Having only just finished a UK tour playing for Tom Speight supporting Turin Brakes, and jumping straight into a tour of her own work, Eliza Shaddad is simultaneously rehearsing with David Austin Grey’s forthcoming performance of ‘Wolves Are People Too’ at the Hippodrome and releasing her second ep ‘Run’. Alongside this she is preparing new songs for the much anticipated debut album, working once again with Chris Bond. Somehow, she has managed to find a window in her busy schedule to sit down with me in The Old Fox in Birmingham, and discuss how she manages to cram all of this in to 24 hours a day.
To rewind a little and explain how we got to this point, I first saw Eliza Shaddad play two weeks ago at The Glee Club, which incidentally is less than a minute’s walk from where we now sit. She was a member of Tom Speight’s band and they were supporting Turin Brakes’ new album promotional tour, which I was reviewing.
Although the gig was good, my lasting memory of it was Eliza’s performance. It is rare to find unbridled joy in a performer, but that is what naturally bursts out of her, and her enthusiasm is infectious. It was a pleasant surprise to then find that Eliza was an artist in her own right and that she has already written and released 3 eps (two officially and one self-released). To find that these EPs contain not only excellent songs written by Eliza, but that they are also intelligently arranged and beautifully produced, in what appears to be a fortunate matching of artist and producer, was like discovering a diamond mine out of nowhere.
On meeting Eliza, what strikes me most about this driven, enthusiastic and vibrant young woman is that she sees herself in the mould of a working musician first and foremost, which is why when she is not writing and producing her own songs, she is working for other musicians. It is both enlightening and refreshing to learn that not everyone thinks a talent contest is the quickest way into the entertainment business… it is all about putting in the hours and learning the trade and the craft.
How did you end up in Tom Speight’s band?
Tom had just moved down to London from Liverpool where he’d been studying and didn’t have the same musicians to work with anymore. His manager recommended me to Tom and we live quite close to each other, so it was quite easy in terms of rehearsals. We did some festivals last year and we get on so we carried on working together. Then he got this Turin Brakes tour and asked me and Tommy (who plays guitar) to join him for it. And it sounded like fun. I do a lot of different things with music; I’m an artist in my own right, but I’m also a musician. And I know they are not necessarily mutually exclusive but I studied jazz and have some insight into the world of session musicians, so I don’t distance myself from that because it’s really hard to earn a living as an artist. It is a really great way if you can do it.
Your eps have been released by Beatnik, how much influence do they have on what you are doing – is it a recording contract or are they acting solely as your distributor?
It’s combined management and label; a recording contract based on an ep by ep basis. It’s very artist friendly – they look after me very well. I’ve got a lot of scope to do what I want, which is great. I’ve got their support and it helps.
Your style has changed on every release, from jazz singer in the quintet, to the ‘very’ folk of your first ep, to a more poppy acoustic folk in ‘Waters’ and now an electric fuzzed up alternative folk-rock of ‘Run’. Have you yet to find your sound and are you still experimenting, or are you happy to not be pinned down to being a certain type of artist?
Well you know ‘Waters’ was electric. A lot of people don’t realise that, but it was all done on electric guitar. There might be doubling up on acoustics, but that is on ‘Run’ as well. But I played it very much like an acoustic guitar because I had just transitioned. With ‘Run’ I got some new pedals and a new amplifier and suddenly there was a whole new world of sound that had opened up. That’s one of the main things that has prompted the change in direction, the physical changes in the gear that I’m using; every time I try out a new piece of equipment I get inspired and I end up writing songs using that equipment and that forms the basis for a new sound. Also, changes like becoming more comfortable working with a band, which means you’re more willing to experiment and to go further, to push things dynamically and emotionally. Although Chris (Bond) plays on the ep, we had been playing the songs from ‘Run’ live as a band before I went into the studio, whereas with ‘Waters’ going into the studio was more or less the first time I had played those songs with somebody else. I had experimented once or twice but hadn’t settled with anyone so it made a big difference with Chris. Arrangements were pretty set on ‘Waters’ and ‘Run’ before recording and maybe occasionally we may have lengthened an intro, or added instrumental sections for other musicians to add to, and occasionally we’d double a chorus or something. But not much.
Chris Bond produced two of your eps. Is he in line to produce an album with you, and is an album in the pipeline?
