Iranian-born, Netherlands-raised musician and artist Sevdaliza has lived many lives in her 29 years; political refugee, professional basketball player, master's candidate, self-taught singer, and producer to name a few. With a biography as rich and varied as that, it comes as no surprise that the themes of transformation and identity are so central to her work. Sevdaliza's atmospheric songs are hot houses of lush orchestration, glitchy subterranean trip hop beats, and pared-down RnB melodies with ambiguous lyrics that balance startlingly vulnerable disclosures with poetic, sphinx-like inscrutability. Alongside Dutch producer Mucky, her longtime collaborator, she crafts hypnotic, emotional meditations on pain, loss, and personal power that coil and uncoil like snakes, leaving heavy questions in the air about the roles we play for society, our loved ones and ourselves. Her first full-length album, ISON, was surprise-released last week on her own record label, Twisted Elegance alongside a stunning visual accompaniment from digital artist Sarah Sitkin. We called Sevdaliza up at her Rotterdam apartment to chat about the five-year creative process behind ISON, the importance of independence, and the paradoxical power of extreme vulnerability.
You tweeted that the first song on ISON was recorded four years ago, and the last song was recorded four weeks ago. Can you tell me a little bit about the journey of putting this album together and how you wrote it?
Making this album was probably the most transformative experience of my life. I think it has hypnotized me from the moment I started making music. Each aspect to [ISON] has its own frame and its own weight, and it reflects a lot of processes that I've been going through. Basically this album is really a time capsule of the last five years of my life... It's been a ride!
ISON is a deep dive into some very personal issues and reckonings – heartbreak, vulnerability, gaps between what you need and what you get, assuming roles that don't necessarily match your image of yourself, authenticity... What are some of the things that were influencing you when you wrote this?
Suspense, magic, philosophy, politics... I'm a writer, so when it comes to music I was definitely drawn to nonfiction, but really to the magic in nonfiction. Emotions aren't the only limbo I want to write about, so I really try to dive even deeper than the obvious [theme of] heartbreak. You know, going deeper into philosophy about life, about the universe, about ageism, about everything, basically.
Yeah, it does kind of feel like an album about everything! You said that essentially five years of your life went into this album, how does it feel to put something that intimate out into the world, and perform it in front of people?
I think we live in a time where people in the [public eye] are supposed to always be this certain thing, and what I really want to do with my work is to just express what I feel. I think that that is my only responsibility, to make something that is truthful to me. I think when I finished the album, it was like something very very heavy just lifted off my back. It was like, now it's done, so it's not mine anymore. It's out.
Are you excited to go on tour?
Yes! For sure. I've been preparing for this for years now, it's something that I truly worked towards. I want it to be as personal as possible because I think that it's truly a privilege to experience that vulnerability, especially in this current state of the world. Going on tour is meeting the people that reach out to you on a daily basis... I'm really really surprised and humbled at the people that read and listen to my work, and look at my work so carefully and thoughtfully. It seems so genuine, so I appreciate that very much.
Do you have a favorite track on the album right now?
I definitely can't pick one, because for me they're all like paintings – I find something in each one. It's really a balance between being an extreme perfectionist and loving to put myself in uncomfortable situations because it generates something.
You get compared to Portishead, Björk and fka Twigs quite often, which probably has as much to do with your auteur quality as much as actual similarities in your music. I'm curious what your musical influences are and how you would describe your sound?
I think my sound would mostly be described as pure and raw. I'm not necessarily drawn to a genre, but to a process, or towards a certain mood like melancholy. The interesting thing is that the music my music gets compared to is not necessarily music I've listened to, which makes it super interesting. I was performing once, and a conservatory professor came to me after the show, saying that he could really hear that I draw inspiration from old Persian singers. I asked him, "Wow, that's really interesting. How do you hear that?," and he said because I use certain semitones and microtones when I sing. But I've never had a singing lesson in my life, and I've never listened to Persian music in my life! It's really interesting to me that some things just come to you unconsciously like that. It's like you have this brain and it's unconsciously and consciously registering everything and in combination with your DNA it just becomes... something.
You've been described as an autodidact, teaching yourself to sing and produce, and at least on the musical end of your practice, you primarily work alone or with your collaborator Mucky. You even release your music on your own record label! How important is that independence and autonomy to you as an artist?
