“In the family I come from, you don’t go into the arts,” says NEeMA, the folk-pop artist who’s been touring Canada with her second album, Watching You Think. “My parents are from Egypt, originally from Lebanon. For them, it’s important to secure your future, to do something so that you can make a living and be comfortable.”
So in spite of a passion for photography, she followed her older brother and sister into management studies at McGill. “There were these crazy winter carnivals in Management and they’d come home dressed in these crazy suits. I was younger and I thought that would be so much fun,” she laughs.
After graduating with distinction, NEeMA (known then as Nadine Neemeh, BCom '96) was slated to study law at McGill, but instead she took off on a spiritual quest, back-packing around the world, doing yoga and silent retreats, and encountering people like the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa. “And Leonard,” she adds, easing the name of poet and singer Leonard Cohen, BA'55, DLitt'92, into the conversation.
She didn't have to venture too far from home to make Cohen's acquaintance though - the fabled man of words shared the same Montreal neighbourhood and the two would often share a stroll when NEeMA walked her dog. Over time, he became a good friend and eventually the co-producer, along with Pierre Marchand (Sarah McLachlan, Ron Sexsmith) and NEeMA herself, for Watching You Think. He also drew the portrait of NEeMA that appears on the album cover. “Having him in my life in a professional way is like being in school and having an amazing teacher, as if I were taking a creative writing course. He really gave me so much at that level, about music too, and the art of living life in quite a Zen way.”
Her first album, Masi Cho, released in 2006, was influenced by the time she spent in the Northwest Territories, working as the band manager for the Wekweti, a First Nations community. The CD opened and closed with a prayer song “like all the chief and council meetings, which open and close with prayer.” Watching You Think is more a blend of styles, bona fide pop songs featured alongside more contemplative numbers that resemble parables, somewhat reminiscent of songs by NEeMA’s mentor, Cohen. Delivered in a throaty, velvety voice, her lyrics and melodies convey a profound message, yet in a deceptively simple, even naïve manner.
The thirty-something NEeMA is herself an interesting blend of spiritual seeker and go-getter. “This spiritual quest has been a part of me since I was 10 or 11, and questioning God and life and death and what we’re doing here. It was the foremost question on my mind for years.” She claims her go-getter side comes from her father, a medical doctor, and her brother, a chartered accountant and president of his company. “It’s the work ethic in my family, not just that you have to do well, but be the best at what you do.”
But the contrasting sides of her personality also cause her a lot of inner conflict. “I spent years regretting that I did a degree in commerce,” she admits, but later discovered that it came in handy, particularly when she was managing the affairs of a First Nations community. The skills she picked up at McGill also apply to her current career in the arts. “For a while I was my own booking agent, press agent, manager, and tour manager.” Even now, with a professional manager in L.A., she still handles a lot of the day-to day details herself.
About her chosen path as a singer-songwriter, NEeMA says, with her signature fusion of practicality and philosophy: “It’s a very iffy kind of world, and a very hard industry. It’s more ‘one day to the next’ than a certainty of any kind. Life in general is not very certain, even though it appears to be, and this career even more so.”
by Shelley Pomerance
To listen to "Escape," one of the songs on NEeMA's new album, visit www.myspace.com/neemaste.