Interview by Brent Pye
The predominantly male crowd is packed shoulder to shoulder in the music hall. Shouting and whistling for the show to begin, they are antsy for the headliners, Los Lonely Boys, to play their high octane Texican rock. An attractive, demure woman with an acoustic guitar walks onstage and plugs in. Pushing her thick brown hair behind her ears and giving the crowd a smile that could melt a glacier, she starts playing. Strong, powerful strumming fills the air. Conversations stop. Heads turn toward the stage.
The sound coming from her guitar has the fury of a Caribbean hurricane. A cyclone of sonic energy emanates from the amplified acoustic instrument that is visually inconsistent with the smallness of the player. Slender fingers move the slide in quick movements up and down the fret board while the other hand works the pick. Someone listening outside would swear that there were two or more guitar players on stage.
Nini Camps is all alone on the stage. She's a blur of motion, a continuous action figure; if there's a rock and roll Barbie, she may have been the model. Her shoulder length hair teasingly frames her appealing features as she tilts her head downward and moves to the rhythm. All of five foot one and maybe a hundred and fifteen pounds after a big meal, her small stature belies her ability to fill the room with sound. Her voice is powerful, yet melodic and pleasing. You find yourself wondering where all this energy and power comes from.
She came onstage as an unknown quantity but left forty-five minutes later to a rousing ovation. There was a buzz in the music hall after her set, the crowd singing her praises as they ordered their beers and jockeyed for position in front of the stage. Their consensus opinion was that Nini Camps is not your typical guitar-strumming, folk song "chick singer."
Nini has been playing her firebrand style of slide guitar in clubs and festivals for the past four years. Based in New York, she's performed in just about all parts of the country, mostly as a solo act. She writes her own material, co-produces her own CDs, organizes her tours, updates her website, and sells her merchandise at each show. You'd almost expect to hear that she operates the lights and soundboard, and takes the tickets at the door.
She has two CDs available on her website, with a third set for release this fall. Her first, LovePie (ModMusic), was recorded in the Queens, NY living room of her friend and producer Marilyn D'Amato, with a band consisting of fellow New York musicians. It was a venturesome recording of their live material in what Nini has described as a "lo-fidelity recording process." As stated on her website, it "received rave reviews, NPR and college radio airplay. It has also landed tracks in independent films (Motorcycle Diaries, Amy's Orgasm) and television, most notably the Warner Brothers hit series Felicity, The Mary Kate and Ashley Show, and MTV's The Real World.
The second CD, So Long, on her own indie label LovePie records, is a departure from her debut. Nini explains: "I had been touring solo and really developing my sound as a one-man band using the slide and loops and such; I gave up worrying about it and moved ahead – who cares if my solo shows don't sound like the record. I don't think live shows should be carbon copies of recordings anyway; that would be so boring."
Her upcoming new release is a five song EP entitled Drivin' You Out, on LovePie. Like LovePie, it was recorded in Marilyn's house, this time in the basement of her newer house in Queens. Marilyn and Nini share co-production credits. Nini's guitar and vocals are backed by two fellow NYC musicians, Ynot Jansveld on bass (or Whynot, as Nini refers to him) and Ethan Eubanks on drums. The songs range from simple pop with irresistible hooks to foot-stomping alt-country rock. Nini's voice and musicianship are at their best, and the effort is superbly recorded and mixed. The songs are not overproduced, and have a raw-but-polished quality that reflects her live performances.
The title song opens with Nini's vocals upfront in the mix, the lyrics riding upon a wave of glistening guitars as she rids her heart of someone who's done her wrong. "I Saw Love" is a pop-rocker featuring Nini's Edge-style electric guitar licks driving the tempo. "East 35th" finds Nini returning to the acoustic guitar as she sings "thinking about that kiss, licking my lips, somewhere east on 35th." Her playing is tasteful, the lyrics are catchy, and the rhythm has you tapping your foot as you root her on toward finding that kiss one more time.
