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Dark Joan, Spooky Adu

Nirvana, PJ Harvey and Pixies album producer Steve Albini calls Kiwi chanteuse Leila Adu “spooky Adu”, a label she is happy to wear as she returns home from years abroad building a music career.
WHAT’S with Joan of Arc?
Kiwi singer Leila Adu has been a longtime fan of the French heroine and called her latest album Dark Joan in memory of her.
“I was inspired by the thought of a modern day Joan of Arc,” says Adu.
Not that Adu considers herself one, however she does identify closely with the saint’s determination: “You have to keep true to what you believe in.”
The fact that Joan of Arc heard voices in her head is more “inspiring” than odd to Adu, and after she made the album that she had an even closer link to Joan.
“In Italy everyone has their saint’s day, my birthday is her saint’s day.”
Adu, who was born in London, went to school in Christchurch when she was four. Like her grandmother, father and half brother, she had a natural affinity for music and went on to study at Victoria University majoring in composition and specialising in electronic-acoustic music.
Dad and bro play in bands respectively, and Gran was a choir conductor.
The combination of natural talent and a gorgeous complexion (half Ghanaian-half Pakeha) have worked in the young woman’s favour.
Prior to settling in Italy, Adu lived in London where she got her big break. A friend of hers, Giddy Motors, had recently made an album with Steve Albini – who produced Pixies, Breeders, PJ Harvey and Nirvana albums – and sent a copy of Adu’s music to him.
And guess what? “He was into it.”
“He is a perfectionist with all his gear and sound,” says Adu. “His expertise is in analogue and everything is recorded to tape. He just captured what was there.”
The Albini collaboration was a dream come true for “Creepy Adu”, as Albini calls her, because she grew up listening to PJ Harvey and Nirvana.
And even more exciting was recording in Albini’s studio next door to Kim Deal from the Pixies and the Breeders.
Adu will perform songs from her latest album Dark Joan in Wellington this week before she jets off to the States for two months where she will be playing a festival in New York and support for a couple of bands.
Adu is unsure if and when she will return to New Zealand, as being away so long has split her loyalty.
“I’d like to live between Europe and New Zealand in an ideal world,” says Adu. “In Europe it is so much easier to travel but New Zealand is so beautiful.”

Jazz star comes home for festival

8 April 2010

Vicki Anderson – The Press
Leila Adu

Christchurch Press Article

Leila Adu has been labelled this generation’s “Nina Simone” and drawn numerous comparisons to PJ Harvey.

The singer/songwriter/improv sensation is happy to be home again.

The Rome-based star hasn’t performed here in over five years and is eager to showcase her new album Dark Joan to a hometown crowd with a performance at the Bedford tonight as part of the New Zealand International Jazz and Blues Festival.

“Since I’ve been back I’ve been hanging out at my mum’s, walking on the beach and enjoying all the nature I’ve missed,” Adu says.

Of Ghanaian and British descent, Adu attended Christchurch Girls’ High School before completing post-graduate studies in 2003 at Victoria University of Wellington, majoring in composition and specialising in Electro-acoustic Music, Ethnomusicology and Orchestration.

Eventually this led her to Europe.

This talented artist has three critically acclaimed albums under her belt, and is also a talented composer who has written for and sung with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, toured and received radio play around the globe.

It is this sense of where she belongs in the world which sees Adu return home.

She says that this New Zealand tour which sees her take in dates in Wellington, Palmerston North and Auckland, is her opportunity to “give the homeland an up close and personal experience in her growth as an international artist”.

Her sound has been described as “oscillating between series commentary and flippantry” and, accurately to my ears, “cryptic”, as Adu blends elements of jazz, blues, pop and experimental sounds and themes as varied as love and social change.

Dark Joan was recorded in Chicago with acclaimed engineer Steve Albini (Nirvana, Joanna Newsom, PJ Harvey, Pixies) and with much analogue fever.