It's very important to really learn self-reliance, and that is what I've basically done. I started to make music at a later stage of my life, and because of that I've been able to have a bit more confidence about my own personal process. I was never seduced into following a certain type of creating or way of doing things because I was always a bit stubborn. I was even a bit pretentious, which I don't think is necessarily negative, about what I could learn if I could learn it by myself. I would sit and watch people do what they do, and I think, OK, I love this process and I think in my own process I would incorporate that part. I'm just a stubborn learner, I like to learn by myself. I have an enormous respect for technical abilities, but for myself I first wanted to know what I want to feel, and how do I form that feeling into something, prior to figuring out how to technically execute it. For me that comes later, and now it's a married process.
You've lived many lives before becoming a professional musician – you were a professional athlete, and at one point you were pursuing a Masters degree in communication – I'm wondering how you came around to songwriting? Was that something that was always there?
I think that the only real consistent strings in my life were some sort of physical exhaustion, like sports, writing and music. I think I've always been a storyteller and I romanticize, so I think at some point these elements just came together. I'm a late bloomer for sure, but I've always had a way with words, so I think that it made sense for me to dive into that. Music has been such a big part of my life, It's the only thing I can really obsess about.
When did you write your first song?
When I was like seven, I think.
So this has always been a way that you have expressed yourself?
Yeah, I mean I didn't sing a note until I was 23 or something, but writing lyrics is something that I've done all my life. I didn't connect those two – ok, so you write a lyric so that means you have to perform it – I never thought about that. I just wrote.
Your music videos are incredible, and they tend to provoke new perspectives on the meaning of your songs, which can be quite open-ended. How do you approach the visual components of your work?
I'm trying to make it vulnerable and more than human at the same time. That image is all in a basket [with the music] for me. I think my canvas in both visual and musical, and it tends to devoid light. I need to start without light to find it. I love to create images that become like, hypnotic, so each frame has its own weight. But at the same time [my imagery] can also be very minimal because I don't necessarily like to exhaust possibilities [of meaning], and I also like to contradict. I definitely like to work myself into an uncomfortable situation and see what happens, or have really minimal attributes but try to make something extremely grandiose with it.
It's very interesting, because as you've said, a defining quality to your music is its radical vulnerability, which is often associated with weakness. At the same time, your imagery has this sort of divine feminine, strong, goddess energy to it that conjoins the vulnerability and exposure of your music with strength.
Yeah! If a woman has power then why do we need to disguise that she has power? I love to show my skin, not for the male gaze, but for myself. It's a living breathing organ, and I think using myself as a projection can be very vulnerable but very strong at the same time, and I love to play with that a lot.
I'm thinking specifically about one of your latest videos for "Human," where you're a kind of centaur woman dancing on a dirt track in a villa for a group of leering old men in tuxedos. Can you talk a little bit about that video?
I think "Human" was definitely playing with the fetishization of the female body, but adding an element to that that makes you cringe. That cringe element is not specifically something that's been thought about, it just happens in the moment. That energy becomes different when you're performing in that suit... It was definitely making a comment on the male gaze. I like to confront my pain and my process of accepting my body by using it as a consistent subject, as a mirror in visual expression. It's like torture and therapy at the same time.
There's a strong thread running through your work that considers the way our roles and identities, particularly as women, are constructed and imposed on us from within and without, and how we slip in and out of them. I'm thinking specifically of Amandine Insensible, Marilyn Monroe, Hero, even going back to The Valley. Your social media bios once read 'I am what you want me to be.' Could you talk a bit about the significance of identity to you and in your art?
I love to question and play with preconceptions. How you look and how you dress, where does that have its roots? For instance, in some positions you can't have attributes or things that reflect your identity or that could interfere with your neutral position. I love to play with that, and think about the things that women in society cant do because they're women. We're conditioned with gender roles from the moment we're born, and as a result we don't give people space to reach their full potential, especially women. I definitely love to play with that in the things that I do. For instance, like I said earlier, I don't think female sexuality needs to be clothed in respectability. Women are kind of policed about the way they are, so if they're powerful it becomes a question of, "Is she humble, does she smile, is she grateful enough, does she have a domestic side?' I think we judge women way more harshly than men. Even though it's not necessarily conscious, I love to play with that.
What is the significance of the album title, ISON?
ISON is a star-grazing comet. I didn't know that until I googled it, because I thought of it during a night where I was awake in my bed, where a lot of ideas come to me. The album title just came to me and I googled it the next morning, and I found that meaning. I felt like it made sense [for the music] and I think you have to follow that gut feeling and not question it too much.
Splash image by Zahra Reijs