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The Amal Zenab Interview

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Before the homie Hattie Lindert takes it away here: I got into Amal Zenab last year, and found her because I listen to everything the producer/guitarist/photographer Nathan Bajar does. Their 2023 EP called Safe 'n Sound pairs Bajar's beats and guitar with Zenab's layered, honeyed voice and comes up with something perfect. It's the kind of producer/artist combo that's so good, I wanted them to become a permanent thing like Ice Spice and Riot. As soon as I heard "Ride" I was like, this is rare chemistry.

But talking to Zenab (it's her middle name), it turns out she has great taste in producers and wants to explore. Yesterday she shared me an unreleased track produced by 10.4Rog, who is a friend of mine and a certifiable genius, and she struck synergistic gold again. As she explains in the interview, she works deeply with producers who she appreciates not just as musicians but as people, making real relationships that give the music a richer essence.

This season she's moving from her home of Queens, NYC, to L.A., to work more with Rog and to tap in with her community she's been building there over the past year as a bicoastal person. Don't worry though, she'll continue to work with Bajar, as well. She told me Bajar and Rog are "my bruddas frfr." It's just, she's expanding her world.

Her move will be a loss for the New York scene, a gain for L.A., and the music she makes out there will be a blessing to us all. Here is Amal Zenab in conversation with Hattie Lindert, lightly edited for clarity.

HL: Safe 'n Sound is gorgeous and I’m curious about your chemistry with Nathan Bajar, how you connected, what you liked about his approach to music, the way you guys worked together…

AZ: I met Nate at a jam session somewhere in Bushwick, summer of 2022. I pulled up to the jam alone, our mutual friend Evan who goes by 13th Law invited me, and so it was summer of exploration, my summer of being out and about and knowing what it is to immerse myself into uncomfortable experiences. I walked into the session and sang for 20-30 minutes when it started, and then other artists did poetry, singing, rapping, etc. Toward the end of that, I was like OK let me go up again before I head out and meet up with friends. So I went up again, and it was all off the top freestyling. And then I was done, and as I was walking out, Nate stopped me and he was like, “Yo, did you come up with that yourself, off the top?” I was like “Yeah,” and he was like, “That’s crazy, would you want to link up sometime?” And I was like, “Yeah for sure.” I’d heard of him through another friend of ours, and heard his music before, but the thoughts didn’t connect until after the fact. From then, we had our first session on August 10th, and that day I pulled up on him after meeting with someone I was talking to at the time, and was overwhelmed with emotion for them and didn’t really know how to process everything. We didn’t live in the same city and I didn’t know when I would see them again. So I was going into this new experience with Nate full of grief and emotion and just falling for someone and feeling super lovesick. That was the perfect combination to start the journey. Our first session, he also invited our friend Maiya Blainey who pulled up that day. Amazing artist. And you know, I kind of was like, I know you guys don’t know me like that, but I’ve had a day. I just need to get into the booth. And hopefully we can make some beautiful stuff out of it. And that’s how I made “August 10th,” during that first session.

Sometimes, I guess that’s what it takes, the right people on a crap day.

The right people who have the skill and ability to channel what you’re feeling. You know, it does take a village to do anything. I’m grateful that by happenstance we were all in the same place at the same time.

Was that your introduction to Maiya Blainey too?

Yeah that was my first time, and she’s so sweet. Very quirky, and eclectic, and vibey. And you know we were all just gauging each other, and we realized we were all fall babies. I believe she’s September, I’m October, and Nate’s November. So the autumn council.

Is there anything that stood out to you aside from being able to create this great song, about your chemistry together? Or between Maiya and Nate? Or you and Maiya? Or all three of you?

With Nate, he felt like my music, I don’t know if I would say soulmate, but my musical telepathy twin. With him it was very easy, no expectation, very comfortable. He set the tone with having a safe, open space with me, compared to my past experiences with producers who were very predatory or didn’t have good intentions, especially as a femme artist I was very grateful for that. The more my comfortability grew, the more seamless the process was. We spent August 2022 through February/March 2023 just putting all these finishing touches on this project. And so you know, I’ve never experienced that before. I never wrote songs that fast. And truly having fun, and both of us losing our shit when we hear the demo that we made, being excited about it. Through that new experience we cultivated a beautiful friendship. He’s like a brother to me.

That’s amazing. You speak about these predatory experiences, and then the surprise about how great it was to work with Nate, is there an ideal environment for you to really make your art flow?

My non-negotiable is establishing some form of friendship or relationship with the person before diving into working with them. Sometimes artists go into sessions with new producers, and there’s no sense of community building, or actually getting to know each other properly, and dive into it without that interpersonal connection. But I make the best work with people I’m close with. It’s very important for me to be comfortable. In an environment that’s not open, or not judgment free, or accepting of flaws, you’re mentally on edge and it shows in how you process the art. You hold back, in discomfort.

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That philosophy, did that come to you when you were young? What was your upbringing with music like?

Growing up, my parents would play a very diverse selection of music from all over. I was always singing, always in musicals, and choir, and I was in church choir…

…in Queens?

