who I am and where I’m trying to go and just being realistic that it is not going to be an easy journey.

S: What’s on tap for the rest of your spring and summer?

NW: At this point, I’m trying to spread my wings a little wider by playing outside of Seattle. I’m hoping to go on tour towards middle/late summer into the fall – so we’ll see how that goes 🙂

S: What do you hope your listeners take away from the beautiful music you share?

NW: I think I always want them to walk away feeling that their existence and story matters, that when we shed all the labels we give each other, we have a common thread that binds us together – namely, wanting to be loved, respected, to know that you have a purpose in this life and that your existence really does matter – no matter where you’re from, what you believe, what kind of education you have or your socioeconomic standing.

“Ones to Watch” is a series that spotlights local talents on the rise. Shine on, Seattle.