After overcoming immense challenges during its gestation, the second album from London producer Nabihah Iqbal – the left-field, intimate and gloriously melancholic ‘Dreamer’ – is an unequivocal triumph over adversity

“Sometimes I feel like my life is a bit jinxed,” says Nabihah Iqbal solemnly.

From the outside, she seems abundantly blessed, having swapped a career as a human rights lawyer to pursue music and received deserved plaudits for her proprietary blend of beatific synthesiser throb and shoegazey guitar sonics. If that’s a “jinxed life”, most of us would be first in the queue for some of the same.

But when you consider the obstacles Iqbal has overcome to complete her new album, ‘Dreamer’, her sense of being born under a bad sign is rather more understandable. To make it, she withstood an avalanche of awfulness, including – but not limited to – physical injury, the burglary of her studio and theft of the laptop containing her works-in-progress, a beloved relative suffering a life-threatening illness, and being stranded thousands of miles from home.

It seems she hasn’t quite managed to shake off the hex yet, either – our interview was delayed after Iqbal was knocked off her bike following a band rehearsal the night before we were due to chat.

But life’s about how you play the hand you’re dealt. Throughout everything, Iqbal never relented in her quest to complete ‘Dreamer’. Indeed, these challenges shaped the album, its landscape shifting to accommodate the outrageous misfortune, the near-death experiences and the sublimely ridiculous twists of fate, repaying a thousandfold the debt of faith she placed in music many years ago.

Inspiration first came to Iqbal wearing a single rhinestone glove.

“I was really obsessed with Michael Jackson when I was a kid,” she remembers, speaking from her London home. “My mum taped a Michael Jackson documentary off the TV for me, and I watched it every single day. And obviously, at the age of three or four I wasn’t thinking, ‘I’m going to make music when I grow up’, but if you connect with it in that special way, you realise it’s a powerful force. Even at that age, I realised music can do something to you that nothing else can.”

Like a pop-fixated Mr Benn, Iqbal adopted a series of cultural identities (and their related uniforms) in the years that followed. First, she was into Oasis…

“I even got myself a pair of round Liam Gallagher sunglasses and would try to sing like him,” she says with a laugh. “Or mimic his poses, at least.”

Next, she channelled her inner mosher, spending her weekends in the Stygian swamp that is Camden’s Underworld.

“Super-baggy trousers, lots of jewellery, big hoodie,” she says, laughing again. “I see Gen-Z kids wearing that stuff now and I’m like, ‘It didn’t even look good the first time around!’.”

By the turn of the millennium, however, Iqbal had begun her journey into electronica. The jagged punk-funk of outfits like The Faint and The Rapture seduced her first, while Miss Kittin and Peaches dragged her further down the rabbit hole. Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’ sealed the deal.

“That album melded guitar music and electronics in the most beautiful way,” she muses. “It made me think about those two worlds and my place within them.”

At 18, she took a course in music production that gave her a grounding in Cubase.

“I never used it again,” she admits. “At least it taught me how to make music on a computer.”

But it was DJing that gave her a true sense of direction.

“Some friends started putting on parties in laundrettes around east London, so that was how I DJed for the first time. It was the best feeling to see how you could get people to dance and feel good. I always like mixing unexpected things together and surprising people to move them and affect them.”

She began making her own “chopped and screwed” edits of pop hits by Beyoncé and Mariah Carey to drop into her sets. After putting them up on SoundCloud, they caught the attention of Leipzig-based house producer Kassem Mosse, who invited Iqbal to make a record for his Ominira label.

‘Mystic Places’, a 12-inch credited to her early alter ego Throwing Shade, arrived in 2013 – a glorious showcase of Iqbal’s satisfyingly conflicted impulses towards pop and experimentalism, juggling manipulated vocal hooks, heavy synth chords and brittle drum machine pulses.

