NF: “Sometimes I just like to poke fun at the music industry”
NF doesn’t sit down for many interviews, but when he does, things tend to get pretty deep. The American rapper, born Nathan Feuerstein, is every bit as candid in person as he is on record, where he documents his ongoing mental health journey with brutal, utterly unbridled honesty. “Livin’ in my agony, watchin’ my self-esteem go up in flames,” he raps on ‘Happy’, a soul-baring highlight from his fifth album ‘Hope’, which dropped on April 7. “Acting like I don’t care what anyone else thinks, when I know truthfully that’s the furthest thing from how I feel.”
The Michigan rapper, who just turned 32-years-old, describes writing and recording as “therapy” and “an outlet” for him, then tells NME philosophically: “Sometimes [other] people will like it, sometimes they will not. But if I love it, then I’m good.” It’s an admirable attitude, but it’s fair to say that people like what NF does a lot. Both of his last two albums – 2017’s ‘Perception’ and 2019’s ‘The Search’ – entered the Billboard 200 chart at Number One, cementing his status as a grassroots success story who has taken the music industry by surprise.
It’s an image he playfully embraces in the brilliant video for ‘Motto’, the second single from his new album, which finds him pricking the pomposity of awards ceremonies. “Might catch me at the award show, eatin’ popcorn in the back row”, NF raps as he is escorted out of the auditorium for being disruptive. It’s a tongue-in-cheek moment, but his point is clear: he doesn’t make music just to fill up his trophy cabinet.
NF may have racked up more than 30 billion streams globally, but this isn’t his barometer of success either. “I always say to people: ‘Man, when it comes to touring, that’s kind of the final step where people decide how invested they are in you and your career,” he says. “Nowadays, it’s harder than ever to get people to think, ‘Oh, I want to check out that artist and actually go and see them live.’ So to me, that’s the last step where someone’s like: ‘I love this. I’m committed.’”
For the latest instalment of NME’s In Conversation series, NF talks about becoming a father (he and wife Bridgette welcomed a son in 2021), collaborating with in-demand singer-songwriter Julia Michaels on the hard-hitting ‘Hope’ track ‘Gone’, and how OCD affected his creative process this time around.
NME: What story are you trying to tell with the ‘Motto’ video? What is the concept?
NF: “Sometimes I just like to poke fun at our industry… I feel like the older I get, the less I care about certain things. Some people tried to make [the video] about ‘oh, you’re knocking certain artists’, but it’s not about that. It’s like, if you’re an artist and you get a Grammy, that’s a big deal to a lot of people. I’m not saying if I ever got a Grammy, I wouldn’t care at all. I’m just saying I care way less about those things than I used to. I would much rather sell out arenas and be doing big things behind the scenes than, like, get a Grammy. Some people will probably be like, ‘Oh, that’s just because you don’t have one.’ But it’s like, no.”
Is it hard to pause and think, ‘Wow, what I’ve achieved is amazing’ when you’re on that constant industry treadmill?
“Well, I think you have to think about the future. It’s not bad to do that; it’s just the way I do it is bad. It’s not bad to perfect your craft and work really hard on your music videos. Problem is, [with] all this stuff, I obsess on it so much that by the time I actually get it done, I’m so exhausted that I just didn’t enjoy any of it because I obsessed about it so much.
“I have terrible OCD – I’ve talked about it in interviews – but before this album, it didn’t really affect my work. Or if it affected my work, [it wasn’t so bad that] I couldn’t finish things. Now it’s gotten kind of worse, and so I struggled to finish things. If I don’t think something’s good enough, I’ll just obsess about it… and that’s why I got so many songs that I just never finished. OCD creates a box where [it’s] like: ‘Here’s all the perimeters that you can’t get out of. Here’s why that’s not gonna work.’ And then eventually, I couldn’t write anything. There were months when I couldn’t write any songs.”
How did you break out of that space? How did you get through it?
“I just tortured myself, every day, [by] trying to write. I tried to wait for inspiration, which I don’t usually do, but I did that when I got really desperate. I tried to write, write and write until something popped up. That’s what I normally do, and then it’ll end up happening. And then after, like, months of that, I was like: ‘Alright, maybe I need to just take a break for three days or something.’ Which I’m not good at doing either… That didn’t help. So, I don’t even know how I did it. I think I just kept going until I finally was like, ‘OK, I can do this thing.’ But yeah, I’ve got to figure out, moving forward, how to change that. My favourite thing to do [before] was to record and write music, but on this project, it just felt a lot harder… I felt like the pressure – because it had been so long [since the last album] – was more than it ever had been. Naturally, after you’ve released so many songs and videos, you’re like, ‘What am I going to talk about now?’ But I’m excited about the future. And I’m excited for people to hear this record because I think there’s definitely some big, powerful songs.”
You talk about becoming a dad on the record. How has that experience changed you as a person and an artist?
“I’m definitely still growing. I feel like I’ll have some songs in the future that touch on it more, because this was all kind of happening while I was in the process of [making] this record. But I would say one of the biggest things is this: having a kid, you have to look at your issues even more, because now you’re raising a human being, I feel like you can’t run from it as much… I’m an impatient person, [but my son] makes me look at myself and say, ‘Man, I need to figure this thing out about myself.’ I’m definitely not perfect. But I do think having a kid is like everyone says: until you have one, you just don’t know what it’s like. And I will say that it is definitely a real thing, but in an amazing way. Like dude, I love my son so much.”
How did the Julia Michaels collaboration on ‘Gone‘ come about?
“I haven’t met her, but I probably scared her to death because I sent her this really terrible, like, voice memo thing. [It was just] the chords and me singing my idea [for my song]. In my brain, I know what I’m gonna do, but if I was an artist and someone sent me that, I’d be like, ‘Can you elaborate on this idea? I’m a little worried.’ But no, she was cool. I sent her that and just said, ‘Here’s the vibe. What do you think?’ And then I ended up getting the actual studio recording over to her, so she wrote her verse and it was amazing – she killed it. She is crazy, man. Like, you can just tell that she’s a writer.”
Do you see each of your projects as a chapter in your life story?
“Definitely. Kind of like a book. But just like [with] movies, it’s [about] trying to pace things properly. But also, you’re writing about your real life, so sometimes you feel like a movie’s supposed to be pacing a certain way, but your life’s not pacing that way. Even creatively, I don’t want to write a million records that are depressing. But like, if that’s what I feel like, I don’t know how to not write that way. I think sometimes I get caught up in that because I’m like, ‘Man, creatively, I feel like people need to hear something different from me. I want to hear something different from me.’ Some days [while making this album], I kept trying to be like, ‘Oh, it needs to be positive, it needs to be positive.’ But I don’t always feel positive just because I’m on this journey of trying to be better. And so it was like, ‘Man, I don’t always feel positive. I still have terrible days and then I have great days.’”
NF’s ‘Hope’ is out now via NF Real Music/Virgin Music/EMI Records