Shouting With... Eliza Shaddad

by Kyle McCormick
Kyle McCormick
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on 14 June 2016 in Features

On April 22nd 2016, a few hours ahead of her Glasgow show at The Hug & Pint, I had the pleasure of chatting to Eliza Shaddad about her life and music. (Yes, I know that was ages ago… but life and exams got in the way of this being published sooner.) Having reviewed both Shaddad’s first EP Waters and her recent EP Run, as well as writing a short Introducing piece back in the day for this very website, I feel I am very much somewhat a fan of and familiar with the music in question. After reading this interview Shaddad did with The 405 but in 2014, I have always wanted to have a chat with such a talented and amicable musician.

Therefore, whilst I was disappointed to learn I could not make the Glasgow show due to previous plans (to go see Hector Bizerk if you’d like to know), it did seem to present the perfect opportunity for that chat. So details were arranged and many phone calls missed, and finally we had a conversation about music and ice cream in the rather noisy upstairs of the venue. The resulting feature from that conversation is below, as well as streams of those glorious EPs, which you can and should click on and purchase from Beatnik Creative’s Bandcamp.

Starting at the very beginning, in a way that could be considered as intrusive as one of those horrid tabloids: Eliza Shaddad is the daughter of a Scottish woman and Sudanese man, and after moving around as a child she went to university in Birmingham before settling in London as a creative and lifestyle base. After some fruitless piano lessons at a young age, Shaddad received a classical guitar that was “really fucking hard to play” for her sixteenth birthday and promptly learnt some Radiohead riffs amongst others. A following lull in guitar playing was banished by awe of the skilful playing on show at folk festivals visited during The University Years, which led to learning a lot of finger picking technique and Bob Dylan. Fast forward to 2014 and Shaddad featured on both ‘Birch’ and the bonus track ‘UK Shanty’ on Clean Bandit’s debut album New Eyes in May 2014 before releasing her debut EP the following month.

That first EP, Waters, was quite reflective, and in hindsight “a little bit disassociated perhaps from what was going on”. The music featured on those four tracks ebbs, flows and mesmerises like the sea, with Shaddad’s charming vocals and subtle guitar playing providing its characteristic sound. By contrast the second EP, Run, is a considerable shift from the first due to a change of perspective on the songwriter’s part. As it was conceived “in the middle of lots of stuff” the sound is appropriately rawer, with rasping synth and climatic drumbeats incorporated to truly capture the essence of the turmoil of that point in time, resulting in an overall harsher body of work. Despite playing songs from this latest EP to European crowds who were apparently unaware of its existence, it has been received well by fans and critics alike despite the drastic change in tone.

Now that we’re more or less up to date with The Musical Life of Eliza Shaddad… what does the future hold? Following the completion of the recent tour of the UK and Europe, the plan is to enter the studio with the aim of recording a debut album. Having currently concocted more songs than is required for said album, the stylistic future of the record is uncertain, although it is bound to be “a big mixture” of sounds. The direction and feel of the most recent EP will likely spill over into the album, with exciting new directions (such as the use of major chords) also being represented, as Shaddad hopes the style changes from release to release in order to avoid becoming monotonous. Whilst not a great deal is set in stone at this stage, a debut album is certainly the next major career milestone. Talking on milestones more generally, Shaddad is a great believer in being ambitious within the music industry and treating milestones like stepping stones, surpassing one and working towards the next immediately. To that end, whilst no one defining moment would signal “making it” in this career for her, the lifelong career goal is to be able to live a financially comfortable life funding by writing and performing, and being able to live doing what you love is surely the greatest hope of all.

Whilst songwriting is very much occurring for that debut album, let’s discuss how that process tends to go down. Finishing off individual songs is not a difficulty for Shaddad, however starting a song is more of an arduous task. Requiring “quite a lot of time and space” to do so, as a multitude of ideas and influences are tapped into in order to create a song, which usually entails clearing a space in her diary and “just ignoring everyone for a few days.” From a technical point of view, considerable research is conducted before purchasing any new equipment, and then that new toy is viewed as a new sound to experiment with. However, despite this studying her knowledge is still limited to the point of frustration, as autonomy cannot yet be achieved in terms of an electronics or production point of view, which would open the door to an additional level of creative freedom. On guitars specifically, there is a tendency to not buy that desired Fender Stratocaster having intending to buy it a number of times, but having exited the shop with something else entirely, with the one guitar restriction also causing a bit of an inconvenience with songs in a variety of tunings. Despite all these invisible, underlying technical difficulties however, the music which reaches the listeners’ ears is completely devoid of any apparent turmoil in its beauty.

Backtracking temporarily ahead of a discussion of musical influences, the aforementioned experimenting with new equipment is particularly influential to Shaddad’s sound as she attempts to extract the best sounds from newly acquired technology. In terms of “conventional” influences though, folk musicians remain dominant after providing some early guitar-based inspiration and motivation, as is evident through the atmosphere and prosaic nature of her music. Whilst the guitar influences are less clean cut, John Frusciante is likely to prove a considerable influence on the debut record due to an amount of research listening to talented soloists. More generally, the content is drawn from relationships both romantic and familial, as well as music being listened to at the time both old and new. Unlike some of her more pretentious contemporaries, Shaddad’s music contains no intentional underlying messages and themes, for example with the Run EP it was only with the perspective of hindsight and distance that she herself realised that all the songs were about frustration. This unconscious and nuanced emotion which goes into the music is what adds to its sincerity and allows it to unfold after a number listen, even to the person who created it.

Extending that notion of being sincere and unpretentious, Shaddad is involved in a number of projects out with her musical career, the most notable of which is perhaps Girls Girls Girls, co-founded with friend Samantha Lindo. The project has been running for five years in support of the Orchid Project which works to end female genital cutting worldwide, and consists of a number of female-led, interdisciplinary arts events for the greater good. This initiative ties in with her strong opinions on equality more generally, and lack of understanding as to the nature of the gender divide in the music industry, and belief in the positive and inclusive action being taken by many people in order to combat it despite the difficulty which sometimes arises in pointing out obvious acts of sexism. To finish rather abruptly on a related, and also inspiring and invaluable, piece of advice which applies to various social issues in today’s society which relates to this ideal of positive action: “People should beware of fear moving them into action rather than rational reasons.”

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