Where are you currently based and what is the music scene like there?
I’m based in Antwerp, Belgium but I don’t really feel part of any music scene and I’m not even sure if there is one in Antwerp. I’ve never experienced it as a problem though. I was always on my own cloud, with my own mixed heritage and doing my own thing. Maybe also because I spent some parts of my life in different places (We lived in between Egypt and Belgium when I was very little, and I went to study in Amsterdam when I was 17) Since things began to get busy for me last year I’ve spend so long on the road that I’ve felt myself becoming a bit distant to Antwerp. I will always love the city though. It’s a city with a lot of history in art and fashion and you still feel that to this day.
How did you first start playing music and start singing?
I’ve always sung, it’s something very natural to me. The first 8 years of my life I was mainly singing along with whatever I heard around me, which mostly was music coming from my mom’s record collection: Classical or Arabic music. Jazz, Serge Gainsbourg, Tom Waits, or The Beatles. It wasn’t until she showed me John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ that I became aware of the artist behind the music. Suddenly I wanted to know all about him. I used to put two chairs together and imagined it to be a piano (imitating John Lennon as you see him in the Imagine video).
When I was 10 I started playing classical piano but after two years I started realizing it wasn’t for me because I always wanted to play the pieces in a different way each time I played them, while the ultimate goal in classical music is to play it as precise as possible. I started writing my own songs when I was 14 years old and never quit 🙂
You have an extraordinary falsetto, how did you discover and nurture this unique ability?
I’ve always used it and never really thought about it until people started asking me about it. I went to study at the Royal conservatoire of Amsterdam when I was 17 and got my first singing lessons over there. I wasn’t really singing in the most correct, healthy way, and learned a lot about breathing and exercises to keep my voice healthy. But the sound of my voice and the way I sang has always come from a very natural place.
Your debut album Amir is out on the 19th of October, Amir features a backing orchestra of professional musicians predominantly comprised of refugees from Syria and Iraq, why did you choose to add an orchestra to your music?
First and foremost because they are incredible musicians and I was touched from the first second I heard them play. Secondly because I wanted to recreate the sound of the Arabic orchestra’s (firqa’s) from the golden age (like the ones that played with my grandfather). After I wrote the beginning of the string arrangements I knew that I would need that particular sound, and that a regular, western, classical orchestra wouldn’t capture the right spirit. Typically for a firqa is that they accompany a singer. I wanted to recreate that vibe of a big orchestra playing behind the singer, all accompanying him, going along with his words, phrasing, and melodies.
How did you go about composing each musical part for the different instruments within the orchestra?
I only wrote the melodies and some harmonies, but the arrangement for each individual instrument was done by Tim Vandenbergh, who also conducted the orchestra.
What instruments were used on the album?
It’s a nice mix between acoustic and electronic instruments. It was important to me to emphasize on the elements that I noticed were there in the songs I had written, in order to create a contrast. For example: the cold electronics being in contrast with the warm sound of the orchestra.
Most of what you hear is me playing guitar, piano, bass, synths, a bit of oud (traditional Arabic instrument),…
A lot of beat programming, the orchestra of course, a lot of acoustic drums as well, we also used old cassettes of my grandfather (who was a famous Egyptian singer and actor) and gave them to Inne Eysermans, who did all sorts of sound wizardry with them, which resulted in magical, sometimes unsettling soundscapes (you can’t recognize the original recordings anymore). We needed these scapes also to make contrast with all the rest. To have an unsettling counterweight to the more ‘pretty’ sounding aspects of the album.
Where and when did you record Amir?
It was a year long recording process. I was already touring all over Europe so it was a matter of finding the right focus every time we came home from a tour (my producer PJ is also my live sound guy), locking ourselves up for a couple of days to work on the album, before heading out on tour again. We recorded mainly in PJ’s house. The bigger recording sessions (the orchestra or drums) we did in bigger studio’s.