Yes and yes! I’ve been working on the songs since we recorded ‘Run’ and I’m gonna take them into the studio soon. There was a long break between ‘Waters’ and ‘Run’ and I didn’t want that to happen again. There was a lot of time, frustration and not being prepared before, so this time I was quite conscious of being ready. And I am ready, I think.
Why was there a large gap between ‘Waters’ and ‘Run’?
First of all the response to ‘Waters’ took us a bit by surprise and it was one of the first releases that Beatnik had put out and it was my first release with anyone else’s involvement and that took a bit of figuring out. And then it was quite hard to align schedules as Chris was on tour a lot, so it was about finding the right time for both of us to be free. Essentially, if I’d had the right songs.. well.. this time I really wanted to be ready with enough material. And this time I am.
Did you choose not to produce yourself again (after January – March) or was working with Chris too good an opportunity to pass and how did you get together?
I started working with Beatnik and we were trying to find producer to work with and help develop the sound and direction I wanted, I couldn’t do it all on my own. I had admired Chris’s production, and I told a mutual friend of my manager’s and his, that I really liked his work and he said I’ll send him a song and Chris liked it. I really liked the work Chris did on Ben Howard’s stuff and I felt like I trusted him to help me get what I wanted out of the whole process. I’m really glad I trusted him to do that because it worked. I mean you’re involved in any one of the thousands of decisions that lead to the final result and still you can be like ‘What the hell is this?! How did we get here!’ I’ve been down that road and that’s why I am so pleased it’s working with Chris and I would like to carry on with him.
You are on tour at the moment promoting your own music and the current release ‘Run’ and more importantly you’re coming to Birmingham, to the Sunflower Lounge on April 3. Do you perform solely with your electric now, or do you also use your acoustic guitar to perform the tracks from ‘January-March’ or ‘Waters’ for instance?
It’s all electric.
Do you turn the fuzz off and on?
No, to be honest, no, it’s just on.. all the time! Fuzz and chorus. With ‘Alright Again’ I was thinking how it was sounding all right and using a lot of chorus on it, and it really fits in with the more modern songs. Just by virtue of that sound. Prepare yourself!
I love the way you do not follow the conventions of producing your songs, particularly the way tracks begin very quietly and build up, when pop songs generally start with the hook and groove immediately. Is this a conscious decision to do it this way?
A lot of the time it’s just that I like long introductions to set the scene for the story I’m about to tell. But in the studio Chris is also a fan of the long introduction, so between us it just gets stretched out and stretched out! And because we were, especially with ‘Waters’, our first aim was really to set an atmosphere, that’s really crucial for it – but I’ve never thought about it as hook-filled pop so it never occurred to me. On the new album (to be) there are songs where there might be a guitar riff that comes in at the beginning and then comes in on the chorus, so I guess it’ll happen occasionally. Maybe I’ll use it now, maybe you’ve given me an idea! I think it’s just lack of knowledge about songwriting! It probably would have happened if I’d have realised!
I have to say that ‘Brackets’ from ‘January-March’ is one of the best break up songs I have ever heard – is there a chance that it will ever be re-imagined and end up on the album, or is that a part of your past (now 4 years ago)?
We’ve got no plans to. My hope for the album is that it will be all new material. But we have played ‘A Good Man’ live quite recently (another track from ‘January-March’) and ‘From the Boat’. We might one day. It’s all possible.. never say never. But I’m not planning to re-record it yet… sorry!
I hear elements of my favourite songwriters in your music: Aimee Mann, Feist, Ani DeFranco, Norah Jones, Carla Morrison, Martina Topley Bird. Who are your influences?
My influences are quite across the board actually. Of those Ani DeFranco is the only one I’m really that familiar with. I grew up listening to a lot of strong female singer-songwriters, like Tori Amos, Jewel, Tracy Chapman and bands like Hole, and Skunk Anansie. A lot of quite direct, honest and pithy songwriters. It was only really at Uni that I discovered Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, so the folk influences come in really strongly, but kind of post-16 years old I think. Before that it was pop.. country.. rock.. I guess!
Some writers write a love song and others write around a love song (Paul Simon’s “Song About the Moon” is a song about just that), do you have clear intentions when you start composing or do you see where the mood takes you?