“The launch party for ‘Mystic Places’ was the first big event centred around me and my music, and all my friends came,” she says. “It really made me feel like I was doing something right. And I just wanted to keep going.”

And so she did. Four further Throwing Shade 12-inch singles followed and she also started a regular show on NTS Radio.

“I was studying enthnomusicology at SOAS University and guested on a friend’s show to play rare and unusual tracks from parts of the world Western audiences don’t usually get to hear.”

The station’s manager swiftly offered Iqbal a show of her own, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. With further serendipity, her producer at NTS moved on to become A&R at venerated London imprint Ninja Tune and invited Iqbal to sign with the label in 2015.

Her fifth 12-inch, ‘House Of Silk’, would be her final release as Throwing Shade, and her debut full-length, ‘Weighing Of The Heart’, arrived under her own name in 2017.

“Other ethnic minority people said they found it inspirational to see somebody like me doing music,” she remembers. “You hardly ever see South Asian people in mainstream culture, except if it’s on a comedy show where they’re making fun of themselves, and that’s pretty depressing.

“I wanted to use my real name and be upfront about my identity. Some said, ‘You might not get booked for festivals now, because you never see any ethnic names on festival line-ups’. And maybe it did have a negative effect. But I’m happy that I made the change.”

There also followed an evolution in her sound. Alongside the atmospheric electronic music that had become her trademark as Throwing Shade, she introduced electric guitar to her palette, fusing the two worlds she’d been ruminating on ever since hearing ‘Kid A’.

“It’s so versatile, and I never get bored with trying to teach myself some complicated new finger-picking method,” she says. “I was performing under my own name now, and working guitar into my music made it more ‘me’. It just felt right, and I never looked back.”

Iqbal’s embrace of the instrument would prove a genius move, creating a unique voice that helped ‘Weighing Of The Heart’ seduce the critics. The stage was now set for a much-anticipated sequel, but what followed was six years of silence – and some of the toughest experiences of her life.

“It’s a bit embarrassing,” says Iqbal of the inaugural mishap of the ‘Dreamer’ era.

While filming an Instagram story in an ancient Greek amphitheatre in Sicily, she slipped and broke her hand.

The injury scuppered her plans to spend the summer of 2019 finishing off her second album, and was compounded by a nasty case of burnout – the result of “too much touring and stuff” – which grounded her with serious fatigue at the end of that year.

“I was so sick,” she remembers. “But the doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me, and I had no real time to rest – I don’t earn money in my sleep.”

Next, her studio was burgled, and the thieves made off with the laptop on which she’d been recording her new material.

“I lost two years’ work – I’d almost finished the album,” she recalls. “I didn’t care about the computer, but I lost all those ideas, and I hadn’t backed any of them up.”

The following day, however, she received news that put all her other maladies into perspective.

“My grandad, my favourite person in the world, had had a brain haemorrhage in Pakistan. I was like, ‘OK, I just need to go there’.”

Iqbal and her mother booked a last-minute flight for the following day. It was the first week of March 2020, and lockdown was imminent.

“We were about the only people in Heathrow,” Iqbal remembers. “We ended up stuck in Pakistan for two months.”

But the trip would soon prove her first blessing in months.

“My grandad recovered, and I spent those weeks with my family eating good food and finally resting up. And it was there that the seeds of ‘Dreamer’ were planted. I’d been feeling really depressed over the album and whether I could recreate those lost ideas. I told my grandad, and he said simply, ‘It doesn’t matter – just start again’.”

So she did, abandoning the stolen work and turning a new leaf. The next day, she purchased an acoustic guitar.

“I guess I was going back to basics,” she says. “If you typically make music on a computer, you’re used to starting something and building up. I didn’t have any of my equipment, so it forced me into this very simple approach. But maybe that was for the better, as I was focusing all my energy rather than getting distracted.”

She returned from Pakistan with an iPhone full of recordings she’d made using the guitar, her grandfather’s harmonium and loop pedal, and she finished the album while working as artist-in-residence at various locations around the UK. One such spot was Cove Park, on the west coast of Scotland.

