Namvula — “The reason I wanted support from Help Musicians was because of the business advice sessions”
We supported Namvula to release a double EP but it was the business advice that she found most useful
Returning to music
As a young girl, Namvula Rennie grew up playing the piano but a hatred of exams pushed her towards the guitar instead. “That’s when I started writing songs. I was a typical angsty teenager really,” Namvula explains, “although I didn’t have any confidence in terms of performing.”
These doubts meant that during her 20s she forged a career in photography but after a few years realised something vital to her had been lost. Namvula made the decision to change her journey and instead pursue a living as a musician, and having had time away meant she could re-connect with music on her own terms.
Gratefully she found she was able to move through the performance issues that she had struggled with in younger years. “Leaving music behind and coming back to it allowed me to be more connected to the songs I wanted to make. I could be braver with writing the music that felt true to who I am.”
Namvula has Zambian and Scottish heritage, and identity is an essential element of the music she makes. Having lived in Switzerland, Kenya, the US and the UK over the course of her life, her songs are not only influenced by the places she has been but also a way of understanding who she is and how she thinks about her identity.
Namvula’s songs blend traditional Zambian musical styles with genres like pop, jazz and folk. Singing in Zambian languages such as Lenje, Nyanja and Ila, as well as English, music helped Namvula move through anxiety around belonging and she is much more able to talk about her identity with clarity now.
After releasing her second album and producing her most recent EP, she has relinquished the need to fit either of her identities. “I feel like I’ve exorcised that need — all of these experiences are part of who I am and whatever I do, I’m still valid.”
Meeting Hugh Masekela
One of the more empowering moments of Namvula’s musical career was meeting the legendary South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela during a 2012 Paralympic singing project she was involved in. As well as having “listened to him my whole life”, what Namvula admired most were his political beliefs and activism, given Masekela was a person that had done so much to fight apartheid throughout his life.
Namvula’s mother was born during and experienced apartheid in southern Rhodesia (now Zambia), so the system that Masekela fought against directly impacted her family and he was an inspiration to her mother in terms of politics.
“I very rarely feel awestruck around people but I turned into a little child when I met Hugh Masekela. He was humble and funny and it was an honour to meet someone you have grown up listening to and hearing the struggles they’ve been through.”
Receiving Help Musicians business advice
Whilst the money to pursue her next musical project was significant, Namvula is in little doubt over why she wanted our support – “the grant is helpful obviously, but the reason I wanted support from Help Musicians was because of the business advice sessions.” Namvula firmly believes this element is what makes the charity’s help unique.
As someone who is used to self-managing and self-promoting, Namvula has done endless online tutorials where nothing felt specific to her. It can be very difficult to know which direction to take if you don’t have backing as a musician from someone who knows the industry, so she wanted help understanding how to navigate her career.
Namvula was particularly interested in branding and social media, and through Help Musicians’ support was able to speak with business advisors Eric Nielson and Jessie Scoullar about these specific topics. “Eric was great because he made me realise I needed to sort out what I am presenting to the world. Small practical things – having someone go through your brand and say ‘this is where you could clean up’ was so helpful.”
Social media marketing was an area where Namvula had struggled in the past, finding that it amplified the stresses she had as a solo musician – “When you’re a musician on your own projects it can feel very isolating and demoralising.” It would be fair to say the advice she received from Jessie has completely changed her career for the better.
All Shades of the Sun is the title of the double EP created using Help Musicians’ support and Namvula is grateful the project is at this stage. “The financial support gives you extra freedom in so many ways. You can pay people properly and not have to squeeze four days of recording into two.”
It was important to have more time to create music she was proud of, and some money was set aside for marketing as well. Namvula was able to have professional content created to go along with the music.
“I’ve never been able to do that before. We are in such a visual age so being able to be creative with things like visualisers and lyric videos is great. It’s a lot better than me thinking ‘I’ll take a selfie on my iPhone and make a cover’.”