sevdaliza needs music and music needed sevdaliza
The self-taught Iranian-Dutch talent on the importance of following your destiny.
In 2014, Sevda Alizadeh—then a professional basketball player for the Dutch national team—made a life-changing decision: to leave behind her career as an athlete to pursue another dream. At 27, with no musical training, Sevda summoned her energy and taught herself to sing and use Ableton. Two years later, she had her own label and the debut album ISON; a critically-acclaimed collection of songs merging powerful elements of club music with classical symphonic soundscapes. The record speaks of past and future while feeling forever modern.
Speaking to us over the phone from Rotterdam ahead of her first-ever Australian tour (and an appearance at Sugar Mountain Festival) Sevda pauses before answering each question, unveiling her answers with eloquence and determination. Here, we talk about the past and the power of the subconscious with the current queen of experimental pop music.
I want to start by asking if there was any ideological reason you chose to make Sevdaliza a largely electronic project.
Electronic music is interesting because at the end of the day it’s its own organism. I do experience it to be a living entity and I think if you surrender yourself to that idea it can sonically push you to places where you didn’t know you could go: it’s an enhancement of your head and hands. It creates its own world, but the enhancement is so powerful it can be scary. Beautiful too. Whenever I use electronic software and synthesizers, I think, “How am I using them and how are they using me?” [laughs].
Something about Sevdaliza feels nonconformist to me, almost punk. Could you point to where that spirit stems from?
I think it’s mostly a calling from within. In my younger years this caused me mainly trouble. I wouldn’t say I’m necessarily rebellious in that I’m doing it on purpose to go against anything. I don’t think, “Oh, because they go left I have to go right.” I feel like my whole existence is an act of rebellion because when I walk into a room I always have instant reactions. It’s been like that since before I was an artist. I used to think of it as a very negative thing but I learnt to embrace it and find power in it.
Your life has been packed with drastic cultural, personal and geographical changes—from fleeing Tehran to leaving home so young. How do these events manifest in your work?
I always try to channel my subconscious, so I’m sure my creative output is intertwined in whatever exists there. I think if you embrace your life experience and upbringing, it can certainly help make your work unique. In my case, it’s an eclectic mix and match of elements that are very un-ordinary. I definitely don’t use my past in a conscious way but whenever I reflect on my work I think, “Oh, wow, that’s kinda from this country, and that’s because I’ve lived there, and that’s because I grew up with this culture.”
I imagine those realisations would feel very surreal.
Yeah, I think you past seeps into much more than your creative output. There’s so many layers to it. It’s in your character, your relationships, even the way you handle your business, which varies so much from culture to culture. It’s all super interesting and can sometimes make you feel like you’re in The Truman Show.
I know that feeling so well.
In my case it’s getting more and more extreme because I’m travelling the whole world. I go around to so many different places and I feel like, “Oh wow, this is your reality and this is my reality and this is another reality,” and everyone thinks their reality is what’s real.
Yeah, right now my reality is, “Ok, cool, I'm interviewing Sevda today.”
And she’s wearing a Patagonia sweater...very punk! [Laughs].
Do you feel like the music industry understands you in a different way to your fans?
I honestly don’t experience the people who listen to my music as fans. That word sounds almost degrading to me. Let’s just say I’ve gained so much respect and admiration for people who listen to my music. They span every culture, age, sexuality and gender. In terms of the industry, I feel like I don’t really focus on the labels that I’m given because it’s not about the music industry. I think it’s about the humans who surround the project and who are sending their messages and heartfelt emotions. It’s just so mind-blowing. I channel from the subconscious, so to me it’s crazy to see how many people truly engage with and understand my work.
I’ve always heard so many negative stories about the people who surround an artist, but now I know it’s truly a matter of getting back what you give out. I’ve never tried to be anyone but myself, and I think that’s what people truly respect me for.
Finally, I read recently that you don’t really care about rankings or best-of lists. How do you measure success?
It’s quite simple. Most mornings when I wake up, I do a quick check up on myself. I think of how my body, mind and spirit are feeling. I try to focus on my purpose and to be grateful that I’m in a situation where I can even do that. I measure my goals against the understanding that I’m a vessel of music and messages, so the stuff I’m putting out there is bigger than me. I try to be humble and realise I have to take care of myself and I have to take care of my loved ones. I am not here to be destructive, I’m here to be human.
We're presenting Sevdaliza's Australian tour with Mellum, Paradise, FBi and Collarts. She'll perform Thursday 18th January @ the Woolly Mammoth, Brisbane (Tickets via Moshtix), Friday 19th January @ the Oxford Arts Factory, Sydney (Tickets via Moshtix), Saturday 20th January @ Sugar Mountain Festival, Melbourne (Tickets), and Sunday 21st January @ Faux Mo 2018, Hobart (Tickets).
Editor's note, January 19th: An earlier version of this article suggested Sevda ran away from home at 15. While she did leave home as a teenager, it was to pursue a basketball scholarship.