“Chicago was beautiful, I really loved all the architecture there. The recording process was quite intense, we did it in 24 hours. That’s how he works, you stay there. In the studio next to me was Kim Deal from The Breeders. I had to just play it pretty cool, ‘hi, Kim’, instead of asking her too many questions,” Adu laughs.

Joining Adu tonight is respected Christchurch-based drummer Nick Gaffaney (Cairo Knife Fight/Goldenhorse/Anika Moa band).

“He’s an amazing drummer, it’s going to be great to perform with him.”

Also on this tour are other respected names on the New Zealand music scene Jeff Henderson, David Long and Chris O’Conner.
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The night before leaving for New Zealand, Adu had the world premiere in London for her new video for the song Dark Joan Directed by award winning New Zealand director, Stephen Bain, the Dark Joan video features Leila as Joan of Arc along with an army of girls in creative cardboard armour.

Joining Adu – who features on vocals and grand piano – are veterans of the London improv/jazz/punk scene, John Edwards (double bass) and Steve Noble (drums).

“It was the most amazing night. I can’t wait to perform these songs here.”

The Metastatic Bloom of Leila Adu

Purple Magazine
Friday 19 March 2010

There are forces for which names do poor service; dizzying, whirling ethers, non-committal wind petals sifting, even rifling through closets of experiential gowns. Inquisitive storms of gentle science, fusilladic probing, and sometimes whispering; Innerchild-wise. Lotus-eyed. Content. and also discontent. and watching. Always watching.

Leila Adu is a rebel-inspirer. And not in the way that calls for the raising of fists, or the hurling of sharp word-blades. Her defiance is decided. Explorative. Non-reactive. Anger isn’t its mother. Wonder may be.

The Third Degree Burn #25

S.O.U.L. Magazine
Friday March 12, 2010

The Third Degree Burn is where each week we subject a different artist to a barrage of random and ofttimes fairly meaningless questioning. This week we ask Leila Adu to feel the third degree burn.

Name & Rank: Leila Adu – vocals, piano, organ, jaw’s harp, songwriter
Serial Number (Age): 112
Group: Leila Adu

Now let’s get started:

Where are you from (hometown) and where are you now:
Leila: I’m from Christchurch, New Zealand and right now I’m in Rome, Italy.

When did you start performing?
Leila: I used to lead a rock group at my girls’ high school and perform at other schools in our town. My first public solo gig was about the age of fifteen at a Goddess festival when I was fifteen. In those days I used to play acoustic guitar and a flamingo pink fender stratocaster – it took me a while to settle into the piano/organ thing.

How do you describe your music to people?
Leila: Usually by throwing my hands in the air and saying “kinda rocky, bluesy, jazzy, contemporary classical, experimental avant garde… umm, I dunno – you kinda have to listen to it.”

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Leila: One of my composition professors once said – Only make good decisions when you’re feelin’ good.” Another one I love is Eddie Murphy whose best advice is “don’t take anyone’s advice.” Gaining expertise, knowledge and opinions from others is invaluable – however, only you can take a moment and see how things sit with your heart.

Favorite new song from the past year:
Leila: It has to be “Transistor Meme” by the uber talent London based Nigerian Country & Highlife guitar troubador, Otto Fischer – I even learnt it on the organ – something I’ve not done since “Heart-shaped box”!

Favorite new group from the past year:
Leila: Paris Suit Yourself – I met them whilst we were both performing at URB ALT Festival 2009. Really stand-out live show and wardance energy.

Your most favorite new group:
Leila: Orchestral London rockers: Buttonhead

Your favorite song of all time:
Leila: “Aladdin Sane” David Bowie – I always loved that song as a kid and now I realise that the combo of dissonant prog rock and Mike Garson’s bluesy contemporary classical piano have come back to haunt me in my own music.

Group/Artist you’d like to work with most:
Leila: Hmmm – this changes every week. This week it would be Flying Lotus.

