Fusing English with the Spanish language that she grew up around, having spent a period of her formative years in a small mountain town absorbing the country’s rich lexicon and culture, 21-year-old Nina Cobham’s broad-reaching, bilingual storytelling feels like the natural next step for UK alternative pop.
Pop – or her more intimate, nuanced version of it – is however something that’s only started to seep into the Manchester-based musician’s palette in recent years. Learning piano from a young age before teaching herself to play guitar aged 11 with the specific aim of translating her stories and ideas into songs, Nina spent her subsequent early teenagehood exploring a more traditional singer-songwriter route, influenced by the likes of Taylor Swift and Corinne Bailey Rae and encouraged by her sound engineer-turned-pastor father and a house that had always been filled with music.
Crucially, between the ages of seven and 10 that house had relocated to Spain, where Nina fondly recalls the majority of her childhood memories. “We’d walk to the lighthouse and go to the beach; most of it is those typical summer things, but I got them every day. I don’t think I realised they were special memories until later,” she reflects. “There was a huge community around us and, when we came back to the UK, I kind of lost that. I think the reason that period was so influential was because I had so many people helping raise me – it was like a big family.” Yet it was only when these two major parts of her life coalesced one fateful day on a return visit to her old neighbourhood that the singer’s musical path would take an integral turn.
Completely devoted to her craft, Nina speaks of there being “no Plan B” other than music since her teens. While her classmates were shirking their GCSE revision for less productive distractions, she recalls having her guitar confiscated in order to force her to concentrate. Around this time, Nina had also begun to upload early demos to Soundcloud, however when she went back to Spain that summer, the old friends and relatives she’d grown up with had a bone to pick. “They made a joke about how I only make songs for my English family and not for them,” she explains. “It was a joke, but it had definitely come from somewhere. Because of that, when I got back I wanted to include them, because some of them are from an older generation that don’t speak English. That was the point when things changed.”
2019 debut single proper, ‘Te extraño, pero…’, marked the beginning of this shift, moving musically into more soulful, nocturnal territory whilst deftly segueing between Spanish and English lyrics. Of this trait, Nina – fluent in both – explains that her mind naturally tends to think in both languages. “I like it when the two flow and weave in together – especially because my brain flits backwards and forwards. Sometimes I’ll write a line in English and realise a line in Spanish rhymes with it and would sound sick,” she says. “Also it allowed me to write parts in Spanish that I didn’t want my English friends to understand; it made me feel like I had a place to express myself that felt almost private.”
Since then, this duality has sat at the core of Nina Cobham’s music, with 2021 debut EP ‘what colour does this feel like?’ arriving as her first longer-form introduction. Written during lockdown, and acting as a tool to try and mediate her increasing anxieties, the release lands as both a document of trauma and a balm to heal it – fretful lyrics tempered by intimate, soft production that recalls Billie Eilish in her more recent, silkier moments.
“The EP definitely represents my mental health because it was a really dark time for me; I wasn’t an anxious kid but when I got to 13 or 14 it reared its head, and then when it came to lockdown it felt like the world was over,” says Nina. “But I wanted the songs to have really calming sounds; they’re such a juxtaposition with these lyrics being the most anxious I’ve ever been, but I needed to have that sense of calm about it.”
The juxtaposition was one that immediately began to resonate with the wider world, too. Not only does bossa nova-inspired single ‘Interested’ now stand at over five million streams, the track was also personally curated on playlists by two of Nina’s childhood heroes – Demi Lovato and Christina Aguilera. “Christina did a Spanish heritage month playlist where she put loads of Spanish-influenced songs on it. And then a couple of months later, Demi added it to one of their playlists too. I grew up listening to that peak Disney Channel era and they were my idol and one of the reasons I wanted to become a musician; I’m pretty sure I almost died when I saw that it had happened,” she grins.
Now, a forthcoming second EP is set to build on these solid foundations with five tracks that steer Nina’s sound into an increasingly more alternative pop direction, maintaining the intricacies and intimacies that sit at her core, but adding woozy synths and a brighter palette to the likes of new single ‘Self Care’ – a hazy, nostalgic reflection of summer.
“For a long time, Spanish artists have incorporated bits of English into their music, whereas in England it feels like maybe people have only been receptive to things like that very recently. But if the music is good then it translates beyond the language,” she says. “I’m hoping by the time EP3 comes out, there’s a running line that it all just sounds like Nina.”