This singer-songwriter’s public persona is mysterious. An enigma. But the reality is that she’s goofy and fun, and even when she hasn’t done her laundry for the week, she still finds a way to match her clean clothes in a way that is uniquely her own style - and maybe even your dad’s.
We’re meeting to talk about her appearance at the two-date Maribou State tour of South Africa. British blokes Chris Davids and Liam Ivory make up Maribou State and their music is described as updated trip hop. Phiri will play in Cape Town on Friday and Joburg on Saturday in a line-up that includes Christian Tiger School, DJ Lag, P-Kuttah and Kidfonque.
Over fashion sandwiches, Phiri tells me: “People should expect to hear a sneak peek into my new music. With live music, no two shows are the same, so I am looking forward to seeing what transpires with this one. That sounds so apocalyptic,” she laughs.
Although Phiri doesn’t have an official body of work out for sale, she has managed to build a brand that sees her perform all over the world and sees her music feature on TV adverts. One of those songs is the sublime Regrettables. On the song, Phiri sings: One day you’ll wake/To find that I have changed.
I ask her about the root of that lyric and she smiles. “Funny enough, people tend to assume that a lot of these songs are linked to me,” she starts. “Maybe later on, in time, they end up becoming weird prophecies but, no, I guess it’s just in the vein of putting yourself in the place of someone who is gatvol. I like to observe. I think music is a very interesting way of trying and simplify emotion.”
Regrettables, as well as Things We Do on the Weekend, which is a song that we can undeniably call a hit single that transcended her niche alternative music base to inflitrate popular dance circles, have lifted Phiri into the mainstream. They were the beginning of a body of work that may or may not see the light of day.
“Narch and I had been working on this Things We Do on the Weekend project,” Phiri explains. “The EP was initially supposed to based around these four tracks about a weekend in the life of a girl who had gone through a relationship and maybe the inspiration around that was conversations with friends and fleeting romances I might have had at the time.
"Nothing deep. I think I just put myself in the shoes of somebody who finally decided to put themselves first. Or kind of like decided to realise or do something about waking up with regrets. You don’t have to stay.”
Phiri is an advocate for looking at the rules and then laughing in their face. If you’ve watched her perform, you’ll know that she intently focuses on the equipment that kept her as a sought-after one-woman-band for the longest time. She loves to loop vocals live on stage and often, she treats audiences to vocal gymnastics for a while before she utters a word on a song. I ask her if words are secondary to her.
“I quite like the idea of not working with a formula,” she says as she focuses on her chopsticks.
“It’s been an interesting experience learning how to not rely on always having to say something. Some of the most beautiful pieces of work have titles that tell you exactly what the song is about without words.
“I am intrigued by how music always seems to cut through anything else.” So far so good.
* Catch Nonku Phiri alongside Maribou State at Mercury Live in Cape Town on December 8 and The Good Luck Bar in Johannesburg on December 9.