It's freezing in the small West Hollywood recording studio. Nailah crouches in a corner chair, one slender hand raking through her locks, the other stealing to her throat, wrapped in a thick woolen scarf. She rises and stretches, her delicately slender body arching, catlike. Shoulders almost too wide for her lanky frame hunch slightly, as though carrying some invisible weight.
“I think that sounds fine,” she assures percussionist Derf Reklaw, who's just laid down a couple of tracks. Derf hovers over the soundboard, listening intently to the last take. Nailah's bass player, Les King, co-producer of this demo along with Nailah and drummer Gary Novak, glances at his watch. Time is Nailah's money. He gently prods Derf: “Look, we got four hours to lay the rest of this down. What we got is cool.” Satisfied, Derf takes off.
This demo is a project that almost never was. Up until a few years ago, although Nailah sang in coffeehouses and at weddings, she hadn't considered herself a professional singer. She was a lawyer on Capitol Hill, but never fully content.
“I became disillusioned seeing the things that went on and continue to go on in Congress,” she says. “Seeing how human life really does not have a lot of value at the end of the day.” As a lobbyist for a law-enforcement organization, Nailah helped draft the foundation for the Brady bill. But by night, she wrote music.
“One of my best friends would continually tell me, 'You're not a lawyer, you're a singer,'” she recalls. “He would make me think we were going out on a date, and when I got to his house, he'd have a set of headphones waiting for me, make me put them on and sing. And I sang.”
Nailah chucked her law career, followed her muse. When the North Carolina native arrived in L.A. in 1993, she camped in the Valley, walking and busing it to a job at Lady Footlocker at Topanga Plaza Mall. A lucky break landed her at Def Jam West/PMP Records, and then at Motown as an A&R administrator, where she met industry heads and other struggling artists. She witnessed the layers of the music business – the quick glamour, the hungry starlet and, on rare occasions, the truly successful. And she worked on her songs and her singing. Hooking up with other artists, she shared her craft, and toured internationally with Warren G and G Funk Family; she's also featured on the Dove Shack song “Summertime in the LBC.”
Nailah's influences – Curtis Mayfield, Chaka Khan, and Bobcat, her father, one of the “Original 13” black DJs to format black radio – pushed to the surface, urged her past the glitz of Sunset Strip. She put it all into her songs and voice, evoking Winston-Salem's humid nights, the amber glow of lightning bugs, cricket concertos at dusk. Her compositions – novel hybrids echoing Fishbone and Sly and the Family Stone, with a dab or two of Nina Simone – are rich, and not just because of their diverse instrumental touches: Each word is a strike against child abuse, homelessness, poverty, racism and domestic violence, the last of which she recently experienced.
One song, “Nevermind the Scars,” speaks about that encounter:
I've worn out the bottom of my shoes, pacingHung out in the four corners of my roomWaiting for answers that ain't never comingI never thought you'd be the oneTo leave me with the status of a woman battered . . .Are these bruises your idea of love? . . .Well, never mind the scarsThey will heal . . . What about my heart?
“Don't piss me off,” Nailah laughs into the chilly darkness of LunaPark's main room. “I work out all my shit onstage, and you will hear about it.” This night is her second performance since suffering the beating. She's lost weight. Her body is gaunt, hips sharply defined under a slinky spaghetti-strap dress. Nailah attacks the mike. The essence of survival, the strength it took to push through the violence, snaps like a scarlet whip in the air.
At one point, encouraged by her fervor, the band sets a fierce tempo. She goads them into it, and her voice – a raw yet silken cross between Sarah Vaughan and Cassandra Wilson – breaks. She's working it out. Her music presents an odd harmony that hovers in the air after the last note fades, haunting rooms with unspoken promises.
Back in the studio, Nailah prepares to lay down her tracks. Sitting alone in the dimly lit room, waiting for her cue, she blows bubbles into the mike, chuckling. She likes singing in the dark, crooning in the cocoon of shadows. She's like an angel, a protector of sorts for those who aren't able to touch the world with song. Nailah, a child of the night, will do it for them.
Steve, the soundman, nervously adjusts the dials. “I can't even see you,” he says, squinting into the dark. “But you like that, don't you?”
Nailah performs at LunaPark on Thurs., November 19.