Behind the Music: Interview with S.A.A.R.A

‘I think it’s pretty unusual to turn up to a gig with a bassoon and declare that you make EDM – but it’s worth it!’

Following our recent discovery of ‘Forest’, and ahead of its music video arriving Friday 2nd July we chatted with S.A.A.R.A. Delving into the process behind the release, her love for extended mixes, and gender disparity within the industry, this is one you won’t want to miss!

Hi S.A.A.R.A, thanks for taking the time to chat with us. Introduce yourself to your future listeners.
Hi, it’s so great to chat with you. I’m a composer, singer, bass player, producer, and sound artist from and based in Camden, London.

Who would you cite as your key influences?
I have such a broad taste in music and draw influences from artists across everything from jazz, to rock, to soul, to DnB. I’m a huge fan of Gil Scott-Heron and his album ‘Pieces of a Man’ influenced me to include flute in this project. ‘Or Down You Fall’ is one of my all-time favourite tracks with Hubert Laws’ magical flute playing, and Gil Scott-Heron’s voice, lyrics, and musicality making the whole album completely captivating. I also have a huge love for 60’s and 70’s music. There’s a real sonic richness in records like ‘What’s Going On?’ by Marvin Gaye, and ‘Fresh’ by Sly and the Family Stone, and that’s something I try to achieve.

Fela Kuti is a big influence too. I love how he constructs each track right in front of the listener, building up an incredible atmosphere from just one small element and making the instrumentation just as important as the lyrics. Kate Bush’s fearless creativity is such an inspiration too. I love her. Similarly, David Bowie, Bjork, Karen O, all show up for their music in a way that makes me think you always have to fully commit to what you’re doing creatively. More recently though, I am absolutely loving Bicep’s latest album ‘Isles’, as well as Little Dragon, Róisín Murphy, Theon Cross, and The Comet is Coming. The mix between lush vintage textures, woodwind, and synth sounds is right up my street.

Who is involved in your music?
I write and produce the tracks as demos at home before working with my amazing band who play the parts live. Flautist Rebecca Speller is an absolute genius, bassoonist Thomas Porter is literally the coolest operator about, and tenor saxophonist Nick Evesham will always blindside you with an absolute corker of a line. Working together we really bring the tracks to life and inject the 70’s jazz/funk aesthetic that I love. It’s also great to have improvisation elements and when they come out in our shows it gives the listener more than just a live version of the track. I also have to shout out Netherlands-based producer Mackadena. He was instrumental in producing the forthcoming EP, and adding a lot more punch to the sound, particularly the drums. Prior to working with him, the EP was somewhere between a live demo and full-on EDM, but his magic touch took the production to the next level. It was also great to get a better understanding and more confidence with programming drums and producing a record to a high standard. 

‘Questions about what should happen next in the studio or at a gig are frequently diverted to the nearest available male, even if they aren’t in the band.’

On the topic of your latest single ‘Forest’, what is the story behind the title and the lyricism?
‘Forest’ was the first track I completed for this project, and in a way, it found me as I had been searching for my voice and sound. It began as a DnB style beat and a simple bass line that evolved rhythmically throughout, but at the time I was studying an MA in Experimental Music, becoming interested in post-internet art and exploring the line between what we consider reality (IRL) and hyperreality (URL). After many weeks of just a bassline and the beat, I decided to get over my fear of singing and start mumbling into a microphone to see what would happen. Forest was the result: a track about not being sure whether you are in a weird dream or a dystopian reality, and trying to find something to confirm it either way. It’s kind of fitting for these strange times.

So was the track always going to have such a sense of freedom and energy?
I realised that I wanted to be at gigs where people moved, got a bit wild, and forgot all their worries on the dance floor, so we wanted to bring a lot of energy. After thinking ‘What the hell am I trying to do?’, there was so much freedom to go with whatever I felt like doing, meaning ‘Forest’ was borne out of pure experimentation around what I wanted the listener to experience. I have quite a visual approach to songwriting and production, in that I want to create atmospheres and experiences for the listener, so harnessing a sense of freedom was a huge part of releasing this track and indeed starting the project.

