To call a sound merely indie rock at this point leaves much to be imagined. For New York City born and bred singer-songwriter Nisa, who releases her forthcoming debut EP Guilt Trip on March 26, that sound more specifically borrows elements from the varying subgenres existing under the indie umbrella: the heartfelt sincerity of Julien Baker but higher energy; the emotionality of emo without its saccharine sweetness; the power-pop hooks of Tancred’s 2016 LP Out of the Garden. Nisa combines these elements in an irresistible way, but beneath the EP’s catchy exterior lies themes of emotional detachment and reticence born of anxiety, something of a defense mechanism against the guilt and shame that can pervade the psyche.
After studying abroad in London, Nisa returned to NYC, simultaneously nursing a broken heart and preparing to record her debut. The EP’s title refers to the shift in scenery, as well as the feeling that Nisa could see the break-up coming miles away. “I had been moving toward it but didn’t feel completely certain in my decision to do it, so once I was the one to break it off, I felt guilt,” Nisa recalls. “That guilt was followed by this emotional detachment from myself. That person and the reasons leading me out of the relationship were the ones keeping me there.”
The timing was serendipitous in a way; the geographical and emotional changes intersected with the onset of the pandemic. We’ve all been forced to turn inward and examine our own rough edges over the past year. Nisa says she “took to writing to deal with what I was struggling to vocalize,” given the time to hunker down and consider what she was feeling and how to translate it into music. She also co-produced and released her singles “Forget Me/Giving” and “Colossus,” waiting until it was safer to proceed with her stalled recording plans for Guilt Trip.
Having to wait ended up having a huge impact on the sound, Nisa admits, as did being able to record for the first time in a real studio, rather than her bedroom. “I’d gone in with a much more Americana feel, but then we got there and there was this unnatural energy, this eclectic anger and like, very hard-pressed feeling in your face,” she explains. “It was a confrontation of all that time spent pent-up.” She recorded with a smaller team than she initially intended, working alongside close collaborator/guitarist Fritz Ortman and producer Ronnie Di Simone, as well as a handful of local musicians, like Del Water Gap drummer Zac Coe and guitarist Nick Cianci.
So far, Nisa has shared four songs from Guilt Trip – “Common Denominator,” “Bottom Feeder,” “Ferris Wheel,” and “Growing Pains,” each offering a glimpse into the seven-song effort. Today, she premieres latest single “Turn Me Down” via Audiofemme, which fits squarely into its place on the EP, dealing with social anxiety specifically. It reads almost as though Nisa is giving herself a pep-talk to enter a party, that the “you” and “me” she refers to could be the same person. “If you want, you can turn me down,” she offers, proposing a lonely, late-night diner as an escape route.
But there’s a dare in her voice, too – she makes space for the anxieties at play, but is encouraging enough to push through them, to seek self-acceptance and the ability to embrace our limitations. “It’s always gonna be like that for me as an anxious person,” Nisa explains. “I think that anxiety can also be met with understanding yourself. I just started understanding anxiety as it relates to me, so rather than detaching from myself, I took the time to understand it fully, and sometimes it’s just about riding the wave. So I think this song is definitely a ride the wave song.”
The animated video for the song embodies the tunnel vision that anxiety can create. “We wanted to give it a cinematic feel, and the music video reflects that. It ends up being this grand journey, so super excited to have that come out,” Nisa says. The metaphor is crystal clear: once you give up the guilt about the things that make you you, you’re free to view them from a perspective of neutrality instead of self-loathing.
Nisa is set to release the full EP on March 26, and in the meantime finds herself remaining productive, recording two other projects she penned during this time at home. With only the smallest light at the end of our pandemic tunnel, she says that if nothing else, she’s “just really grateful to have the time and the right headspace to be writing now.” And, no doubt, to have put some of that guilt behind her.