Queen of noise – meet Shingai Shoniwa

Three weeks ago, London played host to the extravagantly planned BT River of Music — a weekend-long run of 76 free concerts, with musicians representing all 204 Olympic nations.

Headlining the Africa Stage at the Pleasure Gardens in Docklands were Noisettes, the London duo earning their slot by virtue of singer and bassist Shingai Shoniwa’s Zimbabwean heritage.

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The pair took to the stage with gusto, guitarist Dan Smith quite the modern rockabilly in white jacket and leopard-print shirt, while Shoniwa stood resplendent in gold skirt and giant heart-shaped bodice. As they rattled through hits such as ‘Never Forget You’ and ‘Don’t Upset the Rhythm’, Shoniwa was captivating: sprawling across the drum kit, casting come-hither glances towards the audience, and moving with a strut and ferocity that somehow called to mind the swagger of Iggy Pop and the electric presence of Grace Jones. Here, you couldn’t help but conclude, was a band that knows how to set a night on fire.

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This afternoon, they are a little more muted, ensconced in wing-back chairs in an opulent hotel just off Wimbledon Common. ‘We haven’t really had a break since the last album,’ says Smith. He holds your gaze lightly and speaks softly. ‘We’ve gone straight from touring the last one to writing this one. But we got to go to some nice places to do it…’

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Shoniwa, the more garrulous of the pair, barrels headlong into the conversation: ‘We’ve been to Malawi, we went to Romania twice… We did some stuff in a shed in Stratford-upon-Avon, and we did some writing in Brussels.’ She believes the effect of all this globetrotting on their music has been tangible. ‘I don’t think I would write those kinds of lyrics or come up with those kinds of melodies if I hadn’t travelled so much,’ she says. ‘I never feel tied to any one place. I feel just as much allegiance to places in Malawi, or Zimbabwe, or Brooklyn, or San Francisco, or South London.’

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Now a resident of Chelsea, Shoniwa grew up on a council estate in Brockley, raised by her mother after the death of her father when she was just 11. From an early age she seems to have been instilled with a sense of performance: attending shows at The Africa Centre, jamming with her musician uncles, working as a burlesque dancer in Lost Vagueness and dreaming of becoming an actress or joining the circus. Every fibre of her being seems charged with drama: she moves with the air of one who knows she is being watched; when she speaks it is with a certain lavishness, a haughty half-purr that will suddenly become a screech or a billowing laugh.

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Smith, the son of a Trinidadian poet mother and Scottish painter father, hails from Croydon but now lives in Brighton. He is rum, in a quiet way, providing the dry one-liners that mop up Shoniwa’s occasional verbosity. Since they met at The BRIT School in Croydon 14 years ago, their friendship has weathered some difficult moments: two years ago, for instance, a squabble (soon remedied, never discussed) almost threatened to break up the band. Smith has spoken of having ‘fancied the s*** out of’ Shoniwa, and once described their relationship as ‘a dysfunctional love affair that never came to fruition’. Shoniwa has been linked to Jack Peñate and EastEnders actor Mohammed George, and then there have been her musical ‘affairs’ — guest vocals on Dennis Ferrer’s 2009 house hit ‘Hey Hey’, performances with Dizzee Rascal, Annie Lennox and Jools Holland. But today the pair, who are in their thirties, insist they are something akin to brother and sister, with an intimate knowledge of each other’s thoughts and instincts.

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Spending a while in their company, it is easy to sense the awe and tenderness Smith feels for his musical partner; squint a little harder and you might see, too, that beneath Shoniwa’s peacockery there is a real dependence and trust in the man she calls her ‘rock’. And perhaps it is this sense of trust that bolsters the band’s lack of musical inhibition — what defines Noisettes’ songwriting is a willingness to hop between styles, moods and genres, drawing on Afropop one minute and lush string arrangements the next, before settling into a rootsy, pared-down mandolin number. ‘I like that balance, with different emotions to visit,’ explains Shoniwa. ‘I’ve always got the eternal optimist in me who likes to write anthems, fist-in-the-air songs. That’s always going to be somewhere on our albums. And there’s always going to be a lot of playful metaphor; you can’t run away from them when you come from a big African family, where everything is proverbs and metaphors. You can convey quite firm mess-ages by mollycoddling them in metaphor.’

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When she’s on stage (often barefoot, ‘so I can feel the temperature of the stage’), she says she is trying to read the audience’s mood, altering each show’s ingredients to suit the flavour of the night. ‘Often there’s a spiritual presence in me that tells me what to do, as if I’m just a vehicle for whatever needs to come out,’ she adds. ‘I like to feel I can reach as many people as possible and make everybody feel included. I always want it to be one of those legendary nights, where everybody’s in love with the possibilities.’

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One of their new album Contact’s stand-out tracks is the gentle, sweet ‘Rag Top Car’, with its late-night feel and dusky vocals. It was written driving around LA one evening, and is a tribute to their abiding friendship: ‘To all the times you weren’t sure if you were going to make it this far,’ Shoniwa explains, with a warm glance towards Smith. Their chemistry has the gentle steadiness of a rich and tender friendship; he ebbs as she flows. ‘One of my first memories of meeting Shingai was watching a rehearsal by some guys who were in The Feeling,’ Smith remembers. ‘I was so shy, I had never danced in front of anyone before, but then suddenly Shingai said, “Let’s dance!” and grabbed me. And that was the first time I felt that with Shingai I could just do anything.’

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‘Aw,’ she says. ‘Don’t, you’ll make me cry!’

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I wonder what Smith gives Shoniwa in return. ‘I’ve always been a dreamer,’ she replies, ‘and Dan’s always been positive and assertive and sensitive in making those dreams come true.’ If her reply seems understated, it is not for want of feeling; when it comes to speaking about their relationship, words seem to fail her, as if, at her most muted, the truth sings out.

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And what other dreams does the band have? ‘I’d like to not have any regrets,’ Shoniwa says. ‘To just feel like I left a string of good memories for the people who spent time with me. I dream to not be afraid of doing what’s right by the people I love.’ Smith adds: ‘And we’d like to do a gig on the back of a comet, flying through space.’ ES

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Their new single ‘That Girl’ is out on 13 August; Contact on the 27th

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ON THE TOWN

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Favourite pub?

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Shingai: The Amersham Arms in New Cross. It’s run by this amazing woman in her nineties.

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Favourite club night?

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S: Brixton Recreation Centre on a bank holiday — it’s full of all ages and goes all the way through the night.

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Reading?

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Dan: The Italian by Ann Radcliffe. Written in 1797, it’s about the Inquisition. The language feels really contemporary, and it has such beautiful dialogue.

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Favourite new band?

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S: United Vibrations: three brothers from Deptford playing psychedelic jazz and soul, and rappers who come on with them.

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What do you sing in the shower?

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S: ‘Where is Love?’ from Oliver!, as well as Earth, Wind & Fire.

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D: Opera. I hate opera, but I like singing it in the shower. – The Evening Standard

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