Nico Paulo’s self-titled album was recorded in a cabin on Nova Scotia’s South Shore with co-producers Tim Baker (frontman of now-defunct band Hey Rosetta!) and Joshua Van Tassel. Released on April 7, 2023, the indie-folk album has garnered numerous accolades, including Album, Pop Artist, and Songwriter of the Year at the 2023 MusicNL Awards in Newfoundland. She’s made the CBC Top 20 Countdown, was a guest on Tom Power’s national CBC radio broadcast Q, and was interviewed in the U.K. glossy magazine Uncut. All impressive achievements under any circumstances, but perhaps more so because of Paulo’s unique career path.

Toronto-born Paulo, whose first language is Portuguese, moved to Portugal at the age of two. She spent her formative years singing in choirs and cover bands, and performing at local festivals. A graphic designer by training, she returned to Toronto in her early twenties, finding creative camaraderie in the Toronto music scene.

“I felt very inspired when I moved to Toronto, to pursue something original – from a different character – that is still me,” she says. “There would be groups of friends that would put on shows for a couple of years. I saw them get better, and that influenced me. I began to wonder what it was I wanted to say.”

Paulo eventually moved to St. John’s, Newfoundland, because it reminded her of Bombarral, her Portuguese hometown, located approximately 70 km outside of Lisbon. Aside from the obvious similarities, like living by the sea, Paulo delights in the people and topography of St. John’s – especially in contrast to the grid-like streets of Toronto. “It’s refreshing to come to a place where we go up, and then we go down, and then go around the bend,” she says. “It’s not a straight line. It reminds me of Portugal.”

Nico Paulo, Now or Never, video

Select the image to play the YouTube video of the Nico Paulo song “Now or Never”

Paulo believes she’s still finding her footing as a songwriter. “I don’t know what my style necessarily is,” she says. “I’m still young when it comes to songwriting.” Her lyrics and vocals, however, sound fully formed. “Now or Never” opens with Paulo’s lush, preternatural voice, singing a melody that sounds both new and eternal. When she sings the opening lines, “Kiss me now or never / Hold me close or let me go,” the lilt in her voice is rapturous. It’s hard not to stop and listen. (For another great example, listen to her sing the traditional Gaelic/Celtic ballad “Wild Mountain Thyme.”)

In “The Master,” Paulo sings about mastering a complex emotional landscape on the verge of eruption. In a direct and forceful voice, set over a strong groove and tasteful electric guitar, Paulo powerfully implores, “How come you never get angry? / How come you never get sad?”

When asked what her favourite song is on the album, Paulo initially demurs. After a beat, she excitedly shares that “Time” is the one of which she’s most proud, partly because it was a struggle. “I had an idea of what that song was gonna be,” she says, “and it just kept changing, because it wasn’t feeling right.” At the time, Paulo was acting in her first film, Proximity – a short written and directed by Jamie Miller, who’s directed music videos for Paulo, Fortunate Ones, and Tim Baker. She wanted to contribute a song to the project and had a melody in mind.

“I was using a little bit of that idea, the intention of this song for the short film. It’s so different now when I listen to one thing [the original idea] and to the other [the final recording].” Rather than become overly frustrated, Paulo and her co-writer Steve Maloney decided to go with the flow. “I’m proud of that,” she says. “We didn’t give up. It turned out to be one of the songs that people connect to the most. We just accepted the changes.”

According to Paulo, being patient, staying curious, and accepting change are all necessary parts of being an artist. She’s quick to stress the importance of also nourishing one’s life outside of the industry. “It’s easy to stay 100% involved in this creative unfolding of ideas and forget that there’s the sky, and the ocean, and roads,” she says. “We also have to take care of our minds and bodies, our families, and the people we like.”