Magic Spells and Musical Healing: A Conversation with Harpist and Composer Nailah Hunter

Dusty Henry
photo by Rae // background by Dusty Henry

Nailah Hunter doesn’t just dream of a better world; she tries to conjure it through musical incantations and the ethereal sounds of her harp. The Los Angeles-based composer/harpist made her debut earlier this year with the Spells EP, out now via Leaving Records. As the title suggests, each brief song represents a different spell. Collected together, Hunter says they create a transportation spell to a place that exists within her mind – a place of rest.

With the serene sounds of her harp strings against synthesizers, nature recordings, and the distant tones of her voice, Spells coalesces into 11 minutes of dazzling, peaceful bliss. Though often wordless, the music suggests lush landscapes and mystical dwellings. It prompts the imagination toward fantasy worlds we’ve grown up marveling – be it classic depictions of J.R.R Tolkien’s Middle-earth or more modern takes like those of Hyrule in The Legend of Zelda. And yet there’s modernity embedded in there as well, embracing the delicateness and healing power of ambient music.

Healing is a central theme in much of Hunter’s music. It’s an intention set for herself and the listener. And it’s something undoubtedly many could use right now. Even Hunter herself can’t help but acknowledge the timing of her record. Releasing songs intended to heal just as the world finds itself in such turmoil and uncertainty is a harsh kind of serendipity. While the songs weren't created to reflect 2020 as it is now, they certainly act as an aural elixir to ease the pain of current reality.

In talking about her music, Hunter reveals even more truths and aspirations in her musical conjuring. She talks about how the vibrations of the harp move into her heart as she’s playing, how the act of performance and embracing magic connect her with her ancestry, and reclaiming mythology for a more inclusive vision. With these short visions of songs, she’s tapping into much larger ideas while still crafting something so soothing and necessary for the moment. It must be magic.

Read our conversation below.


Editor's Note: This interview has been edited down for clarity.

KEXP: Where did you first begin with music and what brought you to the harp specifically?

Nailah Hunter: Yeah, I started taking [piano] lessons when I was four. And I also grew up in the church. My dad was a pastor, so I did a lot of singing and piano there as well. So, it's always [been] just kind of in my life. But harp – I'd always liked the sound of the harp. And I have this distinct memory of listening to a version of Erik Satie's music, but it was all with harp and there were field recordings, too, like water sounds. I think it was like a spa CD that my mom had and she would play that.

I always loved the sound of the harp, but I didn't really see a harp in real life until I sang this piece called "The Ceremony of Carols" by Benjamin Britten with my choir in high school because I was way deep into choir. And, you know, playing singer-songwriter music with my little acoustic guitar in high school. So, yeah, just always been like in the music realms but I didn't think about harp until then.

And then I was like, "I'm gonna get a harp." And I had that memory came to me kind of recently, I was like, "Oh when I was 16, I wanted a harp. That's so cute." [laughs] But I finally got one when I was 19. Somebody gifted me a little harp – it's called a harpsicle. That was just kind of a gateway because I was already going to CalArts for voice and I had this little harp and [I] was seeing harpists from CalArts and them doing their like singing things and whatnot. So, I was like, "Oh, I can actually do this, may as well take some lessons here." And then that turned into me taking lessons on the pedal harp and now it's now [laughs].

[The harp] feels so centered in your music. I know you play a lot of other instruments as well, but what is it about that sound that you're so drawn to?

Yeah, I think I think it's just this otherworldly tone. The texture that the harp creates, it's like nothing else. It's such a warm and sparkling sound and that's what I'm always looking for – a warm and sparkling feeling. Even in the way that it looks, the crown is pointed to the heavens. It's all very vertically focused, if you will. You know how Laraaji talks about that, just like all pointing upwards.

I think that when I play it… when you feel it… the sound comes into your heart from the soundhole when you're playing. It just feels like you're transcending your everyday life when you play harp – when I play harp.

You mentioned you grew up in the church and I was reading that you were really drawn to that kind of sacred music – church music, but also more fantasy type of music like [Hayao] Miyazaki film scores, the BBC’s The Chronicles of Narnia, and Lord of the Rings and things like that. I'm curious how those spiritual type influences come into play, especially with how you're talking about the metaphor of the harp itself.

