Do you remember “School of Rock”? Jack Black goes to school as a fake music teacher to teach the kids what it’s like to play in a rock band. They also saw the film at Naima Bock’s school in London. And then took the fictitious project as a model. When eight-year-old Naima found out about it, she was determined to take part. That’s how she writes her first song – without realizing that she would earn her living with it.
Last week, 17 years later, her first solo record, “Giant Palm” (Sub Pop), was released. It has become a coherent work, lavishly instrumented, but delicate in appearance. You can tell from the album that the singer and guitarist has been through a lot despite her still young age.
She grew up in Sao Paulo
It started when the Englishwoman was just born, in Glastonbury, where the huge rock festival takes place every year. This time she appeared on it for the first time, just over a week ago. An overwhelming but ambivalent experience, as she reports.
In crowds she gets anxiety, she says. “I’m still shattered.” For our call, she’s sitting at a friend’s house, around the corner from her flat in south London. In pajamas, which is why it won’t be a video call.
Naima Bock tells how she experienced her first move when she was just a few months old. To South America. Her Greek mother and her Brazilian father – who also has German ancestors, hence the surname – take her to São Paulo. Bock grew up there for the first seven years of her life before her parents separated and she went back to England with her mother.
She brings with her an early musical imprint from São Paulo. “Most of my Brazilian family are classical musicians,” she explains. Her father, on the other hand, is a sound designer and always takes her to the studio. At home he plays music by Brazilian greats like Caetano Veloso, Chico Buarque, Jorge Ben Jor, but also a lot by the Beatles. “That made an impression on me,” says Naima Bock.
The Brazilian influence can be heard on “Giant Palm”. Most clearly in the last piece of the record, which Bock sings in Portuguese: a cover version of the socially critical classic “O Morro” by Carlos Lyra and Gianfrancesco Guarnieri. Joel Burton, however, had an even greater musical influence on her debut.
Naima Bock has been working with the musician, producer and arranger for several years. She first met him when she was 15. At that time she always went to open mic evenings in London, where Burton also performed. “He looked like Bob Dylan, played Bob Dylan songs, and I loved Bob Dylan,” she recalls. The result: Bock had a crush on Burton without actually speaking to him. “It wasn’t until I was 21 that we met again and started making music together.”
They even tried to be in a relationship, but it didn’t work. Instead, they have become good friends who also harmonize perfectly in the studio. When Bock writes songs that bring along the chords and the melody, Burton transfers them into his sound world, with all its brass and string arrangements, keyboard and synthesizer elements.
His studies of classical music shaped “Giant Palm”, which starts with the opening title track. The synths drill and squirm, and Naima Bock sings with her strangely throaty, deep voice, which she can raise if necessary: ”Life’s giant palm lifts me to the sky and for a while I forget that I cannot fly .” You can almost hear her floating through the air, lifted by the gigantic palm of life, until she forgets that she can’t fly.
The song changes, increases in intensity, then ebbs away again. There is an inherent relaxedness in it, as if Naima Bock had come to terms with the finitude of the things she sings about. At the same time, the synths sound like something out of the soundtrack of a horror series from the fifties: abysmal and funny at the same time. That soundtrack feeling comes up repeatedly.
For example in “Campervan”, a song in three acts about the end of a relationship. The drums spin in a jazzy way, the bass pulsates brightly underneath, Bock’s voice immerses itself in the sound like one of the instruments. A short break after two minutes, then the song really gets going, with a full sound in waltz time, with the wind parts reminiscent of Neal Hefti’s music for the comedy “A Strange Couple” from 1968.
In the course of “Giant Palm” the most diverse references glimmer: from King Crimson’s jazzy prog rock etudes to the medieval-tinged folk of Midlake. There’s only one thing that can’t be heard: the post-punk of Naima Bock’s old band Goat Girl. When she was 15, she founded the group with a few friends. Successful: Two albums were released, the band was celebrated.
“I got to a point that many musicians wish for: I could make a living from the music,” says the bassist at the time. Then the disillusionment: “I was surprised at how unhappy I felt being part of the music industry.”
She left at the age of 21. She was too young to know how to take care of herself, says Bock. She suffered from depression. She now feels much happier with her solo project. The musician has more control: “I drive myself and manage myself on tour,” she explains. It’s exhausting, but also fulfilling. At the same time, she sees touring more as a job and no longer as a non-stop party.
As much as Naima Bock loves making music, she has found several ways to find inner happiness. She goes on pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela for weeks at a time. At the same time she started studying archeology. Sure: She’s just taking a break because the music is going so well. “But if I screw that up, I’ll just go back to the university,” she says and laughs. After all, she graduated from the School of Rock long ago.