Forget about scripted questions and planned interviews, Yasmine Hamdan has the ability to talk with the same grace she sings with, with every answer she ignites 10 other question marks in your head.  The songstress emerged from Beirut creating a sound that wasn’t explored yet in the city alongside Zeid Hamdan. She, then, started a solo career harnessing global success and acclaim with her melancholic yet minimal sound. She challenges the conventional music industry construct with such sensuality, stamina and innovation. We had the honour to conduct an in-depth interview with her, so here’s how it went.

(Photos: Tania Feghali)

How’s it going? No more concerts, right?

Yes, I just finished the tour. I still have only one more concert in Italy then I’m taking a break for the summer.   Hopefully, I’ll get back to touring in the fall.

And you’ll come to Beirut?

Well, I’m working on it. I want to come to Beirut but it’s not a decision that I make. I need to find the right promoter to work with, to be invited to the right place. I work with French musicians and technicians so we are six or seven on the move. It’s a heavy thing! I want to perform more in Lebanon and in the region and I know that I have an audience there, but I feel frustrated about the fact that I cannot perform there more often. However, I’ve been working on a couple of options and I’m hoping that they’ll work out. Things take time; we’re just set with distributing the CD in the region. It’s on Anghami but my cousin Moe Hamdan found the right people to distribute it so the physical album should be available in Lebanon, Egypt and the region around July. It’s a great step already.

How did your process for Al Jamilat differ from that for Ya Nass?

It was different. To start, I matured both artistically and musically. After Ya Nass I toured a lot, I met a lot of musicians and I was more confident regarding what I needed. Therefore, I started working on the demos in the midst of my tour. There was something about movement during that process, I was working on trains, planes, cars and hotel rooms.
Assi was the first song I worked on. I programmed the track on my computer and when I had it finished I realized I had the concept of the record ready. I then started working on the rest and when it was all ready, my friend Steve Shelley from Sonic Youth helped me put together recording sessions in his studio in NYC. We both invited amazing musicians and we recorded for 5 straight days. I came back with a lot of material and proceeded by editing. I also recorded in Paris and in Beirut where I collaborated with Zeid on La Shay. I had reached out to two separate British producers who knew each other so we decided to work together! It was an incredible experience because they work in an amazing way. I co-produced the album artistically. In fact, I have a record label called Hamdanistan Records through which I produced the album myself. I’m kind of proud to be co-publisher and co-producer on it.


You are omnipresent on the record…

I’m in power on the record. I took control of a lot decisions. I think an artist’s responsibility today is to make things work. Sometimes this responsibility goes to other people which can be tricky and dangerous especially when you work with record labels who only have numbers in mind. It’s crazy and expensive to record in four countries. It was also my first time working with almost all the musicians on this record. I wouldn’t know a lot of record labels who would take the risk of recording in four countries and with musicians who are strangers to you. That is mainly why I decided to do it myself and allow myself the freedom I needed to create the end product.

When you take risks you get albums like Al Jamilat.

Thank you! I think it’s important to challenge yourself and it was a challenge for me to do that.

You touched upon Assi at the beginning of your answer and it’s my favorite track off the album. Could you tell us more about how the song came to be?

I had composed Assi a long time ago but it lacked a final touch. I loved it but I didn’t know how to arrange it. When I started working on this record I wanted to have something very intimate, but also something about traveling and textures. A sound that is electronic but also very dreamy and I think through the different violin melodies I managed to create something to convey this balance. I imagined this woman, very dramatic but suffering; a little bit like an Egyptian movie from the 30’s or the 40’s. She’s on a ship trying to find her lover and suddenly there’s a storm, that’s when the violins go crazy. Then, when the rhythm comes in at the end she sees the shore and she knows she’s on her way to meet up with her lover by whom she’s actually tortured. She’s in love and she’s kind of like sado/maso. It’s how I imagined the whole context with colors and even smells. When I worked with the producers I wrote a small synopsis of the different parts and how they should be mixed. It’s one of my favorite songs, too. It’s very challenging to play it live but when it works it really works well.



When you’re writing music, do you always come up with a visual story like in Assi or does every song have its own treatment?

It’s always visual in the sense that it always has characters in my head. Those characters can be very touching, very fragile and very ridiculous, they can be very proud, very manipulative even a bit perverse. For example, the song Aleb in the album Ya Nass is inspired by fears and by people around me; sometimes an extreme version of me, somebody who’s afraid of diseases. It’s the internal monologue of a hypochondriac. I like to imagine characters; it creates a lot of images in my head and it does bring out the words. It also helps me when I’m performing to embody the characters and to be able to communicate emotionally even to people who don’t understand Arabic.

There’s this thing between Iza and La Shay. I think of them as the internal conversation of the same person who’s worried about so many things but at the same time calming herself. Was that your intent or would you have a different interpretation?

La Shay is inspired by the 80s and the 90s. The cool era of the Rahbanis. The era of “hey dude!”. I imagined a couple smoking a spliff and one of them gets paranoid and the second one says “hey dude calm down.” It’s kind of a ridiculous situation. Many times I make fun of the songs. I was talking to my very good friend last time and she made a real fuss about her boyfriend and in a way she’s that kind of character who suddenly gets paranoid. The track becomes symbolic of tendencies we all have. Being paranoid or not, being very honest about what we feel and what we want or when we say no but mean yes. It really creates humor at the end of the day. They’re just metaphors or images and tendencies of everything around me and of me in it. Sometimes it becomes a reference to us when we talk. I treat those songs and characters a little bit like friends. It becomes a very visual and intimate situation.

