Sevdaliza on motherhood, mystery and metaphor

Meet the Iranian-born, Dutch-based experimental pop auteur whose orchestral, beat-driven, and digitally manipulated music navigates notions of womanhood and power

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SevdalizaPhotography Zahra Reijs

Motherhood is on Sevdaliza’s mind. ISON, the debut album by the Iranian-born, Dutch-based artist and Dazed 100’er, addresses major universal truths and complex emotional exploration – womanhood and the relationship of mother and child chief among them. ISON’s orchestral, beat-driven, and digitally manipulated tracks are evocative, unrestricted, and heartrending, illuminating the multiple ways in which a woman accepts her body, sexuality, and power. As Sevdaliza navigates these complex topics, her voice remains poised and soothing. She acknowledges their weight, inspects their many facets, and approaches it all with a measured calm. And now on the newly released “Hero” – and the accompanying tender photoshoot with Sevdaliza and her mother – the artist honestly and openly examines the many sides of motherhood and the impact that relationship can have on both sides.

ISON was written, composed, mixed, and mastered with Sevdaliza’s collaborator, Dutch producer Mucky, and will soon release the record on her own label, Twisted Elegance. The album’s name came to Sevdaliza one night, and it was only after a Google-mission that she learnt that it shared a name with a sungrazing comet – a bit of fated cosmic beauty. Similarly, her name itself has its own complex yet fitting meanings: its Arabic roots translate to ‘black bile’, its Turkish meaning is ‘love’, and in Portuguese, it connects to melancholy. “These three… that’s me,” she laughs over the phone. We spoke to Sevdaliza about her debut full-length, seeing herself as art, and how motherhood and womanhood powerfully intertwine.

You once mentioned in an interview that you were ‘disciplined in terms of your art’, and how you commit to visual betterment and constant improvement in art. Is this something that you’ve harnessed over time or have you always been like this?

Sevdaliza: I’ve always been very focused. My only responsibility is to think, feel, speak, and act truthfully. It’s beautiful if you show rawness. I want the experience of what I do to be as personal as possible. I just feel like we live in an age where we’re supposed to perform all the time. I like to show the pureness of my artistry, not just the polished end product. I love to show the process – the process is more important than the outcome.

It’s quite interesting that you’re addressing the concept of pure versus raw. You explore a vast dichotomy within your art. You’ve released highly stylized digital images manipulating the way you look, you’ve used Auto-Tune – while other times, you put forth a beautifully raw photo shoot that you did with your own mother. It feels as though you’re going through art as one would a mood.

Sevdaliza: I think that’s a beautiful way of seeing it. We’re human beings so, we’re not the same every day, even if we have to perform some sort of image. I sometimes feel sorry for people that become trapped in a performance of their own lives. I could never live like that. I want to be a full person. I also wondered, I don’t know how you feel about this, but when I look at a woman for instance, when a woman is portraying her power, that kind of woman will get questioned way more. It’s almost like an aberration. We ask of powerful women, ‘Is she also vulnerable? Is she humble? Does she smile?’ We judge women more harshly than we judge men in that sense. I think it’s very interesting to show I can be both.

“I sometimes feel sorry for people that become trapped in a performance of their own lives. I could never live like that” – Sevdaliza

That makes me think of your ‘Amandine Insensible’ video, where you take on multiple personas all designed to expose the limiting roles that women are expected to conform to. A lot of people use the word ‘mysterious’ when discussing you, partially because of your use of visual metaphors and artistic manipulation, but in fact that only seems to reveal who you are even more. People confuse metaphor with mystery.

Sevdaliza: You’re one of the few that I’ve actually spoken with that didn’t immediately box me into that ‘mystery.’ The things that I do aren’t necessarily to be fetishized or glamorised or to be in the gaze of a man, or to be in the gaze of being mysterious. When you’re writing a piece, you get to determine the destiny of what you’re doing. What I like about life is both the magic and the terror.

Can art ever feel like enough for somebody like you?

Sevdaliza: When you’re zooming in every day, then suddenly the journey becomes bigger than you. When I look back at it I wonder, ‘Wow, how did we get here?’ I’m not necessarily judging it because the process to me has been incredible. The goods, the bads, all of it. Some days I feel extremely grateful, some days I feel very dark and lost. It’s a human journey of feeling.

Surely that involves harnessing a large amount of self-trust and confidence, and some sort of acceptance that if it doesn’t work out then it’s your own responsibility?

Sevdaliza: I’ve been a late bloomer and really thrown myself into it. I wouldn’t say overconfident, but a bit – what’s that word in English where you don’t necessarily see the risks of something? Rigorous? I’m resilient. I recognise my own strength, and I don’t see it as a danger. I don’t know whether or not it will be a financial or a societal success, I just try to be more free and philosophical about the approach of the actual path that I’ve taken. How dark and lonely it can be sometimes, but it also gives you a lot of light because it’s your choice. It hasn’t been chosen for you.