With such complexity of sound, when do you know you’ve included everything you want to?
Usually when my computer starts screaming because I’m using way too much CPU!! But, in all seriousness, I have to get to a point where I can’t hear any other elements in my mind when I listen back to the demos. Some tracks, like ‘Forest’, reach that point almost straight away, for others the temptation to keep tinkering persists. I got a lot of flack about the tracks being too dense in the beginning, but, for me, I like to approach the arrangements like writing for an orchestra where the different elements contribute to the whole.

So what would you consider the most unusual element of your music?
I think it’s pretty unusual to turn up to a gig with a bassoon and declare that you make EDM!! – but it’s worth it. I absolutely love its timbre and it takes on the role of an analog synth bass, interplaying with the sax and the bass lines. Our tracks also average 6-8 minutes in length. It’s really funny when you say you have a 40-minute slot but will only play 5 songs, people look so confused but the time absolutely flies. I am also told I have a very distinctive vocal style which I never really thought about but am learning to embrace. 

‘Music has given me the confidence to stand up for myself, to use my voice, and to use my creativity.’

Why the extended mix form rather than radio-ready durations then?
I feel that pop music on the radio is too formulaic and in too much of a hurry to reach the chorus, bridge, and big finish. I love creating tracks that give space to the instrumentation, and creating moments of tension and release in the lead-up to the vocals. I also wanted to make tracks along the lines of Chicago house and NYC disco via afrobeat and UK DnB, with soulful vocal hooks chiming in over a grooving instrumental that takes you further into the narrative.

Are there any live performances planned for 2021?
We certainly hope so!! We had about 6 shows booked for spring/summer 2020 that all had to be cancelled so we’re really hoping that we can pick up where we left off. We will hopefully be playing a show in Camden in September, but we are literally counting down the days to be able to play live again so keep your ears peeled! 

What does a S.A.A.R.A recording session normally involve?
There’s always improvisation and experimentation, but it’s great spending time pushing things a little further in the studio. I often tell the band to take it to the point where it feels like it’s too much and then go a little beyond that! There are elements of trial and error too, but to quote Miles Davis ‘It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note – it’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong.’

Turning to your previous release ‘Grace Jones’, how did the remixes come about and were you surprised by the contrasting interpretations?
I’ve always wanted remixes to play a big role in this project and for other artists to completely re-imagine the elements that speak to them. Handing over a track and saying ‘Do what you want!’ is a crazy, yet liberating thing, and it’s amazing how different artists respond. Both the remixes are incredible though, with Rych-t’s having a dark and dissonant quality and the slowed down vocals, and Rich Pack’s being pure indie disco with a killer slap bass line punching through. I love them both!! It was super weird hearing them for the first time as I had to listen completely objectively, and let go of how I knew the track to be, but it’s such a great way to get an understanding of my music. I’m so thrilled to be working with Rick Pack again, as well as Drembot on remixes of Forest which will be out soon.

‘I want to be part of a new music industry that no longer relies on tropes and pigeon-holing artists in order to manufacture limited notions of what success is.’ 

Aside from creating music, you run CTRL+ALT NOW. What led to you starting this organisation?
Although I believe you are always in the place you are supposed to be, there is a large part of me that wonders how things might have turned out if I had pursued my creativity much earlier. I started playing music from a really young age, violin first, then clarinet, and as mentioned bass, but despite absolutely loving it and having some success, I didn’t have the self-belief that what I was doing creatively was anything to do with my calling or talent. When the last major project I was in broke up, I turned my back on music thinking that part of my life was over until I realised I owed myself at least one more shot at doing it in a way that I was always too scared to do.

Knowing my story isn’t unique, I set up CTRL+ALT NOW to help creative women make the leap into believing in their creativity and building the confidence to go for it. For me, returning to music felt like I was no longer pretending to be a version of myself that I didn’t particularly like, and in connecting with my creativity, I’m the truest version of myself, have a voice, have ideas, and get to use them. I want to both enable other womxn to experience this, and have the encouragement and support that they need. They may be balancing a full-time job, be the only creative person in their family or friendship group, or have worries that it’s too late to start over, but in reality, none of those things really have the power to stop you if you really want to go for it.

