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Nicole Davis [aka ND] is a creative director and photographer who’s lens has captured award-winning and Billboard charting artists such as Joey Bada$$, Playboi Carti, Tokimonsta, Jessie Reyez, Zeds Dead, What So Not and Delaney Jane, to name a few. Capturing vibrant visuals of contemporary youth, ND is a true creative who values her connection to her clients, so she can capture who they really are. She peels back the layers like an onion, so the essence of her subject can be conveyed. We caught up with ND, and got to know her creative process, client connectivity, and work-life balance.
As far as the music industry goes, people tend to forget about all of the people that contribute behind the scenes of their favourite artists, shows and festivals. As a creative director and professional photographer who specializes in capturing artists in their element, what would you describe as the most important part of what you do?
I think the hardest part of it all, is really breaking down the barrier between you and the artist. Having worked with several artists in different capacities, you learn very quickly that the best way to take a picture of someone, is to know all of what they like and don’t like about themselves. Everyone’s threshold for connection is different and oftentimes artists are very peculiar about the way they want to be seen and that’s on and off camera. So there is a lot of time spent on trying to find a balance between how they want to be seen and what their brand is and when you find that sweet spot – it’s all smooth sailing from there.
As an artist in your own craft, you have a very unique creative process… can you explain a little bit of yours when working with different artists?
When working with artists, you have to take a very sensitive approach. I feel like a lot of the time in our everyday life, we often are so self consumed we forget to be mindful. Mindfulness in music is huge. Every time these artists are going on stage to perform, writing a song or every time they write a song, that’s them putting theirselves out there for everyone to see. So my process is selflessness. My approach to every artist is to know them beyond what they show people or who their persona is online / on stage. So the secret is? Questions, questions and more questions. Be inquisitive and peel back the layers. It’s always a trust building exercise. That’s not to say it always works out, but it definitely allows you to tell their story in a way that other creatives can’t. Not because of skill set but because you now see them in a different light and that shows by the way you capture them and tell their artist story.
When you first begin working with an artist, what sort of questions and information do you ask from them so you can begin to understand them on a deeper level? How does this information then contribute to your creative process?
Ah, I think the part I start to focus on is the music. I ask a lot of questions that surround when they started, how they started, what got them into it. Sometimes you get some really basic generic responses but often times when you ask people questions about something their passionate about, something will click. They get asked questions a lot, so it’s paying attention to the stories and the moments that they think no one is paying attention to. Their first talent show, or the one time they fell off stage – any moment that brings that little sparkle in their eyes that lights up some sort of excitement and nostalgia. Once those questions and stories have been shared, I’ve just learned how to let them be heard. The songs they love, how they attach to them – what is the story behind them. Picking someone’s favourite thing they’ve produced, performed or written can be a tricky way to break barriers, but what better way to know someone then try to connect to something they love? That’s a big relationship starter for me. I listen to that piece over and over again and find my own way to relate and connect with it. I create my own story from it. That’s the piece a lot of musicians are missing, someone that can take what they’ve made and turn it into a visual – it’s a full-circle process.
As a perk of what you do, you get to attend many unique events… What is the most exciting show/event that you have shot at so far? And what made it so?
This one has to be one of the toughest questions yet! I’ve shot 1000+ shows / festivals so it’s going to take some thought. I’d have to say Jessie Reyez’ show at the Phoenix in Toronto. Having shot so many different shows with a variety of different types of artists and I’ve never had the opportunity to experience such a compelling show. As a fan of her music, watching her perform live and being able to capture those moments – it’s such a surreal feeling. There wasn’t some crazy production or stage, she didn’t have any make up – the wardrobe was her everyday attire and it was such a raw experience. So through all the festivals, all the artists, all the huge productions, the intimacy and the emotion in that show would’ve topped anything to date.
Every job comes with its challenges… what would you say is the most challenging part of what you do? How have you overcome these challenges?
Aside from content creation and creative direction – I also tour manage. As many people who don’t know what the job consists of, it’s a lot of taking care of everyone else’s needs. I love taking care of people and I love connecting with people, so the two go hand and hand. However, often times on the road, you lose touch with both of those things. Everyday is a new city and everyday is a new hotel room, so there is often this never ending amount of loneliness and that’s tied in with always worrying about everyone else. There’s a lot of the time I’ve neglected my own mental health. I took a step back for a while to re-evaluate my work and my career, took time off and was able to come back with a balance. The balance between my job and my health, and knowing how to juggle the two on the road. Going back to the things that drew me to this job to begin with. Whether that be setting reminders to check in with friends, using facetime religiously, taking breaks off tour when needed and remembering to breathe. These things might sound silly to most – but they’ve been my saving grace.