I think it's all about accessing a different place. And those places in fantasy movies, that's always where I want to go. When I think of sacred music, I think of Gregorian chanting. I think of the medieval, kind of Catholic, very “tall hall” singing. And it's all about stillness. That's what attracts me to it. I also just love baroque music for the texture as well. The textures those instruments create, there's a lightness to it that a lot of other music doesn't have.

photo by Robb Klassen


You use other instruments that do this as well. You have field recordings of nature and synthesizers. I'm curious how this all kind of comes together in this vision.

Yeah, I think I think that's the other thing – it's all about intuition. Harp is very technical in some ways, but it also just like does what it does. The strings sound how they sound. Making contact with the harp, no matter how it sounds, it's gonna take you someplace. I think in terms of synthesizers, I'm not a very mathematical person. So when I'm when playing the synthesizers, I'm not thinking, "Okay, here's the portamento. And I'm turning up the knobs to this exact number." I mean, at least not usually. But oftentimes I have tried to approach it more intuitively and just like exploring through sound.

I used to be very boxy in terms of the way that I would write music and the way that I saw it to be possible to write music. I was just coming from this very kind of clinical standpoint, I think in a way that ended up becoming really harmful to just my relationship with creation at all. The EP that I just put out kind of was the first step into like, "Okay, I'm just creating based on intuition and creating to tap into something ancestral," as opposed to being like, "Here's what I do, because I'm a musician."

You just released your debut EP, Spells, on Leaving Records. And you talked about that and some of the description on your Bandcamp about leading with intuition, but also the ritualistic nature of playing these songs. Can you talk a little bit about that and how the performance and these ideas coalesce together?

Right. So the idea of these songs being spells and each element of the song being like a step or an ingredient in the casting of that spell and therefore it being not this thing that has to be thought about. You just do it because that's who you are. And that's what I tried to access with these songs. And I think just creating locations away from here [laughs], that's what I was aiming to do and the whole thing being kind of a transportation spell.

Yeah, I'm super interested in that because when I listen to your music, it is so vivid and evocative. What are these places you're imagining being transported to with these spells?

Yeah. I mean, they're just the places in my mind that give me rest and give me inspiration. It's like the coming together of all of my favorite colors and textures. I've always wished that I was a visual artist, like a painter, or had an eye for collage or something. But I don't really. But I feel like this was the closest that I've ever gotten to really expressing the things that I see into a tangible project.


I think I've read you mentioned you have synesthesia where you see colors with sound?

[laughs] Yeah. Ah man, I've seen so many funny videos on social media about that, like every musician ever in 2020 being like, "yeah, I have synesthesia!" But that's the thing, I think it's about being the sort of person who lives by feeling, you know what I mean? And that's a lot of people, I think. But then there are definitely the people who don't live that way. So I think that's really the only distinction.

But yeah, I do tend to have certain chord structures or little patterns in pitch that feel like a certain color to me. That definitely was at play in the making of that record. One of my best friends did the paintings with me. And I mean, I really sent her the songs and told her what I saw in words as best I could and then she made what I saw. It was really, really great. I'm so happy about it.

It's really beautiful. I was curious about that because when I first came across her music, I saw the artwork for 'Spells' and I could imagine what this sounds like and then put it on and was like, "This is exactly what I hoped it would sound like."

[laughs] Oh, great, that's awesome. Exactly. I think there's no doubt about it, I'm a nerd for high fantasy and mythology and all that stuff. That was my bread and butter as a kid. And it's how I choose to see things sometimes. I've said this to someone before, but it's just like... As a black woman living in 2020 singing about dragons and princes and stuff is such a choice.

But I still feel like it is political in some ways because it's like, yeah, I am choosing to remain soft and I am choosing to go elsewhere but still acknowledging the realities around us, you know what I mean? I think that some people could say, "Wow, she's really adrift." But it's not like I'm not aware of things. It's on purpose. I'm trying to create a place removed.

Going more into that magic realm, the songs on the record are spells and you've talked about rune magick specifically being an inspiration. This theme of magic and fantasy carries over to some of your other work as well. I'm curious when you first started becoming interested in magic and when it became a sort of muse for you.

