mighty music

Leila Abdul-Rauf | THE UNCONSCIOUS HAS SO MUCH MORE…

After a few minutes of small talk about the joys of moving, traveling, and trips to Death Valley, you know, the usual stuff, I got to ask Leila a few prepared questions, which of course segued into more questions and tangents. Leila is in no less than FIVE bands (at the moment) ranging from Death Metal to Dark Ambient music, all of which have provided many amazing discoveries. When you Google her music, make sure you are in a comfy chair because you will be there a while. She was warm and engaging…and forgiving when I could not pronounce the name of her new solo album ‘Phantasiai,’ which is being released July 16th.  Her music is truly extraordinary, and I appreciate her taking the time to talk with me.

Leila’s bands: Vastum, Ionophore, Fyrhtu, Terebellum, Hammers of Misfortune, and formerly of Cardinal Wyrm.

Metal Digest: Thanks so much for spending time with us.

Leila Abdul Rauf: Yeah, of course.

MD: So, I realize we need to focus on your solo album coming up, but I do want to address some of your other work as well. And you have quite a bit going on.

LAR: I know, I’m insane. Sorry.

MD: (Naming all her current bands) and solo work of course. So, I’ll tell ya, in my research…well it took quite a bit longer than usual. You have so many projects and they are all so varied.

LAR: Yeah, I like a lot of different types of music for sure.

MD: Same here. Spice of life, right? So, there is some overlap, some similarities with Ionophore, Fyrthtu, and your solo work…Vastum is not remotely the same.

LAR: Although, the ambient moments in Vastum are mostly me.

MD: I saw on Bandcamp, you are credited with vocals, guitars, and ambience…that’s a cool credit by your name.

LAR: Yeah, all the bells and whistles, etc…

MD: The little things add the most, with whatever genre, even if you’re not aware consciously. Listen to the same song without the bells and whistles and it’s night and day.

LAR: Exactly…yeah

MD:  So…your fourth solo album is coming out soon, the 16th. Pronounce the name for me ‘cause I will totally mess this up.

LAR: “Fahn-taz-ee-eye”

MD: Yeah, I would have totally butchered that. Forgive me if I refer to it as the fourth album at times. I’ve listened to it a few times, my wife has as well, plus shared it with a few friends. Hopefully getting you a few more fans

LAR: Oh, that’s so cool.

MD: I’ve heard your previous albums as well and it’s all good stuff. Tell us what we can expect from the new album, basically just three instruments?

LAR: Yeah, there is voice, piano, glockenspiel, trumpet with some synths, so five total, but the vocals, glockenspiel, and trumpet are the most featured.

MD: So, there is a storyline within the album, but you also want the listener to have their story in their mind when they are listening to it. So, if you could share the story with us. I was hearing something totally different than what you described.

LAR: Oh, I’d love to hear what you heard.

MD: Well, this is your album, so you go first.

LAR: Ok, then you share yours…It’s about a person experiencing a powerful and addictive fantasy, that basically obliterates their soul. The sensation I wanted to evoke, as you move through the suites, is that you’re sinking further and further into an abyss. Like the character is going through a dysfunction within themselves or within a relationship. And it just gets worse and worse and worse. It’s almost like the “self” is disintegrated. And then side B is an emergence of something new. It’s different, It’s painful, it’s uncomfortable, but it’s new and then there’s promise. That’s why I talk about it like it’s a crucible; you’re being burned through this channel. Then you come out the other side, renewed but different and almost unrecognizable. There are scars, there’s diffidence and doubt…

MD: Pretty much an allegory for anyone’s life, if they have gone through any ordeal at all.

LAR: Exactly. Yeah, I would say so…

MD: I told Leila about a recent personal loss. During this time, I listened to all sorts of music, including ‘Phantasiai.’ Music has long been a source of solace during difficult times, and this was certainly no different. To me, each track on the album was tied into a daily event or emotion. Indescribably, it was as if this album was written especially for me. Normally, I don’t share things like this, but it felt right. Thanks for listening, Leila.

