premiere: sadaf’s sparklingly surreal track ‘thingy’
The Iranian-born singer and producer creates mesmeric Kate Bush-like dreamworlds.
SADAF's debut EP is defined by the crackling energy of the singer burning a fictional film script. (It sounds like staticky synth beats and vocals that flicker and occasionally snap.) SHELL is built around a central conceit: a young filmmaker's troubled process. It follows her as she self-sabotages and struggles to arrange her ideas before incinerating her work to start over, leaving behind a burned-out husk. The tracks are as multilayered, beautifully strange, and self-reflexive as that suggests.
Now based in New York, but born in Iran and raised in Canada, SADAF has made her name in NYC as a performance artist. She's presented work at MoMA PS1, the Berlin Biennale, and Performa, and channels her energies into everything from watercolor to DJing and the violin. Her music as a solo artist is often described in interviews as experimental — with teasingly indefinable influences — but, "I want as many people as possible to hear it and I want it to change what people think of mainstream music," she says. "Anything new is going to be labeled experimental."She's presented work at MoMA PS1, the Berlin Biennial, and Performa, and channels her energies into everything from watercolor to DJing and the violin. Her music as a solo artist is often described as experimental — with teasingly indefinable influences — but, "I want as many people as possible to hear it and I want it to change what people think of mainstream music," she says. "Anything new is going to be labeled experimental."
SADAF is currently in Portland, for a residency program organized by the artists' spaces S1 and Yale Union, where she's working on a recording at a synth library and developing a film about a metalworker who decides to become a musician "when he meets a young agoraphobic marriage fetishist who spends all of her time with her pet chicken." Listen to her cinematic track "THINGY," premiering below, as she talks to i-D about her obsessions with deep YouTube and outsider musicians.
As a DJ, you bring together so many diverse sounds, from Persian trap to Angolan music to dancehall. How do you discover new music?
When I was in highschool I had this friend that would spend all her time compiling really obscure YouTube playlists, but she wouldn't let me see them. Her boyfriend was a YouTube archeologist too, and he used to collect VHS tapes. They would hang out every night and show each other the weird new YouTube clips they had found. It was like a secret club I couldn't belong to, but it motivated me to dig online. I think that was my first introduction into how to look for music. I would also find these film buff channels on YouTube, someone with usually no more than 25 followers that would upload four-hour-long French films with subtitles. My entire film education basically came from YouTube and this little video store in Vancouver that had a Halloween theme year round.
How does the process of creating your own music relate to DJing?
It's completely different, because DJing is essentially borrowing and sampling, and it's all about contrast and relationality and curation, but at the end of the day, it's found materials that you can tell a story with. But when I make music it's this extreme of making things from scratch. It's like drawing a picture, or writing in a journal, it's actually much simpler in a lot of ways, because it comes directly from me. The influences are there organically. I'm Persian, so that is inevitably a subconscious influence, and of course other types of music seep in, but it's never on purpose.
What's your musical lineage? What kind of music did you grow up with?
I don't really seek out music, in a way music itself is not what interests me. I'm super obsessive so there are phases of things. I can listen to the same song over and over again for months and never feel the need to listen to anything else. From all the different music communities I've been around since high school (from punk to goth to noise to experimental to hiphop to club…) I only remember the people. What stays with me is the people that were involved, and the music is a byproduct. It's a form of expression like talking, and I've never idealized it as anything else. I loved "outsider music" as a kid, people like Wesley Willis and the Shaggs and Daniel Johnston because it was a small window into their world.
You're also a visual and performance artist — how much are your practices intertwined?
To me they are the same thing. I think this obsessive need to define oneself through craft is a bit fascistic. I'm just interested in having a unified aesthetic, and I really hate this distinction between mediums. I couldn't care less what medium someone works in, I just care about who they are, and what their story is.
What is your recording process like? How much of it is spontaneous?
It's one hundred percent improv. I don't start anything with an intention. I may have a mood or a broader thematic in mind, but that's just a feeling. I have no specific method for making beats, and the vocal element of my songs are achieved through trial and error. I rarely write down lyrics, or practice before shows. I'm anti-practice personally.
Can you tell me a little about SHELL? How does it relate to your earlier music?
It's kind of the most cohesive thing I have released so far. The album is autofiction in its truest form, and therefore extremely personal. I really think that fiction is more personal than autobiography. Documentaries are to me more fictional than narrative film, because the truth hides in the corners, and pointing a camera at something is always a practice of filming opacity. So this album blends my reality with a fictional reality.
What ideas or sounds did "THINGY" grow out of?
This song is the imagining of a scene, where the characters can be interchangeable with almost anything. Thingy could be the object of desire, or the desiring subject. The object of affection could be a dog, a lover or a vacuum cleaner or a new car. All we know is that the obstacle keeping the subject away from the desired thingy is economics; money. So in the end the fulfillment of desire becomes a nostalgic fantasy, and the scene ends without the satisfaction of that projected desire.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Image courtesy of SADAF