In the video for melancholy pop banger Escalante Street, singer-songwriter Jaime Nanci moves through the eerily empty streets of the Cabanyal Barrio in high heels, a white smock and a wide-brimmed black hat. As both a song and a film it's a beautiful explosion of bitter-sweet joy amid the loneliness and terror of the pandemic. It's the first in a series of releases from Nanci, who music fans might know as the soulfully voiced singer with Irish bands Cuckoo Savante and Jaime Nanci and the Blueboys.
Nanci and his husband, Michael Barron, moved to Valencia three years ago, largely for the good of his health. Nanci was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 15 years ago. A year after moving, the pandemic started. "We moved here because it was so vibrant and full of noise and music and street markets ... And then it was just gone overnight. And since then, we've been trying to find it again."
Nanci remembers exactly when he knew he could sing. "It was on a road trip to Donegal when I was seven or eight," he says. "We were singing along in the back of the car to whatever tape my dad had … He'd be listening to Ry Cooder or JJ Cale but then he'd be listening to Bette Midler, which I thought was amazing. I remember one day in the car we were singing along and my dad let a roar and just said 'Shut up!' I remember saying, 'I thought I could sing', and he said 'You can but your sister can't.' "
I did have a fairly significant jazz musician in Ireland tell me that I could be successful, but I should try and be less gay. That was only three years ago
He never stopped. He cycled through punk and grunge bands until discovering jazz when he was at college in Galway. “I fell in love with a trumpet player and he encouraged me quite a lot.” He always had eclectic tastes. “When I was a kid I went into a shop and got Bananarama and the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks at the same time. I wanted to be a punk but I was a disco queen as well.”
Although he loves the people he played music with, he never felt he fitted in well in the Irish music scene. "I was always made feel I was on the outskirts," he says. "I think that's just because I'm queer and the time that was in it, but I internalised it to the point that I just never let myself become a part of a scene. I did have a fairly significant jazz musician in Ireland tell me that I could be successful, but I should try and be less gay. That was only three years ago. You can see it in the pop scene in Ireland: we never had a Prince or a Madonna. We had a wealth of talent in Ireland but the things that kept getting platformed were really homogenous. This piece of music, and especially the video, was like, 'I'm fuckin' Irish. And this is what I've always been. And this is who I am.' I think younger, visible queer artists internationally and at home have opened doors, artists like Lil NAS X or Anhoni who are really amazing, unusual, unashamed and unapologetic."
After years of touring and gigging, and a year doing a master’s in jazz vocal performance, Nanci fell out of love with performing for a while (though he performs now with an ensemble called QTF). “I’d given up on music as something that gave me any joy. And then I started therapy and rediscovered a lot of things and answered a lot of questions about what I did and how I did it.”
He had been ground down by a certain notion of commercial success. “Now, my level of successes is: I’m healthy, I have a roof over my head, I have food on my table, I have love and I get to go out and perform sometimes and it’s fucking killer.”
He also contended with the repressive homophobia he grew up with. "I absolutely, definitely, internalised shit from my youth growing up, things I'd heard. As a queer man in Dundalk who's told by part of your life that you're exceptional and by another part of your life that you're a freak and disgusting and you shouldn't exist and should hide everything about yourself – that takes its toll." He sighs. "I fell in love with Michael when he told me what he did for a living."
I might come offstage and collapse and go to bed for two days. It's very strange
In the early noughties, Barron founded BeLonG To, the ground-breaking organisation for LGBT young people. “I might have cried that night when he told me that. The kids that have come through there, how they’re excelling, how good they are for the world in general. It’s such a shame that people were not allowed shine unobstructed. I do think, that if I hadn’t been told to suppress those things, I’d be a lot more free. I think the gender fluidity that’s emerging now and coming to the fore, it’s the natural evolution of humanity.”
The video for Escalante Street celebrates Nanci’s sexuality but also his physicality. In it, he strides and runs through the empty streets and then he eats and drinks ravenously. Before he was diagnosed with MS, he had been having health issues for years: periods of blindness and pain issues that meant he had to walk with crutches. “I’ve had hospitalisations where I had to be treated with a steroid transfusion for a week maybe, and then a month or two of recovery ... Each time you have something it leaves scars and you become more disabled as time goes on. At the minute I just have problems with my eyes and my levels of energy.”
Does singing and performing allow him to have a different relationship with his body than the one he grapples with as someone with MS? “No matter how shitty I feel, as soon as I step on stage it’s almost like I’m not there. I don’t ever remember a concert, really. It’s all so instinctive or instinctual. I have gone onstage with an eyepatch and a crutch and it’s the same. Then I might come offstage and collapse and go to bed for two days. It’s very strange. It’s an unconscious thing that I don’t fully understand. I don’t particularly want to understand it. It’s magical.”
He sings without realising it, he says. Barron sometimes taps him on the shoulder when they’re shopping to say: “You’re singing.”
“There’s nothing else at all when I’m singing,” he says. “I feel my body is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do at that moment. I said this in the past and I always feel cringey about it, but I consider it kind of like praying. To me it’s a song to the universe.”
I definitely have female energy, I think. Again, that goes back to internalising things as a child. To me, I'm undeniably feminine
He wanted to work with Tim Howarth, his co-writer and producer, when he saw his Instagram handle was 7.83 hertz. "That's the vibration of the universe, and I've always been quietly obsessed about that and what that means. I feel like the purest way I can give back to that vibration is by singing."
The video for Escalante Street was directed by Jean-Marc Sanchez, a neighbour, who approached Nanci and Barron out of the blue one day because he wanted to photograph their dog. They became friends. “I sent him a song and he said, ‘I’d love to make a video’. I didn’t know he was a film-maker. He came out of retirement and organised the shoot. He got a little crew together. We did a guerrilla shoot. He used an iPhone and a drone. Michael was doing lighting. I did the costumes. It was very guerrilla and very low budget.”
Those high heels look hard to run in. He laughs. "They're awful cheap shoes. They're so uncomfortable. I got them at the market for The Rocky Horror Show three years ago … I definitely have female energy, I think. Again, that goes back to internalising things as a child. To me, I'm undeniably feminine. So I was embracing that."
You have to try to make your own joy however you can, dancing with your lover or by yourself or with your dog in a park at night
What’s Escalante Street about? “I think everybody, at some point over the last two years, has found themselves on Escalante Street,” he says. “You could change the lines to ‘Take me dancing on Clonliffe Avenue.’ It’s that moment you have, where you’re standing on a street that was where you got all your stimuli and all your joy and daily energy and you took it for granted and then you find yourself standing in the middle of the street at midnight looking at the sky going, ‘What the fuck is going on?’ And you have to try to make your own joy however you can, dancing with your lover or by yourself or with your dog in a park at night. Just try and feel something other than terror. I’d love if for four minutes, 40 seconds, somebody didn’t feel any of those shitty feelings that we’ve had. That was really the point of it.”