LAR: That’s really powerful. Thank you for sharing that. That’s why I love talking to people who are thinking about it. The grief aspect…definitely ties in with the album. There is definitely that thread of grief, even the last song, “Cell,” is all about grief and aging…

MD: I am sure you could have 100 people listen to it and have 100 different interpretations, which I would guess is great for an artist to hear.

LAR: Yeah, ‘cause that in turn inspires me. Right?

MD: So, was that the plan all along (only 5 instruments on the album). Sometimes, albums just write themselves.

LAR: Good question. Especially when it’s a solo album, it’s all you and no one to bounce ideas off of. For better or for worse. Although I do bounce ideas off my bandmates in Ionophore, since they are in a similar genre, especially with mixing something. They give excellent feedback…and they’re much better engineers than I am. For this album, I knew I wanted phantasy, the psychoanalytic definition of phantasy, from infancy, and the infant-like projection of the caretaker and how this phantasy is related to it. I had the idea for the album cover before I even wrote anything. And I knew I wanted Glockenspiel to be a focal point because I was already experimenting with it. I had used Glockenspiel on the most recent Ionophore record ‘Knells.’ And I got some really cool sounds out of it…I thought, Oh, I could do a whole solo album out of this.

I kept stretching the boundaries of the tones and sounds it can make. When you do all sorts of pitch shifting and EQing, you can make it sound like a low drum or a Gamelan, or something more gourd-like.

MD: I don’t think I’ve ever seen one aside from pictures. I didn’t realize it had so much versatility.

LAR: Yeah, and if you pitch-shift the other way, you can get a bell sound or triangle or something with a lot higher frequency, with a lot of sparkle to it. So, I just layered a bunch of different sounds together, to almost have a symphonic, chambered sound.

MD: Is there a lot of multi-tracking involved?

LAR: I try to keep it down to four or five tracks. I think after that, you run the risk of clutter. I don’t want the sonic space to be cluttered, and you can run into problems with muddy EQ and all. So, I try to keep it minimal. I think space in music is underrated.

LAR: You had previously said that

“Music expresses where words fall short”

and it reminded me of Miles Davis saying, “music is the space between notes” And Debussy said that as well, and he obviously predates Davis. And it’s all so true.

LAR: I love that quote. It’s not just the silence, but when there is space, you feel the music more. Not just the pitch, but the mood behind it. The other part of that quote is how music exists between sensation and thought. A lot of music-making for me involves the unconscious. I’m trying to pull out things from my unconscious and set it to sound. It’s not so much that I’m not thinking about what I’m doing. I am definitely thinking about it, but the unconscious has so much more than the conscious.  The deeper you dig into it, you’ll be surprised with what you find.

MD: All your other bands, are quite diverse. What was your very first musical experience and how did it lead you down so many different paths? Usually, an experience leads you down a certain path, but you seem to be on many trajectories at once.

LAR: I’ve been on many paths at different times. I’ve been buying and listening to records since I was six years old. There’s always been music. And on both sides of my family, Western music from my Mom’s side and then the Egyptian side, from my Dad. Being exposed to a wide variety of sonic palettes. Not just the Western side of music theory, but also from Arabic music which uses a lot of microtones, quarter tones, etc. Growing up with this rich sonic palette influenced my composition style. Probably more unconscious in the beginning, but I’ve gotten more conscious of it as I’ve gotten older. Then as a teenager, I got into the more extreme music, Metal, Punk, Hard Core, Industrial…

MD: In the last ten years, what has shaped you most as an artist?

LAR: My bandmates have always been the biggest influences in all my projects. When I brought the solo project to the stage, I learned to become comfortable with improvising. The whole improv factor in the live performance has been really crucial in my development. Before, I would perform something exactly as written.

MD: With improv, “I’m developing as a person right in front of your eyes.”

