It’s 2021 – you might as well listen to new music, because there’s literally nothing else going on. A couple of weeks ago, we do what we did every year, and published our list of new artists to watch for in the forthcoming twelve months. But with a little more time than usual on our hands, we had the extra space to be a bit more creative this year. So with a little bit of inspiration from the Talkhouse’s great concept, we thought, why not get some of the artists from our list in a (digital) room together and have them chat about all the things buzzing around in the heads of a new artist today? First up, we set up a call between Sweden’s Chez Ali (Elias Mahfoud) and Norway’s Solå (Sol Sunnanå Eriksen) to talk new music, stage techniques, songwriting, bread and more.
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You’re both solo artists, how did you end up starting solo projects? Why did that become the way you put out these songs?
Sol: When I started making music I was doing it by myself, making demos in my bedroom, trying to figure out how to work Garageband and eventually Logic. And it was just logical to eventually continue being solo. But it wasn’t an active choice, it was just a natural way for me to continue without knowing anybody in the music industry.
Elias: I had a different experience. I’ve been playing in bands all of my life, and in bands there’s always a type of compromise, different wills at once. So I wanted something that was my own thing. In a way, Chez Ali is a solo project, but it’s kinda not, because I see it more as a band these days. But it started out as me having a bunch of ideas that I couldn’t place in any band, and that I also wanted to explore more. It’s also sorta a diva thing, I wanted all eyes on me. I wanted to do a show, or an act, that was unfiltered. Where I didn’t have to apologise to my band members for stuff I did onstage, say if I decided to talk for 15 minutes or whatever. I wanted to be myself. Ish.
Sol: I think I’m kinda the opposite there. I started out solo, and now I’m feeling more intrigued about joining a band, since I’ve always done things alone. And I don’t really like performing by myself. I don’t like it when all eyes are on me, I like having people there too so I can say “These people are here as well! I’m not really alone!” [laughs].
Elias: I agree with you, it’s very awkward to be by yourself, and that’s why I try to see Chez Ali as a less of a solo thing, though sure, I’m the one doing the interview. But It’s scary to be by yourself, so I’m happy to have my friends around me, allowing me to be 100%. Because if I was by myself, I would be very awkward. But with my bandmates around me, I feel comfortable, and that allows me to be myself.
Life beyond the bedroom
Both of you have been put in the bracket of bedroom pop/indie/rock, whatever you want to call it. What do you guys think of that label, and what do you think of being associated with it?
Sol: I’m actually okay with it, in some sort of way. I remember when I first started making music, everyone called me a bedroom artist, and I was not so happy with it, I didn’t want to make ‘bedroom pop’. But then I kinda grew into the title [laughs], and I understood why they associated me with it. And I heard a lot of artists that I truly enjoyed in the same genre and that I understood were making the same kind of music as me. And it’s just labels, it doesn’t mean so much. I want to make music, and just put it out there, and I don’t care too much what people label it.
Elias: I dislike the label, because it doesn’t really fit me. I have nothing against the genre itself, but I think people have placed me there, because of the sound, rather than what it actually means. Because I feel it is a little disrespectful to the bedroom artists who actually do everything themselves, the recording and the mixing and so on, whereas I go into a proper studio, and I don’t do the mixing and mastering myself, I hire people to do that. The only thing I’m involved in is the recording process, the writing, singing. I’m not really a bedroom artist, because nothing is done in my bedroom, only the sketches, the small demos, and listening to different mixes. I think adding me to the category is kind of taking the piss out of real bedroom pop artists that are very DIY in the production process. It’s only because of my sound that people put me there. I don’t really want to be associated with any labels, because then I would be locked there, and it would lock the expectations people have of me. I want to do whatever I feel like releasing and experimenting with. I had that issue with my band Steve Buscemi’s Dreamy Eyes. In the beginning we were very dream pop, and then we released an album that was very poppy, and people almost took offence to it, because it wasn’t dream pop. But we never chose that label! People put that on us. You can label the music, but don’t label an artist.
Sol: I think the bedroom label also had a different meaning in the beginning than it has now. Now you have someone like Clairo, who maybe in the beginning made her demos in her bedroom, but her new songs are made in a proper studio. So I don’t think it has the same meaning it did before. My new songs are also not made just by me alone, because I wanted to lift them into something different. That’s maybe why I didn’t like the label in the beginning. The demos I put on Soundcloud, I made them just so people would notice me. It was not a product that I was 100% happy with, I wanted it to sound better. That was always the goal.
Elias: I saw my Spotify statistics from last year, I think it was 9000 minutes, and it was just Local Natives and 70s rock. So I have no real grip on what bedroom pop is, I’m like a boomer in that sense.
What’s the usual songwriting process for both of you? Where do the ideas come from?
Sol: I write very personal lyrics, that are very much about my own life. I take inspiration from the things that I feel. But the whole process varies. Sometimes I just have a lyric and melody in my head, for a few hours, and I just make the song. Other times I struggle a lot, with the words, and the puzzle to make it all fit together. I prefer when it comes naturally, and I don’t have to push it.
