Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Deeyah or Diva – The name on everyone’s lips, hot, & talented

Deeyah – 1st Asian female to reach number 1 on the BOX charts

Text by Ashanti OMkar
Photo by Akin Falope

Deeyah has been making waves and a lot on noise in the UK media recently for her sassy, outspoken views and very risqué dress sense, which has caused her to gain respect from some and much disdain from others. A true woman of the millennium, Deeyah has already hit the BOX charts at number one, with her amazing video, for her single ‘Plan of my Own’, which is released on 31st January. Norwegian born Deeyah’s sound is a mix of hip hop and rock, which is the current trend, giving her the edge over some of her peers, as the American production of her music is a cut above the rest, with use of some top people. Stunningly beautiful and talented Deeyah reveals her 2005 plans, and tells us why her release and album were delayed, not to mention a special message for her fans.

In the last 6 months to a year a lot has happened, with your little brother’s illness, all these made your impending ‘big break’ delayed – tell us about it and the year you have had. Hope your brother is now fully recovered.

Yeah, the second half of 2004 ended being quite hard to deal with on a personal level because of my brother’s situation. He is better now. Presently he is having more tests and discussing other options and operations at the moment. Because of all this, I ended up going to Norway and spending time with him and my family. I wanted to be with them through this time and felt I couldn’t go ahead with my release here in the UK knowing that things weren’t right back home.

How is your family reacting with your impending success – I believe they support 100%?

Yes my parents and brother support me all the way. It was actually my parents that told me to leave Norway and to continue with my work here. They said, “You need to get back and continue. You’ve been a good sister and a daughter - now go and do your work...”. They are very excited but feel a bit sad about some of the things I have to go through.

How do you see 2005/06 panning out – musically, personally, financially?

I think 2005 will be about a lot of hard work on my part, which I’m all about anyway and am looking forward to it. Musically I am always writing so I am hoping to get started on the next album as well.

Your single – ‘Plan of my own’ – tell us about it –it’s got elements of Rock and Hip Hop – how did this all transpire?

The song idea came about at a particular time in my life. I felt like I had lost everything I had ever worked for and was even considering giving up as an artist. After a lot of thinking and soul searching I decided I couldn’t give up and that it was impossible for me to not do music as it’s been a part of my life since I was 7. I have done it for so long that it’s a part of who I am it’s almost like a limb a physical part of me now. I decided to start over again and Plan Of My Own was the first song I wrote as a part of this change and new beginning.

Making Number 1 on the BOX chart – a first for an Asian female and no doubt a fantastic start – how does this feel?

Unreal...I didn’t believe it until my managers showed me the top 10 in Music Week where it said the most played video last week was “Plan Of My Own”. To tell you the truth it still hasn’t really sunk in. It has been a great start and I am very excited and grateful for this. In general this release has been quite difficult. Getting exposure in the media as “the new chick on the block” at a time where the competition is ridiculously hard with releases from Destiny's Child, Eminem, Jlo, Usher, Ashanti, Ciara and so on. I have to say the support and exposure I have received despite this is something I am extremely thankful for.

You have been classically trained in singing, from the best of the best and even blessed by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Ji – what elements of this training are in your new work - singles and album?

On this single you can hear the Indian Classical part of my musical background on a Badshah Khan remix that will be included on the enhanced CD single. Other than this there, are a few other tracks on this album that are strongly influenced by my training.

Which other musicians in the current mainstream bunch do you like e.g. M.I.A?

I think they’re all great and I greatly respect the hard work they’ve put in and the success they’ve achieved. I like M.I.A - I like her sound and vibe-- it’s quirky and fun-- and the fact that she’s an Asian female gets her nothing but love and respect from me.

You have recently collaborated with Nitin Sawhney –tell us the details about this.

Well, a good friend of mine actually manages Nitin and he had told me that Nitin was a fan of my work. I have always been a big fan of Nitin’s music as well so I told him that if Nitin ever needed any vocals I would do it in a heartbeat. As you know, Nitin has been working on his new album for a few months now and he actually asked me to come and write with him. I spent one day with him where we started on a brand new track and began writing the song for it as well. Unfortunately, because I had to head off on tour we didn’t get a chance to finish writing it. If our schedules allow us we will get back in the studio and finish it. It’s just been crazy busy for me and for him as well. I have to say he is one of the most musical people I have ever met and as a person he is so lovely, down to earth and caring. We will definitely be doing lots more work together if it is up to me.

About your sense of style – do you have a stylist? Who are your favorite clothes designers?

