Interview: Emel Mathlouthi On Her First English Album & New Challenges

The artist in a dress she designed.

(Photo by James Mountford)

Interview: Emel Mathlouthi On Her First English Album & New Challenges

The artist gives OkayAfrica an exclusive interview on the process and thoughts behind Everywhere We Looked Was Burning.

Singer and songwriter Emel Mathlouthi is kicking off a world tour showcasing her latest album, Everywhere We Looked was Burning. Mathlouthi was born and raised in Tunisia where she developed a keen musical talent and cultivated her signature, haunting voice.

While she gained worldwide recognition for her song "Kelmti Horra (My Word is Free)" when it became the impromptu anthem of the Arab Spring, prompting a performance at the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony, her new album shows a different versatility—it's almost completely written in English.

The album still contains Mathlouthi's signature style of resonant, hypnotic, gothic and spiritually reverberating tracks but with a new twist, a different perspective to experience how she views the world. We caught up with her in the days before leaving for her tour and talked about her process in creating this record, why it is in English, politics in art and how she feels about being labeled a 'Tunisian' artist.

Emel Mathlouthi - Wakers Of The Wind - (Official Video)

Nereya Otieno for OkayAfrica: Why did you choose to do an English album now?

My maternal music language is English, I grew up as an unconventional Tunisian, in a not very traditional Tunisian family. I didn't listen to all the classic Arabic music, our house was more into Western classical music and Beethoven. The language I started naturally singing in was English, because I really rejected the dictatorship in my own country. I just rejected all the cultural heritage. But now, after traveling, I see how much segregation there is between different cultures and what is considered mainstream.

So, that's also why I also decided to do this album in English. In a way, I'm representing my old self, retrieving my old emotions. But at the same time, it's a statement. I can do this, I can do an album in English and I can be a visionary and a pioneer in this kind of music that I did not inherit. And I can explore myself in it.

Language forces you to tap into different ways of thinking. Anyone that speaks multiple languages will attest that a sentence in one language is completely different in another.

Yeah, absolutely. Somehow it was very liberating for me and liberating for my voice, my style of composing, my writing and my way of interpretation. All of a sudden I wasn't a prisoner of myself anymore. I was just outside of the box, outside my own box, and I was able to let my voice just float and be meditative and retrieve my inner spirituality.

(Photo by James Mountford)

Your husband is a speechwriter for the UN, does his work influence your songwriting and vice versa?

My husband is not helpful to me and my songwriting, surprisingly. [Laughs] The way I write lyrics is very organic and I'm always trying to convey emotion, but he is much more disciplined. But I when I came to the US four years ago, I wasn't exactly fluent. He was my teacher, so in a way he was very influential. Now I'm grateful because I feel that my learning was very solid to the point where I was able to push myself and write an album in English.

Do you think that you have influenced his speech writing?

That's a very good question. I'll have to ask him.

You take a lot of inspiration from nature in your writing. How has the difference in nature between Tunisia and New York influenced you? Tunisia is so expansive with infinite oceans and deserts. New York on the other hand, has sort of a hyper-solitude with high volumes of trees in a condensed space.

Having grown up in Tunisia makes me very, very close to nature and especially water, right, the sea and the ocean. And that makes me very sensitive to that aspect of life. When I discovered upstate New York, it was quite revolutionary for me. I just loved the scenery and the little houses and the architecture of the houses and the history. We don't have that much green in Tunisia. So it's a little bit different. Actually, it's a lot different. I really feel the need to be confronted with strong natural elements like mountains or water, like oceans and seas. Because I need to feel that surrender, like I'm surrendering. But at the same time I'm refilling myself. It's crucial. It became crucial for me, composing and writing music and producing and creating with with that.

Emel Mathlouthi - Ma Lkit/ ما لقيت - Live in

How do you think your Tunisian identity has shaped you as a female musician and artist?

It's hard for me to talk about it with words, especially as the years go by and because I'm a little bit of an anarchist. I tend to call home wherever I feel good and is part of my life. Yet my Tunisian identity is certainly present all the time. But I don't need to talk about it and I don't need to think about it and I don't need to prove it. Somehow, I feel like in the Western media they're always expecting you to show your flag, your ethnicity. And I fight against that.

Cover art for Everywhere We Looked Was Burning

One of my big inspirations is the late designer Azzedine Alaïa, a fashion icon who designed many of my stage dresses. I have such an immense respect for him because when you saw his creations, he was just an artist. He didn't have to be seen as anything representative. But then when you got to know him and you got to eat with him and then you saw how profoundly Tunisian he was. That's how I see it. I try to break away from these generalizations. I try to find like-minded people everywhere I travel, I don't look for my "tribe" in that way.

Somehow that's kind of a problem that I have because, in America especially, I realize that you need your tribe, especially as a musician. When you go out there in the US and start performing like, "Okay, who is your tribe? Who's going to come see you?" I think it's awful. And there's not many people who are talking about this.

In the States specifically you mean?

Yeah. I feel at the same time it's such a free and big country and there's people from all over and there's a lot of spaces for anybody to create and do stuff. But then when you're not born here, it's another equation. I realize more and more that actually it's not that simple. When you're African-American, you're connected with your African-American audience. If you're African, the African audience. If you're Arab, you have to have the Arab audience. And I just hate that because I don't conceive of making music like that. To me, I need to make music to everyone who can feel with it.

EMEL MATHLOUTHI - KELMTI HORRA - The 2015 Nobel Peace Prize

In the past, after the Arab spring, everyone just decided you were political. So I can understand wanting to distance yourself from that a bit. But then it also seems that you naturally gravitate to encouraging the common man to fight for what they believe. Like your lyric 'join us in the streets where we don't belong.' I have trouble not thinking of you as political.

Yeah. I mean sometimes I struggle with my own self. There's many sides of me and there's many parts of me and there's many sides of the stories. I'm not one person with one homogenized character. But at the same time, it's not everything that I do. I'm a musician. I'm a singer. So I'm not a politician and I'm not a reporter. I'm an artist. I create and I try to reflect our times, our struggles because I think it's important.

Music cannot be detached from the environment. Currently we're not feeling. With all the technology and the growing capitalism, we're just smashed and we don't even realize it. We go to a show, but we spend the time on our phones. We talk. We don't have respect over things. And I feel like we're getting lost. So I don't think that's political, I think that's deeply human.

Your name means 'hope.' Have you felt that your name has played a part in the path you took in the music you make?

Maybe? Yeah, I think I'm a pathological hoper. [Laughs] Some days I wake up and there's like 10 bad news headlines. And I'm like, "Oh my God, what am I going to do?" And then somehow my brain catches on to the most stupid hope. So maybe, yeah, I think that's a curse from when my parents decided to name me Hope, to bring hope to their life.

Well, there are worse pathologies to have. You're going on another world tour soon. What hopes do you have for that?

Well, first of all, I'm hoping that the media will stop diminishing the power of artists like me. We're artists, not artists for a country or a region or a culture. We're global artists and we should be respected that way as the media respects Western artists. That's also one of the reasons I made this record in English. So there wouldn't be language barriers anymore and the media can finally start digging in and not trying to search for the exoticism or the tradition or the politics inside my music.

Second, I really hope that I will be able to reach all the Arab countries and be able to perform in Tunisia. It's still very complicated for me to perform in Tunisia and I think it's a shame. So I'm looking forward to really do a real world tour and a tour in the region and be able to sing in Jordan and Lebanon and Egypt and Tunisia and all over and have this record really reach more and more hearts.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.