Nova Twins are making a difference in AltPress issue #402 cover story
On a spring day in London, Amy Love and Georgia South sat listening as the rain danced its desultory rhythms on the pavement outside the South family home. Seeing that the two young women, then teenagers, were succumbing to listlessness and boredom, South’s father issued a stern injunction. “Stop wallowing,” he told them. “Go and do something productive.” With these words, on March 20, 2014, Nova Twins were born.
“We wrote a song called ‘Bad Bitches,’” Love says. “We were on the sofa. Georgia’s bass went through a number of distortions, or whatever, and I was doing a rap-singing thing over it, and we just loved what we wrote. We said, ‘This is the foundation of our sound…’ We thought, ‘This is really special.’ We loved it. We’re best friends anyway. We’re like sisters, so [we said], ‘Right then, let’s just make a band.’”
Almost eight years after this pivotal moment, Nova Twins are fast emerging as a leading light in a rock scene that is defined by its willingness to shift shapes. A persuasive mixture of musical styles — a measure of punk, squalling guitars, a danceable beat, splashes of the pronouncedly English variant of American hip-hop known as grime — the duo’s debut album, Who Are The Girls?, emerged in 2020 to justly positive reviews.
After watching the pair support his group Prophets Of Rage, Tom Morello described the duo as “the best band you’ve never heard of” (a status that is changing fast). The pair have also toured with Wolf Alice and Enter Shikari, and have collaborated with Bring Me The Horizon and FEVER 333. Following an appearance at the Afropunk Festival in Brooklyn in 2018 — an “amazing” experience, South says, splitting the syllables into three separate words — this year American audiences will have the chance to see Nova Twins at South By Southwest, and at the Welcome To Rockville festival at Daytona International Speedway in Florida.
[Photo by Corinne Cumming][/caption]But on a frigid afternoon in the foothills of winter, Love and South are on tour in the northern English fishing city of Hull. Sharing a basket of French fries, the ebullient yet quietly formidable pair laugh like drains while finishing each other’s sentences. South (bass, keyboards and backing vocals) is of English, Jamaican and Australian descent, while Love (lead vocals and guitar) is of Iranian and Nigerian heritage. Growing up, the singer’s family home was out in Essex — the Orange County to London’s Los Angeles — although she spent much of her time with the bassist’s supportive family in Lewisham, in the capital’s southeastern quarter. Almost entirely unknown to visitors — or to millions of people in the north of the city — it is the kind of neighborhood in which genuine Londoners reside.
“The music scene down there is so eclectic,” South says. “You’d have a jazz night and then a reggae night, a rock night, a punk night… It was all so natural. It was definitely a massive influence on our sound.”
To reasonable people, the fluency of Nova Twins’ music, and perhaps the very existence of the band themselves, offers deft and durable evidence of the multiracial and progressively chaotic city in which they formed. To others, inevitably, it’s a problem.
“We’re two young Black women in rock music, [so] all the odds are stacked against us,” Love says. “It’s predominantly white male, and it has been for a very long time, and therefore it was a lot harder for us to find a space to exist. We had to really create our own bubble of ignoring what everyone told us and be reliant on looking to each other for support because we thought we were going mad when we were first a band. People just weren’t accepting of it. They weren’t getting it. They just didn’t understand why we [were] doing this kind of music in the first place.”
The absurd notion that people of color have no place in punk rock can be easily dispelled in just two words: Bad Brains. In 1987, when the African-American quartet from Washington, D.C. arrived in London for a concert at the Clarendon club, in Hammersmith, the streets outside were packed with many hundreds, if not thousands, of people unable to gain entry. So no problem there, then.
Back in the 1980s, racism in wider British society was easily identifiable; it was monkey noises on the soccer terraces or a primetime television show in which light-entertainers donned blackface and sang calypso. But in the 21st century, a new vocabulary has emerged by which base emotions are given cover by dog-whistle terminology. People talk of “social cohesion,” “taking back control of our borders” and the “anglosphere.”
People would say to us, "We don’t see you as rock." If we were silhouettes, if you couldn’t see what we looked like, we’d be rock
— GEORGIA SOUTH
By way of response, London groups such as Nova Twins and Bob Vylan have emerged with a compelling anti-racist counterview that, for the first time in quite a while, manages to reclaim punk’s radical edge. Make no mistake: Good music is emerging from this exhausting battle royal. But what really sets Love and South apart is that the pair are kicking against the pricks on two fronts.
“Being women and women of color is two separate entities,” Love says. “Do you know what I mean? If you turn up on rock bills, or at a festival, as women, that’s already an assumption that you’re going to be shit. Just because you’re a woman. And if you’re good, that’s such a surprise. Like, [feel free to imagine an intelligent young woman mimicking the most patronizing voice you’ve ever heard] ‘Wow, you’re really talented!’ We get that a lot. Why? Because we’re women. But we’re also Black women.”
After concerts, audience members would approach Nova Twins to congratulate them on their dance moves — “We’re like, ‘We’re not dancers,’” Love says — while magazines would omit them from reviews of festivals in which every other band were given coverage. “People would say to us, ‘We don’t see you as rock,’” South says. “They would ask, ‘How can you fit in? Surely you’re more hip-hop.’ If we were silhouettes, if you couldn’t see what we looked like, we’d be rock. But because [people were] confused by our image, they were like, ‘Ooh, how is this going to fit in?’ They don’t really understand what kind of category we’re supposed to be. There were lots of things like that.”