Elias: I have a similar approach. When it comes to the lyrics I try and draw things from my life. The first Chez Ali song I wrote, it came from a very sad place. It deals with heartache and shit. A lot of the songs deal with that stage. But I try to switch it up, because I get bored of that. So now there’s a song about my sister not answering the phone whenever I call her, I try and change it up and bring a more humorous and self-aware side to the songs. Like Gordon Ramsay, which is about me dealing with anxiety by watching Gordon Ramsay videos on YouTube. I try and not take myself so seriously. When it comes to writing the songs, I hear a riff in my head, and I need to play it. It’s not like I sit around with the guitar and play with the chords, I need to hear it in my head. So then I record it quickly, either on voice memos, or in Logic if I’m near the computer. Then I decide it’s shit, and I start crying, and I give up on music [laughs], and then I go back to it and see it from a different perspective. So then I send it to some friends I like to collaborate with, and see what they think of it and if they have any ideas if I get stuck. So there are several ideas I have from a few years ago, that I’m messing with now, to see if I can get them to work. Because that’s the biggest problem I have, and maybe you have it as well. You have a chorus or a melody, and you don’t know where to go from there, and you just leave it. I have so many ideas, but I can never finish them. I need to be in a specific state of mind to finish a song, and it’s hard to do with so much other stuff going on.
Sol: When I write lyrics, and I’m getting stuck, I usually do a stream of consciousness, where I write down everything I’m thinking and feeling, and at some point I read through it again and I can connect the whole lyric from there. But I need to write a huge amount to get a little material.
Elias: That’s a really great idea, I should do that! I just sing gibberish, and sound like a Sims character, I should start writing things down. That’s the thing, I never write anything down.
Sol: You should. I have a huge box in my apartment with all my writing books, where I write every thought. So I can just pick up a notebook and read through it, and there’s an emotion there I can write about. I save everything. I save a lot on my computer, writing stuff, a lot of voice memos, notebooks. I’m a hoarder! I hoard every thought I’ve ever had, I keep it. It’s kinda crazy when I think about it. But I need it in case I can use it later. Because I can’t connect to the feelings I’ve had unless I can write about them specifically.
Elias: Do you write down your dreams? Do you use that?
Elias: That’s awesome. For me, it would be weird to use my dreams. I have dreams where I’m being chased by a humanoid pink cat on a bike. I don’t know how to incorporate that into my music – yet.
Sol: You can use your dreams as music videos.
Elias: It’s true! I actually did that once! Once before I had written any part of the song, I imagined how the video would look. And I had this image of an old couple slowdancing, and I wrote a song about it. That can work, having a visual picture to write music for. That’s a different approach to have, and one I should work more with.
Do you guys listen to a lot of new music?
Elias: The only new artists I listen to really are people from the local scene. There have been so many new acts in Stockholm I find really interesting, either I discover them through [his label] Rama Lama or through friends. One of my favourite new acts is You Thant, who released a phenomenal new album last year, I really can’t stop listening to it. Otherwise I go back to stuff – I’m such a fanboy of Local Natives, that’s the only thing I listen to sometimes. Unless it’s samba, or North African funk, that’s what I’m listening to in general. You know what? I actually started listening to BTS! I’m getting into the KPOP scene now. But other than that, I haven’t really discovered anything. I don’t make an active choice to discover new artists really. I used to do it a lot, but now I’m trying to listen to stuff I’ve heard, the full discography of bands, last year it was Fleetwood Mac and before that it was Steely Dan. But stuff that’s new in the scene in Sweden, regardless of what genre it is, I like to support the local artists. That’s what inspires me more.
Sol: I don’t listen to music as much as I used to do. But I have my artists that I always go back to. Melody Gardot. Beach House, their album Depression Cherry. SZA, some new R’n’B artists. But if I hear new music, it’s by accident, not by choice. So the most new music I listen to is probably my friends’ music, or from other people here in Oslo releasing songs. And then stuff that’s viral on TikTok, you can’t escape those.
Have you ever seen a concert that made you want to improve your own live show? That was super inspiring and made you think ‘that’s what I want to do?’
Elias: There are so many. Either it’s the way they’ve figured out the setlist, and made it so coherent that the songs flow into each, or the visuals are great, or they have great energy. For me, the first band that made me think ‘Shit, this is what I want to do!’ were The Hives. I saw them at Gröna Lund, which was amazing, but then I saw them at Kafe 44, which was this small anarchist music café, and it was packed. When I got out, I had wring out my t-shirt because of all the sweat. It was so energetic, for a huge band, they were not afraid to have a small concert and be close to their fans, to have a space where they could enjoy themselves and their fans could enjoy themselves. That’s what I want to do – create a fun space, both for me as an artist but also the people watching.
Sol: I think I go back to when I saw Emile Nicholas for the first time. It was just the level of professionalism, and the fact that she sang better live than on the record. As a singer myself, that was the best one I think.
So the big question is – do you plan audience interaction, when you’re making the setlist? Is it pre-planned?
