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Weekend music

Tucson sounds: Just Najima's Southwestern gothic soul

There are two times in recent memory that your friendy neighborhood music scribe has been unexpectedly floored by the wild, soulful, unhingedly emotive voice of a local singer that caught her unaware. One was Olivia Reardon (aka Miss Olivia) letting loose on Pink Floyd's "Great Gig In The Sky" with local Floyd tribute supergroup Atom Heart Mother. The other was a performance at the Rialto's David Bowie tribute show in January of 2016, with an unusually soulful take on a handful of classics by a singer with a larger-than-life voice. Turns it was local activist and musician Najima Rainey, who most recently was the singer and frontperson for Tucson Americana blues band the Sinners.

These days, Najima is flying solo, writing new songs and taking a unique spin on classics ranging from old gospel and blues standards to songs by Nina Simone and Odetta. Performing under the name "Just Najima," Rainey weaves goth, rock, roots, rhythm and blues, gospel, blues and jazz influences into smart, modern "Southwestern gothic" soul music with a bruised and bleeding edge. And it's pretty damn cool.

TucsonSentinel.com: How did you first fall in love with music and what are some of your earliest favorite bands, musicians and singers?

Najima Rainey: "I was born in 1978 so I grew up with a lot of r and b and soul. But, also, my dad was a jazz musician and composer and his father was an opera singer. So musicality and a love of music has been something I've experienced most of my life. There was just always music. But also growing up in the 80s had an impact too. I can still remember being a little girl and loving that Night Ranger song."

TS: Oh no! "Sister Christian"?

NR: "Yeah. That song came out when I was about four years old but it still being a an instant memory of riding in the backseat of my dad's blue Buick Regal."

TS: I think we all have a song memory or two like that. Context is everything.

NR: "The first album I remember buying with my own money was 'De La Soul Is Dead.' It's still a good album and I still listen to it. Especially the roller skating jam, 'Saturdays.' I also remember discovering Prince, like it was a scandal or a dirty little secret. Learning all the words to 'Darling Nikki' for instance."

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"I went to school here in Tucson, so I was surrounded by all these white kids and so I started listening to a lot of rock and roll and heavy metal and stuff. But it was very different from the music I had been listening to at home. I learned about a lot of bands from my friends who had "cool" older sisters and brothers love the Cure for example, and Jane's Addiction, and early Red Hot Chili Peppera, which the kids all loved because we thought it was dirty. When I was younger there was an expectation that black kids would only listen to certain music and it wasn't just my white friends who felt that way. I remember my aunt saying ,what's the matter with you" because I liked Bjork. She did not get it. And I loved stuff like the French band, Air and their soundtrack to 'The Virgin Suicides.' That song 'Playground Love' is gorgeous French electro-pop. I guess it's taken my whole life to admit that I'm a goth and embrace my goth nature. I just don't dress like a goth!"

TS: Have you always wanted to perform? What made you make the leap from loving music to becoming a musician.

"I've always had an urge to perform. If I could have talked my parents into being irresponsible enough to be stage parents I would have been on board as a kid. The closest I ever came was almost getting cast in an episode of Highway To Heaven when it was filmed here! But as far as music and being a musician, I always knew I had a nice voice but didn't think of myself as a professional. Just someone who had, like, a nice karaoke voice. It seems like entertainers have a presence they can just turn on at the drop of a hat and I didn't feel I had that."

"Then I ran into this guy I knew in passing who was a musician and he was putting together a blues band. He initially invited me to come on stage as a go go dancer. And I said, "you know I actually have a nice singing voice."

TS: And so it began!

NR: "My bandmate was super into old blues and Americana and I had a connection with that since its the music of my heritage. But I also loved stuff like Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul and the Cure, you know. There's this whole generation of younger white guys into old Southern blues."

TS: And stupid hats?

NR: "Oh my god, the hats. But I did find I had a connection to that. There's a poetry in lyrics by, say, Robert Smith of the Cure. But in old soul and blues recordings, beyond just the lyrics, there is a certain sound, a feeling or a break in the voice that's a poetry of its own. And that's what it means to be a little but goth, right?"

TS: Right. And soul and blues singers feel deep emotions in their songs, while goth bands kind of talk about feeling deep emotions. What you're doing is kind of both.

NR: "Yeah. All those things kind of intercept. I definitely am hoping to find ways to experiment what you can so within the boundaries of blues and soul music. It's a sound that really connected with people. Especially now when everyone's so sad and scared and frustrated. I think that soul music is the music of tumult and sorrow and joy in sorrow."

