Looking at his perfectly-aligned teeth, you'd be astounded to discover that he'd spent the last 15 years enduring torturous dental appointments and painful surgeries trying to put his mangled mouth back together after being brutally jumped by a member of a racist gang in Sweden. Admittedly, he and his friends provoked his attackers; "We saw ourselves as a gang whose sole purpose was to exterminate racism," he says of the incident that occurred during his early teens.
But dark-pop artist Damian Ardestani, who was discovered by Lorde via a Twitter direct message and has been described as a smoldering fusion of Robyn, James Blake, and The Weeknd, doesn't want to be shrouded in secrets. With his sultry single "Boys Don't Cry" out on Soundcloud, and the hypnotic-dance-banger "Animal" undulating adrenaline on the Lorde-curated soundtrack for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1, the dark-horse is ready to unleash his musical diary.
"All my music is autobiographical. I really admire people who can write a good song that's not connected to real life. But in my case, I've been through a lot, and I haven't had therapy," Damian says of turning to art to cope with his volcanic upbringing. "Ever since I was little, I've had this dark spirit or force within me. If I don't write music, I become consumed by the darkness. When I write a song, it all comes out and I become a happy person."
The self-made artist's proclivity toward the shadows is understandable considering where he came from and what he's overcome. Born in Iran in 1985, Damian was just a baby when his family fled the war to seek refuge in Tensta, an immigrant suburb outside of Stockholm. Shortly thereafter, his father became a drug addict and the family began to deteriorate. "When I was 9, my first poem was published. It was so metaphorical. I would talk about the leaves of a palm tree falling, and that would symbolise my family being spread around the world and falling apart," says Damian.
It was around age 13 that he got tangled up with criminals and developed a beef with a group of neo-nazis. "I was always the good guy in a violent gang. But where I grew up, you have to be tough and protect yourself." Long story short, Damian was living a hard-knock life that landed him with all his teeth knocked out. After that, he went to live with his uncle in the US and rethought his life plan, returning to Sweden at 16 and becoming a telemarketer to fund his music ambitions. Turns out, he had a knack for business. The unlikely entrepreneur broke all the sales records, was repeatedly promoted, and became the CEO of the biggest events company in Sweden by the time he was just 23. But he was deeply miserable, and decided to invest all he'd amassed in starting the record label of his dreams. By the time he realised that the music industry was corrupt and cutthroat, it was already too late. He had lost everything, and owed a lot of people a lot of money.
He'd hit rock bottom. "My finances crashed. I was living in this basement with rats, I was really overweight, I didn't have any teeth." Needless to say, prospects were bleak. Still, Damian the indestructible didn't accept defeat. He abandoned the city to immerse himself in music and songwriting at a cabin on the remote island of Rindö, where he still resides today. "The island is real. It keeps you grounded. It's such an artistic vibe, waking up being so disconnected, chopping wood, the smell of whiskey, fire, wine, my dog, just writing music all day and night" It was there that living and breathing music nursed him back to health, and that he wrote "Boys Don't Cry," the debut single that won over Lorde and ultimately brought him to Hollywood for his first big red carpet premiere.
These days, Damian Ardestani doesn't fear darkness, he turns it into gold. "Whenever I get a setback, I'm like 'fuck yeah,' I'm gonna be able to connect the dots in a few months. I'm empowered by them."
Text Jane Helpern
Photography Ben Colen