How did you come to work with musicians from Syria and Irak?
The orchestra that I worked with organize evenings where they play a part of the repertoire of a famous Arabic singer. They wanted to do this with the music of my grandfather and asked me to sing, but I kindly declined because I didn’t feel comfortable enough doing it. I don’t speak Arabic so I would’ve to have learned the songs phonetically and didn’t feel ready to sing my grandfather’s extraordinary songs. I returned the question and asked if they wanted to play on buy album. And thankfully they said yes.
What or who influenced the sound and songwriting for Amir? & How do you usually go about writing music?
I never think while writing a song. To quote Leonard Cohen: “If I knew where songs came from, I would go there more often.” I can’t force anything out of a song that isn’t naturally coming when I’m writing it. Of course I can always polish a bit afterwards. On the production and recording side of things however, I’m in more of a rational state of being, where I make very conscious decisions. For these decisions the above mentioned firqa’s from the golden age of Arabic music were a big inspiration. Lots of hip hop was very inspiring as well for the beats and the electronics.
In terms of the songwriting I think a lot of it came from being quite young (I’m 21 now) and experiencing a lot of new things: Experiencing love for a first time, or this rollercoaster of a career I’m having at the moment. Even though at times it’s quite personal, the themes are quite universal. A lot of it is about finding a balance between a romantic state of being and a certain apathetic/nihilistic state of being. The everlasting battle between the heart and the mind.
You recently worked with Colin Greenwood from Radiohead, how did this come about and what did you get up to when working together?
He and I have mutual friends, and they all came together to a concert of mine in Antwerp. We talked afterwards, and he was very kind and enthusiastic about the music. He told me his favorite song of mine was a song called Indigo Night. I remembered this and a few weeks later I asked him if he would want to play a bass line on the song, and he did 🙂
Your single Tummy is out now, what influenced the songwriting for this track?
Like mentioned above, I can only review these things. While I’m writing I don’t have any idea where a certain word or melody comes from. Now that the song is written I can see the themes within it though. For me the verses are kind of a worst case scenario of what could happen to you when you have success. The temptations or the ingratitude you could fall for. I like my songs to be open for interpretation but I can say that for me it is not a love song. The ‘you’ in the song is not a person but it is: virtue. The same virtue that might have given the ‘I’ the talent that gave him or her the very success that has contributed to a downward spiral. Haha it sounds more complex when I’m writing it down like this, than it actually is. I hope someone will one day totally get the essence of the song and explain each sentence on genius.com so that I can always refer to that.
Your EP ‘Habibi’ was released earlier this year and won the praise of music fans across the globe with over 1.5 million streams to date, how did Habibi come to life and why do you think your music resonates with so many people across the planet?
The EP was made in the same run and mind set as the full album. The 4 songs on the EP were the 4 songs we finished first and we figured it would be good to already release them to get people excited for the album. I think what drives the listeners to keep on listening to my music and to keep on coming back to every show is that it goes deeper than just enjoyment. I hear from a lot of listeners that they feel things that they’ve never felt before, by listening to my music. It could them through rough times, or they could hear things of themselves in the lyrics. I don’t know, I have my ideas of course but one should ask them to truly know haha. Anyway, I’m very grateful to everybody that listens to my music and comes to the concerts. When the right energy is being exchanged between the audience and me, the result is pure transcendence.
What do you like to do outside of music?
I used to love theatre when I was younger. I think I would still like it, but it’s not something I do anymore. I like to read a lot. Fiction and non fiction. Just anything that inspires me or teaches me new things.
What do you have planned for the remainder of 2018 going into 2019?
My first world tour. We’ll be going to places I’ve never been before. Very exciting.
Who are you listening to at the moment?
So many things. I really love Travis Scott’s ‘Astroworld’.
Favourite food and place to hangout?
Favorite food: des moules avec des frites
Place to hang out: Anywhere where I’m alone and able to make music.