For Paris-based artist November Ultra, making music is an act of love


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For Paris-based artist November Ultra, making music is an act of love

Brought up in France by a Spanish mother and Portuguese father, Parisian singer-songwriter November Ultra has been singing since she was three-years-old. Initially studying audio-visual subtitling at university, she was the vocalist in the band Agua Roja before embarking on her solo career and releasing her debut album, ‘Bedroom Walls’, in 2022. Since then, she’s become known for her dramatic, expressive, and confessional ballads in a mixture of English, Spanish and French, which won her the “Best New Female” award at Les Victoires De La Musique (aka the French GRAMMYS) in early 2023.

In line with her A COLORS SHOW performance of ‘Corazón Caramelo’, we spoke to Nova about 1960s aesthetics, being team Scorpio, the need for greater accessibility in music, and why we need more women both on stage and in the studio.

Where does your artist name, November Ultra, come from?

My birthday’s in November and I’ve always had this huge thing about the month. When I joined  my former band, Agua Roja, I didn’t want people to use my birth name. I needed to have a divide between my personal life and my music. When we split, I wanted to evolve, like a little Pokémon. I adore Frank Ocean’s mixtape ‘Nostalgia Ultra’, so I used that to inspire the second half of my solo name. That’s how I became November Ultra.

If you were born in November, does that mean you’re a Scorpio? 

I am! I’m team Scorpio and I relate to my astrological sign. I’m also aware, however, that we grow up with a mythology of what our horoscopes mean that we end up living up to. In the track ‘le manège’ from my album I say: “Anything can set a Scorpio’s heart.” I feel like I live in that cliché. I have a very deep obsession with crushes, which helps me to write a lot of songs!

What is your first musical memory? 

My Spanish grandfather, Papi Ramon, taught me my first song when I was around three-years-old. It was a copla, a traditional Spanish song, called ‘La Zarzamora’. I sang it in front of his mother and her friends, and he was so proud of me. I could feel how much joy I gave them. My relationship with my grandfather—which is still very close to this day—has impacted my music greatly.

When did you start writing your own songs?

I write because I love to sing. When I was younger, singing was the thing that I loved the most and it was my secret dream to pursue it as a career. From age six to sixteen, my parents sent me to a classical conservatoire to train in piano. I also joined the choir while I was there. During this time, I became quite shy. The world of classical music is very exclusive, and it made me very self conscious about what I looked like. When I was 16, I wrote my first real song, and when I was 24, I started to pursue music seriously. I realized that making music shouldn’t be stressful, it should be an act of love. Later, when I was 27, I learned to produce on Ableton, which opened a whole other window for me.

Before you were able to focus on music full time, you worked in audiovisual subtitling, which you have a masters in. Did you pursue this line of work because of your confidence knock at the conservatoire?

I strongly believed that I didn’t look like someone who could make it as a musician, so I shouldn’t try. I didn’t want to go through the heartbreak of someone telling me: “Your voice is okay, but you don’t look the part.” My mum also told me: “You’re the daughter of blue collar workers, it doesn’t happen for people like us”. I made a pact with her that I would do my Masters degree before I ever tried to do anything in music. I speak French, Spanish, Portuguese, and English, so I wanted to do something with languages. Subtitling seemed like a natural choice. I specialized in subtitling for the Deaf and hard of hearing, because I wanted to help other people get access to art, films, and documentaries. I adored that job, truly. But yeah, I kept my promise to my mum, and then music kind of caught up with me.

Does your experience in subtitling influence your music at all?

I think considering accessibility is something we don’t do enough as musicians or as an industry in general. There was an amazing sign language interpreter at Rihanna’s Super Bowl halftime show.I would love to do something like that at my concerts, but I’m an emerging artist, so it can be difficult to agree on these things with concert venues. Sometimes they don’t even want to give me a bottle of water! But accessibility is something that’s definitely on my mind.

“Making music shouldn’t be stressful, it should be an act of love.”

You mentioned before that you started your musical career as a vocalist in the Paris-based band Agua Roja. What did you learn from your time in the group?