It’s more of a feeling. Often, either the music will set the scene, or a riff, or I’ll come up with a lyric that will lead down a path of something else. But sometimes I’m trying to write it about one thing and it turns out being about something else. ‘Waters’ for instance, I wrote it and about three months later I realised what it was about! When I wrote it, I actually woke up from a dream, and wrote it quite quickly, which is amazing and explains why later I was like ‘Ah I realise now what that was all about!’
You mentioned in an earlier interview that you don’t believe in free will, as if we all have paths set out for us and we just blindly follow them. Can you seriously come to this conclusion after studying philosophy at Birmingham University?
I believe that our paths are set, ultimately, but I don’t think we blindly follow them in an experiential sense. I think deep down from the beginning of time there have been actions and reactions and cause and effect, and every action that I make now can be traced back causally to a certain set of causes and if it can be traced back then what I’m doing now is a result of all of these things that have led up to this moment and if those things have led up to this moment then how could I possibly do any different? I still feel I’m choosing my experience of life, ha and I hate choosing things! It’s the most painful process ever. In a phenomenological sense we have freewill – we have too much freewill – I wish I had less choice generally about things sometimes. But ultimately, deep down, it’s meaningless to think that I’m not influenced in a totally prescribed way by the entire universe that has preceded me.
If you don’t mind talking politics, have you been affected by the ongoing conflict and strict regime in Sudan, as I understand your father was born there?
My family are based in North Sudan. My dad is quite closely involved with the political side of things, he works for human rights groups and as an intermediary between bodies like the EU and the Sudanese people. He works at the university as well and a lot of my uncles are lecturers. There’s been a lot of unrest at the university, particularly recently and it’s a part of daily life for a lot of people. We’ve been over a couple of times, visiting, when bombs have started going off and cars have been burnt. It’s a constant worry for a lot of people, especially leading up to the separation of North and South Sudan. But compared to most of the people there it doesn’t affect my daily life because I’m based here. I’ve not actually been to South Sudan but I would like to discover more about the two countries.
Do you feel that some news is under represented on mainstream media, when genocide in certain countries goes unreported and in Europe an attack is headline news? Do these inequalities bother you?
I wouldn’t say there’s too much focus on any one thing but I would suggest that it might be more evenly spread. In part because bombs going off Muslim nations is important for people of non-Muslim nations to hear about and to understand that the problem with fanaticism is widespread. It’s not just aimed at western communities. I think that would help – a more even commentary would help unite people who are suffering from the same problem.
Does the situation influence your songwriting?
You know, I talk to my dad about it and he says ‘When are you gonna write about important things?’ And I do agree with him in some ways – one of the reasons I love Dylan so much is because of his incredible lyrics on things like ‘Masters of War’, they’re just so powerful and powerful in a way that is bigger than just one person’s feelings about another person. So I strive to but I really find that music comes out of me when I think about people, like one on one. I don’t know many musicians currently who are that political except spoken word artists, and I do think if would be a great thing.
Only a handful of artists want to mix pop and politics now, despite the problems facing the UK and the world seemingly worse than ever?
There’s a connection between spoken word and rap where there’s a clear, recent tradition of political commentary but folk musicians.. no. I don’t know whether people are just more concerned with social commentary. I was hesitant to use the word ‘Wars’ for the title of that song because clearly war is a terrible thing and it’s not something to be taken lightly. I’m conscious of the facts.. but not conscious in that way.
If, on the back of a successful ep release and promotional tour, a bigger record company whisked you away, would you sacrifice artistic freedom for a larger promotional and marketing budget with a guaranteed result of international success, but be told what to sing and what to wear and what to do?
It depends on the kind of career you want – if you want a career as an artist saying what you want to say then no. I would hope that you could sign to a larger label and not give up that much, especially if the music is already written and recorded, especially if you’ve already got an image you’re already comfortable with, which is recognised. But I can also imagine that you’d go into it with an idea that it’ll be fine, and slowly but surely the changes would creep in. I’m not ruling anything out but I definitely have a strong sense of the album I want to make and the career that I would like and the way in which I will achieve that, and I wouldn’t sign anything that wasn’t in line with all of that. No way! So hopefully something will fall into my lap that is perfect!
You are currently rehearsing for the ‘Wolves Are People Too’ performance, coming to the Birmingham Hippodrome in April. What is your involvement in that piece?