The fourth song opens with a lone drum intro meeting a singing bass line. Nini's acoustic guitar is lyrical as her airy voice floats above the sonic texture. The sweet words to "All You Wanted" tell the story of a lover who asks, "Sing to me in Spanish just until I fall asleep," in a voice that you feel more than you hear. The album ends with "Not Coming Back," a mid-tempo tune that opens with Nini's ringing ping-pong guitar licks bouncing between your ears, as if your head was empty. The tension builds to a crescendo with Nini's strong voice over a wall of electric and acoustic guitars. The arrangement is reminiscent of Matthew Sweet's best work.
A native of Miami, with Cuban roots, Nini sings in both English and Spanish. She's been incorporating traditional Spanish songs in her performances as of late, the result of her maturing appreciation for her parent's love of traditional Spanish music.
The centerpiece of Nini's live shows is often an instrumental that incorporates extensive use of live-recorded playback loops to create multiple layers of sounds, each building on each other until the tension is almost unbearable. "My favorite instrumental is with the slide – it is really built on a simple lick that holds it all together. Once that is in place I can just play all around it rhythmically and sonically. There is no specific pattern which is what keeps it fresh for me – it's a challenge every night, and it's different every time."
"I started out in theatre. I loved the stage and I have always loved literature so it wasn't much of a stretch. I even did a tiny bit of it professionally when I got out of school. Oddly enough, it was during a national theatre tour that I decided I wanted to try music full time."
Her musical beginnings started as a kid in Miami. "I always loved music. As a little girl I was surrounded by it. When I was old enough, my cousins gave me an old guitar (that I still have at home) but I didn't really get going until I was in high school.
"I actually played guitar in the church choir – it was a fun way to get through Mass (not to be disrespectful) but I loved being able to play in the 'band.' Later, in high school, some friends told me about some boys that were looking for a singer, so I met with them and we put a band together – all covers – for the summer."
A primarily self-taught musician and singer, Nini continued learning to play the guitar by listening to records and mimicking the musicians. "I am officially a hack guitar player. I've learned by watching/listening and copying until I could do it myself – and as is usually the case, until I can come up with my own variation."
Her early influences included both the traditional Cuban music that her parents loved and pioneer female singer-songwriters, primarily the Indigo Girls and Tracy Chapman. "I grew up surrounded by Cuban music on the one hand and my older brother played his AC/DC, Ronnie James Dio records in the other room! I was always glued to the radio station, and I remember the first time I heard 'Fast Car' by Tracy Chapman. That sort of acoustic singer songwriter music just struck something inside of me from that moment on. I was a huge Indigo Girls fan and used to sit in my room playing along to the cassette tape of 'Closer to Fine' until I could play every strum in time and hit every nuance – ha! I think the Indigo Girls taught me how to play the guitar. I should send them a check for the guitar lessons!"
Her style is distinguishable from those artists by her virtuosity with the slide. When asked where she got the idea of playing slide, she smiles as if she wonders herself. "There wasn't too much thought put into it really. I saw one in the store one day and decided to give it a go. There is something about the way a slide sounds that just really gets to me. It has the ability to relay such a great range of emotion."
Her singing developed similarly to her guitar playing – with a few lessons and a lot of listening. "I took voice lessons in college but definitely don't sing with any sort of technique." When asked about her bilingual singing ability, she answers, "I think singing in Spanish is easier for some reason. Almost as if the vocabulary lends itself to song. I've always been told that when I speak Spanish it is in a very sing-song manner, as if the words just tumble out in rhythm."
Songwriting may be the part of her art that gives Nini her toughest test. Whatever the style or subject matter of a song, she is committed to mining her talent to the deepest depth. "Once I started writing and really becoming aware of songwriting not only as expression but also as a craft, writers like Lucinda Williams, Patty Griffin, and Bruce Springsteen really captured my heart. I'm still trying to write better songs. That will always be the challenge."
