Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


Nishla Smith

Friends With Monsters

by Ian Mann

December 16, 2021


Made with jazz musicians “Friends With Monsters” is first and foremost a jazz album, but it’s also a recording that has the capability to reach across musical genres.

Nishla Smith

“Friends With Monsters”

(Whirlwind Recordings WR4780)

Nishla Smith – vocals, Aaron Wood – trumpet & flugelhorn, Richard Jones – piano, Joshua Cavanagh-Brierley- bass, Johnny Hunter- drums

“Friends With Monsters” is the début album recording by the Australian born vocalist and songwriter Nishla Smith.

Smith is now based in Manchester, having settled in the city after spending some time living in Berlin. She is an artist whose work embraces a number of disciplines. As well as establishing herself on the Manchester jazz scene she also works in the worlds of theatre and the visual arts.

In addition to composing for her own quintet Smith has also written commissions for Manchester Jazz Festival, the Manchester Collective, Opera North and St. Andrews University.

These works include “Aether”, a song cycle commissioned by St. Andrews University for the East Neuk Festival in Fife, “Moments”, a music and spoken word project conceived with fellow song interpreter Tom Harris, and “Night Porter; Spaces”, a collaboration with saxophonist Emma Johnson commissioned by Manchester Jazz Festival.

Smith is also a co-creator at the theatre company Ulita where she is involved in collaborations involved with the blending of theatre, music and the visual arts.

“I’m a very natural storyteller” declares Smith. I just love to tell stories, I find myself weaving everyday events into tales that are very narratively pleasing.”

“Friends With Monsters” is one such a story. A concept album of sorts it charts the tale of a single evening / night and is informed by Smith’s own insomnia. It is a typically multidisciplinary project. The lavish album packaging includes a lyric booklet illustrated by the work of a number of visual artists (Heather Chambers, Joshua Rush, Luca Shaw, Sarah Wilson, Danielle Rhoda, Steph Dutton, Molly O’ Donoghue) who were commissioned by Smith to provide visual responses to her music. Further insights into these visual works appear on Smith’s website

A number of the songs also feature on a series of videos created by Smith and her co-producer Sophie Szabo. These also incorporate the work of choreographers, dancers, cinematographers, set designers and builders, hair and make up artists etc. The videos can be viewed at Smith’s website

Smith collaborated with an incredible twenty eight other artists in the making of the “Friends With Monsters” project and describes the finished work as “a meeting point”.

Central to the success of the project is the playing of Smith’s superb quintet, comprised of some of Manchester’s finest jazz musicians, some of them bandleaders in their own right.

The album is “set over one troubled night” and is divided into four separate sections, each introduced by a scene setting interlude.

The first ‘scene setter’ is “Twilight”, a duet between Smith and Richard Jones, who in a neat twist of symmetry is also the pianist with Smith collaborator Emma Johnson’s Gravy Boat group. Smith sings above Jones’ gently rippling piano arpeggios,  her lyrics welcoming the night and her forthcoming thoughts and dreams.

Of the title track Smith comments;
“‘Friends with Monsters is the central metaphor of the album. It’s about my inability to sleep, but it’s also about those things that haunt you, and yet become part of you.. You can’t imagine who you’d be without them”.
In a kind of following on from “Twilight” Jones introduces the piece with a passage of unaccompanied piano, before Smith emerges to sing of her imaginary monster friends, concluding that “I can’t live without them now”. There’s an appropriately nocturnal, melancholic mood about the piece, reminiscent at times of Billie Holiday. The full band eventually appear, with Wood adding the first of several elegant trumpet solos, he’s followed by the expansive lyricism of Jones at the piano as Cavanagh-Brierley and Hunter provide subtle, gently propulsive support.

“Julian” addresses the fantasy figure that haunts Smith’s dreams, her economical but candid lyrics sensitively supported by the band, with Wood and Jones again contributing beautiful solos on their respective instruments. Cavanagh-Brierley’s double bass plays a prominent role in the arrangement, while Hunter, deploying brushes, is the epitome of restraint and good taste throughout. It’s a good demonstration of his versatility behind the kit, very different from some of his more experimental free jazz excursions.

The next section of the album is ushered in by “Midnight”, this time a duet featuring Smith’s voice and the sounds of Cavanagh-Brierley’s double bass, a kind of nocturne charting Smith’s frustrations at being unable to find the sanctuary of sleep.

The next song, “Home”, offers some respite. It’s a love song of sorts, with Smith’s yearning vocals again sensitively supported by piano, bass and drums, the singer at last seeming to find some resolution, “And after all that we’ve been through, Home at last, I am home with you”. Woods’ trumpet emerges later, bringing with it a gauzy, Miles Davis style melancholic eloquence.

“Starlight” finds Smith recalling her childhood, but conceding that her memories have inevitably become rose tinted. Her lyrical imagery is a vivid and evocative depiction of nostalgia, with Wood again emerging as the featured instrumental soloist.

The next scene setter is “3.A.M.”, the most wordy of these duo episodes, with Smith’s voice accompanied only by the sound of Hunter’s drums.  The lyrics expand upon those of “Midnight”, reflecting on seemingly being the only person in the world to be awake at this moment. Meanwhile Hunter gives a superb performance at the kit, sensitively exploring its textural and timbral capabilities.

This leads to the only outside item on the album, an arrangement of the Rodgers & Hammerstein song “It Might As Well Be Spring”. Smith’s decision to cover this well known jazz standard was inspired by her memories of her grandmother.  The quintet give it a fairly straight ahead reading, with Smith’s distinctive, well enunciated vocals skilfully supported by her bandmates. Jones and Cavanagh-Brierley emerge as the featured instrumental soloists.

The upbeat mood continues with Smith’s own “I Want To Make You Happy”, a love song written in the form of a bossa nova and introduced by Cavanagh-Brierley on double bass. The positivity of Smith’s lyrics is complemented by the instrumental solos from Wood and Jones.

The final ‘scene setter’ is “Dawn”, this time featuring the partnership of Smith and Wood, voice and trumpet combining to evoke the woozy pleasure of emerging from sleep. Simple and evocative this brief duet has an almost hymnal quality about it.

The album concludes on an optimistic note with “Up”, a song written when Smith was on holiday. A celebration of life itself the song takes a second dip into the world of childhood nostalgia, as well as glorying in the delights of the natural world.

Made with jazz musicians “Friends With Monsters” is first and foremost a jazz album, but it’s also a recording that has the capability to reach across musical genres. Smith’s highly personalised writing has something of the charm of Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell, Tori Amos etc., and I’m sometimes also reminded of Alice Zawadzki, another artist associated with Manchester.

It’s an album that a casual listener might not necessarily label as ‘jazz’, hence its potential to reach a wider audience. The instrumental solos are economical, and despite their undoubted quality the focus remains predominately upon Smith and her songs.  That said, all four instrumentalists make superb contributions and the quality of their playing adds greatly to the success of the record. Given the right airplay it’s the kind of album that could even become something of a left-field hit. It’s certainly one of the most interesting collections of original jazz based song writing that I’ve heard in a while.

blog comments powered by Disqus