Prominent Tunisian Singer/Songwriter Emel returns with Ensen, out now.
From her home in New York Emel reaches for the international stage with Ensen, an album recorded in seven countries with numerous producers including Valgeir Sigurðsson (Sigur Ros).
Emel’s first album, Kelmti Horra (My Word is Free), introduced her groundbreaking marriage of sounds steeped in Tunisian rhythms and electronic beats. On Ensen, she’s developed a style that’s even more uniquely her own, combining organic and electronic sounds to produce a record that will appeal to any lover of innovative and heartfelt music. “It took a couple of years to realize the visions that were popping up inside me,” Emel says. “I faced resistance from people wanting to keep me confined to an ‘ethnic box’ and trying to limit my creative freedom.”
Despite government censorship in Tunisia, Emel found relief and strength in the music of Baez, Dylan, Lennon, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin—she even formed her own metal band while at university. She soon became known on the Tunisian alternative scene for her protest songs, “little by little, more and more people started coming to my shows, telling me my words were a relief — but I knew I’d never get anywhere in Tunisia, no matter how talented I was.”
After saving money from gigs, Emel moved to France in 2008 and developed an international following through social media. During the Tunisian Revolution in 2011, her song “Kelmti Horra (My Word Is Free/written in 2007)” reached millions of views on Youtube and eventually became the anthem for the Arab Spring.
“While the songs on my first album, Kelmti Horra (My Word Is Free), developed on stage over a six-year period, Ensen is a fully realized studio album. Producing it was a process of soul searching and liberating musical experimentation. I was looking for a deeper, limitless way of expressing myself.”
With her main collaborator, French/Tunisian producer and physicist Amine Metani, Emel shaped an album of expansive soundscapes. She recorded Ensen in seven countries across three continents, with several additional producers including Valgeir Sigurðsson (Sigur Ros, Bjork) and Johannes Berglund (The Knife, Shout Out Louds, Ane Brun).
“We initially recorded acoustic takes of the songs using piano, guitars and Tunisian style drumming. I then had the idea of create my own library of electronic beats by running percussion and recorded sounds through several homemade setups. Then we added in analog keyboards, mixers, effects and distortion, and the result sounded nothing like anything we’d ever heard before.”
The team’s production approach brought out the cinematic side of Emel’s music, also inspired by the dramatic electronic music of Forest Swords, Samaris, Ben Frost, and James Blake. “Ensen Dhaif (Helpless Human),” the title track, is propelled by sparkling gumbri (a Tunisian three-stringed big bass lute used in Gnawa music), feverish zukra (Tunisian flute), trance-inducing bendirs (North African frame drums), and heavy kick drum. “The lyrics call to disobedience when the oppression of social injustices run so deep.” Pulsing gamelan gongs and North African percussion introduce “Layem,” a song about the plight of the homeless. Emel’s vocals are full of restrained emotion as the song builds to a finish, awash with rich, distorted synthesizer textures.
“Fi Kolli Yawmen” has solemn echoes of church music as it follows Emel’s freely improvised vocal line over a horizon of organs and synthesizers. Flutes and gumbri give “Thamlaton (Drunkeness)” a funky feel, a song that combines Iraqi dabke with industrial rhythms, and Emel’s wild vocals.
“It’s contemporary abstract prose: Where are we? What are we doing? What the hell is going on inside us? It’s like the flesh and the body collapse in the form of interior anarchy, to raging states that we don’t yet know… it’s almost erotic.”
Emel will tour to support the record, but her concerts go far beyond the sounds on the album. “I never perform the same way twice. I am more of a theatre person than a studio artist; the songs take on multiple lives once the recording is done. I’m very free with my vocals. I often take unexpected, spontaneous paths with the feel of the moment.”
Born and raised in Seattle, Briana Marela has traveled some but has always called the state of Washington home. There is a sense of place in her music — a sense of nature, of the northwest and of the unique space that exists between cities and wilderness. More than that, however, Briana draws inspiration from the people around her. Not just the emotions they evoke, but also the tactile feelings those emotions bring us: the warmth of affection; the weightlessness of joy; the grounded, anchored feeling of love. That gift for illuminating the abstract is counterbalanced by a remarkable clarity in Briana's lyrics, and that straightforwardness manifests itself in powerful ways. Briana's lyrics are forceful, and throughout her second album All Around Us, traditional song structure gives way to plainspoken declarations that pull back the record's shroud.
Briana began writing music in early high school. "I started dreaming up melodies before I even picked up an instrument," she explains. "I wrote songs on acoustic guitar in high school and I guess I didn't fully realize the other options that existed for creating music. I never imagined I'd be making music using computers someday." It wasn't until Briana left home to attend college in Olympia that she turned her efforts toward music technology, audio production and composition. Learning about the manipulation of melody, vocals and sound through more experimental music is what ultimately drove her and influenced her pop compositions.
"Something changed in me when I started learning about about sound and sound manipulation, about computers' space in making music, and then I couldn't ever go back to playing guitar." In these mediums, Briana found deeper inspiration for composing, arranging, and for approaching music in a whole new way. Appropriately, the album track "Everything is New" was the first song Briana ever wrote using vocal looping techniques, and it sparked what would become a bottomless exploration into manipulated sound.
All Around Us, named after a children's picture book, traces Briana's transition between places, beginning just before she began her first-ever tour in 2012. While on that tour with her sister, Briana performed at an art gallery in Providence, Rhode Island, and it was there that she crossed paths with the artist Scott Alario. He ended up sharing Briana's music with his best friend Alex Somers, the Sigur Rós & Jónsi-affiliated musician and producer, who would go on to produce All Around Us. Later that year—on the day, incidentally, that the Mayan calendar predicted the end of the world—Briana got an email from Alex that would eventually bring them to work together in Iceland. "As soon as we met, we didn't feel like strangers. It was instant friendship," Briana says. "I have strong production visions for my music, but it was so important and fun to work with Alex, to collaborate and to challenge the way I record and do things myself." Working with Somers, Icelandic group Amiina, and others, Briana's formidable talents revealed themselves even more vividly than before.
The magic of this collaboration is evident on the album track "Surrender", which is musically delicate at first, with flickering blips and chords that float into earshot like fireflies. As drums and vocals build, the drama escalates and steepens until we are struck with one bold, mantra-like affirmation: "I'll give you all I've got." "Take Care of Me" is the album's brightest and most immediate song, a buoyant celebration of friendship with a skittering beat and a warm, sweet melody. And title track "All Around Us" is a stark but inspiring beauty, built on the memory of a family member of Briana's who passed away, and the sadness of not being able to say "goodbye" or "I love you" one last time. It is here that Briana declares, clearly and succinctly: "If you love me, say it now. And mean it. For you may never get another chance."
When Briana talks about herself, she speaks directly about her own shyness, acknowledging it in the context of how it informs her songwriting. "My songs are my way to express feelings boldly that I could never speak aloud," she says. "They are my plea to be heard."
It is the balance of the abstract and the intimate that makes Briana Marela and All Around Us so special. There's a place for us all in these songs. We can nestle and tuck ourselves in between their loops and slopes and blankets of sound. We can think about ourselves and one another. Briana Marela's All Around Us tempts these questions: What's so confounding about the truths right in front of us? Why do we hear something simply-stated and assume it's a trick, or the ghost of something else? As an album, All Around Us feels mysterious at first, but reveals itself to be a record of remarkable honesty, and of direct, deeply felt emotions. All Around Us is about relationships with people, about friendship, about improving oneself and finding the bravery to feel, give and show love.