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"The music I'm trying to do right now is more bass heavy and rhythmic and dynamic. Think of songs like 'Papa Was a Rolling Stone.' The subject matter of that song is very sad but the tempo picks up and the band is really down with it. I'm trying to find a way to do things like that in my own music beyond the limitations of traditional blues and soul. Soul and blues that's infused with all of that. And makes people dance and jump up, you know? That's definitely what I'm feeling."

TS: Ergo, Southwestern gothic soul?

NR: "Just like there's Southern gothic music."

TS: Makes sense! What about your original songs?

NR: "I wanted to write a song like the typical hey, babe I'm a musician and I'm a troubadour and I'm packing my bags and moving on. Like Bob Dylan's 'Don't Think Twice, It's All Right.' But my own version. There's so many of those songs. But not by women. Bob Dylan alone must have 50 of them."

TS: Many folks locally know you for your work as a community activist and, now, as host of a local radio show. Clearly, you're comfortable with public speaking. Is performing as a musician an extension of that or a whole different type of energy?

NR: "Literally, I would not be an activist of I could help it. If there weren't so much that's wrong going on in the world that I sent sleep at night without doing something about it. I would just live my life. If you do organizing or give a great speech or something, everyone wants to talk to you right after but you've used up so much energy you just want to be alone and decompress. Music isn't like that at all. It gives back as much as it takes from you. Sometimes after a great gig I want to stay up all night but after a successful organizing or activist event sometimes you want to go home and, like, die for a couple days before you can do any more. But what's happening is so bad and people don't realize that the world we're living in kind of died like five years ago and the world that's coming is so scary. And they're pretending it's not happening. Activism is how I deal with that. Doing everything in my power to try and do something while I can. But it's exhausting."

TS: So activism is a thing you have to do as a matter of conscience and being a decent human. But music is a thing you're moved to do for what you give and get back from it.

NR: "Right. There are times that I will go to karaoke right after a gig because I'm not done."

TS: Favorite musicians currently? Favorite local folks?

NR: "I really like Jillian Bassett and Louise La Hir, Moontrax, Vasectomy... there's so many good musicians and shows going on that I feel I don't make it to enough of them. I also love Alabama Shakes and Beach House is my favorite band right now. I live dream pop and 'beachy' lofi music. But it's a gray, sad seagull beach."

TS: So what's next as you embark as a solo artist? And when are your next live gigs?

NR: "I'll be recording a CD soon and will be more an more active toward springtime.I want to be more intentional. And maybe someday my music will take me to Canada where there's clean air and water."

TS: And French people!

NR: "I can be the biggest pop star in Montreal."

TS: It worked for Leonard Cohen. But what about right now?

NR: "I just played Seanloui's Level Up show at The Screening Room and& Losers Lounge at Owls Club. And this Tuesday night I'll be playing La Cocina as part of a benefit for KMKR Radio."

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Just Najima plays La Cocina on Tuesday night, Feb. 19, along with Church Pants, Juju Fontaine and BreakingGlass as part of a benefit for KMKR Radio. Doors open at 5 and music begins at 6 p.m.

Extraordinary Ordinary

In 1970, Life Magazine dubbed Tucson's main drag, Speedway Boulevard, the "ugliest street in America" and it seems like ever since then, locals have been fighting back against that sentiment.There's a weird, and comforting beauty in Tucson's multi-era patchwork of 19th century landmarks, mid century "atomic age" architecture, weird cowtown urban kitsch and general haphazardness and while others don't always get it at first glance, the streets of where we live are full of treasures for an artist or photographer with a good eye and a decent imagination.

Tucson photographer Kristine Peashock has those things in spades. A longtime friend and fan of many folks in the Downtown music scene, Peashock began posting photos from her Tucson Ordinary project on social media months ago — sometimes haunting, sometimes whimsical shots of out of context Tucson and Southern Arizona locales. Old auto repair shops, shuttered '50s era motels, stucco houses framed by looming monsoon clouds, weird shop displays and yards full of vintage detritus. Peashock photographs structures like they're not so much objects but living, breathing characters. Almost as if she's asking them the famous "Nine Questions" she once quizzed Tucson area notables for in a certain local alt weekly.

This month, at former garage turned arts/music venue The Ervice, Peashock's Tucson Ordinary project leaps from the realm of the digital to the brick and mortar world. While you won't literally learn what song each old store front or vintage gas station wants played at its funeral, the photos in this exhibition do give you a sense of the lifetime and spirit of place each subject embodies.

