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Montreal’s Neema teams up with Lanois collaborators for breathtaking third album
Emmylou Harris appears on backing vocals on Painting My Wall Gold
From the opening strains of the joyful “For You,” featuring glorious harmonies by Emmylou Harris, to the sultry, Middle Eastern-flavoured “Come;” the soulful, minimalist cover of the Creole “Papa Loco;” the bittersweet choruses of “That’s Where I’ll Be,” and the French language cover of Steve Earle’s “Goodbye” done in the classic understated style of the French chansonnières, the breathtaking third album by Montreal artist Neema – titled Painting My Wall Gold – overflows with the kind of wisdom, maturity, nuance and diversity that only comes from having packed a lot of living into a relatively small number of years.
Drawing from her experiences studying music in Egypt, living close to the land with the northern First Nations, surviving the loss of her sister, and welcoming new life into the world, Neema teamed up with Daryl Johnson (Daniel Lanois) and Mark Howard (Tom Waits, Bob Dylan) to create a beautiful, sophisticated, globally-infused, and electronically-enhanced album of modern folk music that draws heavily on themes of acceptance and equanimity.
The opener, “For You,” is inspired by Buddhist metta meditation, a practice of wishing love and kindness to those around you.
“That’s Where I’ll Be” and “Circles and Lines” reflect on the feeling of emptiness that comes with finding oneself alone again.
“Mercy,” a collaboration with James DiSalvio of Bran Van 3000, is an upbeat song of compassion for one’s brokenness.
“Angel Undercover” is a playful song about love and friendship, which began as a couple of verses gifted to Neema by her mentor.
And the title track is a song for Neema’s sister and a song about letting go of blame.
Neema’s lyrics, poetic in their ambiguity and sprinkled with visual metaphors and spiritual allusions, transcend the personal triumphs and tragedies that gave them life, evoking instead the raw emotional essence of the situations that inspired them.
They are supported by a vast andcontemplative sonic landscape that relies mostly on lush combinations of guitars, strings, keys, harmonies and effects. Occasionally, such as on “Au Revoir” and “Papa Loco,” Neema’s versatile, full-bodied alto takes centre stage over mere touches of guitar, percussion, violin or bass.
Born in Montreal of Lebanese and Egyptian ancestry, Neema completed a management degree from McGill University then backpacked through Australia, India and Southeast Asia; and spent a year in Egypt studying classical voice with Mme. Titie Sid Ahmed and classical guitar with Mohammed Emad El Edin. She also worked with street children in Egypt teaching them English through music. Upon her return to Canada, she put her business training to work, serving for almost three years as the band manager for the Wekweeti First Nation north of Yellowknife and later assisting the Dogrib Treaty 11 Council with their Tlicho land claim and self-government negotiations.
Her music career was helped along by a chance encounter with Leonard Cohen, who became a good friend and mentor, co-producing Neema’s sophomore album, Watching You Think with long-time Sarah McLachlan collaborator Pierre Marchand.
Neema has toured extensively throughout Canada, the U.S., Australia, and Europe – opening U.S. dates for Jesse Winchester and European shows for Joe Cocker, Jeff Beck, Cyndi Lauper and Elton John.
She released a digital collection of live recordings from those tours, Leave the Light On, in 2014.
When not on the road, Neema has continued her vocal studies with Rhiannon, Karen Young and Murielle Matteau. She has also returned to Wekweeti to teach songwriting workshops to the youth and to Egypt to perform at the first anniversary of the revolution. She’s completed several 10-day canoe trips with the Tlicho, retracing the steps of their ancestors.
Neema says one of the lessons she learned while canoeing up north is that there is a time and place for everything – that one must work hard but also accept that one is at the mercy of elements beyond one’s control.
It’s an excellent philosophy for the relentless upstream paddle that is the life of an independent musician.
But those who have heard Neema’s music know there’s bound to come a time, before long, when she receives the wide recognition her work so richly deserves.
The Montreal Gazette:
“She is one-of-a-kind…her latest album could be broadly categorized as singer-songwriter fare but that hardly captures the spirit of this unique collection.”
“The music is rich in the chamber pop and folk tradition, with a penchant for precise and delicate lyrics.”
The Globe & Mail :
“A gifted wordsmith…the settings are as thoughtful and detailed as the songs they adorn. A stunner."
Ottawa X Press:
“There's no denying this new voice in music is a strong, individualistic and driven one.”
The Winnipeg Sun:
“Dreamy, introspective folk balladry delivered in mostly hushed tones and stylishly accented with strings and atmospheric production.”