“LOOK FOR YOURSELF:” Noraa of visibilities – interview by Ella Rosenblatt
Playing in the upcoming AS220 Estival Festival on July 20th, Noraa creates music under the name visibilities, but I found out that she has many talents–including translation and bookmaking–beyond her musical work. What struck me about Noraa was the genuine love and admiration she has for her favorite art, from Bach to the Bible. That extends to the huge respect she has for the Providence musical community. She is familiar with the AS220 stage, and brings to it her authenticity, melancholic and heartfelt music, and deep appreciation for text and songwriting. We got to talk to her about all of this, and here is that conversation:
Can you describe when you began to do music and make art?
I was always musical. It was something I cared very passionately about, even as a small child, and it’s something that I’ve sort of kept with me through every stage of my life. And visual art has also been something I’m interested in, kind of at varying degrees at different times of my life, but the written word and the sung text have always been paramount to me. I think that I started playing the piano when I was about eleven or twelve. My dad’s a music teacher, but being the rebellious preteen that I was, I decided that I wanted to teach myself, so I am a self-taught musician. Nevertheless I’m really interested in exploring complicated genres like classical music, contemporary composition.
So you kind of spontaneously decided to try it out?
Yeah, just throwing spaghetti against the wall and seeing what sticks.
What kind of visual art do you make?
Visually, I work a lot with paint. I do a lot of watercolors in the sort of abstract sense. And I work on a lot of bookmaking, creating artist books and zines. I do other visual stuff too but that’s my primary media I guess.
Does that relate to your musical work?
Absolutely. All of my work, in any form, is in some way an archive. It’s about archiving text or information or memories over time. I’m obsessed with archivism because there are a lot of memories that I do not have access to in my life. So I’m obsessed with creating documents of what has happened and where it has happened and who it has happened to. That’s why a lot of my work is sort of very biographical of historical figures and of imaginary people. I’m also obsessed with creating rich almost mythological or mythical fantasies. I really like the Bible, which is weird, I think it’s a great book, it’s a fun read. From pre-kindergarten to eighth grade I went to a Jewish school at my grandparents insistence, and I learned a lot about Biblical Hebrew, and I can still read and write in it, so I kind of moonlight as a radical biblical translator. I’ve translated Ecclesiastes and I’m working on the Song of Songs right now, which are some of the most beautiful books I know.
Do you think text or scripts figure into your work?
Yes, a lot of my musical work relies heavily on direct quotation of things that different people have said, of things I’ve written down in my diary. Sort of taking text, and fitting it into a musical medium.
Can you talk a bit more about the inspiration behind your lyrics?
For visibilities, the project that I make most of my music under, the lyrics are pretty important. I don’t want to deny how important the musicality is to me–I’m a counter-tenor, and my voice is extremely important to me, being a trans woman, I have sort of had to develop and practice this–someone called a falsetto, but I don’t think that’s accurate because it think it’s more like a true-setto–my true voice, I usually fall in the mezzo-soprano range. But I can reach soprano heights if I try, and it’s very important for me to focus on the musical and harmonic elements. A lot of my work is very simple in terms of orchestration, it’s really just me sitting down at a piano, and banging out some chords, and singing relatively simple melodies on top of it. Trying to make as many fun diminished and seven chords as possible and trying to fit text from the 1600s over it and see what happens. I hardly ever have taken only text from the past; I usually try to reinterpret it. I think people write music to express who they are, and that’s why I think it’s so fascinating for me as a multiple and as a person, to write about other people.
Your most recent project was called Look for Yourself. Can you talk a bit about it as a project and why you chose that name?
It’s a double entendre. Look for Yourself can mean, it’s definitely a command and it’s an instruction, and it could either mean “look for yourself!” Like sort of not presupposing who we are. Then it’s this practice and this process that we all have to be doing, to look for who we are. And then there’s also this more direct or usual meaning of it, which is like, “Well if you don’t believe me, look for yourself.” It’s inviting someone to not take someone’s word for it and to actually do the research themselves. And those are two things that I want people who engage with my music to do.
You also are a self-described “sad-girl,” and your music is sort of melancholy. Can you talk about why that’s the sort of style you tend toward or why you describe yourself that way?
Because I’m very sad. But also just because it’s very therapeutic for me to be making work like that, to get emotions like that out into the world. I think that they’re important because our society doesn’t prioritize those feelings. I am someone who struggles with mental illness; it’s something that I have been working through for a very long time and have been very open about. Just as it’s very important for me to be open as a trans woman, it’s very important for me to be out as a mentally ill person. I’ve had so much time in my life where I’ve lied to people, even lying to myself. Unfortunately that’s what being a closeted trans woman can feel like. It can feel like you are lying to everyone, and you have to make excuses for yourself all the time. And it got to a point where I just can’t tell a lie anymore. It is very triggering for me when I have to pretend when I have to put on a mask, so at this point, I don’t really have a choice. I just have to be as authentic as possible, probably authentic to a fault.
Do you draw inspiration from other music or art forms?
Yes, Sometimes I feel like a strainer for good shit. I have a lot of music that sort of keeps me alive and keeps me going. That includes Joanna Newsom, Bach, Nina Simone, folk-punk. Carly Rae Jepson. I have a lot of pop in me. It sounds like I’m talking a lot about these arcane things, but I don’t want people to get the impression that I’m some sort of librarian. My music is really funny. I think that I have a pretty good sense of humor. Just because I’m telling the truth doesn’t mean that I’m telling it i the worst way. I’m not trying to catastrophize things. The Moldy Peaches are a daily inspiration for me. My Chemical Romance, couldn’t live without them. And if I had to list one more, I would just say everyone in Providence who is pouring their heart into their music. I really believe in this city–I think we have amazing musicians here. I’m very lucky to grow up in such a nurturing community for music.
What’s coming up for your music, invisibilities or any of your other artwork?
I’m just gonna keep going. I put out my first studio EP a while ago in March, and that was Look for Yourself, and I want to put out a studio LP. But I also wanna be working on specific projects like the Song cycle I was just describing earlier or a folk-punk album, or side projects or collaborations. I recently have started playing in an ensemble with some amazing local musicians, and it’s been so rewarding to play my songs as a full band.