Music has probably never been as much of a grab bag of assorted acts and genres than it was in 2012. The Grammys last Sunday showed exactly how even the old guard (and the Grammys, in many ways, are an old guard) is scrambling to address all the different genres, going so far as to invent a “Best Urban Contemporary Album” just so Frank Ocean could win something without disturbing the categories with more traditional acts, Fun. and Mumford and Sons. We live in a world right now where indie-folk is not only a popular genre, but a commercially viable genre, and traditionally hip-hop artists like Big Boi and Macklemore and Ryan Lewis are exploring interesting–even new–sonic territory.
So it should be no surprise that a new artist also charting unexpected and unfamiliar waters comes from the singer-songwriter genre. San Francisco’s Doe Eye has been making waves on the West Coast, having recently made a huge impression at the 2012 Billboard Magazine showcase. Her EP Hotel Fire is full of lush, gorgeous instrumentation and a vocal style that is equally capable of intimate vulnerability and stadium-ready transcendence. The sound is also soundtrack-ready, bringing to mind an orchestral Radiohead fronted by Nina Simone. It’s a great reminder that not all “indie” is–or has to be–indie-folk.
Doe Eye (real name Maryam Qudus) recently spoke to Anatole of Indie Band Guru about playing the Billboard showcase, recording with the Magik Magik orchestra, and her upcoming full-length album. Here is the interview.
Hi, Maryam! Thanks so much for talking to us! Let’s get right down to the questions.
Indie Band Guru: We’re a month into 2013. Is it too early to tell how 2013 will compare with 2012 for you?
Doe Eye: I don’t think it’s too early at all! 2012 was an incredible year – my music was #8 on Hype Machine for a week, had a full page spread in Billboard Magazine and featured on Alternative Press. I put out a new EP, opened up for ZZ Ward, The Limousines and Pop Etc. 2013 is already looking great because I am working on my debut LP, playing Noise Pop 2013, I will be touring more and playing more festivals. I have some really great things stirring up for this year and really excited to share it soon!
Indie Band Guru: What was your favorite tour/performance of 2012?
Doe Eye: One of my favorite shows was in Huntington Beach. We were on the way to Las Vegas for the Billboard Battle of the Bands. We played a show at Morgan Amps in Huntington Beach and made it costume themed (it was May). Everyone at the show was dressed up like it was Halloween.
Indie Band Guru: I’m really sorry to have missed you at Ella Lounge. How often do you play NYC? Has it been a challenge playing here as opposed to the west coast?
Doe Eye: I have only played in NYC once. I was living in Boston for a year, so it wasn’t too hard to play a show in NYC. I am hoping to visit again soon!
Indie Band Guru: How was it playing the Billboard showcase?
Doe Eye: It was a really great experience and great exposure. Best part was I didn’t even know I was going to have a full page spread in the magazine. One of my friends texted me while I was in a cab towards the airport telling me I am in Billboard magazine. Started screaming in the car and scared the driver a little bit, it was awesome.
IBG: Where are you from originally?
Doe Eye: Union City, CA – a small town in the San Francisco Bay Area
IBG: If you don’t mind me asking, your real name is Arabic, right? (Mine is, too.) If so, are you influenced at all by the minor-key melodious-ness in traditional Arabic music?
Doe Eye: Yes it is – I am of Afghan ethnicity. My music isn’t so much inspired by traditional Arabic music, but growing up, I really loved Ahmad Zahir – a really famous Afghani musician
IBG: Who are your most definitive influences?
DE: My influences change all the time. I would say an all-time influence is Arcade Fire. When I was working on Hotel Fire, St. Vincent, Mazzy Star, Beach House and Sufjan Stevens were big influences. With the new record I’m working on, James Blake is a new influence. I really love how unique his music is and he’s not afraid to be daring. I’ve opened myself up to that after listening to his records.
IBG: Do I also notice hints of Velvet Underground, Nico, Marianne Faithfull, and even Phantogram?
DE: Actually, I don’t listen to any of those artists too much. I just recently started listening to Phantogram and really love their “Eyelid Movies” record. I love hearing what other people compare my music to. It’s pretty fun to go listen to those bands and figure out the similarities.
IBG: Do you have a favorite decade of music? I ask because HOTEL FIRE seems to touch on 60s, 90s, a bit of the rockabilly in the guitar’s tremolo, and of course, ’00s “indie” epicness.
DE: I love Nina Simone, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Diana Ross & The Supremes. The 60‘s are definitely a big inspiration. The music from that era is timeless and I could listen to those artists all day.
