When Baltimore singer Nova Starz and I get together at the Hole Story, her friend's tattoo and piercing shop on Eutaw Street, to discuss her new record, we shoot the shit for a good 15 minutes before she pauses and abruptly changes the subject. "So go ahead and ask me the question, the one everyone asks me: Am I a cokehead?"
The question hadn't occurred to me. But I see how the debauched, strung-out atmosphere of her new EP, Dark Lovely Places . . . For the #Ragers, could prompt some to jump to that conclusion. Tracks like "White Lines" and "Cops Pulling Me Over" explore a certain kind of nightlife noir, and while the singer does admit she knows how to party, the songs are not as autobiographical as people have speculated.
"Everyone's like, 'sooo, "White Lines," what is that about?'" she says. "No, I am not a cokehead, I do not do cocaine. I am an artist, I paint pictures."
At nine songs, Dark Lovely Places is closer to an album than a typical EP, but regardless of how it's labeled, it's a cohesive, intriguing body of work from an artist who'd been slowly and deliberately piecing together the songs, as well as her image, over the course of several years. Her partner, musically and otherwise, in that journey has been Street Scott, her fiancé, who produced most of Dark Lovely Places.
"You can tell we pulled from a lot of places," he says of the beats on the project, which range from driving and danceable to brooding and ethereal, with drums that recall everything from hardcore hip-hop to '90s drum 'n' bass.
When Shakyra Greene, 28, met Todd Scott, 29, several years ago, they were in the beginnings of their respective careers. She was an R&B singer going simply by "Nova," and he was producing hip-hop under the name "Street Heat," both for the local crew Team Arson and for New York stars like Jim Jones and Jadakiss. The name changes seem to reflect the aesthetic changes they've since undergone; everyone from Team Arson still works together, but they've dropped that name as well.
"We listen to R&B, indie, we listen to all types of stuff, and we have our own style too," says Greene, whose blond dreadlocks give her a distinctive look to match the sound. Adapting that wider variety of influences took time and was gradually reflected in their musical output. Street Scott's 2011 single "Rocket Man," one of his first releases after his name change, opens with a couplet that references Swedish indie band Peter, Bjorn and John. An early Nova Starz track, 2009's "Happy in Here," was uploaded to YouTube with a note that said it was influenced by the Norwegian dance duo Royksopp. Back then, her debut project was titled The Glamour, but as she and Street Scott continued recording new material and discarding old songs, the vision and the title changed.
Other early Nova Starz songs like "So High" and "Cruisin'" had what Scott calls a "spacey R&B" sound, heading toward their current direction. But Greene says that the 2011 single "Time Machine," featuring rapper Rickie Jacobs, was the turning point at which Dark Lovely Places began to really take shape, although the song ended up not even appearing on the final EP.
"We scratched the whole project and we built everything around that one song," she says. The track's stylish, celebratory 9-minute video also brought Nova Starz more attention online and further refined her new aesthetic direction.
After all the slow, deliberate work on Dark Lovely Places, its most popular track came together in a flash one night. "I was like, 'Honey, I gotta drop some shit,'" Greene recalls telling Scott with a laugh. He built "Not Surprised" around a loop of the deathless "doo doo doo doo" hook from Suzanne Vega's "Tom's Diner," which Greene then resang with eerie accuracy.
In fact, it's her ability to sing in a minimal, almost deadpan style not too far removed from Suzanne Vega's that takes Nova Starz out of traditional R&B territory and puts her somewhere more unique and interesting. From the beginning, she knew she wasn't a big-voiced soul belter, and that it was her passion not her vocal range that would drive her career.
"I completely could not sing one note," she says of her early days. "My mom was really worried, because I wanted to do music, but she could tell you I couldn't sing for shit. But I just love music, and I made it work for me." Scott, himself more of a rapper than a singer, duets with her on the closing track, "These Dreams," to surprisingly great effect.
Despite the dysfunctional tenor of the songs they make together, Greene and Scott seem like an exceedingly normal and affectionate couple, happy to talk about their early courtship, the child they have together, or the exaggerated praises they sing of a beloved pet.
"We have a cat named Shadow," Greene volunteers at one point, out of nowhere.
"Shadow the cat," Scott eagerly adds.
"She's awesome. We owe a lot to her. She was there for everything, giving us support the whole time."
"I don't know where I would be in life without Shadow. I don't think Street Scott would exist without Shadow."
"I know I wouldn't exist."
"I love that goddamn cat," he adds wistfully.
Dark Lovely Places . . . for the #Ragers was released digitally in April through TrapRockRadio.com to a positive online reception, but Greene is preparing CD copies for a physical release to give the EP a proper push, including a release party on June 29 at the BFF, at 2800 Sisson St. (the same place where the EP's candid cover photo was taken during a wild party).
Greene is already thinking about the next left turn she'll take for the follow-up release, saying there are "four different directions in my head right now" that she wants to take it in. Although she's gotten some interest from major labels and Scott continues selling beats outside of Baltimore, they're both more interested in making the music they want to make on an independent level in the city they love than chasing mainstream trends.
"If you start off in the beginning doing whatever the fuck you wanna do, people expect you to do whatever you wanna do. So the next project is gonna be different," she says. "I want to be able to call my own shots in my future."