Avant-Pop Artist Sevdaliza Descends Into The Subconscious With 'Shabrang'

The Iranian-Dutch singer is no longer afraid to dive into the depths.

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The title of Sevdaliza’s sophomore record Shabrang gets diluted in translation. It’s a direct reference to Shahnameh, the epic poem by the famed Iranian poet Ferdowsi; in the ancient tale, Shabrang is the faithful black stallion of the hero Siyâvash, the latter a symbol of innocence in Iranian literature after suffering a brutal trial by fire. When translating Shabrang from the singer’s native Farsi to English, the name loses its luster and goes sterile. “Night color” is the literal translation, sure, but it’s just not right. And Sevdaliza is okay with that.

“I think that there's just these subconscious layers to those [Farsi] words that can capture an entire world,” she explains over the phone from the Netherlands. “There's so much freedom in [Shabrang], whereas if you would translate it to English, it's so defined.”

This inherent richness is what keeps bringing the Iranian-Dutch singer back to the Iranian mythos. (Her debut record ISON opens with the track “Shahmaran,” another mythical being who is half woman, half snake.) Sevdaliza finds that the names, stories, and even Farsi itself lend themselves to a more poetic and abstract existence, one full of melancholy, yearning, and beauty — the same themes woven throughout her latest avant-pop offering.

Album art for Sevdaliza's 'Shabrang'Tré Koch

Across Shabrang’s 15 tracks, Sevdaliza holds a fervent fascination with the subconscious, the uncensored dream, and the inner world — ideas she connects back to opening herself up to her heritage, and in turn, her art. “I just realized listening back to all the music that I've done, that there's so many, for instance, microtones and Arabic scales,” she says of the symbiotic relationship. “It just comes from a different grain.”

Lead single “Oh My God,” with its hypnotic vocals and explosive trap high-hats, is the record’s most commercially palatable track, but the rest of Shabrang lands with a darker flourish. “Human Nature” fills the room with anguished howls and a gutting violin solo. One of the record’s most striking surprises, however, is a cover of the 1974 classic “Gole Bi Goldoon” by Iranian pop legend Googoosh. Sevdaliza swaps the original’s already minimal pop production for an even more stripped down, somber rendition, making the track’s abandonment and grief sting all the more.

Shabrang may have its fair share of turmoil, but in no way is it weighed down by it. It’s also the electrifying epiphanies that come from going deep within. “It’s then you start to see what you really are, instead of what you tell yourself that you are,” Sevdaliza says. We need the dark to see the light.

The first thing that caught my eye with your record was the title because of the Shahnameh reference. What drew you to the name Shabrang?

I think that the story somehow reflects my personal life and my internal life. And I think I just find the words used in Persian mythology. I also always find them so rich, even the word Shabrang — I don't have to explain to you how rich that word is and how you can never capture that same richness into English words, or even one English word. And I think that there's just these subconscious layers to them, to those words that can capture an entire world.

It’s this sense of melancholy and just this rich inner world that it captures for me. There's so much freedom in that word. And I love that [Farsi] is so abstract and poetic and itself. There's so much room for interpretation and dreaming. This is kind of what I felt with a lot of the stories that I read. I think Farsi just has that expanding thing about it.

Between your previous work and now Shabrang, you keep coming back to Iranian literature, poetry, and the mythos. What draws you to it, besides just being Iranian?

I realized throughout making this album that the topsoil of my personality is nothing and it's such a rich inner, interior life. And there are so many uncensored dreams and feelings. I think that the free subconscious, I somehow feel that it comes from my heritage and that I can capture it more if I integrate my heritage into the work.

Have you always felt this connected with your heritage from a young age or was that something that developed?

It's definitely something that I've developed. I think my work actually brought me a lot closer to it. I think that you kind of start to lay it out as sort of a reflection, a mirror. Then you look into the mirror and you realize that all came from you. It’s then you start to see what you really are, instead of what you tell yourself that you are. I just realized listening back to all the music that I've done is that there's so many, for instance, microtones and Arabic scales. It just comes from a different grain.

It feels like it's embedded in the DNA.

Yes, exactly. I believe that. I think that is also part of when you're young, you want to rebel against everything you are, but when you accept, that is when you learn. Even the small things, the way sometimes you pick up something, or the way that you prepare dinner, or the fact that we like to eat our vegetables and herbs raw. These things never go away.

Shabrang also includes a cover of “Gole Bi Goldoon,” by Googoosh, which is very iconic. She’s an Iranian pop legend. What’s your relationship to her? Why did you choose that song?

