Music Interview 1
Paul Calvert: Since the 2003 release of the Iambic Dream Project’s “Identity Crisis: Aliens, Beduins, and Leos” album, you have gone on to win numerous songwriting awards, including a Gold Disc Award for Best International Production. When did you realise that songwriting was something you were interested in?
Waël Kabbani: I realized songwriting was something I was interested in when, as a teenager, I accidentally discovered I was writing in rhyme without trying to, and when it became clear to me that writing my feelings and thoughts down made me feel good.
PC: I know how important keeping a dream diary was to releasing your 1st record but recently I see you’ve been writing a lot from a political perspective. What themes or stories are you looking to tell in song on the new album? And what will it be called?
WK: The next album will be called “Phoenix from the Ash”. Most of the songs will still be about relationships of one sort or another. There are a few songs that may be perceived as “political” but I don’t view them that way at all. I see them as personal observations. It’s hard for some people not to label you as “political” when you have an opinion about a country’s foreign policy and another country that’s been committing human rights violations since its inception. On that note, one song is titled “Who’s Driving This Suicide Car?” and it’s written from a young American Soldier’s perspective about the war his country has inflicted on Iraq and the lies & greed of the Bush administration. Another song is titled “Israel’s Got A Berlin Wall”.
PC: When I first met you, one of the first compositions I heard was your “Very Rough Demo”, as you call it, of the song “Please Don’t Let Me Go”. I enjoyed the emotional delivery of the vocal and the simplicity of the lyric. Will this feature on the new record? If so, I certainly will be excited to hear it.
WK: Thanks. I really like its rawness, too. It’s a very rough demo, because it was written on the spot in two minutes and nine seconds back in 2001. None of the music, lyrics, or vocal delivery were thought out or planned in advance. I just started playing the piano and sang whatever came out. I’m glad I had my little tape recorder on hand to capture the moment. The rough demo will first appear on my new web site (which will be launched later this year), and, later, it or a newer version of the song will be featured on the album “Phoenix from the Ash” (which is anticipated for a 2011/2012 release).
PC: The Iambic Dream Project has very much been a collaborative effort between you and your good friend Raz Kennedy. How did you come to meet and work together?
WK: We met through my friend Shana Morrison. Raz started out as my vocal coach and became a good friend & songwriting partner. The first time we collaborated on one of my songs it just felt very natural and organic. All our tunes for the first record were pretty much written that way. Fortunately, they came together quite quickly & smoothly.
PC: The first album’s sound really reaches towards all genres like that of funk, jazz, classic rock and acoustic material. “Flying Solo” which always makes me smile sounds like a swinging 50’s number inspired by Dean Martin, while the funkiness of “Insomniacs Dream (I.D.)” has a groove that even Maceo Parker would be proud of! How did you manage it and was it ever an intention to have so many styles on the record?
WK: I just Googled Maceo Parker whom I’d never heard of before, and listened to some of his great music. Thanks for the introduction, Paul. I can’t say that I’ve knowingly heard any of Dean Martin’s stuff, but I’ve always found swinging Jazz a lot of fun, and, for me, “Flying Solo” naturally lent itself to a mixture of Big Band Jazz & Swing with a rocking beat. It was always my intention to produce a record with a variety of musical genres, and Raz was very instrumental in helping me create a team of musicians, singers, and engineers who made this very eclectic album a reality.
PC: I was certainly impressed by how well the “Hero Worship” music video is coming along after seeing many of its 3D Animation scenes recently at a Pre-Pre-viewing party. Your characters look visually striking in their identities, but how long has this process of creating them and also putting together a music video taken you? I’d imagine there is much research needed and copyright issues too?
WK: I began this project about 5 years ago. I wrote the script & made 1 minute sketches of the ten main superheroes/characters, (called The Utopians’ Alliance), using a computer, because I can’t draw to save my life. After that, I did a lot of thinking and research about the characters, their outfits, background stories, etc. I then began working with my friend Michel Cavro who’s an amazing animator. We’re both very passionate about the characters and the story of the kid, (based on Wael’s childhood), who creates them from his vivid imagination. Like many of my projects, this was definitely a community effort that involved very talented animators, actors, dancers, filmmakers, and a lot of preparation. Many people that know me well know that I can often be a perfectionist, but that’s not the only reason it’s taken a very long time to finish the “Hero Worship” music video. For the most part, Michel and I have done the bulk of the work ourselves. Because he really believes in the project and knows I have a non-existent budget, he has been willing to do incredible work on it for hardly any money. We’re doing something that has the quality of a Disney or Pixar production without the army of animators and millions of dollars’ budget, so patience comes in very handy in these types of situations. I’ve applied for trademarks to protect my characters’ names and images. Securing a trademark can be a very lengthy but necessary process. It’s important, especially since I’m hoping to spin the characters off into comic books, cartoons, action figures, video games, etc., after their initial introduction via the music video.