I met Clément Roussel and Benjamin Porraz shortly after finishing my masters. We wrote the song ‘Summer Ends’ together which we released in 2013 on SoundCloud. It was really popular in the US. Suddenly, we got a publishing deal, made two EP’s, started touring, and I had to quit my job as a subtitler. Everything I did with Agua Roja was my first time: my first time in a studio, at a concert… It was less scary to do it all in a band. I learnt not only how to sit behind my piano and write songs everyday, but also how to read a contract, and who to trust in the music industry. By the time I wanted to go solo, I already had all the experience I needed to be my own freaking boss. We split up in 2018, but Clément and I are still very close, he mixed my whole album. I’ll always be grateful for the time I spent in that band.

Tell us about the concept behind your debut solo album, ‘Bedroom Walls’, which came out in 2022. 

I made ‘soft & tender’, the second track on the album, on Ableton all by myself over the course of a weekend. I was so full of joy when I made it. Before that, I had mostly created music from a place of angst, sadness, or melancholy. It was the first time that I made a song from a place of being so happy that it burst out of me.

I’d become a bit frustrated by my singing always being layered with millions of other different instruments, so for ‘Bedroom Walls’, I really wanted to showcase my voice as an instrument in itself. Across all of the tracks, there are different themes, languages, and emotions, but all of them came out of the core question: “how can I play, have fun, and build a story predominantly with vocals?”

How do you think you’ve grown and evolved as an artist since you started out? 

‘Bedroom walls’ demonstrates how confident I’ve become as a female songwriter and producer. I often say to my therapist: “I wish human me had as much confidence as artist me!” The album taught me to focus less on beauty and more on emotion. For example, I recorded takes that weren’t technically the best, but they had the right feeling, so I chose them over others.

It’s been quite a journey, to be honest. I released ‘soft & tender’ back in November 2020. Now, it’s 2023 and my album has done far better than I thought it would. At first, no one wanted to sign me: I’m an alternative artist who sings in English—which isn’t very popular in France—but somehow I ended up winning Best Newcomer at the French Grammys. Ironically, the album I made in my bedroom enabled me to get out of it!

I used to tell people that I wanted to win a Grammy and they told me it was never going to happen. Now, they’re like: “Maybe you could one day.” Making this album has allowed me to have big dreams. I often talk with Yseult—a fellow French singer who you also had on COLORS—and we laugh about the fact that we’re both “big girls with big dreams.” Before people thought we were crazy, but now, who knows?

You wrote one of your album’s standout tracks, ‘novembre’, at the She Is the Music Writing camp. Why do you think it’s important for organizations such as SITM to empower female artists? 

SITM is incredible. It was founded by Alicia Keys with her recording and mixing engineer Ann Mincieli in response to the fact that less than 20% of songwriters and producers are female. There’s only a few women in the industry, and every time we see each other on a project or in a studio we think: “Finally, another woman. I’m going to feel a bit safer and what I say is going to be heard and taken into account.” I think it’s very dangerous how many men write songs for female teenage artists, and how their male gaze impacts the lyrics. For this reason, we don’t just need more women on stage, but in the studio too.

I’ve always given my time to women starting out in music: they can DM me and ask about contracts and so forth, because I think there’s power in transparency, knowledge, and sorority. Sometimes, little girls come to my shows and their mothers tell me afterwards that they were inspired to learn guitar, or write songs because of me. If I can be a small part of anything like that, count me in.

November Ultra's performance of 'corazón caramelo' for A COLORS SHOW

The music video for your song ‘come into my arms’ was inspired by the aesthetics of the Japanese animation studio Studio Ghibli. Can you tell us more about your approach to visuals?

I cried the first time I saw the ‘come into my arms’ video. The director, Tamerlan Bekmurzayev, used a photograph of me as a child to inspire the animation. I felt so blessed that they agreed to make it—they’re so talented. It’s so nice to have other artists craft their vision of your music.

The music videos for ‘soft & tender’ and ‘miel’ were shot on film by Elisa Baudouin and Zite & Léo, who I’ve worked with on other projects since. It was important to me for them both to be pretty, colorful, and inspired by musicals—one of my favorites is ‘The Sound of Music’—and 1960s aesthetics. That’s who I am.