Yes I have a couple of stylists. I now have one in the UK and always have one of my favorites in the States. The American woman is absolutely amazing. She dresses pretty much everyone in Hollywood from Brad Pitt to Angelina Jolie and Halle Berry. The important thing about my relationship with my stylists is that they help me get what I need and will make suggestions and add to what I would pick myself. My style is about what I choose to wear and feel comfortable in at the time. I don’t really allow them “to dress me” or tell me what I should look like. I have to feel comfortable and they totally understand that I am an artist and not a model that you can throw anything on. Some of my favorite designers/brands are Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Fornarina and I love wearing Diesel as well.

The ‘Sunday Times’ quotes you as the next best thing and so did I, in last years chartbusters predictions piece and also in last years interview with you – how confident are you that you will break into the mainstream?

First of all thank you for showing me this much love and support it truly means the world to me. I am pretty confident that I will break into the mainstream, but how quickly or strongly this will happen-- only time will tell. I am set on working very hard and if this first single doesn’t enter “high” in the charts, I’m frankly not that stressed because I am in this for the long haul and will keep at it and hopefully my support will grow here as the awareness grows.

In terms of PR, who have been involved in promoting you in the UK and have they been targeting only Asians or all the different cultures?

I have worked with a few different people with regards to PR here in the UK. I have done some work with one of the biggest PR companies in the country. They mostly represent US clients like JLO, Christina Aguilera and Madonna, I have also had the privilege of working with the best Asian PR Company in the country (FNIK) - so I would say I’ve been very lucky with the team of people around me. These companies have not only focused on the Asian media, but across the board. Again, I have to stress the fact that because I am a complete unknown in this country, it’s been quite hard both for myself and for the people around me to give me the exposure that artists with million pound budgets behind them get. This is why this is a growth and development process in my opinion. This is something that we have to build and take time with. Hopefully this single will be the one to break out and introduce me to every household in this country or maybe it will be with the next single…

Brainwash records – they are releasing your single –who are they and how did you hook up with them, after you changed record company?

Brainwash initially was a producer-based label. It’s essentially an independent but with major distribution and partnerships. The primary force and business mind behind the label is Darin Prindle and his partners (a couple of ex-executives who ran EMI and Chrysalis Records for more than 17 year). Once they decided to sign me, I asked to join them in the company itself so that I could have my hands in all aspects of my career and not just be the artist. Luckily they decided to agree and made me a partner in the company which is why I sold my flat and invested in it as well. It is rare, if not unheard of, for an artist these days to get a piece of the company that they’re actually signed to, so I consider myself very fortunate. I now have the opportunity to work with some amazing people not just in terms of their music industry track records but also as good people.

Do you see yourself doing any Bollywood work? I hear you are keen to try some? If so, which music directors would you like to work with?

Well, I’m not necessarily too keen on the acting side of Bollywood. What I could imagine doing at some point is composing some music for a couple of Bollywood movies. I am a big fan of the compositions done by Ustad Sultan Khan as well as AR Rehman (I actually did some vocals for him years ago).

A personal question – you had the manager of Prince and Sinead O Conner, Steven Fargnoli as you manager and lost him sadly to cancer– a terrible tragedy indeed – tell us if any of your album tracks reflect your feeling at the time this had happened, or have you managed to put it all behind?

Well, “Plan Of My Own” came about not long after Steven’s death and is in part influenced by his loss and dealing with that time in general. Steven was truly one of the most incredible people I have ever worked with, so losing him was like losing a lifetime dream. The reason I say this is that ever since I was young, I always had it in my head that one day I was going to work with the people behind Prince, Madonna or TLC and I actually did it...My friends always used to make fun of me saying I was dreaming and that I would never get to work with any of those people, but after many years of struggling and working hard I have fortunately had the chance to work with some of the main forces behind these 3 acts.

What messages would you like to pass onto your UK fans?

I would like to thank everyone out there including yourself that’s shown me nothing but love, support and respect. Only with your help can I actually do this, so thank you for backing me, having faith in me and for letting me be myself. One love!

When I spoke to Deeyah back in 2004

Deeyah, the name which is synonymous with vocal dexterity and understated sexy looks; a vocalist who has trained Classically, by the best of the best; a young lady whose message in her lyrics is: “to be positive, strong, proud and confident about who you are”. She is an inspiration, who “hopes to show that us Asian girls are capable of doing this and doing it well”… She is someone who exudes humility and understanding and shows that Asian music is definitely surfacing over ground with the new breed of gorgeous female songstresses.

