“I haven’t yet had my Joni Mitchell phase,” admits Nico Paulo, which for a singer-songwriter born in Canada might be considered close to sacrilege. But Paulo’s parents are Portuguese and they returned to Europe when she was two; instead, the lusophone sounds of Tropicália – Gal Costa in particular – were the first to make a lasting impression. “I don’t come from a musical background. I’m still discovering it all.”
Paulo grew up in a small town an hour outside Lisbon, and while she sang in church choirs and school musicals it was something she only ever saw as a hobby, opting instead to study graphic design. It wasn’t until 2014, when she moved back to Toronto in search of a graduate internship, that she picked up a guitar for the first time, turning to songwriting as a way to deal with the “culture shock” of her new surroundings.
“I have dual citizenship but I felt this tension when I arrived in Canada, like I didn’t belong here,” she explains. “I didn’t grow up speaking English, and I was living in this big North American city – I felt a little lonely. In a way it was a blessing, because I got to spend a lot of time by myself, with music, and I began to understand that this passion that I have for it was not just a hobby. I do have something that I want to say.”
Paulo left her design job to begin making music full time in 2018, releasing her debut EP “Wave Call” in early 2020 ahead of a short European tour with collaborator and then-romantic partner Tim Baker, the former frontman of Newfoundland indie-rockers Hey Rosetta!. During lockdown in Toronto later that year, the pair decided to relocate to Baker’s childhood home in St John’s, where Paulo quickly found community in the island capital’s flourishing creative scene.
“I feel closer to myself here than I am anywhere else,” says Paulo. “I’m very easily distracted, and in Toronto there are so many things trying to grab your attention. Ultimately I feel more connected to this place: being by the sea, the slower pace of life and having more space to be outside.”
Her self-titled debut album was recorded in similarly idyllic circumstances, in a lakeside cabin on Nova Scotia’s South Shore with Baker and percussionist Joshua Van Tassel co-producing. Fellow St John’s musicians came down to contribute: clarinetist Mary Beth Waldram, singer Steve Maloney, and Baker’s Hey Rosetta! bandmate Adam Hogan on guitar. Kyle Cunjak, head of Paulo’s label Forward Music Group, added bass parts during a three-day recording session.
“The cabin wasn’t planned,” Paulo reveals. “Josh Van Tassel was setting up a studio in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, but a couple of things he needed wouldn’t arrive in time. As the date of the session approached, he suggested turning a family member’s cabin into a studio instead. We only used it as a recording space, so I was staying with some friends who also lived in the South Shore, and their little daughter. It really was magical.”
Pairing lyrics inspired by love, dreams and the passage of time with warm instrumentation and rhythms subtly influenced by those Tropicália records, the final album sounds both comforting and timeless. “I feel like I’m very young as a songwriter, so a lot of the writing that I’ve done is a conversation that I’m having with myself,” says Paulo. “It feels almost like therapy, like a meditation.”
Nico Paulo is available now from the Forward Music Group