Elias: It’s not like ‘ok, here we’re gonna clap’, I try and feel the crowd, and get them pumped up. I always close my set with Blue Cheese, because it feels like that’s the perfect song to close it, and we also try and throw in a cover. I try and get the audience to sing along to the easiest parts, and it works. But you have to read the room, and it has to happen organically. You can’t push it!
Sol: I get very nervous, because I’m not a huge talker in front of people I don’t know. Which is not a great personality trait in a person that’s supposed to perform! So I need to write down, on my setlist, places where I could speak, and small suggestions of what I could say. So I’m not just like ‘Hello…my name is…you know it, you’re here’. It was kind of horrible in the beginning I was kind of sad at the time, because I was writing about a break up when I started performing music, and I was kind of going through the break up when performing live. So I was just standing there like ‘well here’s another break up song…But I’m not sad at all! You’re the sad ones, I’m smiling!’. But it’s better now, I’m good! I promise! But I’m getting more used to it, I’m getting better. I usually try and focus on one person in the crowd, and talk directly to them. They probably think it’s really bad! But it helps me, because it feels like I’m talking to one person, and not a lot.
Elias: Can you imagine if that person was trying to conquer their social anxiety? Like ‘I’m going to try something new, go to a concert!’ And there you are, just eyeballing them [laughs]. Once an artist fed me bread. They had bread onstage, and he shoved a bit in my mouth, and I was like ‘what am I supposed to do? Should I eat it? Should I spit it out?’. It was Skogaholmslimpa, I was at the front of the stage and they were just handing it out.
Sol: You gotta just look at them while eating the bread! Did they feed other people, or just you? I can’t picture this scenario.
Struggles of the social media reality
Outside of coronavirus, what do you feel are challenges of trying to make it as an artist in 2021?
Sol: I feel like with TikTok, and all the other types of social media that are getting much bigger, I feel like there are so many new artists now and so much new music, and you can put your music on Spotify so easily. That’s what seems hard to me, there’s so much to choose from that it’s hard to believe that you can make it, it feels like.
Elias: I agree with you. My experience is that I’m bad at social media, because I don’t know what to post, apart from ‘I have a song out’, or ‘I’m playing a show’. I think you do it so well, because you mix in your personal life into your Instagram more, based on what I’ve seen. I have so many different Instagram accounts right now, so I’m trying to make Chez Ali into my main account and have my other one for family and friends and stuff. I think it’s hard in a market that is so focused on image on social media, rather than the music you make. As you say with TikTok, a lot of artists are going onto Tiktok, putting their music on there, interacting with the new trends. Or they have a strong social media presence where they post on a daily basis, or are very active on Twitter. They’re everywhere, and I can’t do that, I don’t know how to do it or what to put out, or the energy for it. But I’m trying to get better at it, and I’m trying to work more visually. But I feel like it’s less about the music you make. I’ve seen a lot of artists that have a lot of followers, but you see their music and it’s not that many listeners, and their music is quite shit. So people are focused more on the image. Not saying that my music is great or anything! But I suck at promoting myself.
Sol: I feel like I’m still working on it. Last year I had an Instagram account with many more followers than I have now. I had a set image kind of thing going. But then it got taken down, and when I had to start over, I didn’t feel very motivated to do the same thing again. It’s not so motivating to find a new image again, when you had one already. But it’s very image-based as you say.
You both have music on the way soon, so tell us about it. Does it feel weird to be releasing at this time, when you can’t play live shows, or go out and meet people, or do any of the things you would normally do to get a response to it?
Elias: An EP is just an idea I have for the year, I might scrap that and just release a bunch of singles. But I always try to challenge myself, so there are a lot more synths coming into the picture. I try to draw music from the other music I listen to, which is R’n’B and hip-hop. It’s not going to be my rap debut, but I work more with synths and drum machines while maintaining a link to what I’ve done so far. It is weird not to be able to play concerts to follow it up – usually I like to have a promotional gig or tour. But it gives me a lot more time to focus on the visuals. I don’t want to stress about it. I don’t want to delay music till next year, I want to release it this year. But it takes the pressure off to have to rush something or force something to be completed. So now I have more time to do, say, music videos, or more promotional stuff. I don’t feel that I have to rush out and play a concert or people will forget about me, because that’s a thought I have sometimes. Like Sol said before, there are so many artists now, and you want to show you’re still in the game. But I don’t feel that pressure now – I can take my time, sort my life out and make the music I want to make, without compromising it.
Sol: I’m going to release my EP soon. My next single is February 5, and the EP comes out in April. With the EP, every song lyrically is a different part of me getting over my heartbreak. It’s about overcoming something that has been really hard for me. It’s called Feel What I Feel. Releasing it at this time doesn’t bother me much, because the project I have is going to change a bit, because I’m going to have more bandmates playing with me live. So it’s actually good for me that it’s not possible to play live right now, so I get more time to rehearse and plan the shows, so that when this is all over I can go onstage and feel comfortable. Because I’ve been playing really lo-fi sets with my and my computer, and pressing play on my own demos, sounding like shit and me singing over it. So it actually benefits me, that it’s not possible to play live just yet.