Curiosity within your own art and the world is empowering. It’s that nature versus nurture thing. It certainly sounds like the experiences you have gone through in your life have helped shape you.

Sevdaliza: Nature versus nurture is incredibly interesting to me. I believe in transformative experiences, it’s just about individual decisionmaking and to what extent that decision is yours to make. The path that I’ve chosen isn’t necessarily an easy one, but I like to be in a state where I don’t feel as if I know it all. That really shuts down your creativity. It’s also kind of dangerous to apply a certain type of spirituality or belief as a placebo to cure it all.

The team gave me the stills from the photo shoot that accompanied the powerful ‘Hero’ track. For most people creating a song for their mother could be overwhelming, that’s the first person they’re connected to in life. How did that photo shoot come about?

Sevdaliza: You mentioned the nature or nurture thing earlier. It started with a question that I had, that life is not a decision we make. I literally sat with that question for hours one day. We make ourselves so full of power, but we also kill, and we’re cruel. How is it possible that within our brain we actually think that it is our decision to make. When you become a mother, that power really gets taken away from you, because you can’t be your child’s god, you can’t decide what your child is going to become. I think that’s quite interesting. I started writing to that idea and captivating both the vulnerability and also the terror and strength of being a mother.

During the chorus you sing, ‘I could never make you love me.’ Were you saying that toward yourself or directing it more toward a conceptual statement about motherhood and how you can’t really force anyone to love, or love you back?

Sevdaliza: You love your child, hopefully, and your child loves you, but you never know what’s going to happen. All you can do is be a full person and know that your child will benefit from that. When this all came out, it was more raw than I’d expected it to be.

Are womanhood and motherhood inexplicably tied? Womanhood in my mind, at its fullest extent, is motherhood. In many people’s eyes, motherhood is the ultimate expression. Do you see those two as being interconnected in that way at all?

Sevdaliza: When I look at womanhood or motherhood, most of it is about skin. If you take skin as an organ, it reflects so much of a woman’s life, for instance, a body. If a woman gives birth, her body changes completely. It actually wears traces that she’s become a mother on the outside and on the inside. That is again nature, you can’t escape it. Everyone is different, some don’t feel comfortable within their own bodies and genders. I think it’s very interesting that career women or women that have never actually had the wish to become a mother, suddenly their biological system takes over their entire life, their hormones, everything, all they want is to suddenly reproduce. Where does that come from? Is it just a simple way to survive as humanity? Is it romanticized because of that? It really interests, especially because I am at an age where everyone around me is becoming a mother.

How old are you?

Sevdaliza: I’m 28.

And you’ve not had children yet?

Sevdaliza: No.

And you’re fascinated with the concept.

Sevdaliza: Yes. Do you want children?

I absolutely do. The concept is so beautiful, and suddenly I can see a flash of future because I’m somewhat of a ‘lean-forwarder.’ But how the actual body changes does scare me some.

Sevdaliza: Completely. The thing that really fascinates me is the fact that becoming a mother is absolutely something you have no control over. The process of pregnancy, and the way your body changes. I assume it must be incredible to go through. I think you will definitely reach another level of power when you’ve experienced that. Can you imagine not deciding what something in your tummy is deciding for you? It’s a privilege to be able to feel that kind of vulnerability toward something, especially in the current state of our world. When you’re rigorously disciplined or used to having control over your body, it can be a quite scary thought of what could happen. But then you have to wonder what are you scared of. Is it the pressure of society on how a woman should look? That’s kind of beautiful in a cruel way. Especially in our modern society, with agism and sexism and bodyism. It can be so overwhelming seeing all these beautiful supermodels having babies and then within four weeks they bounce back.

“The thing that really fascinates me is the fact that becoming a mother is absolutely something you have no control over. The process of pregnancy, and the way your body changes. I assume it must be incredible to go through” – Sevdaliza

Do you want children?

Sevdaliza: I can’t really answer that. I don’t really know. (Laughs)

Did your mother know what to expect prior to the photoshoot?

Sevdaliza: With the photographer (Zahra Reijs) and me, we work together a lot using a very documentary-like approach. It started when I saw my mother one day and I just said, ‘Oh my god, you’re so beautiful. We need to capture the current state that we’re in together, just like it is.’ She was, as always, very loving and supportive.

The still where your mum is looking at you and you’re gazing at the floor, that energy of a mum looking at their child, was unbelievably striking. Then, the opposite frame where you’re standing and her head is resting on your chest, a very beautiful role reversal.

Sevdaliza: My mother is somebody that is ‘in full awe of the woman I’m becoming.’ (Laughs) That’s what she says. I think our roles, they switch. Sometimes I’m guiding her and sometimes she’s guiding me.

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