Tell us about your background, heritage and upbringing.

I was born and raised in Oslo, Norway. Racially I’m a mix of Asian, Perisan (Iranian) and Afghani, but my cultural upbringing has very much been Asian. I was brought up with a very strong emphasis on culture in terms of our traditions, art, literature, music, history and our languages like Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi, Pahto (language spoken in the North West Frontier province in Pakistan, in Afghanistan and in some areas in Iran).

Religious beliefs - where do yours incline?

I was born into a Muslim family. I would say my parents are moderate and not forceful as far as religion is concerned although they have instilled a great deal of respect in me, not only for Islam but also respecting everyone’s beliefs and cultures.

How did you get into the music business?

My parents have always been very open minded, educated and liberal parents – initially it was actually my Dad who wanted me to become a singer. He’d heard me singing in the playground when I was 7 years old. He, at that time decided that music is something he I should pursue. I basically started my music and vocal training from the age of 7 and also started doing performances. I got an offer to record my debut solo album at the age of 13, which I didn’t accept and move forward with till a year later, as a result my very first album was released when I was 15 years old. Things very much snowballed from there and I continued working in music and did my second album when I was 18 years old. So, I would say other than my own interest and love for music, it was initially my Dad that brought me into music.

As the only ever female, who has trained with one of the most revered musicians in the Asian scene, Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, how do you feel you use your abilities?

Having the musical background that I have has helped me immensely in music in general. Firstly my voice is my instrument, the fact that I’ve been disciplined and trained to use it in a certain way in a certain musical style has only helped me develop as a singer. Having the Indian classical training has only given me extra discipline and tools - because Indian classical music and vocal training is one of the most complex and oldest in the world. It has a lot to do with learning vocal control and diversity in how you use your voice. Once you have the technical vocal abilities under control, how and when and in which genre of music you chose to apply it doesn’t really matter.

What was the "Fateh Ali Khan" experience like, for someone like you who has been totally brought up in the West?

That’s a good question because a lot of people don’t understand that most of the Ustads (maestros) in India and Pakistan actually don’t always like to teach Asian kids born and bred in the West because they feel that culturally a lot of us may not be as sensitive as to how you conduct yourself in purely Asian situation. In addition to this what Khan Sahib also told me was that he didn’t believe that kids born in the West have the respect or discipline to work and practice as much as what’s required in order to get any sort of understanding or grip on the vast depth of Indian classical music. Because of this, I was asked to convince him and prove to him that I was worthy of his blessing and his training. This was done through an extremely intense vocal and practice session that took several hours, he also spent a long time talking with me to check out what kind of personality I had whether I would be able to keep up with the hard training and to see whether I had the dedication and drive to not give up or just do music as a hobby. After this entire process he put his hand on my head and said “Shabaash beti I would be very proud to teach you, you proved me wrong and have shown me your ability as well as your ability to work as hard as you will be required to, so I would be very proud to call you my student and for you to carry my name and musical lineage in addition to my existing students”.

Do you think he would approve of the music you are working on these days?

I know he does. I told him about what kind of music I’m doing and he’s very pleased. He just believes strongly that a singer’s training and background needs to be in Indian classical music and what you do once you’ve accomplished a certain level in that is absolutely ok. The very fact that I know Indian Classical music as much as I do is what makes it ok in his mind. In other as far as he’s concerned, I’ve earned it.

What was it like under the tutelage of Ustad Sultan Khan?

He is one of the most incredible people I’ve met. He’s a loving, sweet, gentle and wise person. I actually had to go through the same process with him as I had to with Ustad Fateh Ali Khan. Ustad Sultan Khan Sahib invited me to come to London and sing for him before he would decide whether I was good enough or just a waste of his time. I came to London and sang for him, it took close to a whole day because he would start playing parts and phrasings on the Sarangi and was like “ok now you do that with your voice, let me see if you can keep up with me”. I actually remember even Talvin Singh coming to visit Khan Sahib when I was singing for him – he told Talvin to come back some other time since he thought he might have actually found a good student in the West… Luckily at the end of that day he decided to take me on as a student as well. He said he would come to Norway in a couple of weeks at his own expense so he could start training with me and teaching me. He actually also volunteered to play on my debut album which was a very big deal for me only being 15 and having someone like him wanting to help me with the album. He very much supports me in whatever I want to do musically just like Ustad Fateh Ali Khan.

What about your look - it's very sexy - did this cause waves in your community?