Last great concert you saw:
Leila: Sol 6 – an experimental group with English improvisers Hannah Marshall, Ingrid Laubrock, Mandy Drummond, Veryan Weston, Mandy Nicholls – amazing drummer Tony Buck (the Necks) and Dutch punk officionado – Terry Ex (The Ex.) They crooned some Carpenters along with Charles Ives, their own compositions and who knows what else – great stuff.

Last great film you saw:
Leila: Le Boucher, Claude Chabrol – French horror classic.

An obscure group you think should be more popular:
Leila: Lucky Foodbar

Your favorite musical instrument:
Leila: The dulcimer/cimbalom – Hungarian, Arabic or Chinese – I just love it! I even bought a full-sized, chromatic Chinese dulcimer but it’s in my Mum’s garage in NZ.

Your last performance:
Leila: The Vortex with my London Trio – LEILA ADU & THE DON’Ts – with Steve Noble on drums (Neneh Cherry’s Rip Rig & Panic) and John Edwards on bass.

Your favorite City to perform in:
Leila: Hmmm – I’d have to say New York right now, but maybe that’s because I have the same birthday as Frank Sinatra.

Your strangest fan moment:
Leila: One guy keeps doing pencil portraits of me at gigs and emailing them to me.

Your favorite venue:
Leila: Easy! The Mussell Inn in Onekaka, New Zealand. It’s in the middle of nowhere – nowhere being beautiful forests. Great boutique beer brewed on premesis, simple perfect meals, room for the band to sleep in the owners self built log cabin/mansion, good sound and a live recording CD as a parting gift. A musician’s dream.

If you had your own country what would you name it?
Leila: I’d take a vote.

Music: Leila Adu

Fashion et Al Magazine
Monday 1 February 2010

There is something about musician Leila Adu. Beautiful and talented, -Adu was born in London, -raised in New Zealand and is of European and Ghanaian decent. And her music [an eclectic mix of jazz; cryptic soul, sweet pain and contained yearnings] -is beautifully haunting [just check out ‘Answerphone’]. Adu’s sounds how -I image a child of, PJ Harvey and Billie Holiday to sound, -pretty but dark. Her voice has such purpose and commands your ear in a way that –hasn’t happened to me in quiet some time……Listening to ‘For A Man’ I could be listening to some ‘Negro Spiritualist’ song –on some plantation somewhere; -quiet magically really, -the way her voice can transport you like that! Leila Adu is a soulful, cosmic butterfly who has appeared with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and produced two acclaimed albums (’Dig A Hole’ & ‘Cherry Pie’), which led to national tours in Australia, Indonesia, U.K. and Russia. She is now based in Rome… ….and begins touring this February [please see tour dates below].‘Dark Joan’, Adu’s third album as a solo artist is out now. For more information about Leila Adu, the tour or to download her latest album please visit her at:


TBI Q&A: Leila Adu
24 February 2009

Leila Adu has returned to New Zealand from Europe and the United States with a growing international reputation and has recently recorded a new solo album in Chicago with the legendary Steve Albini (PJ Harvey, Nirvana).

In this Q&A she says the aspect of her creative practice that gives her the biggest thrill is “the link between the flow of pulling the next part of the creation from the ether, when it just comes – and seeing the web of the final composition in my mind’s eye.”Leila Adu is playing two shows, one solo and one with a band, at The Festival Club as part of the Auckland Festival 2009 Red Square programme.

During what hours of the day do you feel most inspired?
When Zen-like practicing and learning – the early morning, before my brain wakes up. When creating, writing and completing – the night.

How would a good friend describe your aesthetic or style? “You look nice. Only you could pull that off.”

What aspect of your creative practice gives you the biggest thrill?
The link between the flow of pulling the next part of the creation from the ether, when it just comes – and seeing the web of the final composition in my mind’s eye.