I always knew working on visuals was going to be tough for me, because I grew up thinking I wasn’t photogenic. The first time I saw myself on camera for the first music video, I almost asked for it to not be released. In ‘soft & tender’, there’s a moment where I’m wearing a crown and a red collarette. I thought I looked awful. When I spoke to Elisa she told me that I looked like the Italian actress Claudia Cardinale. I could see the love she had for the shot, and the fact she truly thought it was beautiful. Through her eyes, I saw the beauty in the shot and the beauty in me.

“We don’t just need more women on stage, but in the studio too.”

Tell us about the song you performed for your A COLORS SHOW. 

I started it a long time ago. I wrote the first part in a house in the south on a piano that had a very particular sound. “Perhaps I love you, I deserve more than perhaps,” and “I deserve someone that is going to kiss me tenderly,” are some of the first lyrics I wrote for it. Then I got stuck for so long and I couldn’t finish it. Two years later, it suddenly rushed through me. I realized that it was a song about manifesting what I want from a healthy, calm love.

I never know which language lyrics are going to come out of me. This song came out in Spanish right away! That was scary for me, because it meant that my family was going to understand it. I wanted to keep the production simple rather than put loads of Spanish guitars over it. It doesn’t need them: the Spanish element of the song is in the melody and the lyrics. I was so happy to be able to perform it for COLORS. I think it was the first time I’ve sung it live for other people, so it was very special.

Is there one lyric in the song which is particularly meaningful or important to you? 

I always say that the best lyrics are the ones that you would want to tattoo on yourself. In the track ‘Blue’, Joni Mitchell sings “songs are like tattoos,” which is such a great lyric that you’d definitely want on your body!

For me, the first 3 lines of this song convey everything that it’s about. The first one translates as “They told me perhaps I love you, but I do deserve real love”. I felt quite shy when I wrote that, because I was being very honest and it was scary for me. This said, I love all the lyrics in the song. In the second part I sing: “I want a love that feels like the first one, but that lasts until the end.” With first loves you get butterflies and you feel like you’re in a movie, but that hardly ever lasts forever, you know?

“There’s power in transparency, knowledge, and sorority.”

Tell us about the Magic 8 ball you brought with you onset.

I have a few, but this one is particularly special because it’s pink and love-focused. When I heard there was going to be a photoshoot, I thought it would be funny to bring it with me as a prop. Last year, I asked it whether I would find love in 2022. It replied: “Nope.” I was ok with it.

There’s so many different types of love. When I wrote ‘soft & tender’, I wasn’t even in a relationship. I just felt so much love from everyone around me and I was so happy. I feel loved, content, and full. I don’t feel like I’m missing someone. That’s the difference between the songs I wrote when I was 16 and the songs that I write now that I’m 34. When I was 16, I would have written: “Please complete me.” Now I’m like: “I want a kind of love that is going to be calm, tender, soft, and healthy.”

People in the music industry tell me I shouldn’t talk about the fact I’m thirty so much, but I could never have written ‘Bedroom Walls’ in my twenties. It’s important to me that my music is reflective of where I’m at right now, and not the same as what I was producing as a teenager.

What are your ambitions for the future? 

I hope to win a Grammy, to make a lot more albums, to tour, and to finally go to Latin America. It’s nice to have big dreams, but I don’t just want a Grammy for the sake of it. In ten years time, I just want to make sure that my mental and physical health are in a good place, that I’m surrounded by my friends and family, and that we all have enough money to live well. Maybe a bit of love would be nice too… But, as I said, I’m already really loved.

If you could send one message to your fans right now what would it be? 

To my fans: Try to find and put out as much joy as you can in what you do and in your daily life.

To aspiring musicians: This is a long journey. Try to enjoy as much as you can, because it’s never finished. Sometimes, people won’t understand your music at the beginning, but then they might do three years later. Try to be present.

November Ultra is a Paris-based artist whose debut A COLORS SHOW dropped on 22nd May 2023. You can watch the full performance on our YouTube channel.

Text: Emily May and Maryam Tuggar
Photography: Megan Courtis
Videography: Lucie Leichsering
Video Editing: Katia Fisenko


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