Not really. I have not gone out of my way to try to make my look any particular way; too sexy or not sexy enough. My look/image is very much how I am and very natural and an extension of my personality. Not really intending to offend or create any waves it’s just whatever I’m comfortable with. I don’t think it’s really that sexy either especially not if you compare it to Bollywood movies that we all watch and have no problems at all in with. I would say Bollywood is much sexier than anything I’ve ever done.

What languages do you sing and write lyrics in?

On this album (called Plan Of My Own) I mainly sing in English but also have some parts on the album where I sing in Urdu, Hindi. Punjabi and a lullaby that I sing in Pashto, which, makes my Mom very proud. And strangely enough, in my very first album I also sang in Norwegian, which is something I’m not planning on doing again as I didn’t find it a very musical language to sing in.

Tell us about your new album, 'Plan of my own’? What are its flavours and styles? Who are you targeting it at?

Quite frankly I didn’t make this album with the thought of targeting it towards any particular demographic or market. I just wanted to make an album that I had wanted to make for many years but didn’t want to until I found the right producer. I love music and always have; I don’t believe in making music with marketing or targeting in mind, to me it has to be more genuine, organic and honest than that. I have worked very hard on this album and am very proud of it so of course I would be thrilled if people in general liked it and got into it. I guess listening back to it now though it is a pop album that could comfortably sit in the mainstream pop market.

Do you write your own lyrics?

Yes I do write and sometimes even co-write my own lyrics. Lyrically I would say this album is very much about the struggles and experiences I went through over the past 2-3 years. In essence the lyrics on this album are about being positive and not giving up on your dreams and hopes in life.

What was it like working with top producer, Darin Prindle, as he has worked with top acts like Destiny's Child, Madonna and TLC. How did you find the experience and how did you fit in?

It has been a great experience to get to work with a producer like Darin with the experience and expertise that he has. He was probably one of the toughest and most demanding producers I’ve ever worked with. He’s a perfectionist, which meant that he would keep working me very hard in the studio while we were recording to ensure he got the best out of me. I learned so much from Darin about recording and the production side of things as well to where I’ve ended up co-producing the album with him. The very first day in the studio was a bit nerve wrecking for me since he has worked with some of the best singers in the business as well as some of my absolute favourite artists like TLC. Once I got over the first 10 minutes in the vocal booth I was ok though. I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to work with someone like Darin Prindle. The other aspect that was great about working with him is that unlike a lot of producers he didn’t try to impose his own sound and style on me but actually helped me create my own sound.

Changing of record companies, this can't have been easy? How did you cope with this?

You’re right; it was a tough time for me but a very educational time for me both on an emotional and business level. I coped with it the only way I know how and the only way I always deal with things, which is picking myself up and moving on and pursuing my goals. Having already been in this industry a long time one of the most important things I learned at a young age is regardless of what happens and what hardships you go through never to lose my focus and drive to keep moving towards my goals and try not to take anything too personally – have to develop thick skin to survive this business.

As someone who is in her mid 20's, how does it feel to compete with 18 year olds who are entering the business?

I’ve never really thought of that, it doesn’t actually really even occur to me because I don’t really see a problem with that. Are you trying to tell me something…??? LOL!

In terms of Asian music, who are your favourite musicians, what styles do you listen to?

Other than my teachers I like to listen to a wide range of Asian artists from, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Mehdi Hassan, Reshma, Abida Parveen, The Sabri Brothers, Attah Ullah Khelvi, Adnan Sami, Sajad Ali, Sonu Nigam, to Nitin Sawhney, Rafi Lata Mangeshkar, Farida Khanum, Daler Mehdi, and tons more…

Why did you change your name to Deeyah, from Deepika? It seems you had a lot of success with that name too (your 2 albums, which were well received).

Yes, I did have a lot of success with my birth name, which is Deepika. Did you know the meaning of Deeyah and Deepika is the same? That’s why I chose Deeyah. The main reason for doing so was so that people didn’t have a hard time with the pronunciation of the name. I would never consider totally changing my name or to a different language that’s why I kept it as close as possible to my original name, just a bit simpler to say for most people.

You have been a favourite on the groundbreaking 'Bobby Friction and Nihal presents' BBC Radio One show for a long time now. Do you think it helps?

Absolutely all support is very much appreciated. Bobby, Nihal and Reaju have been showing a lot of support, which is great and of course all support helps because it can take you to sections of the audience that you may not reach with your music through other platforms. I would like to say a big thank you for the love I’ve been getting from Bobby, Nihal, Reaju as well as Adil Ray.