How does your environment affect your work?
I need some space – a piano with a table near it is ideal. Too much crowding – even outside, makes creating difficult. In those situations, it is necessary to concentrate more on creating inner space in my daily life.

Do you like to look at the big picture or focus on the details?
By nature, I’m a big picture person. However, when we create, we need to be able to do both of those things. It’s a valuable skill that creative people learn to nurture and can bring to other parts of their lives.

What’s your number one business tip for surviving (and thriving) in the creative industries?
I’ve often done a lot by myself (booking, releasing, managing), sometimes to my downfall. However, this has allowed me many global opportunities and to realize my artistic goals. I’d say, do things as well as you can, as cheap as you can and if you can do it by yourself, do so. However, if you can decrease the stress and overwhelm of a situation by paying someone else who does something well, or allow help to take a new step, do so. Learn to know your limits.

Which of your projects to date has given you the most satisfaction?

I wrote an orchestral piece – with myself as soloist – whilst I was at university and it was eventually selected for the SOUNZ NZSO Readings. The act of creating, placing sounds and singing with a World Class orchestra”¦ can’t get much better than that.

Who or what has inspired you recently?
Ashamedly, I’ve never heard much Bob Dylan or closely followed his craft. Recently, I read his “Chronicles.” His determination to be prolific in song writing, his ability to see and follow his path clearly and his willingness to move on and let things go are inspiring.

If you could go back and choose a completely different career path to the one you’ve chosen, what would it be?
Something that uses your brain, expands your creativity and also pays the bills, like architecture or graphic design.

What place is always with you, wherever you go?
Both the West Coast of the South Island and Wellington. The West Coast is a green jewel-like, dewey feeling that lodged itself in my brain. Wellington is where I studied and blossomed as a musician and every direction leads to the sea.

What’s the best way to listen to music, and why?
Live. Seeing live music in the seams of a city is one of the biggest parts of my musical life. You get to see and hear what is really happening, no frills or cover ups. When done well, musical skill (traditional or otherwise), rapid response and the ability to alter music to the performance situation are electrifying.

You are given a piece of string, a stick and some fabric. What do you make?
A kite… what else?

What’s the best stress relief advice you’ve ever been given?
There are three times of the day “” morning, afternoon and night. Only ever do what you consider to be work, in two of those times of day. For me, this can mean getting up early before my day job to practice (and no, I don’t consider myself and early morning person.) Then, when I get home at the end of the day, I don’t beat myself up if I don’t have the energy to be creative during the week.

What’s great about today?

I’m sitting in the sun working on my laptop, in my mum’s garden in Christchurch, getting over jetlag from a trip from my home in Rome. I’ve not been here for three years. NZ is a breathtakingly beautiful place, every day.

What’s great about the Auckland Festival 2009?
A festival director listened to my music and therefore, I am playing my material at the Red Square Festival Club both solo and with some of my favourite musicians from NZ “” bass player, Tom Callwood (Little Bushmen, Bunnies on Ponies,) international improvising saxophonist, Jeff Henderson (NZ Arts Foundation New Generation Award 08) and percussionist extraordinaire Chris O’Connor (Don McGlashan’s Seven Sisters.) It a happy relief when people in positions of power in the arts’ industry choose acts that excite them instead of negotiating between themselves for the best deal. This creates magical, city-specific events.

What’s your big idea for 2009?

To continue to create balance in my life – to feel secure in my daily life and also be in top condition for international performances, releasing my album recorded in Chicago by Albini and recording a new solo album for the Italian National Radio label.

NZ Musician Magazine, Expat Files
Interviewed by Richard Thorne

Leila Adu spent the last few summer months in New Zealand, returning to her current home in Rome shortly after a couple of performances at the Auckland Festival 2009.One was solo, the second with a high-quality and evidently familiar three-piece band of Chris O’Connor, Tom Callwood and Jeff Henderson. She might equally well have featured as part of Wellington’s Jazz or Taranaki’s WOMAD festival – or for that matter, anywhere else’s fringe/avant-garde festival, such is her accomplished yet uncategorisable combination of voice and piano. Pictured here in a Joan of Arc-pose, which fits well with one of her live performance favourites, Leila blends ‘Jean d’Arc’ fortitude with artistic pragmatism and a surprising Kiwi realism.