Unlike the recording process, the creative process for Nini is a task best taken on in solitude. "Songs usually sit around in my head for awhile. I can't really write or practice with other people around. I usually have to play guitar for a little bit before melodies start making sense. "I started writing songs in high school. But I think I really only started writing good songs fairly recently."
When asked how she would classify her music, Nini pondered the answer. "Tough question. I think I'm headed towards a very alternative country sound in the way of Lucinda Williams, but also there is the Spanish bent which tends to confuse the issue."
Now a true independent artist, Nini left the ModMusic label after her first CD to create her own label, LovePie. She continues to work with the principles at ModMusic in her recording ventures. "ModMusic is an independent label that I helped to form several years ago with two friends, Marilyn D'Amato and Monica Castellanos. We put out the LovePie CD and managed to get it placed in some indie films and television shows. Eventually, I realized that I wasn't able to play music and be useful as a business partner.
"Once I split officially from the company, I created LovePie records as an umbrella for my solo projects. It's really just a name on letterhead. I handle business as LovePie music and have had help from assistants over the years – but mostly it's a do-it-yourself platform for me to do what I need to do to stay afloat as an independent artist"
Touring as a solo act has its own unique set of circumstances. When asked how she deals with the solitude of traveling alone, Nini answers, "I actually find that I'm never alone for very long. I've managed to build a support group that is pretty far-reaching. When the solitude kicks into overdrive and I'm far from a comfort zone, I can pick up the phone and get a quick jolt of 'home' via long distance. I'm a big reader so I'm good for hours on end with a good book. And of course, there is the guitar to keep me company."
Being her own booking and travel agent and manager gives Nini the freedom to play where and when she chooses. Not one to while away time or waste opportunities, she schedules her performances around periods of time at home and in the studio. "I play as many gigs as possible. It's hard to maintain a steady clip since I can't do much work on the road while I'm driving or playing – so I need the downtime to book ahead and get all the busy work done."
As if she's not busy enough, Nini somehow finds the time to maintain her website. "I carry my little Mac out with me – I'm more of a tech survivor than 'savvy.' I needed a site and just learned how to do it. But it's up and there are tour dates and video and photos, so if it's a little crappy, that's OK."
Her friends and musical associates in NYC and around the country are a source of support for which she is grateful. "I have a pretty great support system in general. My family for one, but I also get to work with friends and live among people that I respect and admire, mostly musicians – most are artists of some kind."
As previously mentioned, Nini's parents are Cuban natives who now live in Miami. During her shows she likes to talk about how her family gives her support and encouragement in her career, and is fond of telling a joke about how her father once told her to "ride the Latin wave." "I really just use that joke on stage – and it is a true story! I'm not sure he ever said 'ride the Spanish wave' or 'ride the Latin wave,' but both of my parents want me to consider Spanish music as an avenue. I never really did until long after I moved away from Miami. I think it was by leaving home that I began to appreciate where it was that I came from."
"My parents are Cuban immigrants who have lived in the US for about forty years. They are very much a part of the American culture but are still invariably Cuban. I'm incredibly grateful for my heritage. I don't really think about it on a day to day basis but ask me where I want to go for dinner, and I'll say the Cuban place on the corner. Ask me what is the best party music and the answer is undoubtedly Cuban music. Who's the greatest singer? Celia Cruz. And even though I've never been, ask me where the most beautiful beaches are and I'll say Havana. That culture just is in my being – no matter where I call home."
The last question posed to Nini made her laugh: "What's a nice girl like you doing in rock and roll?"
"Who said I'm a nice girl?" she responds with a big grin.
When asked how she would answer that question on live TV, she responded by saying, "I don't want to ruin the spontaneity of a live interview by giving that question too much thought in advance. You'll have to wait and see."
The next time Nini plays a gig nearby, go see her after the show. She'll be at the merchandise table; buy a CD or two and a T-shirt. Then ask her that question, and tell her the camera is on. Maybe you'll get the answer.
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