I think growing up in a Christian household where my dad was literally the pastor of a church and being a pastor's kid, I was like 15 when I was like, "Okay, I'm pretty much done with this framing of spirituality." That kind of catapulted me into an openness to things. Because in the past, for example, I wasn't even allowed to watch Harry Potter or read Harry Potter in my parents' house, but I snuck it at my friend's house. You know what I mean? So I think because there was resistance toward those kinds of things, obviously, there was a little more interest. And then as soon as I was like, "Oh, I can totally abandon the whole Christian thing anyways," I just kind of like laid into it.

But I do think maybe like 2012 was a turning point – like a coming into my power sort of thing. And thinking about for the first time the idea of my ancestry and what it means for me as a Haitian person – my dad is from Belize, my mom is from Haiti – but just the really ancient, powerful lineage of witches that culture. And my mom being a person who would never want to talk about that. Any mention of voodoo that I've ever said she gets uptight and offended about it.

Both my parents are immigrants. They came here when they were young. So I get the idea that they had to sort of like assimilate to thrive, or they felt they had to assimilate to thrive, and therefore kind of put away things that existed in their culture. And then, therefore, when they raised me, kind of not including that. I was just like, "Oh, I can still reclaim that, though, because that's still my heritage. I just hadn't been tapped into it."

Yeah, that's interesting. I've heard you mention that before in other interviews and descriptions, the feeling of connection to your ancestors and ancestry. Do you feel that through just the practice of your performance and centering on magic tradition?

Performance in general for me had gotten super just out of whack. I was not enjoying it. It was just like something that I got very in my head about. And so I was like, "Okay, what's a thing that can tap me in immediately and something that I don't have to feel like I'm grabbing for?" And it's that – it's my ancestry. Also, just the earth. That's the whole magical practice, right? Being tapped into the Earth and your ancestors.


Yeah, definitely. With the whole idea of performance becoming a difficult thing. It sounds like your intention was to reclaim that. Do you feel like the record was successful in that way?

Yes. Well, and it's interesting because obviously the record came out literally the week that lockdown started, or a couple of weeks after. There were plans to perform this everywhere and they all got canceled. But I have been doing livestream things. And just like generally, livestream is less high stakes in my mind. I always feel a little bit better about those performances. But I think I've reclaimed my musical self, in general. And I hope that it does in fact translate to performance.

But another thing is just knowing that I need to be a person who's performing outside. I'm not the person who's performing in a bar, but I am the person who's performing in a garden. Or like maybe a museum or something. The space has to be right. And that's something that I've definitely learned through this – like exploring this sort of ritualistic idea for music-making.

It seems like in a general sort of sense, sense of places is super important to you. And you've talked about this record as using the songs to create a "place of rest." I'm curious how you convey this place of rest through your music and how you go about creating that.

I just think of my ultimate relaxation realm. And I think there's always nature involved with that, so natural field recordings are always good. And I think just deep chord beds, like lush pads that you can hear shimmering. I mean, if we're getting really technical about it, I definitely know that I like sus-chord sounds and seconds and fifths and sevenths.

I think there are lots of elements to creating relaxing music. But with this album specifically, it was more like I literally saw this place and felt this story. And it's interesting, I think if I could describe what my general art practice was it would be related to making tone poems in different mediums. And I feel like that's the best way to describe 'Spells.' It's like a big tone poem, a collage of tone poems.

Yeah, I love that. There seems so much on this record and maybe [with] your music in general where you're manifesting like your vision. You have this feeling or idea or vision of a place. And I notice you recorded the record and produced record yourself as well. I'm curious with how ethereal and serene these songs are, do you have to create that sense of space when you're sitting down to record or compose?

Yeah, I definitely make sure that my environment is prepared for transmission [laughs]. My little studio space is already just such a haven. I have my whole alter set up in there. We really try to only allow... no, I'm not going to say good energy. I hate that. But it's just like intentional energy. Keeping it sacred. And yeah, I light a candle, I light some incense and that definitely gets me in focus to create.

And the songs on Spells are very brief, usually one or two minutes long. Was there intentionality with the length of the music?

Yes. And that goes back to the place that I was before musically. Before this record, I was like, okay, I'm on my like Esperanza Spalding, Joanna Newsome... trying to write these epic, giant songs. Which is cool and I do have those things recorded and have been recording them lately. So that's cool. Like being able to revisit that. But I was getting really bogged down by it before, so I was just like, "I'm gonna make this place and it's gonna exist as long as it needs to exist and intuitively cutting it off when it felt right." That was definitely intentional. And now looking back on it, I almost feel like there an expanse that could be created for each one of the spells on the tape. But it's something I could do in performance. I think they're just as long as they need to be.