I've been listening to her my entire life and that song just appeared throughout several experiences my life. Like, I would be at a funeral and then suddenly they would play that song. And then this happened about five or six times, and most of those experiences were very emotional. So I realized that I think that subconscious thing hit me again, intuitively I was like, I think I need to cover this song. It wasn’t a specific choice. It's more like the last time it happened I knew I needed to do something with this song. There were a few personal situations where that song would appear as kind of like a nurturing, loving thing. And I think that is the energy that [Iranians] all get from her. Like, she is our mother. I saw her live last year and that feeling is so strong. For me, she so embodies what it is to be a woman. She’s also 70 years old!

I saw her live last year, too, and was amazed. She’s an unreal performer.

Her voice...that kind of power is so inspiring. And you know, I ride it. Like that entire concert, I couldn't sit down. I was hyping her up. Everybody was. I think that type of empowering female character, I don't think we get to see that often. When we get to see it, we're like, This is so important. I just want to kind of give that ode to her because I think that she has endured so much in her life and she's been such an important and powerful role model.

Something that’s come to define you as an artist are your very striking visuals, whether it's an album or single art, videos, or live performances. What is the creation process for you when you're expressing in those specific channels?

I think that what I do is I capture the mood. I went into a lot of different situations in the last two years. I went all around the world, I think that also my life changed a lot from it. So I would just try to go back and forth and to capture all those experiences. You live a lot of life when you’re on the road and you get to see a lot of cultures, you get to have a lot of experiences. Some of them really hit close to home. I worked differently compared to my last project. For [ISON] I spent two years or more just in the studio creating. And for [Shabrang], I was constantly on the road in between of those parts in between creating. I think I accepted the fact that the differentiation of experiences would also differentiate the album. It would be more like a palette, like the title, a palette of the night.

What’s the greatest lesson you've learned between recording your two records?

I think that one of the lessons that I've learned is that the internal life, the uncensored dream, and the free unconscious are so rich that it's like an internal fountain of creativity that you can capture throughout your life as a human being. And I think that especially women have this very close connection because they create life inside of their bodies. And I think that I realized that if I am able to nurture myself, I never really run out of that creativity.

With this particular album, I wasn't scared to take chances and risks and opportunities because I realized that as long as they’re so integrated with myself, because they come out of me, it wouldn't be something else besides being me. I used to be afraid that I would lose, like, my path if I branch out and try other things. I realized more and more being alive that whatever I touch, it's kind of neat. I'm not afraid.

How has your relationship to music changed over the years, from a consumer, to debuting an album, to now where you're coming out with your sophomore record with a lot more freedom?

It’s quite interesting because I know that a lot of people that also could produce, they cannot just listen to another record without analyzing it. And I think I stayed away from that place because I really, really enjoy music. It's really an important part of my life. I’m able to continue exactly the same way as before. I think what changed was the relationship between me and myself. I think music made a lot of things in my life very apparent and I think it gave me the gateway identity of voice and a purpose as well.

In Shabrang, in particular, there's a lot of themes of turmoil and suffering and melancholy, which made me curious about how you deal with those things in your real life.

I think my internal life is so explosive. So sometimes I have to spend a lot of time on my own. Definitely. Just reflecting and letting all of the feelings that I have, have their place. That is definitely how I deal with that. I guess I just take my time now more and more.

When you were speaking about the Googoosh song earlier, you were saying that you had heard it a couple times at critical points and it kind of felt like a sign to you to cover it. Do you believe in destiny?

I think that's the thing that might be a combination of the DNA that we have and then the energy that leaves a board, and what we focus our energy on. I believe in a lot of magic, but I think that our internal life is how we experience everything. And so that's where we also get to decide what we want to do.

Can you elaborate more on your feelings on magic?

For instance, the concept of serendipity. If you look at it from a quantum physics perspective, it's just more common for particles to collide than to not collide. If you look at it from a very scientific perspective, coincidences are actually bound to happen. And I think it's on us as human beings to interpret it in the way that feeds you the best. And then, well, in my opinion, it’s not only a choice, because you were already born with a certain set of choices and you are born with a DNA. And so it’s partially a conscious choice. But I think a lot of it is subconscious.

I read a lot of things about this, and I just like to dive into a lot of different perspectives. So I liked to take the scientific perspective and the religious perspective. I like to take the spiritual perspective and the nature perspective. We can go from Tao to quantum physics to astral physics, you can go into religion, you can go into spirituality. I think that a lot of the different streams of information, they kind of do capture the same essence, but it's just a different perspective.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Stream Sevdaliza's first and only live performance of the year from The Hague on August 31.

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