Born in London, to a Kiwi mother and Ghanaian father, Leila Adu arrived in New Zealand with her mum aged four. Growing up in Linwood, Christchurch, she attended Richmond Primary, St Marks and then Christchurch Girls High. Her music training started at 10 with piano lessons, adding a “swathe of instruments” including clarinet, bassoon, and electric guitar during her teens, as well as classical singing tuition. Her first high school bands saw her performing with a flamingo pink Fender Stratocaster, she laughs now in admitting she was never very good on it.
“I’m not a great pianist, but I’m better than I am at guitar. Singing I have trained to quite a high level, but not piano, I use it as a tool. I was aware when I gave up all the other instruments that I was doing that so I could focus on chords – I only wanted to play chordal instruments – ‘cos it’s more helpful, not because I loved piano.”
She moved to Wellington to study composition and electro acoustic music at Victoria University, graduating with a Bachelor of Music degree (First Class Honours), having majored in electronic music, and orchestration for theatre and film.
After the first year at uni Leila decided she wasn’t into studying classical music, and wanted instead to listen to anything else – like industrial music, or gamelan which she had also been studying, along with Javanese classical singing.
She went to Bali to study a complex aspect of gamelan instrumentation for a month, spent four months in Ghana and also time in London. The Ghana experience still comes to her often, specifically the contrast from the easy life New Zealanders enjoy. She says her music still reflects an empathy with the hardships and suffering of many in “the global south”.
Despite liking London she says she really wanted to write for orchestra and knew that she needed to first complete a degree in order to reach that goal. Her subsequent honours project orchestrating a French and a Chinese poem was a winner in the NZSO-SOUNZ Readings Awards, which earned her the chance to have the two songs performed by the national orchestra. She sang them herself in Mandarin and French.
Whilst at university she also recorded and released her first album ‘Dig A Hole’. Her bandmates then including the illustrious likes of Francesca Mountford on cello, bassist Tom Callwood, guitarist Chris Palmer and drummer Chris O’Connor.
Following uni she moved to Melbourne for a year, returning to Wellington to work with producer David Long on her second album, the 2005 release ‘Cherry Pie’. The band for this album included Long on guitars, Tom Callwood’s double bass, Jeff Henderson on baritone sax and Rikki Gooch on drums.
“For ‘Dig A Hole’ we recorded with everything there, took some stuff out, a few overdubs and that was it. With ‘Cherry Pie’ I wanted time for post production to happen organically and knew Dave would be into that. I was really, really happy with it and what we did post production-wise.”
By 2006 she was back in Europe where she is now resident.
“I was doing a lot of good music with great musicians in Wellington but I started to feel that the things I thought were interesting in NZ were being created by people I knew. It was time to play to a different audience and I found the local scene a bit closed at the time, I just got bored with it. In fact I really have seen a lot more good music in the underground scene in NZ than anywhere else, but I still am enjoying that thing of being in Europe where it is easy to get around.”
She has family in London and Paris beckoned, as did Berlin, but was practical enough to follow her partner of the time to Rome, where it has proven both easier to get established as an artist and to earn a non-music living.

Beat Magazine (Melbourne) Shane Moritz, 21 Jan 04


This young lady does spellbinding melodies and cryptic rhythms from a grand piano. She has a hypnotic voice, moderately spice, sprinkled in firewater. Some call it sultry, and it is, but its also heavy and soothing and gets under your skin in the most welcoming way. Dig A Hole, her self-released debut, is unlike anything Ive ever heard. She is in town, and in great form. She really shouldnt be missed.

