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The longing of the sea

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Nico Paulo in front of her studio Photo: Greg Locke

Nico Paulo in front of her studio Photo: Greg Locke

A move east reveals spiritual links and transatlantic ties for singer-songwriter Nico Paulo

Portuguese singer-songwriter Nico Paulo moved to Newfoundland with her partner Tim Baker, former front man of Hey Rosetta!, to make music. They ended up setting up a design studio on Duckworth Street. 

The pandemic prompted their initial relocation from Toronto in 2020. Paulo and Baker drove to Newfoundland in their touring van, planning to stay for the summer at Baker’s house. 

Now they are making themselves at home in St. John’s.

“We tried to do a road trip. We visited friends. We slept in the van. We hung out in their gardens. We stopped in four different places,” says Paulo.  “We got here and quarantined for the two weeks. Our plan was to come for the summer. We said let’s stay one more month. Then Tim brought up the idea, what if we just go get our stuff, and moved here for a year?”

For Paulo, who was born in Toronto, and raised in Portugal, she was ready to stay in St. John’s the moment she arrived, as she finds deep connections between her homeland and Newfoundland. 

“I love it here. Just being so close to the ocean is the thing. The air smells sweet, there so much salt in it, and so much green,” says Paulo. “Also, it’s the people. There’s a humbleness and a roughness that I really like. It’s like the rocks, the landscapes are similar.”

While Newfoundland and Portugal and nearly 4,000 kilometres apart, they share a history of codfish, and some historians believe the first mariners to reach Newfoundland before John Cabot were the Portuguese. 

In 1502, a Portuguese map identified Newfoundland as “Land of the King of Portugal.” Several parts of Newfoundland have Portuguese names as many of the 16th century cartographers were from Portugal: Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s, Portugal Cove South, Baccalieu Island, Bay de Verde, and even Quidi Vidi.

“You need to go away from home, remove yourself from it to understand it,” she says. “Leaving Portugal and coming here to Canada was like, ‘Oh this is what Portugal means to me.’ It gave me more time to think about it.”

Paulo returned to Canada after studying graphic design in 2014, and she worked for Ikea for several years as a graphic designer, but decided to quit her day job to pursue art on her own terms in spring 2018. She visited former co-worker Rachel Hawkes Cameron, a painter and designer whose husband Jason Burns is Baker’s manager (they’ve since relocated to Rose Bay, N.S.) to tell her friends she was changing her life. There, she met Baker.

“I left my full-time job to do this. It was around the same time I met Tim and we connected, and he was so excited about my new plan for my life, but he was also refreshed by it,” says Paulo. “It’s interesting that Tim came in my life at that right moment. The songs were developed in my head, he was a translator to help make them come true. He worked very closely with my producer David Baxter. It was a dance between the three of us.”

In 2020, Paulo released Wave Call, a five-track EP, which charts longing, homing, and subtle connections. “The City,” is the first song Paulo wrote, and is a dreamy serenade of feeling small amongst the big city. But it’s opening track “Please Don’t Forget,” that sets the tone of Paulo’s etheric voice, and her organic weaving of memory and mystique. The music video for “Please Don’t Forget,” features painter Hawkes Cameron working on an abstract painting, which is not revealed in the video, but is the single’s artwork.

“I feel like ‘Wave Call’ is that longing for the ocean, and missing it so much. The natural nature itself,” says Paulo. “Memories of growing up. ‘Please Don’t Forget’ is about growing up so closely with my grandmother and not ever wanting to forget.” 

With her strong visual background, and unique blend of ethereal folk melodies, she has found a sense of home in Newfoundland’s rugged beauty, and kinship connections. Paulo’s visual art and musical career is flourishing, partially due to the supportive and diverse arts community, and the stars aligning.

Last winter, while Paulo was the artist-in-residence at Lawnya Vawyna, and recorded Live at First Light, a three-track release recorded at the Cochrane Street United Church in the First Light performance space. Paulo’s collaborators include Baker, Adam Hogan, and Steve Maloney. The EP’s artwork features stitched flowers on a black background (the original design is from a coat she is wearing in the video), and is her own art and layout.

Paulo’s natural style is woven through her music, design work, and presence. This past May, she opened a design studio on Duckworth Street with photographer Ethan Murphy, where the two work and host pop-up literary readings, art shows, and small gatherings.

“Everyone needs design at some point. Different people come for ideas,” she says. “I am a musician, I am visual artist and designer. I think music inspires design; they inspire each other. I’ve become even more aware of it since I’ve been making music.” 

In November, Paulo returned to the studio to record the skeleton of her full-length with co-producer Joshua Van Tassel and Baker in a cabin on Nova Scotia’s south shore. Her bandmates include Van Tassel on drums and percussion, Baker on piano and back-up vocals, and Kyle Cunjack on stand-up and electric bass. She’ll bring the album back to St. John’s to record overdubs with Hogan on guitar, Maloney on back-up vocals, and Mary Beth Waldram on clarinet this winter.

“I met Josh a couple years ago, we’ve been on tour playing in Tim’s band together a couple times and I just knew I wanted to work with him on my next recordings,” says Paulo. “He’s such a sensitive drummer and producer, I love every piece he works on and all his personal music, I believe it all captures a dream that I’ve had too.”

East Coast Living