‘I reach a trance state. I’m almost sleepwalking’: the mystical jazz of Nala Sinephro

Made against the odds while she was in dire need of self-care, the London-based harpist and composer’s album is an ambient jazz classic. She explains the healing, spiritual qualities of her work

Under a cold, moonlit sky in south London’s Horniman Museum conservatory, Nala Sinephro is cradling her pedal harp like a child softly resting on her shoulder. With her eyes closed behind her wire-rimmed glasses, she begins to delicately pull her hands along its strings, creating enveloping glissandos that fill the candlelit room. In the corner of her eye a tear glistens.

This is the first full-band gig Sinephro has played since the release of her highly acclaimed debut album Space 1.8 (“a benchmark in ambient jazz … less like a player seated at her instrument than a source of light”, rhapsodised Pitchfork). “These were tears of happiness I was trying to hide, since that was my favourite show I’ve ever done. I could feel the presence of everyone surrounding me,” Sinephro says a few days after the event. “I was crying because I couldn’t believe the record is out and that I am living the gift of being able to make my music. Playing the harp is a form of therapy for me. I close my eyes, my hands work and I process the emotions I’m feeling without needing to say anything.”

We meet in a Hoxton bakery near the record store Sinephro works at. Speaking so softly as to almost be inaudible, she channels the similarly soothing and melodic presence of her performance.

At only 25, she has had a circuitous journey to the harp. Raised in Belgium by her pianist mother, Sinephro developed her ear for instrumentation early, beginning on the piano before moving to fiddle, violin and even the bagpipes. At high school, the room she would practise music in housed a fellow student’s harp, which soon piqued her curiosity. “I was always fascinated by it, so I decided to secretly open its case up one day,” she says, smiling. “When I did, it was like seeing an elephant or a giraffe – it’s an instrument that comes from another time.”

There followed two years of clandestine explorations with the borrowed instrument, as she found her way around its fiendishly complicated architecture by feeling and sound. “It was all very organic, and playing felt like refreshing an old memory, or a reincarnation,” she says. “Maybe I have a Celtic harpist in my ancestry who played in medieval times!”

Yet Sinephro refrained from learning the instrument formally, opting to move to London in 2017 to study composition instead. Arriving in the city and swiftly dropping out of her university course after three weeks – “as a person of colour, I didn’t feel like there was enough space for me and for what I wanted to make in that school,” she explains – Sinephro soon found her own like-minded musical community via a network of jazz jam nights.

Opportune timing meant her arrival coincided with increasing recognition of the new jazz scene that was emerging in London, and she fell in with one of its key players, saxophonist Nubya Garcia, as well as the collective Steam Down. “It was so open-hearted when I got here, I felt like I was heard and had a place to grow,” she says. “I was supported by a community and it ultimately made for a perfect setting for this album.”

Sinephro soon wrote the first composition of Space 1.8: Space 4 – a collaboration with Garcia, who creates a swirling downtempo saxophone melody that gently builds over whispering synth work. The harp is notably absent, since Sinephro still saw herself primarily as a composer and producer. “It was a very exciting time, full of youthful, optimistic energy that ultimately produced an entire album of work that sounded like Space 4,” Sinephro says. “But in April 2018, I lost the hard drive with the compositions on it. I was distraught.”

Performing at the Horniman Museum.
Space is the place … Sinephro performing at the Horniman Museum. Photograph: Fabrice Bourgelle

It was a horrifying setback that proved instrumental in shaping the record that was to come. By the time she had gathered enough energy to try again, she reframed her priorities. “I asked myself, what is the one thing I regret not doing? And it was playing the harp,” she says. A quick Google saw a hired harp delivered to her bedroom two days later.

“Losing that first album was the universe telling me to start again,” she says. “I’m composing all the time and it made me think of my work as a memory of my life – an authentic experience that others can immerse themselves in too.”

Holding several recording sessions from August to November 2018, Sinephro approached the dates as purely collaborative, improvisational experiences, channeling the feelings and conversations she would have with the other musicians into eight intuitive compositions that became the “spaces” of the record’s title. The result is an impressionistic album whose every track evokes an imaginative response in the listener; from the warm meditative glow of Space 1, filled with a soundworld of plucked strings and birdsong, to the pulsating modular synths and rhythmic force of Space 3 – cut from a three-hour jam session – to the ambient, devotional textures of the percussion-less Space 7.

“When I produce this type of music, I have to be very open and surrender to the sound,” Sinephro says. “I reach a trance-inducing state where I might play a note for 10 minutes straight, if that’s what I’m feeling. While my hands are doing their job, I’m almost sleepwalking.”

It is a compositional state comparable to the spiritual jazz processes of harpist Alice Coltrane. Yet, Sinephro only came across her music after she had begun work on the album. She was creating from a deeper, less referential place. “This was a sonic world created out of necessity, since I felt like there wasn’t a place for me to have self-care outside of my own home,” she says. “I felt so happy and comfortable there and so I wanted to reflect that pleasure in my music.”

The album’s subsequent release, following a delay caused by the coronavirus pandemic, is appropriately healing for listeners after the turmoil of the past 18 months. One even wrote to Sinephro to say that the frequencies she uses are helping ease his tinnitus. “I wanted it to be something that could be used in even 20 years to make listeners feel good,” she says.

Live, that effect is particularly palpable. Back in the conservatory, as Sinephro moves from her harp to a synth and drummer Eddie Hick kicks up a gear, she beams a wide smile to the other band members, signalling them to come in. Around the room, we are all smiling too, joined in another of the spaces she creates.


Ammar Kalia

The GuardianTramp

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