So what are your views on the representation of womxn in the music industry?
here’s still a lot of work to be done when it comes to gender and race equality. Even fronting my own project, questions about what should happen next in the studio or at a gig are frequently diverted to the nearest available male, even if they aren’t in the band. Most of the time it’s more of a reflex action than anything sinister, but it’s a reflection of its culture. There is also still a view that women can’t be good at the tech side of things, so I always encourage female songwriters to at least get to a point where they can create a basic demo and take ownership of their ideas. Prior to producing my own music, I often found my ideas would be ‘shelved for later’ while the ‘real’ discussions happened. I even had a producer that I was considering working with tell me that he could help ‘correct’ ‘Forest’ into a successful pop record. I had to stand firm, tell him it’s finished, and doesn’t need fixing in any dimension. I struggle to think that male songwriters and producers experience this.

It’s also really annoying that there’s an expectation for women to show up in certain ways when it comes to presenting and performing. I was told by someone who considers themselves to be a mentor of musicians, to not confuse people by writing music that was anything other than fun, tropical, and Caribbean flavoured. When I questioned that statement, I was told it was the advice from someone who is successful in the music industry and that’s the way it is. For me, personally, success does not equate to compromising on the music that I want to make and in such moments, I return to the artists that inspire me that were operating on the outside of the norm.

It’s of course great there’s more awareness about inequality in the industry, and having more independent and self-releasing female artists is helping diversify the voices out there, but it would be great to see more diversity across record labels, TV and media commissioners, and journalism. This will also help a more diverse range of artists share their stories and experiences. 

‘Forest is about not being sure whether you are in a weird dream or a dystopian reality. It’s kind of fitting for these strange times.’

How has being involved in other music projects affected your overall development as a solo artist?
Picking up bass was purely by chance as I was hanging out with a crew at school who had decided they wanted to make a band, but the original bassist didn’t work out. Given I played clarinet, they thought it would be reasonable for me to take on playing bass! I still remember my mum asking ‘What happened to my clarinet and what’s in that big case?’ when I arrived home from school as one quarter of an indie band. We then morphed into a garage rock trio ‘City Lights’, who wrote songs in a damp rehearsal studio in London and learned the live scene ropes playing the Camden gig circuit before they turned into gastro pubs. I then played bass for Ezra Bang and Hot Machine which was a guerrilla funk outfit assembled of some amazing musicians and strong characters.

I learned so much about songwriting, production, and touring, and we had a lot of fun and some success including us supporting Public Enemy and rocking up to Glastonbury with only 20 minutes to spare before stage time!! Sadly, the wheels came off, we went our separate ways, and I drifted away from music. Surreptitiously, my music hiatus ended with me depping on bass and then joining a Bowie covers band called Cats From Japan. Until then, I was dabbling with being anything but a bass player knowing full well that bass was my instrument. It was so much fun delving into the mechanisms of Bowie’s biggest hits and understanding them on a whole new level, plus it was a challenge as some basslines certainly aren’t plain. It also really confirmed who I am as a musician and lit the fire under my butt to get my own project on the go.

And finally, what has music enabled you to do that may not have been possible otherwise?
It’s given me the confidence to stand up for myself, to use my voice, and to use my creativity. With so much to come to terms with last year in regards to race inequality and dealing with the unknown, music was a space in which I could feel safe and empowered. There were moments when I wondered if it was futile to keep going, but in times of crisis, art is how we connect and express ourselves. It was strange to release our debut single, ‘Grace Jones’, in the midst of so much turmoil, however, the response to the record affirmed that music is always needed, always important, and people want to dance, even if it’s just around the living room.

To everyone who has been a part of our journey so far, in any capacity, THANK YOU, it wouldn’t be possible without your support and it makes the world of difference knowing what we do resonates with people. And for anyone new to us, welcome, can’t wait to see you on the dance floor!

Thanks S.A.A.R.A for chatting with Listen to Discover 
Photography Credit: James Chegwyn

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