LAR: Exactly. A lot of it has to do with the genre. With Metal, there’s less room for improv, but with ambient/electronic…what I love about what I do on stage doesn’t have to remotely do with what is on the record. And I like it that way. Improv has definitely influenced my songwriting. There are moments of the recorded music, but I feel like I would be cheating the audience if I played everything exactly like on the record. I want to give the audience a brand-new experience.

I also think a crucial development is my bandmates teaching me Ableton Live (a music software.) A combination of that and learning to improvise.

MD: What is your target audience? Your solo work isn’t remotely like your other music. How do people find (locate) your solo music?

LAR: Well, this has been a struggle, but I would like to get out of the Metal trap. Metalheads, let’s face it, there is a small percentage of them that would be into this. (solo work)

MD: I can see that. Personally, I appreciate pretty much everything, but you’re right.

LAR: I do have fans who are into the dark ambient realm exclusively who have no idea who Vastum is. I think there is a target audience out there who is into dark ambient music but not necessarily into Metal. They like female voices. They like listening to something that is simultaneously musical and immersive. I think that’s what I am doing, combining this musicality with the immersive experience.

MD: What are you doing in the near future, as far as promotion?

LAR: I am slated to play Northwest Terror Fest in Seattle, next July 2022. That will be the official record release performance. Nothing booked for 2021. Vastum has a gig booked in May 2022.

(then a lengthy conversation about upcoming shows ensued….)

MD: So what can we expect from one of your shows?

LAR: I’ve played in multiple sized venues…usually I’ll have one or two people with me, who play other instruments and synths and I’m usually playing trumpet and doing live looping of my voice. And my collaborator is doing things with my voice. I sing from two microphones. My collaborator will be doing different things with his loop while I do the same. Usually, there is a live projection. I try to adjust the sound by the size of the room. A lot of improvisation, with the music and lyrics.

MD: How do you improv lyrics? Music, I can see, but lyrics?

LAR: Oh, that’s the best. I’ll sing a lyric, and just keep going with it. Just close my eyes and see where it goes.

MD: Yep, whatever speaks to you in the moment.

LAR: Yeah, I’ll almost leave my body. Melodically and lyrically, I’m in a different space.

MD: Sounds like the music is doing its job in other words. I am trying to think of where you would play here (in Denver). The Summit seems to be one of the main Metal venues here.

LAR: In Denver, I know a couple of folks that do ambient noise music, experimental stuff… also, the label that released my album ‘Diminution, Cloister Recordings, is from the Denver area. I’m friends with the guys from Feather and Bone, the Death Metal band. Some of them have noise/experimental projects, so it would be great to set up a show with them or something there.

MD: That would be cool. I can guarantee at least two attendees.

Then another tangent on the plight of smaller venues and the slow return of concerts… post-Covid.

MD: Is Bandcamp the best way to support your music?

LAR: For digital, go through Bandcamp. For vinyl, and if you live in America, go through Cloister and if you live in Europe, go through Cyclic Law; they are also putting out the CD.

MD: Regarding the death growls with Vastum, are you using false vocal cords?

LAR: Yes. I did a presentation at the Grimposium in Philadelphia that’s on YouTube.

MD: Yes, I saw that. I knew about growling, the physicality, etc, but you expounded on it.

LAR: That’s so cool you found that. I have a speech pathology degree; that’s how I know this stuff.

MD: I did not know that…that’s quite the combo.

LAR: I finished a Master’s degree, but dropped out of the Ph.D. program to pursue music. To earn a living, I’ve been doing the nonprofit admin thing for 20 years and more recently have a part-time job writing music articles on top of it. Sometimes I give guitar and vocal lessons (growls) and interestingly, all of my vocal students have been female.

MD: Hypothetically, if you had free time, what would you like to do?

LAR: I would like to travel more, pleasure travel. See a lot more countries. If I didn’t have to work for a living, I would do that and just make more music. Not gonna happen that soon though.