PC: The cover of a record can be important in the way it reflects the artist’s vision for an album. The artwork in your CD Booklet has a definite resonance with the themes and stories throughout the record. How did you go about picking such photographs for the album sleeve, and was there anything particular you were looking for?
WK: Being very visual, I met with my friend photographer Susan Casentini after I’d decided which songs were definitely going to be featured on the first album. I went through many of her photographs and selected seven images that I felt reflected an aspect or several aspects of some of the song lyrics. My dear friend Michaela Bohem-Wung was kind enough to let me use a picture she had taken in Nepal for the song “The Trails of Nepal (Trail 1)”, and finally, my graphic designer Alicia Buelow, with some guidance from me, created the other background images, as well as the album cover. I wanted a very colourful yet faded look for all the images and Alicia did a great job bringing my vision to life.
PC: What sort of photographs can we expect to see for the new album or have you looked into that aspect yet?
WK: I decided, a long time ago, to use only black & white photographs for the new album, especially since I’d done the faded but very colourful look for the first CD. I’ve already picked a few amazing photos by an Iranian friend of mine called Spanda Moradmand. She’s a really talented photographer.
PC: I know you’ve mentioned a few times how writing lyrics (or poems as some might call them) can be very therapeutic. What do you read, watch or listen to that helps inspire the notion?
WK: Yes, writing in general, not just songs or poems, is very therapeutic for me personally, as well as being a great tool for self-discovery. I often think of songwriting as free therapy. I don’t read as much as I used to, but I’ve always related to literature about minority groups, the underdog, human rights, and about overcoming personal and social struggles. This applies to a lot of the films and music I enjoy watching and listening to. I listen to a lot of relatively unknown singer/songwriters as well as mainstream music in most genres. More importantly, I get most of my inspiration from life & human relationships; my life, and the lives & stories of friends, family, and people I know. All those stories inspire me much more than books, films, and other people’s music.
PC: The great Van Morrison seems to be quite a favourite among artists in your record collection. What is it about him that you love, and is there a particular record that has inspired you from his discography or one you would recommend readers of this interview to listen to?
WK: Yeah, Van the Man is amazing! I love a lot of his songwriting and the genuine rawness he brings to the table. His songwriting aside, I think he’s sometimes very underrated as a vocalist. It’s very hard to just pick one of his albums, but “No Guru, No Method, No Teacher” is a favourite of mine. I also encourage new comers to check out his “The Best of Van Morrison” & “The Best of Van Morrison Volume Two” to get a little taste of his brilliance.
PC: In songs such as “Blue” and “I Could Be Free” you often use similes to convey the message in song. What’s one of your favourite lyrics you’ve written that includes a simile? I know that there are quite a few similes used in one of the new songs you’ve written, which on first listen sounds like it could be one of the pop songs from the new album. What’s the song called and how did you write that one?
WK: “You’re as real as a plastic plant” is one of my favourite similes from the new song “Use Me Up”. It’s one of those songs that sort of wrote itself. I didn’t have to do much. The words just came out of me.
PC: Did you study music when you were younger or are you studying music now for that matter? If not, is it something you have any plans of doing in the foreseeable future?
WK: I tried taking guitar and piano lessons when I was in my twenties and thirties, but it was hopeless. I couldn’t deal with the confining structures expected of me. To this day, I don’t have the patience or desire to follow a book. I love improvising on the piano. Some of my friends swear that I can play, but I really make things up as I go along. I can never replay a song I’ve just come up with, so now that I’m forty, I’m thinking it’s time to take some piano lessons again, but this time I’ll do it on my own terms. Meaning, I’ll mainly focus on playing my own songs, do more to encourage my improvisational skills, and learn different ways to arrange my own music.
PC: When writing on the piano are you very precise on structure and rhythm, or do you tend to see where the music takes you by letting things flow?
WK: Again, you could say I subscribe to the Organic School of Songwriting. I like beginning from a very raw and naked place. For me, music is more about expressing genuine feelings and emotions and about telling a story. It’s not about precise notes & structure. When writing songs for the first album, I barely touched a piano. I focused on my lyrics and created very raw melodies that I sang a cappella/without music into a tape recorder. Raz & I then worked off those very rough demos to finish the music together.
PC: Thus far, “The Iambic Dream Project” has been released independently through your label (Iambic Dream Records). Though other than releasing your own music, do you see the possibility of releasing other artists’ music in the future? I guess, in a round about way, I’m asking you if you see yourself as an A&R man?
WK: One of my dreams has always been for Iambic Dream Records to release not only my albums but those of other artists I believe in as well. Unfortunately, this aspect of releasing other people’s projects has had to go on the backburner for now, because I’m barely able to fund the music video, my next album, and the superheroes I’ve created. I don’t really see myself as an A&R man, but more like someone who believes in creating and supporting a community of creative people.
