An heirloom is something that is passed down through the generations: a possession steeped in memory, sentiment and stories, holding our essences from the past for someone in the future. For London-based artist Anouck – known best by her stage name NUUXS – naming her debut album after such an object made perfect sense.
“I was looking at my great-grandmother’s chair, which my mum was going to throw out when she moved,” the singer-songwriter explains, “I asked for it, even though it was so busted and broken. Then I saved up and got it reupholstered. It’s not worth anything, we don’t come from a rich background – but we’ve kept it in the family and it feels right. With the album, it’s my life I’m passing onto other people: my stories.”
Her stories are perhaps the most well-known part of NUUXS’ life. Of French and Laotian heritage, as a child she spent her time split between summers making blackberry jam and learning embroidery with her grandparents in rural France, where she was born, and the rest of the time in a Hackney council flat. That was until she was ten years old, and her mum married NUUXS’ stepfather, who was the leader of a cult in the northwest of England. She would spend five years of her life in the cult, with everything from friends, music and books that weren’t the Bible forbidden. It was as such she found herself secretly listening to radio in the dead of night, familiarising herself with the likes of Eminem and Justin Timberlake. Aged 15, she decided it was too much, and borrowed money off someone at school and escaped on a bus back to London, living hedonistically to try and assuage some of the trauma.
Now in her mid-20s, NUUXS is hesitant to focus too much on that part of her life. “I don’t want to be ‘the cult victim’ in a sob story – it’s just my life, and that’s how it happened, and it took me a while to get my confidence back, but I don’t consider myself a victim anymore. It feels so long ago now, like a weird dream, you know?”
The experience is marked on the album with track ‘Part Of Me’ with it’s eerie sound and caustic quasi-rap matched with ethereal, FKA Twigs-esque vocals, all while she takes on the role of her step-father with unsettling, visceral lines like, “Cut off your hair so the boys don’t stare / you belong to me now.” For NUUXS this is just one part of being honest with her listeners and herself about her life – but, again, that’s not the whole album.
Indeed, Heirloom is something of a tapestry of her life. At ten tracks long, it picks up from her last project, Red Tape,unafraid to lean into the more dissonant, strange side of pop, with silky, breathy vocals and glimmering sonics from her go-to producer Jake Gosling (who has worked with Ed Sheeran, Major Lazer, The Libertines and more). Her work has previously gained her plaudits from the likes of Annie Mac, Clash, The Line of Best Fit and Wonderland, and her assured album looks set to propel her to a wider audience than ever.
Largely these are breezy, sparkly sounds that are infused with glitchy, soulful, disco-pop euphoria, all of which counters some of her denser, darker lyrical content and the occasional washed-out screams (NUUXS means it when she says she wants every part of herself to come through). Artists like Charlotte Gainsbourg or Nelly Furtado at their most expansive and poppy come to mind – Anouk also name checks Tame Impala along with her mum’s love of Gloria Estefan and the Laotian music her dad would play her.
She talks about the disarming feeling of people reacting to her out in public with her dad – “Dad would just get called a ch*nk in the street, and because I look quite European people would give us funny looks – like, ‘why is he with this little white girl out shopping?’”. While some might interpret some of her lyrics as political commentary (on ‘Laundry’ she refrains, “Stress is a killer / skin’s getting thinner / nobody’s a winner / if the rich getting richer”), NUUXS explains that these ideas are rooted in her own life rather than on a macro level. “It’s important that I’ve got politics in my music,” she says, “But it’s from a more personal stance. That track ‘Laundry’ is actually about my mum. She raised me and my siblings while working in a care home, and she had these really bad pains in her back because she had been doing heavy lifting of all this laundry, but she was getting paid nothing and was really struggling – it was ridiculous, you know, someone working so much but not being able to make ends meet. So I guess that song is me being pissed off with how society can be, and how the government can be.” It feels a prescient subject when now the importance of people working in caregiving is finally having to be acknowledged.
Lush, dreamy album opener and lead single, ‘Sun God’ offers some positivity and zen – “It’s about this connection with peace of mind and letting stuff go”, she explains, “I wanted to ease people into what’s a bit of a rollercoaster journey of an album”. Filming for the video was prevented due to lockdown, so instead the visual was created by animator Charlie Cross.
She wrote the track five years ago with her friend and collaborator Ragz Originale, who is perhaps best known for his work as a producer for Skepta. Indeed, beyond her own work, NUUXS has worked a lot as a songwriter for other people – be it writing and singing hooks for MCs back when she was a kid at school, or more recently in 2018 co-writing on Major Lazer’s track ‘Tied Up’ with RAYE and Mr Eazi, collaboration has played a big part in NUUXS’ career.
For now, though, the focus is back on her solo work. On its surface, Heirloom is a beguiling set of alternative-pop, but dig a little deeper and it’s clear this is a liberating release cut with darkness and introspection. NUUXS’ debut album is about opening up fully and making a home for the stories of her family, of her relationships, and herself – “It’s everything that made me who I am today,” she says. Acknowledging everything she’s already been through, Heirloomis about finding peace, joy and normalcy.