You've also described making music as being healing for yourself with the hope that this healing extends to others as well. I was curious if you could talk a little bit about that and maybe how music has played a healing force in your life, if it has.

I think anybody who creates is healing themselves through that because it's synthesizing your emotions. And that's part of the process. So anytime anyone creates, I think they're healing themselves. I think that specifically playing harp, vibrationally, that is healing no matter how you look at it because it's going to your heart and it's just a very special kind of timbre. So there's that and I feel healed by that every time. But I also think just the knowledge that you can create your dream space is healing in and of itself. That's been healing me a lot.

I think if you zoom out, ambient music as a genre is often healing. In terms of the tones and the frequencies, if it's done pretty intentionally it's literally like massaging your brain. So I think that's inevitably healing. Obviously, who am I to be like, "I think my music is healing." [laughs] But I think harp does its thing. You know what I mean? About that's just that [laughs].

You're making me want to learn to play the harp! It sounds so relaxing.

You have to! No, here's the thing – I'm a person who says everyone needs to learn how to play harp and at least get to play it once. Because the feeling is like nothing else. And I'm really interested in getting harp out to other people. The first harp that I was ever given, the harpsicle, those are great ways to introduce someone to a harp without them having to spend 20 thousand dollars. So it's possible, I think more and more harpists are thinking about that. So that's good.


Aside from Spells, you've put out a couple of standalone singles this year as well. One of each one of which is "Black Valhalla." And in the description for that song, you say, "Black people: imagine a place where you are safe and exalted." Can you talk a little bit about that and how this message is conveyed through the music and song?

I mean, again, Valhalla being the place where the Nordic gods live and the people... Actually just kidding, they don't live there, but it's a place where warriors go. I have always loved that idea. And I love Vikings and all of that stuff. But I realized how Black people are left out of that narrative. So obviously, the name of the song had to be "Black Valhalla." But I think the idea initially was like to speak to the fallen, the slain black people. But then at the same time, not wanting to martyr them in that way where it's like, "Oh, they're fallen soldiers." It's like, no, that was someone's son that's now dead. That was someone's daughter who's now dead.

So I'm not trying to glorify it in that way, but just thinking of an official place where their sacrifice, what happened to them is actually recognized for what it is. And just a "safe and glorious hall" – we all deserve that, Black people deserve that. We've been through a lot. So that's where that was coming from. And yeah, just this idea that it's not quite safe here on this plane for black people. Maybe somewhere else is safe. It's a global thing, but maybe it's different on another plane.

I know some of the proceeds from this song are going to the Loveland Foundation, which provides therapy for young Black girls and women.


I was curious if you wanted to talk about them at all and how you got connected with them.

Well, that's the thing. I was just searching for the right organization and that came up and I was like, "Yes, this is exactly it." Because black girls need to talk about what's going on. It is so difficult to be a black woman in this world. And you need to be able to talk about that with someone else. And I just know for me, like when I found my African-American therapist, I was literally changed. I had been to therapists before who were white and it just didn't work because they didn't understand... they couldn't understand certain aspects. So I'm just thankful for any organization that is connecting black girls to therapists. So that's why I chose them.

Being in quarantine, are you working on any new music? What's ahead for you? What are you looking forward to in the future?

Yeah. I've been making a lot of music. That's definitely true. And there is some really cool projects coming up. There's a little bit of a Leaving Recordsgroup that has formed. It's me and Green-House and Yialmelic Frequenices. All three of us have been working on these tracks together, and that's been really exciting. Music all over the place. So I'm really excited to release more stuff. And I'm also working on finding an animator because a lot of my music just feels like it needs to be the soundtrack to something animated. And so I am seeking out someone who can create that with me. So that's definitely on the horizon.

With the record out, how has the response been and how do you feel having this record out? Do you feel like the message and intention are getting across?

I hope that it's getting across and it does seem to be resonating with people. And I've heard people report that it's been super healing for them in this time. I am glad that it came out right when everybody needed to heal pretty immediately. It just seemed right. And I think I'm just grateful to have it out in the world.

‘Spells’ is out now via Leaving Records.

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