First shall we say she was born in London, to a Ghanaian man and a New Zealand woman. Her mother liked Layla, the love ballad by Derek and Dominos, while her father had a thing for Palestinian liberation fighter, Leila Khaled. He finagled for spelling rights, which he secured, obviously, however, in his attempt to make the childs second name Khaled, he failed. Her middle name is Jo. She thanks her mother for this. The only child grew into an aesthetically-pleasing young lady with French African skin and soul and recently celebrated a birthday, her 25th.

Her first transcendental moment came from Michael Jacksons Thriller, the video of which, she had in a View Finder (and damn it if Leila doesnt bear a striking resemblance to Michaels love interest Ola Ray). She began the music thing growing up in Christchurch, NZ. She met Seth Rees around this time. Seth, who now lives in Melbourne and plays in I Want A Hovercraft, deserves credit for Leilas visit. The two plan to record as a duo in January.

Dig A Hole, her self-released debut, is a strange fusion of edgy soul and stuttering beats, complimented by moody strings and an incomparable intensity that smoulders under smoky, stage lights. The title track is a whir of tempos clashing, guitars and strings jerking and pulling, eager to implode until finally it does. The CD has received good support from prominent NZ figures like the legendary Chris Knox, who said her music was interesting and new.

People say its jazz and Im like no, its not jazz. Its not improvised, Ive written these songs. Leila has never heard Miles Davis or Fiona Apple, two comparisons that spring to mind. I also hear the ultra-satisfying sound of an ultra-modern soul singer covering the Velvet Undergrounds Waiting For My Man.

Her songs are about everything, even though they sound like shes singing to a boy. I dont mind if the audience thinks that they are love songs, but you knowtheyre not! She has toured London, Moscow, Albury, Canberra and now Melbourne. In Moscow they told me I played with passion. The gypsy lifestyle interests her. She recently visited London where her Dad is a professional musician and Ghana where she discovered the source of her uncanny Afro-beat rhythms.

After Melbourne, she will return to Wellington, get the band together and tour the islands. Then she plans to return to London, then Paris where she will live with a saxophone player and do some more travel. She is also multi-lingual, to an extent. I can be polite in six languages, she says sweetly. She would like her music to reach many people. I hate the idea of writing music that is only accessible to one culture. She has written music for films, theatre and orchestras and she has written hardcore electronic stuff. She seems keen on doing it all and it appears nothing will stop her.

Leila Adu plays January 23 at the Empress with Seth Rees, Because of Ghosts, This Is Your Captain Speaking and January Sat 24 at the Rob Roy with Seth Rees, Love of Diagrams and Sir.

Cook Strait News, Simon Vita, 12th May 03

Individual beats from a personal performer

Island Bay composer Leila Adu doesnt like to be pigeon-holed.

Adu says when shes called a jazz musician or a singer-songwriter it sets her teeth on edge.

She says convenient tags give people preconceived ideas that arent always correct.

While the music on her recently released debut album, Dig a Hole, contains jazz and pop music elements, it doesnt fit in either of those camps.

If you say singer-songwriter people think that you are going to sound like Tori Amos.

People immediately thing that that is going to be the case.

Dig A Hole features emotive lyrics and Adus dark piano playing, cello, double bass, guitar and percussion. Adu says she experimented with different instrumentation and band line-ups until she found a combination that had the right bottom-heavy feel.

I like the bass register, she says.

A honours composition student at Victoria University, Adu intends to work on a second album as part of her studies this year.

She says the follow-up to Dig a Hole will probably use an orchestra in combination with electronic instruments. Adu was born in London, but grew up in Christchurch. She has travelled and studied music in Ghana, Indonesia, Russia, the United Kingdom and Spain.

She says New Zealand suits her creatively.

You might not make any money, but you make better music.

Dig a Hole is available at Slow Boat Records and Real Groovy.