Tucson Ordinary continues through Feb. 23 at The Ervice.

Speaking of "Chicks" who rock...

Tucson film maker, guitarist and more or less professional cool guy Clif Taylor aka Chick Cashman knows how to throw a party and he's got a hell of a shindig planned at Kon Tiki this Friday.

Featuring a DJ set by the one and only Kid Congo Powers (the Cramps, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds), sets by Shushu and Escapism and a "special guest appearance" by D.C. music legend Ian Svenonious (Weird War, Chain and the Gang, Nation of Ulysses), Chick Cashman's Love Hangover Pajama Party is just the thing to cure your post-Valentine broken-hearted blues.

Chick Cashman Presents: A Love Hangover at Kon Tiki Lounge on Broadway, Friday night, Feb. 15, at 9 p.m.

Please release me

A couple weeks back, the only column that matters (aka this one) told you there would soon be new Resonars tracks heading your way. Your trusty local music columnist listened to a sneak preview of some of the tracks a few weeks back and it's been killing her to sit on them this long, so praise be on high to Trouble In Mind records for throwing us all a bone. The first track is out and it's everything you hoped it would be. Check out "Beagle Theory," a track from the forthcoming full length Resonars record No Exit.

Not to be outdone, Phoenix's Nanami Ozone, regulars at the Resonars' home studio Midtown Island, are getting in on the new release action with their latest single "Something To You."

Menawhile, as seemingly thousands of indie bands begin preparing to descend on this part of the country on the way to next month's SXSW festival, at least one local favorite is headed to to join them. Tucson band The Rifle heads forth to Austin next month during the festival as part of Burgermania 8.

Weezy Bebe!

Any amount of time between live performances by Louise Le Hir seems like too long, but this week Tucson's favorite siren of French-kissed Cosmic American Pop is back behind the microphone, and possibly a guitar, no doubt sporting an enviable costume with soul and style for days. Check out Ms. Weezy and company Thursday night, Feb. 21, at 8:30 p.m. at Tap and Bottle downtown.

Check your local listings...

Friday, Feb. 15

  • Miss Olivia and the Interlopers - 7 p.m. Sand-Reckoner
  • Xixa w/ Ojala Systems - 8 p.m. Club Congress
  • Pretty in Pink 80s Dance Party - 9 p.m.
  • Chick Cashman Presents: A Love Hangover w/ Kid Congo, Ian Svenonious, Shushu and Escape-ism - 9 p.m. Kon Tiki
  • Hank Topless Band, Get Right Roungers, Chris Hall - 9 p.m. Sky Bar

Saturday Feb. 16

  • Tangerine w Chateau Chateau, Night Weather - Club Congress
  • Midnight Transit, Beyond Words - 8 p.m. 191 Toole
  • Paul Jenkins - 8 p.m. Hotel McCoy
  • The Gem Show - 10 p.m. Che's Lounge
  • Musk Hog w/ Creeper Van - 9 p.m. Saint Charles
  • Your Pest Band, Lenguas Largas, Resonars - 9& p.m. Owls Club

Sunday, Feb. 17

  • Baby Gas Mask Records Anniversary w/ Alvia & The Breakfast Pigs, Wyves, Tongs, Moontrax - 6 p.m. Baby Gas Mask Records
  • Golden Boots w/ Feverfew - 6 p.m. Che's Lounge
  • Febbo & Fuentes - 5 p.m. Public Brewhouse
  • Up From Here w/ In Lesson, Something Like Appropriate - 9 p.m. Sky Bar
  • Richard Thompson Electric Trio - 7 p.m. Fox Theatre

Tuesday, Feb. 19

  • FST! Presents: Faking It - 7 p.m. Club Congress
  • Gabe Sullivan, Brian Lopez - 8 p.m. Owls Club
  • Just Najima, Juju Fontaine, Chuch Pants, BreakingGlass - 6 p.m. La Cocina

Thursday, Feb. 21

  • Louise Le Hir - 8:30 p.m. Tap and Bottle Downtown
  • Slothtrust, And The Kids - 8 p.m. Club Congress

Each week this column compiles a choice selection of live gigs in and around Tucson with the help of good venue and band event announcements and other resources. If you've got a gig coming up and you'd like your event listed in this space (or if your local band has a major announcement or a new release) drop me a line at arts@tucsonsentinel.com.

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Courtesy Najima Rainey

Just Najima

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