IBG: Who did you listen to most at Berklee? For that matter, how was the whole experience at Berklee?
DE: When I was at Berklee, I was discovering a lot of classical and jazz musicians that I had never listened to previously that I grew to love. I was mainly listening to more modern music – mainly my influences for the Hotel Fire Ep – Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens, St. Vincent and Beach House.
IBG: You recorded RUN RUN RUN before Berklee, though. Did that affect the Berklee experience?
DE: Run Run Run definitely changed my Berklee experience in a way that I had never expected. I recorded the EP to network to my future colleagues and teachers at Berklee. I had recorded the EP about two weeks prior to moving across the country from SF to Boston. When I finished the first song off the EP “I Hate You’, CBS Radio station LIVE 105 (KITS) was doing a local band blog. On a whim, I sent my song to one of the radio DJ’s White Menace who loved the song and relayed it to LIVE 105’s program director Aaron Axelson, who aired it on the radio that week. I could not believe it when I found out my song was going to be aired on the radio. Things spiraled out of control (in a good way) after that. I was juggling school full time and flying back and fourth every few weeks between Boston and SF, playing shows or doing interviews. My music got on FUSE TV, Hype Machine and then Billboard Magazine. All of that happened within a year from a demo I created hoping the teachers and students I would meet there would help me become successful.
IBG: Was RUN RUN RUN a solo effort? Who did you record it with?
DE: Yes it was. It was me and the producer I worked with for that EP – Steven Murr. We brought in one drummer, Adam Bishop, for Sea to See and Wait For You.
IBG: How did you decide on the title “Hotel Fire”? Is it symbolic, or autobiographical (was there an actual fire at a hotel you were staying at)?
DE: Ohhh yes, very symbolic.The school year was coming to an end and I had plans to come back to the Bay Area for the summer. I put my apartment up to sublet on Craigslist to save some money while I was gone. Some people were interested in seeing my place, so I cleaned my apartment nicely, turned on all the lights, t.v. and record player on, I had food in the microwave, laptop and phone was charging. The whole apartment was using up a lot of electricity that day. I started blowdrying my hair before my potential tenants were about to arrive when BOOM. The power went out. “SHIT”, I thought. “Did I do this?”.
I started messing around with the power circuit breaker to see if I blew a fuse. Nope. I started dialing the number for my apartment manager – but no service. Weird. I grabbed my purse to walk towards my apartment manager’s building down the block. When I opened my door to leave, the hallway was blacked out. Huh? The lights were off in my neighbor’s apartment too. The whole building was blacked out. What the hell is going on?
Slowly, I started walking down the stairs, watching my step (since it was dark and I have a tendency to fall in broad daylight). When I walked outside, people were rushing down Newbury Street, with their hands covering their mouths, as if a plague had just broken out. I looked up, and a thick cloud of black smoke covered the pink evening sky, fogging up the tall brick buildings. I stopped a random girl on the street to ask what was going on and she responded, “a transformer exploded behind a hotel down the street and caught on fire. The entire city is blacked out. It’s possible that the air is toxic”.
Well this blows. I walked back up the stairs to my apartment, sat in my dark room and waited for the lights to come back on. No candles, no internet, nothing.
Hours passed, the night got darker and quieter as I sat alone and started reflecting on my life. Moving to Boston as a big transition for me. I grew up in the SF Bay Area and lived there my entire life. I left all of my friends, family and moved to a city where I did not know a soul. My move happened at a time where my career skyrocketed in the Bay Area. My music was getting a lot of attention from LIVE 105 (KITS), FUSE TV, Hype Machine, Billboard and more. I was flying back and fourth between Boston and San Francisco every 3 weeks to play shows, juggling school full-time, a busy music career and trying to maintain some sort of personal life (that last part didn’t happen). I was living out of a suitcase, living a double life – one in Boston and one in San Francisco. As soon as I got used to one city, I had to go to the other. Eventually, I started feeling really lonely. Nowhere felt like home. To add to that – a close family member passed away, went through some really tough relationships and some of my best friends stopped talking to me during the whole process. I was learning a lot about myself. It was a year of big change and discovery for me; some good, some bad.
The fire and the blackout was very symbolic of my life at the time. So much anger, pain, happiness, hurt was building inside of me, that exploded. Sitting in a silent dark room for days forced me to deal with many of the tensions within myself.
I laid on my bed that night, guitar on my stomach, eyes staring into the ceiling and started pouring the pains of the past year into songs which eventually lead to the Hotel Fire EP.