PC: Now that you’ve released your first album “Identity Crisis: Aliens, Beduins, and Leos” and got much feedback, is there anything you would have done differently on the record? On this next record are you aiming to create something quite different?
WK: I honestly wouldn’t change anything. I wanted a very eclectic album, spanning an incredible variety of musical genres, and that’s exactly what I got. I was very lucky to work with so many talented singers and musicians, many of whom will be featured on the second album. The new record will have some variety but it won’t be as extreme as the first one. It’s going to be more cohesive musically. I’ve already demonstrated I can collaborate in many different genres of music, so I don’t need to do it again on my second album.
PC: Are there assets you’ve learned that you’ll be applying in the studio when recording the next album?
WK: Eight years ago, I learnt that, vocally, I wasn’t always where I wanted to be. At the time, it was very frustrating, but I kept reminding myself that I was working with people who had been singing for twenty, thirty, or forty years. Up to that point, I’d only taken almost two years’ worth of weekly vocal lessons, so I did the best that I could with the little experience that I had. I knew I wanted to be a songwriter but I wasn’t convinced that I wanted to be a singer. Singing was something I had to do when more technically savvy singers struggled to deliver one of my songs emotionally. I even took a four-year hiatus from singing after the album came out, but started training again in the beginning of 2008. I’m enjoying the vocal training process a lot more now and feel I’ve got more confidence to experiment with my three octave range on the new album. You may even hear me doing some of my own back up vocals on a song or two. So, I guess I’ve learnt that I want to be & will hopefully be more prepared vocally for the second album. That’s the main thing I’ll be applying. I know this extra preparation will help me a lot.
PC: What song or songs, if any, took longer than expected, or was there one or a few you found yourself going back to and making frequent changes to?
WK: “Hero Worship” & “The Boys of the Blvd.” were two of the songs that went through quite a few versions, musically. The vocals for a couple of the songs, including “The Boys of the Blvd.” & “Angelina”, had to be recorded again. The singer who first sang “The Boys of the Blvd.”, although extremely talented, was not able to capture the vibe Raz & I were after, so Raz suggested I sing that one. It’s an example of how a better singer is not always the best vocalist for the vibe of a particular song. On the other hand, “Angelina”, (about the death of Wael’s friend in a car accident), was very difficult for me to sing in the studio at the time, because the material was too close to home and because that song needed a more experienced vocalist. Brett Abramson did a beautiful job.
PC: I know the website is almost ready and, after seeing snippets of it, I’m sure you’re excited about it. How much time have you had to put into the website and what features will be available for those accessing it?
WK: I’ve been dreaming of an interactive Web Site for many years, but it’s only been possible to work on it for the past year or so. One part of the Web Site will deal with music and The Iambic Dream Project and the other part will deal with The Utopians’ Alliance/My Superheroes. Visitors will be able to access some free music, watch the music video, interact with the superheroes and change the colours of their outfits, follow 3D Comic Strips, etc.
PC: Where can we find the CD if we want to purchase it, and where can we read reviews of the album?
WK: You can buy a hard/physical copy directly from me by e-mailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org or from CD Baby by going to http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/iambicdream where you can also read some great reviews. For one of my favourite reviews, you can go to: http://www.threemonkeysonline.com/identity-crisis-identity-crisis-aliens-beduins-and-leos-iambic-dream-project/ You can also buy on-line versions of the album and the individual songs by going to iTunes or 70 other online websites. Enter “The Iambic Dream Project” for the artist & “Identity Crisis: Aliens, Beduins, and Leos” for the title of the album.
PC: Finally, what attributes would you say a songwriter needs? Or for people wanting to try their hand at writing, what must they do that’s important?
WK: I think good songwriting requires genuine passion, patience, persistence, the ability to tell a story, some luck, and openness. I’ve been fortunate to guide some fledgling songwriters with their songwriting, especially when it comes to lyrics and melody ideas. I always emphasize the importance of writing freely and continuously whenever they have any ideas at all. I call this “Free Versing” and it involves putting all your ideas, feelings, and thoughts down on paper or into a recording device. It is crucial to do this without letting your Internal Critic or Editor interfere with the free flowing creativity. The Internal Critic or Editor comes in much later in my songwriting process. I feel very lucky that rhymes come out of me naturally, but I’ve noticed that it’s not a natural thing for everyone I work with, so I encourage those songwriters to study their favourite songs and ask themselves why they like those songs. Also, I urge them to experiment with different rhyme schemes, imagery, the use of similes, metaphors, and improvising on an instrument like the piano or the guitar, or experimenting vocally, etc. Any or all of these tools can be applied when writing a song, as long as they don’t compromise the story the songwriter is trying to tell.