MD: So, with Vastum, you were included in Guitar World’s top 25 Metal guitar tones…that’s huge! How did that come about?

LAR: Yeah, with Iommi and Downing and Tipton…The writer for that piece used to write for Decibel…and had interviewed me a couple of times…

MD: That’s really cool.

LAR: It was an honor for sure.

MD: Well. Yeah, how many people can put that in their bio?

LAR: Well, 25 apparently. Although I’m sure some of those people probably don’t even know they’re on the list…’cause they’re really famous.

MD: Women in the music industry or almost any industry (have historically had a more challenging time)..are you finding that to still be true?

LAR: I think for women starting out now are in a much better place than when I was younger. I think women have a lot more opportunities now than they ever had. And yeah, it was hard, trying to convince a group of guys you’re good enough to play with them.

MD: Especially in the Metal scene…just an unspoken…having to prove yourself.

LAR: There were a lot more women in Punk, Indie, Country, things like that. I feel like America had a lot of catching up to do. Europe has always had a lot of women in Metal, like Doro Pesch, Angela Gassow, Jo Bench…

MD: Compared to ten years ago…

LAR: Yeah, totally night and day. And not just women, but people of color, trans people, non-binary people. That part of the music scene has gotten better.

MD: It’s a societal thing. Music or otherwise… Whether you’re a woman or trans or regardless of your ethnicity or preferences or whatever label…and I hate the word label… it doesn’t change the sound of your guitar or your voice or the words you’re writing…

LAR: Well, it does and it doesn’t. You get a broader scope of voices out there. And they are gonna sound different from each other. You’re broadening the range by having more voices out there.

MD: I’m just saying because a person is this or that…it’s unfortunate it has to factor in. I think we are agreeing.

LAR: Yeah, tokenism is never a good thing. I agree.

MD: Hopefully, we are becoming more accepting of differences…Slowly, but surely.

LAR: Especially in the last 5 years, there has been a palpable change, compared to 10 or 20 years ago. I have had people not want me to try out for a band because I wasn’t a guy. That was like 25 years ago.

MD: Well, who’s laughing now, right?

LAR: Who’s laughing now???…. bet those fuckers aren’t even playing music now. This was when I was in college…who knows what they’re doing now?

MD: So with the death growls…what made you think you could do that in the first place??

LAR: I think it’s my coming from hardcore. When I started singing in the 90s, it was the screaming style. So, when I got more into Metal, I wanted to get better at guitar, so the singing factored in. And the vocal ranges got lower and lower. By the time I got to Vastum, it was really low. Just a downward progression in pitch from my hardcore days. It’s an art that gotten more refined and sophisticated.

MD: Anything you would like to promote, aside from music? I realize we are a music magazine, but I think we should promote the artist community in all aspects.

LAR: I think we should support local causes. There are a lot of people who are suffering. Homeless or on the brink…people are starving. Without singling out specifics…There are a lot of agencies you can donate to. That kind of thing. Supporting people in need.

MD: I would highlight the word “local” in that.

LAR: Yeah. If you want…BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color) Black Lives Matter, People that are struggling, that may not be as privileged as we are. I donate to these causes from proceeds from Bandcamp. Look and see what’s out there. Fortunately, we have jobs and can pay the bills, but not everybody can.

MD: Well said; I’m with you. …and then another twenty-minute tangent ensued. Gonna wrap up. I appreciate all your time. We will get this posted close to the release date of ‘Phantasiai.’

LAR: Thanks so much. Take care.  

Phantasiai | LEILA ABDUL-RAUF | Cyclic Law (bandcamp.com)

https://leilaabdulrauf.bandcamp.com

https://www.instagram.com/therealleilaabdulrauf

https://www.facebook.com/leilaabdulrauf

https://www.cycliclaw.com

https://cycliclaw.bandcamp.com

http://www.cloisterrecordingsus.bigcartel.com

https://www.facebook.com/cloisterrecordings.us

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