What the two music-makers would eventually come to realize, though, is that these tiresome detractions were affording them the two things required for their union to survive and prosper.
Strength and time.
[Photo by Corinne Cumming][/caption]Then again, it might just be that Nova Twins were built to last from the start. Before all, on that rainy day in Lewisham in 2014, the group’s first song was about themselves. They were the “Bad Bitches.” “You have to be a bad bitch,” South says. “It’s a lifestyle, you know? You have to be strong. A bad bitch to us means being strong, being strong in yourself and being confident.”
A quick search of YouTube reveals the pair playing the song, which has never been recorded, before an audience of what might be fewer than 10 people at The Lady Luck bar in Canterbury, an hour or so southeast of London. Two years before the release of their self-titled debut EP, these were the days when, as Love puts it, “no one gave a shit.” Even so, even here, looking up at the bottom rung of the ladder, the band give it their all.
“To be honest, we took it seriously immediately,” South says. “We were like, ‘We need to be doing more of this…’ The whole experience of it was fun, and that’s the most important thing that you need to have in this crazy industry. You need to find it fun. Once the fun has gone, you’re just left with emptiness. So, once we wrote ‘Bad Bitches,’ that was it. We were very serious. We were committed to the band. It was like a marriage proposal. We both had the same drive and ambition. We thought, ‘Right, together we’re going to take on the world.’”
But with Britain at first uninterested in their wares, Nova Twins used the solitude of obscurity to “find what we really wanted to say,” as Love puts it, and to make mistakes. After six years of gigging across the teeming expanse of the English capital, the pair discovered what every group since Florence And The Machine have learned the hard way: As opposed to solo artists, London no longer produces international breakthrough bands. With the city’s live music scene shuttered by coronavirus, in 2020 Love and South relocated an hour south to a small coastal town in East Sussex.
[AltPress Issue 402.2][/caption]Swapping concrete surf for the English Channel, with time on their hands, the pair curated Voices For The Unheard, a Spotify playlist featuring dozens of alternative and punk artists of color from around the globe. As the shock waves from the murder of George Floyd sparked protests on the European side of the Atlantic, Love and South hosted chats on Instagram Live with a number of the featured artists. As South explains, “suddenly, we had all these people going, ‘Oh, my God, we had no idea about all of these great bands that come from all over the world.’” In association with the Dr. Martens shoe company, the pair curated a limited-edition vinyl release of parts of their playlist, the proceeds of which were donated to The Black Curriculum, an organization that seeks to improve the representation of Black history in British schools.
“There were loads of positives from the [overall] experience,” Love says. “We could bond [with some of the other artists] on stories about being told that we don’t belong here because we all had that story. Some stupid A&R [person] saying you don’t exist here. But then we also had stories of triumphs and things we love about our sounds, and why we ended up mixing so many different genres… Because we want what most bands want. We want a long-lasting career. A stable career. And also just to change up the game a bit. We want to make a difference."
"It shouldn’t be this hard to exist as a woman in music today. As Black women in music. It shouldn’t be, you know. If we can be part of a movement alongside other amazing artists that are also championing the fight right now, we’ll feel great that we’ve left something behind and made a little difference.”
There’s no doubt about it, though; there is difference to be made. In Britain, last year the market-leading Reading and Leeds festivals that by rights ought to be Nova Twins’ spiritual home attracted criticism for announcing six all-male headliners, only one of whom (Stormzy) was a person of color. At Welcome To Rockville, the pair will appear on a roster headlined by Guns N’ Roses, Foo Fighters and KISS, two of whom could have topped the bill at any point in the past 30-odd years.
We’ll make it work one way or another. In spite of all the challenges we’ve had, it didn’t break us
— AMY LOVE
“On the radio [in the U.K.], what I’m hearing is Frank Carter, IDLES, Royal Blood,” South says. “I don’t really hear any heavy women. [Male artists] dominate. Biffy Clyro. Machine Gun Kelly. Travis Barker.” This is what the pair are up against, you see. This is what they know they’re up against, too. So with their basket of French fries — they call them chips over there — long since emptied, and the hour at which soundcheck will begin at Asylum, in Hull, fast approaching, Alternative Press has time for just one more question.
We cover a lot of bands who believe that their operation is built to last. More often than not, it’s anything but. So what exactly makes Nova Twins tougher than the rest?
“Because we’re not seeking anyone’s approval,” Love answers. Probably by now, you didn’t need to be told that she didn’t miss a beat. “And there’s no other option for us, really. This is it. We’ll make it work one way or another, as we have done for the last eight years — and as we’ll do for the next eight years. In spite of all the challenges we’ve had, it didn’t break us. There’s not been one moment when we’ve thought, ‘We’re not going to do this anymore.’ Not one. Even when it got to the point where we thought, ‘Fuck, how are we going to make an album? Where’s the money coming from? How are we going to do this?’ We never thought of giving up. We were like, ‘Fuck it, we’ll get a bank loan. Let’s fucking do this.’
“We’ll do whatever it takes because we love this.”
This interview first appeared in issue #402 (22 for ’22), available here.