Yeah, born and raised. I’m used to being in community with other creatives. As I was growing as a person in my youth, I was enveloped in so many beautiful, interesting lessons through music. I also had the opportunity to sing at Carnegie Hall in like junior year of high school, we sang Duke Ellington’s Sacred Music, and that was a canon event for me. I think people know that music is spiritual, but it’s another thing to truly feel it. That showed me that music was my passion, and that I wanted to do it for the rest of my life. I was studying international affairs, and was on track to be a diplomat, but honestly art is a calling. Just in paying attention to how I feel, in settings where music is around me, if I’m learning music, or freestyling, or anything, it’s just really important for me to feel safe and be surrounded by brilliant minds that you can have energy exchange with. How else can you grow, learn, expand?

Is there anyone that you’d love to collaborate with that you haven’t gotten the chance to yet? Or an artist you love that you sense you’d have a connection with?

I would love to work with Mndsgn, Liv.e, Kelela, Solange, Nick Hakim, a lot of alternative R&B or indie artists that I’ve listened to for a long time. I feel like there’s fragments of all of them in what I do, as well.

Those are incredible artists and I think they definitely come through in your work. What are some of the concepts or ideas that you’re working through in your music right now?

So I’m working through a lot. I honestly am definitely being intentional with how I write, how it makes me feel, and how it translates to other people. I’m trying to release a song hopefully in another month or so, and I wrote about what’s happening in the world right now. I’m pro freedom, pro Palestine, and as an artist I think we are obligated to talk about injustice. So I wrote a song about that with my friend Moki, he goes by Lion Milk, and I’m excited to bring that into the world. It’s gonna do something, I pray. I hope that in a small way, I can be impactful and get people to think more beyond the superficial. I feel like we’re becoming desensitized, so the song called “Save Us” because I think we need to be saved. From atrocities, and internal atrocities and turmoil. I’m working through life. My inner and outer chaos. And making it tangible because I know other people can relate.

In a moment like this that feels so bleak, and overwhelming for an individual up against systems causing atrocities, do you have strategies about how to keep making art in the face of these hardships that are going on everyday?

People underestimate their art, just being in comparison mode, or their perception of what the standard is. I believe that art is anything from a journal entry to releasing your emotions and crying, or just any form of output is art to me. I think that it’s all about being imperfectly consistent. It doesn’t have to look like a full-fledged studio session every day, but I’m neurodivergent also so routine gets mundane, and with that you have to acknowledge that whatever tiny amount you do, it’s art. I journal every day, document every day, through voice memos, or practice my bass…it’s honoring yourself in any way you can. Once you do the release, and contribute that small little thing, you’re freeing up your mind space to when you are ready to create something more tangible it’s easier to enter that flow state. For people that struggle with that, acknowledge that what you think is a standard, does not exist. A tiny little bit of something, a scribble on paper, you honored yourself by doing what you wanted in the moment and that should be enough.

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That is really good advice. You’re born and raised in Queens, how does the area influence you creatively?

I’m blessed to be from Queens. A lot of legends are from Queens. There’s a historic neighborhood of Addisleigh Park, and a lot of jazz musician like Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, and even Muhammad Ali, and Jackie Robinson, Black legends lived in really nice homes in this area. Growing up I listened to A Tribe Called Quest, and Nas, and Nicki Minaj, and all of these Queens icons, on top of pop music, Whitney, Mariah, Michael, Luther, and gospel music. And so I just think that I have a beautiful blend of culture within me. And Queens is the most diverse borough. It’s the largest borough. All the friends I have, I feel like friends are like puzzle pieces to who we are, and with growing up in such a beautiful, diverse place, I have accumulated an encyclopedia of knowledge and tidbits, down to food, and communication, and shared experiences. Being from here, I’im very proud of it. Being a New Yorker you have to grow up fast, and navigate a crazy city at a young age. Tying that into my artistry, and who I am, it’s a big part of me. I also feel like with my roots, you can almost see the theme of Afrocentric-ism, and even Africanism, because that’s my big umbrella. I’m all for the advancement, and the abstract, the ethereal, and growing up spiritually as well, I try to tie that into my work even down to how harmonies feel, or how airy and spacious a song is. As much of a tangent as what I said just was, my whole life I think is puzzle pieces, and the songs are fragments of that. That sounded mad artsy.

No, I connected with the puzzle pieces.

People from Queens, we have heart. And me as an artist, you’ll see it, you’ll feel it. People who talk to me, feel better after talking to me. I’m aware of my energy. And it can be impactful in a good way. My inner world, and who I am, it shows and reflects in how it makes people feel. I don’t know if that makes sense. Cuz it’s hard, but it’s really important. If we don’t take care of ourself, it’s a downward crumble. But remembering you’re not alone, I struggle a lot. My brain is running a million miles a minute. And remembering that I’m not alone, and so many people that have shared experiences with me that I can learn from, that’s what sustains me and keeps me going.

Community is so huge. I don’t know where I am without community. So you’re going to LA tomorrow…

Yeah I’m working on a song for another release this year. And I’m also moving there this spring. It’s been calling to me. I was bicoastal all last year. So I’m looking forward to not buying a flight back and forth. It will be my Big Girl move.

What are you most excited about for this year?

I’m excited to experience more people, and be in rooms with different energies out there. I really feel like this is the beginning of the uphill climb, and I’m excited to be around my community out there. And grow as an artist, and a person. I’m in my late 20s, so I’m doing the work, and excited to build a beautiful world, someway, somehow, in my artistic expression and I think a change of scenery will do me well. I’m excited for all the beautiful people I’ll cross paths with. This summer’s gonna be lit.


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