2022 Bermuda Biennial

A Creative Voice

Heather Nova

Heather Nova needs little introduction. Over the past 30 years the Bermudian singer/songwriter has released 13 albums, which together have sold over 2 million copies worldwide. Pre-pandemic, she spent the best part of her time on tour, however the past two years have seen her based in Bermuda full time, living simply and quietly at her island home, writing, recording music and painting. This time of intimate creativity led to a new acoustic album, Other Shores, and her poem Pink of Sands of Time being selected for the 2022 Bermuda Biennial. Her Biennial work builds on the success of The Sorrowjoy, a collection of poetry and drawings, which has recently been re-released 20 years after it was originally published.

Of her 2022 Bermuda Biennial poem she says “I prefer not to say too much about a poem; I believe it is more purely received by the reader without an explanation. For me, this is an important aspect of art. The artist takes a committed deep dive into the complexities of their consciousness, bringing their expression to the surface in a unique entanglement of their truths and visions. The audience brings their own unique perspective and history to experiencing the piece, thus making the work relevant to each person in their own way. This is the magic of how art connects us all and is how the acutely personal transforms to the universal.”

As Heather prepares for the start of her first tour since 2019, which will see her perform 41 European shows in 48 days, we caught up with her to discuss how tuning into nature allowed her to find a creative voice from a young age and why both poetry and songwriting stem from the same source but come to her in different ways.

Heather Nova photographed by Vincent Lyons.

BNG: Congratulations on the release of Other Shores, your most recent album, which went straight into the top 20 in Germany. It is a compilation of covers sung acoustically. Could you please tell us about it? Why did you choose to release covers rather than original material for the first time?

HN: Thank you! It was just a little side project that I did here in Bermuda during lockdown. So I never expected it to chart! A wonderful surprise. I have often thrown a cover version into a live show, so I decided to explore a few more and see where it led me. I really got into embodying the songs, stripping away all the production and finding the essence of the songs in their bare bones. I took some big anthems like Don’t Stop Believing and Staying Alive, and it’s astonishing what happens when you strip them back and slow them down. I really tried to make them my own, so that you hear the lyrics with a whole new emotion. That, I think should be the objective of a cover version – to allow the listener to hear the song in a completely fresh way.

BNG: Pre-pandemic you spent most of your time touring. However, the last two years have seen you based in Bermuda full time. In what ways has this affected your creative practice?

HN: Yes, I liked having an excuse to stay put for an extended period. I really am a homebody and love nothing more than to be here, living quietly and simply. It was nice not to have to get on a plane. I know a lot of people felt frustrated by that, but I live my life sort of backwards to most; my work is spent travelling and my vacation is being at home! It also gave me a lot of time to be creative. I wrote a lot, made my covers album, and painted.

BNG: A lot of your inspiration comes from the natural world. Growing up in Bermuda, you spent much of your childhood exploring the Caribbean on Moon, a 42-foot sailboat which your father built. How did this unique childhood inform your career?

HN: Yes, I have always felt a sense of spirituality through connecting with the natural world. Spending my childhood in Bermuda and the Caribbean, living so close to the sea, gave me a profound respect and appreciation of nature. And I found my creative voice even from a very young age, by tuning into that. We were living such a simple life on the boat, and as kids we spent so much time outdoors exploring. That, combined with my parents’ great music collection, which was always playing on the tape deck, seemed to breed a connection for me between creativity and nature.

The Sorrowjoy, a book of poems and drawings by Heather Nova, has recently been re-released, twenty years after its first publication.

BNG: Do you remember writing your first poem/song? Have poetry and music always been a big part of your life?

HN: Yes. I remember writing my first songs. They were songs about seagulls and lighthouses, and moonlight on the water – things like that!  Songwriting and poetry always came very naturally to me. I did it because it felt good, it felt vital.  And as a teenager on the boat, when there was no physical space to call my own, I retreated into writing. Once I got a guitar at age 11 and learned a few chords I was writing all the time.

BNG: You are very well known as a singer/songwriter, however poetry is also a key part of your creative practice and in 2002 you released The Sorrowjoy, a book of your poems and drawings. How do you know when a written piece will become a poem and when it will become a song? Are the writing processes different, if so in what ways?

HN: I am often asked this question and it’s a hard one to define. They are both streams from the same creative source. But I guess poems feel more inward, whereas songs are created to be sung out. They each have a different feel when they come to me. Usually when I write a song, the lyrics and melody arrive together. I don’t write a whole lyric and put it to music, but rather I get a fragment of melody and words, and then I develop the song from there. When I write poetry I am not restricted by rhyme. It has a rhythm that is more subtle, and overall it is without the confines of structure. The poem I wrote for the Biennial is actually an exception for me, because it does rhyme and is more traditionally structured. But that’s the way it came to me, and I believe in following and honouring what comes.

BNG: In your Biennial statement you say “I never tire of the interplay of words, sound, and imagery – like working clay between my fingers; I feel most alive when I am making something”. What other creative pursuits do you have and how do they interplay, if at all?

HN: I believe we can have a creative approach to just about anything, and I tend to live my life that way as much as possible. I also draw and paint. I actually went to art school (RISD) before deciding to focus on my music. I feel most alive when I am creating something. Ever since I was a child I’ve felt most at home and most relaxed when making things. My mother instilled this in us; she encouraged us to make things, whether it was drawing, writing, weaving, crafts, etc., and to be honest, not to sound like “back in the good old days” or anything (!) but we did it to entertain ourselves. We didn’t have iPads, and in my case, we didn’t have a TV, so being creative was my fun and my purpose. And it still is!

Drawings by Heather Nova.

BNG: What does it mean to you to have your poem Pink Sands of Time included in the 2022 Bermuda Biennial?

HN: I’m incredibly honoured. Truly. It meant a lot to me to have my poem selected. I might have had many albums in the charts in different countries over the years, but nothing has the same meaning for me as being recognised in my home country.

BNG: You are about to embark on a big European tour, your first since 2019. How does it feel to be getting back on to the road again?

HN: I’m both excited and nervous! It’s a big tour – 41 shows in 48 days. A different city every day. But I feel fortunate to have such a loyal fanbase that I can still do this after 30 years in this career. I will never take live music for granted again. Maybe that’s something good to have come out of the pandemic; we have renewed appreciation for things like this. To gather together in person, to share music, this is really important for human beings; that sense of community and sharing we can only half simulate online. The energy is palpable when you are all in a room together, exchanging the experience that music creates. It’s magic.

The 2022 Bermuda Biennial A New Vocabulary: Past. Present. Future. is on display at the Bermuda National Gallery through to the end of the year.