“There was no internet, and it was a two-hour walk to the nearest shop, so I really focused,” she says. “I was reading ‘Ode’ by Arthur O’Shaughnessy – it’s one of my favourite poems: ‘We are the music makers / And we are the dreamers of dreams’. It’s about the beauty and importance of artistic creation and music, and it’s so moving, it makes me cry. That’s where the album title comes from.”

The finished work is astonishing. Iqbal’s most ambitious and fully realised vision yet, ‘Dreamer’ strikes a keen balance between electronic and guitar-oriented sounds. Its 10 tracks skillfully segue from ambient drones gilded by wordless multitracked vocals to the ethereal shoegaze of the title cut and the epic, slow-building, spiritual house of ‘Sunflower’. The end result is Iqbal making peace with her divergent influences and interests.

“It’s all part of what I do,” she says. “Sequencing the album was a challenge, but I conceived it like it was a journey. I want listeners to connect with the more intimate tracks as much as the club-focused ones, to sense that ecstatic feeling through the guitar pieces as much as the electronic ones. I’m trying to evoke the escapism, the pure happiness, that you might get for just a fleeting moment at a club or festival.”

There are loftier ambitions at play, too – the hypnotic ‘This World Couldn’t See Us’ is inspired by Iqbal’s favourite book, Thomas Hardy’s ‘Tess Of The D’Urbervilles’.

“The poetry I wrote for the track is inspired by what Tess goes through in the book,” she explains. “The refrain – ‘This world couldn’t see us / This world couldn’t keep us’ – is about striving for a love or a relationship or a feeling that seems so right, but with the society we live in, it’s never gonna survive.”

Such drama suits a record with so tortured a backstory.

“I’ve never cared so much about anything or worked so hard on anything in my life,” she says. “The day I finished the album was the best feeling I can remember.”

And even if Iqbal hasn’t yet quite shaken loose the jinx, she’s now making a habit of looking on the bright side. She might have been knocked off her bike a week before, but that’s not the memory she’s taking home from the day.

“What was important happened earlier – being physically in a room with my band and playing together. It was so emotional. I’d made all this music by myself, and so few people had heard it yet. And suddenly these songs were coming alive. I’d never experienced that before. It was wonderful.”

‘Dreamer’ is out on Ninja Tune

You May Also Like
Read More

Tangerine Dream: Paradigm Drift

Epic and mesmeric, sensual and influential, ‘Phaedra’ is Tangerine Dream’s definitive masterpiece. It was recorded under trying circumstances, but the album’s sequenced, otherworldly sounds – built on Mellotron and Moog synths – arguably resonate even more today than they did in 1974. To mark its 50th anniversary this month, we tell the story of an enduring cornerstone of progressive electronic music
Read More

Tom Furse: 1 Love?

Do constraints breed creativity? The Horrors’ Tom Furse was determined to find out so off he went on a sonic journey with just Teenage Engineering’s OP-1 for company…
Read More

700 Bliss: Live Wires

All shuddering bass, eclectic sonics and playful, avant-punk intensity, ‘Nothing To Declare’ by 700 Bliss – aka DJ Haram and Moor Mother – is a blistering statement of intent, elevating electronic music and hip hop to thrilling new heights
Read More

Trevor Key: Key Works

Featuring iconic record sleeves by the late Hull-born photographer, a new exhibition, ‘Trevor Key’s Top 40’, opens at the city’s art school, where he studied, later this month. We doff our cap to the great man
Read More

An Article About Steven Wilson

A limited edition (of one) boxset for £10,000. A can of Antarctic air for £500. A toilet roll for £200. A hole punch for £50. An album of electronic rock (or should that be rocktronica?) with 2021 written all over it. Enter the mighty strange world of studio perfectionist and cult phenomenon Steven Wilson