So the characters continue being your friends after the album is out and all…

They are part of me pushed to a certain extreme. I can feel that all of those feminine or masculine characters that I create start by me wanting to emphasize an emotion or a situation. This is an inspiration and I get a lot of inspiration from people around me. When I’m in Beirut I don’t drive because I drive like a crazy person and driving in Beirut is already horrific so I take a lot of taxis. You have a lot of interesting characters and discussions in taxis. Taxi drivers have a memory of the country and meet a lot of people. For me a taxi is like a public space because so many people get in that space. We don’t have a lot of public spaces. As absurd as it may sound, there’s something about the diversity in that confined location! This person that you talk to is in touch with the country and it’s my way to get a sensation of where the country’s at. How people are reacting to the social and political situation and how far their anger has reached. I draw my inspiration from these crazy characters. Someone may say something so existential and interesting and inspiring.


Correct me if I’m wrong, but the concept of Al Jamilat is about different women in different stages of their lives…

I don’t see it this way. I see it more as a celebration of women and femininity. We all have femininity in us. It’s also a celebration of being who you want to be, of imperfection and of contradictions. You can be tall and beautiful, short and beautiful, big and beautiful, you can be close and beautiful, far and beautiful. It’s about diversity and it’s very tender. I think we need tenderness in this world. It’s also about imperfection and acceptance and that is very important. Working on this record brought me some hope. It’s full of lights and metaphors. I also think it embodies somehow the different feminine characters, or even, characters in general in my songs. All these different types of people that I talk about in my songs are celebrated in Al Jamilat.

Talking about Darwich’s poem you said that you don’t really know if your interpretation is what he meant. When you’re writing music you have something you want to communicate. How do you feel about people interpreting your art in personal ways?

I adapted the song after having asked for the rights and I undoubtedly respect everything it stands for. However, for me to adapt a song, I need to identify with it entirely and kind of make it mine musically. I wanted it to be sexy and rock n roll. I’m just saying that it’s my own interpretation and how I picked it up. People are free to understand my music the way they want to. When you perform in front of an audience that doesn’t understand Arabic they just get it the way they get it; they get the emotion. I’ve been asked by, I think, a Swedish band to perform one of my songs and adapt it into Swedish. I would never ask them to stick to whatever the song is about. If I say yes then they have the right to transform it the way they want. As an artist you need to be true to yourself and free and not put yourself in a box that contradicts with what you feel is needed for a song. When I cover a song I do it in a very free way. I don’t care for what is halal or haram or how it should be done. What I care about is to be true to myself and to the way I express and articulate the song.

You claim that you refuse boxes and that you had to fight to be the woman you are. How does writing songs about all these women and performing on stage help you become the woman you want to be?

When I started doing music, it was out of despair and boredom. I got passionate about it and I felt that it allowed me to become somebody; an artist who explores her different identities. Music allowed me to be the woman I want to be or to just aim to be free, to have a voice, to challenge taboos, borders, institutions and authorities. Music became something I needed to survive. It might be a minority thing but I do think that women are considered as a minority. They are manipulated and put under the shadow. It bugs everybody, not only men, if it’s a woman, it works better if it’s a man. Music also allowed me to meet a lot of amazing people and artists who opened doors for me and inspired me. The contact with the audience is an extraordinary endeavor. There’s something abstract about seeing how you could exist outside yourself. That which is transmitted and picked up by people is somehow you but has nothing to do with you . To have people who are loyal to your work and are inspired by you is rewarding. They give you love and this is something you cannot at all describe with words. It’s a very emotional situation.

Covers, or how you call them, uncovers, are a huge part of your albums. Sometimes you cover your own songs again and again.

Many of the songs weren’t recorded or released the right way. We were so progressive but had no structure and there were no possibility for us to do things the way we wanted them. You know we’re talking 15-20 years ago. We started when nothing was ready, nothing was there. It was pity for some of the songs to not have a second chance and a second life. This doesn’t mean that I didn’t like their older versions but they’ve grown up now and have a new nationality and a new persona. I like to recycle songs for sure.

You’ve participated in Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. What is your relationship, as a musician, with cinema?

It started with Soapkills when so many of our songs were featured in movies. It was almost ridiculous, every time a filmmaker wanted to make a movie or when anything was done about the Middle East, our songs would be used. I always work in a very visual way and I’ve worked with a lot of filmmakers and in theater plays. I enjoy working with images. First, because it takes me out of my comfort zone. It makes me work on other people’s projects and it’s very important to be able to give your input to other people’s work. For example, I worked on the music and the sound of a theater play for the Comedie Francaise. I loved working on that. It’s always been a passion for me to work with other people. Also, of course if the language and the expression of the artist works with my own language then I feel that I can add something to the project. If I feel that we don’t see things in the same way or I cannot be of added value to the work I just don’t do it.

Do you have time to keep up with the independent music scene in Lebanon? Any emerging talent you enjoy listening to?

Well, I like them all. I don’t know them all but I know that a lot of things are happening. I went to some festivals and it’s great. I think that not only the scene itself but there’s a generation of young people who are more engaged and support all those bands. Some of the bands are going international. Also, there are emerging bands from the whole region! It’s getting more and more organized. It’s still not 100{0ab89397c598e04c77578d408e980f9d33439bf016b050562e5be9510fd7e3ba} organized compared to other countries. If you look at my example it’s difficult for me to set a tour in the Arab countries. People don’t work in the same way so it’s difficult for me to stick to the conditions and the logistics in the Middle East and it’s a pity. I want this to change and I’m working with some people so that becomes less of a hassle.