I experienced New York for the first time together with Noa Tylo: we walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, explored Chinatown, partied at Splash and stood silently in the rain at Ground Zero. That was 2003 and he’d just arrived in the city – determined to do whatever he had to do to make it in the international music scene. I’ve never doubted his ambition.
Before heading for those startlingly bright lights, Rustenburg-born Noa was a constant presence in the Joburg club scene, both as a partygoer as well as a performer. Some may remember his rather risquÃ© stage outfits, which left not very much to the imagination. (Strangely, no one ever complained).
Noa released his first album in 2001: Born Again Virgin was a dark and broody dance-music exploration of sexual intensity. A bisexually-suggestive music video was banned by local broadcasters, but two of the tracks still went on to become hits: Gimme Some (Maybe Next Time) hit number 3 on the 5FM chart and Cool, Hot and Bothered stayed on the Hot 30 Countdown Dance chart for 18 weeks. The track Sanctuary was also released in the Benelux countries – making a splash in the clubs.
Now, after three years of finding his way through the harrowing world of the US music industry, he’s just completed and released a new 16 track album – Let’s Do It! – described as “a sexually-charged reinterpretation of classic 90’s pop and R&B dance sounds infused with ultra modern beats.” I took the opportunity to catch up with Noa about his life in New York, and the journey of making the album.
Hey Noa! How is New York treating you? Are you still in love with the Big Apple?
I LOVE living in Manhattan. I recently read an interview I did in 2002 answering a question about where I saw myself in five years, and I said New York… And here I am. It truly is one of the greatest cities in the world.
You’ve been working out, right? I can tell from the pictures…
I had a personal trainer for about two years and that helped me get into a routine. Now I just go by myself at least four or five times a week. If you feel good about yourself, it translates into everything else in your life.
Coming from a background of having had hit singles in SA and Europe, how difficult was it to start from scratch over there?
It was very scary, but I am ambitious and determined and the only way to do something, is just to do it. I was starting with a clean slate and had the same emotions and the same frustrations that I had when I started my music career there. The thought that it can happen, and eventually will if I just push ahead – that’s what’s kept me going.
Why did you feel that you had to go to New York to develop your career?
I felt that I did everything in South Africa I could and I wanted to reach a bigger audience on a bigger scale. Everything is so concentrated here and opportunities are abundant. If you know what you want, and you go after it, it can definitely happen for you here. This city is so diverse and people from all over the world come for the exact same reason, in many different industries. The culture here is just so different, sometimes intense and, while I love it, I also now appreciate South African culture more.
So tell me about romance and sex in NY…
I’ve had a lot more sex than romance in the city. With the bright lights, so many people in this small area, with the energy and everything else that goes along with it… it’s very easy to confuse the two. I guess it’s whatever you make it.
Indeed… Congrats on the new album! You must be proud of yourself… I am!
Aaaw, thank you Luiz. I am proud and very grateful for having come this far, but there is still a very long way to go to the place I see myself filling in the music industry.
2006 was an intense year for you – you lost your mom and went through a big break-up. How much of those kinds of experiences make it into your music? Can something be too personal to bring into your songwriting?
Music should be personal, or you shouldn’t be making music at all. If you can’t relate to what you’re singing or writing about, then you can’t expect your audience to relate to you. It’s therapeutic and it’s how I express myself, my life; whether it’s about sex, or a night out dancing or a loss of a love or someone close to you.
“Whatever and whomever you find yourself attracted to – what’s the big deal?”
In what areas do you think you’ve matured as a musician since Born Again Virgin?
Every time I record something it’s a learning experience. Travelling, meeting people, pursuing my goals and just living my life in general has also matured me. My lyrics and music are perhaps not as dark as Born Again Virgin, but this album has a lot more energy, it’s a lot more mainstream and a lot sexier.
How did you find recording in the US? Was it different from back home?
I wanted this album to be progressive and a big step up from my first. I definitely felt the pressure and was encouraged to push further and harder than I’ve ever been.
How important have the producers you’ve worked with been in putting together the new tracks for Let’s Do It!?
Oh, like every relationship it’s very important to have an understanding and “chemistry” when collaborating on a project. I’ve worked with Jimmy Greco on the album, who has produced for Jennifer Lopez, Beyonce and Carlos Santana, and also with two up-and-coming producers; in New York with John Buchannan, and in Washington DC with Blake Althen. I’ve also included a song I recorded in South Africa with Robin Kohl from Jazzworx, who produced most of my tracks on Born Again Virgin.
Sex and sexuality have always been a significant part of your image and your music. Is that still a focus for you?
I’m a very sexual person and it’s very much a part of me, and therefore, for now, that’s what I mostly write and sing about. This album is perhaps not as dark as the first and it’s more uplifting and sexy.
Did you ever feel that you had to tone that down for the American market – which seems really conservative right now? Are you worried that might affect your career?
To some degree my music is more mainstream urban/pop now, but nothing is toned down. I think the problem sometimes come with how you say or deliver something, and not exactly by what you say. I want to represent my generation and someone needs to be provocative and push back the boundaries that have been closing back in against us.
Related to that, you’ve also presented yourself as sexually ambiguous – refusing to label yourself. Have you been pressured to “straighten” your image over there?
I am not defined by sexuality, I am Noa and I don’t think anyone should limit themselves to that thinking either. No wonder people have this pressure to fit in a box; it’s genetically and spiritually just not possible. So many kids going through puberty attempt suicide thinking they might be gay. Whatever and whomever you find yourself attracted to – what’s the big deal?
Not many male artists are so overtly sexual in the way they present themselves…
Sex has always gone hand in hand with music, for example artists like Lenny Kravitz, Prince even Elvis, they’ve all been just as sexual, but perhaps I put a different kind of sensuality into my music that might make it stand out more.
I’ve always found it interesti