I went to University with the composer David Austin Grey and he has a jazz group Hansu-Tori that plays his music. We recorded an album two years ago and he wrote lyrics for the first time and asked me if I would sing them. I think he wrote them with me in mind to sing them. And they were beautiful and it was an honour. We recorded in Liverpool and it was a wonderful experience and he has put together this project – he’s written all this new music and he wanted to create this multi-disciplinary project which involves ballet and live illustration. So we’re working with a choreographer called Kit Holder and an illustrator called Nick Robertson. We’re just in rehearsals now. The dancers and the music are incredible and it should be an amazing show. About three quarters of the songs have lyrics, it’s kind of cinematic jazz based on this anime film called ‘Wolf Children’ and it’s really cool. It’s fun to do something different. I went to the Guildhall in London so have some post-grad jazz knowledge. But mainly it’s just beautiful songs, dancers, visuals and great musicians. Yeah it’s wonderful.
How do you manage to fit in so much in just 24 hours a day. Do you never sleep?
Do you know what, I had my first lie in in ages this morning! It’s the only reason I’m still awake here with you and making some sense now! It’s difficult! Honestly, it is difficult because alongside all of this there’s so much work to do around the ep release: press things, figuring out merchandise for the tour.. I get a lot of help from Beatnik and management but ultimately I’m quite hands on with my career, so I want to look over everything, I want to be in a lot of the discussions that people are having about the music, about the album, about all the things that are coming up. It’s complicated! And not all that easy to make work, but I’m just doing what I can.
And to finish, a bit of a muso question sorry, but as a guitar player myself I couldn’t work out what guitar you are using. What electric guitar will you be taking on tour?
It’s a Gordon Smith. It isn’t mine, it’s on a fairly open ended loan. It’s a really big part of my sound. You’ll hear it live, more so than on the recordings. Live it’s got a real character – like a really thick, bassy tone to it that I just love. I changed the bridge a while ago to help with intonation but the rest is original. I haven’t seen anyone else playing one actually. I always thought it would be nice to go to the Gordon Smith factory and try out some more because I really get on with this one. I’ve only got the one electric to tour with and I would like to get another guitar one day and I guess I might go for a Fender Strat or something, because they’re cool as well. But I am really pleased with this guitar and it deals really well with all the different tunings of all the different songs.. not always! Occasionally we’ll play a whole a song and by the end, it’s like ah what tuning are you in now! It would be good to have another one to take some of the brunt of it. But yeah, big up Gordon Smith.
What amp and effects are you using?
A Fender Blues Junior and at the minute I have three pedals and a vocal pedal as well. I have a Line 6 DL4, a Boss DS1 and an Electro Harmonix Small Clone. It’s a simple set up and even though it’s just the three of us, we make a hell of a lot of noise! Between the three of us in the band we try and cover all of the frequencies and I think we manage it sometimes! It’s loud and will hopefully blast around the Sunflower Lounge in a big way. Hopefully you’ll enjoy the show.
Eliza Shaddad is returning to Birmingham with her band to play the Sunflower Lounge on 3 April, and I am looking forward to seeing how the delicate layers captured on record translate into a live performance; particularly with the promise of distorted guitars and a thumping rhythm section.
Her second ep “Run” was released on 18 March, preceded by “Waters” and “January-March” (available only on bandcamp) from 2012. I highly recommend all of her work just to see the impressive progression of songs, sound and production. The last track on ‘Run’ is ‘Make It Go Away’ and even this hints of greater things to come. There are moments where you can imagine Portishead would be comfortable producing this type of sound now: Eliza’s vocal also has a similar quality to Beth Gibbons as it is beautifully human, honest and seemingly always on the verge of being overtaken by the emotion of the song – it is however, always in control, make no mistake. Maybe Eliza Shaddad is on the crest of a wave of a new wave of trip-hop for the 21st Century. If that means Tricky features her on his next album I will be first in the queue when that album goes on sale.
It’s not often that you meet a genuinely talented and humble artist, especially one that works so hard to make their career work. Added to this is the obvious love of what she does, whether she is singing her own songs or being part of a totally different band, she is visibly bubbling with enthusiasm. I can’t wait to hear the album when it is made and will enjoy seeing the trajectory of this shining star of the not to distant future. I guarantee that if you see Eliza Shaddad play live, you like me, will be transfixed and hooked. So make sure you see her on tour now – visit www.elizashaddad.com to find a date near you as she will be in the UK from the end of March to June and then on to Europe… next year, the stars.
Interview: Alan Neilson