IBG: There’s a sense of being lost, loneliness, and longing that seems to linger at the core of HF. Is that intentional? Is it fair to call that the theme? Is there a theme?
DE: Yes there was a lot of loss and loneliness in Hotel Fire. It mainly reflected my year in Boston. I was completely alone and didn’t have very many friends. Some of my friends stopped talking to me once I moved away, loved ones passed away, and met some people along the way who made me feel even more alienated. My life had drastically changed by moving away and my music career really did change my life in a very big way. I never really understood the music industry before that point, so I was constantly learning and figuring things out on my own.
IBG: Did the EP come together, or was there a vision from the outset?
DE: The EP came together on it’s own. That night when the fire happened and my apartment blacked out, everything made sense. All the songs I had written previously, the songs I was working at the time and the songs I needed to write all came together.
IBG: On a related note, what is your writing process? Do you write all the instrumental parts, too, or are they a result of collaboration?
DE: My process has changed over the years. When I was writing Hotel Fire, I would sit down with my guitar and write a song on the spot. I am the type of writer that let’s tension build and build until it oozes out of me. If I try to sit and try to write, not a lot will come out. When I go about my day, live life and come home and feel like I need to express something, that’s when the magic happens. The music comes out very honest that way. A lot of my lyrics happen on the spot, so they are real thoughts of that moment. Of course I go back and change a few words here and there. But for the most part, I don’t change a lot after the process.
My current writing process is very different. I write all of my songs on bass and then build around that. I jot down lyrical ideas throughout the day and when inspiration comes to write, I will use those lyrics to fit whatever I am writing in that moment.
IBG: How did the collaboration with John Vanderslice and Magik Magik come about? How was the experience of working with them?
DE: I knew I wanted to work on a new EP and a few friends had mentioned John here and there. It was kind of weird but after my friends mentioned him, I started seeing him everywhere. Random magazines or facebook posts. I felt like it was a sign. I sent him an email telling him about myself, we talked on the phone once to discuss our process and our goals, and that was it.
I had heard about Magik*Magik because they were touring with Death Cab for Cutie and saw through JV’s website that they work out of Tiny Telephone, John’s studio. I contacted the main info email and told them about my project with John and they were very excited to work together.
Working with JV has been incredible. Me and John really push each other in the studio to see different perspectives and think outside of the box.
Magik*Magik is such a talented organization of people. Minna Choi is the founder of Magik*Magik and she composed the string arrangements for three of the songs and her partner Karl Digerness composed the other three. The musicians are all SOLID. Totally unbelievably good. I’ve also been lucky enough to adopt some of them in my live band. That has been a treat.
IBG: Since the orchestra can range from 6 to 70-something, how many players were in the studio with you at any given time?
DE: We only had 3 people actually. One cellist, once violinist and one violist.
IBG: What was the inspiration behind “1990”?
DE: I wrote the song 1990 when I moved out of my house and my parents were very sad about me leaving. I have a really close relationship with my parents so I never want to see them upset. But I knew I moved out with a purpose, and that was to grow. Since I was a kid, I always challenged myself. When I moved out, I felt particularly torn. I kept reminding myself that I was born to do this. I was born to live through hardships and fight through them and let it be another part of my life that makes me that much stronger and smarter. Life is going to involve a lot of heartache and upsets and I can’t let that keep me from moving forward.
IBG: “Drive” is very fun, but the lyrics seem unexpected, especially the line about “them” chasing you. Is that happy/tiny-bit-of-menace vibe an intentional contrast?
DE: It is a fun song, but actually very dark. The song is about people who can’t be happy for you when you are doing well and want to see you break. “They’re chasing me down, so move fast. They want me to drown, so move fast” is talking about those people and trying to get away from them.
IBG: Will the upcoming full-length be built on HF, or is there a different direction you’re planning to go in?
DE: I am going in a different direction from Hotel Fire, I guess you’ll have to wait and see 😉
IBG: How is the process of recording the full-length going?
DE: It’s been going very well, 3 songs are finished and going back and fourth in the studio until the summer to finish up the rest.
IBG: When can we expect tour dates for 2013?
DE: I am shooting for something around May/June – it’s happening!
IBG: What are you looking most forward to this year?
DE: Working on this record and hopefully finishing it in time to release it. Also touring and playing festivals. 2013 is looking aweeeeeesome
IBG: Thanks again for this! And we’ll definitely be there next time you come to NYC!
-interview conducted by Anatole Ashraf of Indie Band Guru