“Let the Distortion Sing”: Maral on Spiritual Melancholy and the Future of Iranian Music

Interviews
03/03/2021
Isabel Khalili
photo by Robb Klassen

In 2020, Los Angeles-based producer Maral released her debut full-length LP 'Push,' via Leaving Records. KEXP's Isabel Khalili recently spoke with Maral about the creation of the record, how she samples classical Iranian music as well as her vision for continuing to reinterpret this music and culture in her own work. They also discuss Persian poetry, what Maral calls “the spiritual melancholy of being Iranian," the transcendence of club music, and how she came to collaborate with Lee “Scratch” Perry and Penny Rimbaud of Crass.

You can listen to the feature or read a text version below. 


"I'm always thinking about, like, what is Iranian music or culture going to be like in 20 years when it's up to us to keep it going, you know?" says Los Angeles-based producer Maral

Maral's new album is called Push, and that’s exactly what it does. She pushes listeners beyond what they’re used to, challenging their ideas about what music and sound can do. Through the use of heavy distortion and beats you might find in a club, she transforms traditional Persian music to create a visceral listening experience. At the same time, she’s challenging the limited Western understanding of Iranian culture.

 

"It's like a way to talk about our culture and talk about Iranian history and stuff beyond what the West sees Iran as," she says. "For a while, you know, because of 9/11, you felt so scared to even talk about your heritage. I always was in love with Iranian music, but it wasn't until college that I felt more comfortable sharing it with people and talking about it."

By proudly sharing her culture through her music, she’s also creating a space that Iranian Americans like me can identify with, within the experimental music scene. This is especially important when considering the erasure that often comes with assimilation or Westernization. Maral integrates Iranian musical relics, often found digging through her parents’ tapes, with other influences from her youth, genres like dub, noise, and post-punk. With these musical collages, she’s not only honoring our culture’s past, but asserting its presence in the future.

"It’s kind of like it's up to us now to pass down these sounds and culture," she says. 

I recently spoke with Maral from her home in LA. We discussed the new album, which came out in October via Leaving Records. We also discussed our shared love of Persian poetry, the reasons for what she calls “the spiritual melancholy of being Iranian”, collaborating with Lee “Scratch” Perry, and why the music industry needs to take more risks. 

But first, we went back. We talked about how the time she spent in Iran as a child helped shape her sense of community, and how it provided her with artistic inspiration she’s still working through in her music.

"A lot of it is being in a culture where everyone sees each other as family," Maral explains. "So having that, you feel taken care of. And it just felt somehow freer than America for children because my parents felt more comfortable and it felt like it was safer. So they let me run around a lot more than I was able to in America. I got to go to Iranian school. So I got to learn a lot about Iranian history and just learn the language a lot better. So it was an all-around really beautiful experience. And getting to be engulfed in the culture in that way was really special to me. So yeah, the best parts of my childhood have been in Iran."

During her time there, Maral became increasingly interested in Iranian classical music and poetry. This was partly sparked by her family and her surroundings, but also by what was on TV. 

"I always remember going to Iran and on Iranian TV, there just being like just hours long, nature scenes with classical music playing on the TV," she says. "Like that was the whole show was just like a beautiful nature scene, and classical music playing and that was it. And I miss that so much."

When Maral decided to take up classical music herself, she was drawn to the Iranian setar.

"I truly love that the most out of all of the Iranian instruments because of the feeling of not needing to be super professional at it," she says. "It just feels a lot more lowkey instrument than the other ones and, you know, its association with Sufi mysticism."

 

Because of the quiet and solitary nature of its sound, the setar is the chosen instrument of Sufi mystics. It invites an exploration of inner consciousness, and with enough practice, ideally, spiritual transcendence. Its subdued sound is also part of what kept Iranian musical traditions alive through different periods of history, at least according to one of Maral’s teachers.

"I remember my teacher telling me, about how, you know, in one of the first Arab invasions, they were trying to get rid of a lot of Persian culture," Maral says. "So they were burning all the books, burning everything and, you know, banning Iranian music so people would have to play this music and pass it down secretly. And that's where the setar came from."

Although Maral doesn’t play setar on the album, she still highlights these important traditions, but through her own filter. On the Bandcamp page for the album, she talks about this, saying:

“The songs with the Iranian samples have this feeling of spiritual melancholy that is an ingrained part of being Iranian, and I made them thinking about the horrible impacts the sanctions and in general the USA’s actions have had on the country and how it just never lets up - the western imperialism that is hell bent on destroying the people in the guise of ‘saving them."

When I read this while listening to her album, it immediately resonated with me. I always felt that, while watching Iranian movies or listening to Iranian music, or poetry, there was this emphasis on the beauty in sadness. Not that they were glorifying the country’s collective pain, but showing a transcendence through it. And I always felt that there was power in that. I hear this in Maral’s music too, so I asked her to elaborate on what the quote meant to her.

 

"So I think about this a lot, this kind of ingrained melancholy," she says. "You hear that within the music a lot. You hear that within Persian classical music, Persian pop music and especially the poetry. And I think it's something that's just been passed down, ingrained in our DNA because of all those invasions that we had to endure, all the different things that we've had to endure in order to keep our culture. This feeling of sadness."

Maral continues, "I think the big part is that it is imperialism and the idea that Iran doesn't deserve to grow the same way as Western countries, this constant stifling of growth within Iran from Western countries. I think people feel that deeply in Iran, and have been feeling it for years and years. I think it’s just a deep sadness within our DNA, sadly."

 

We talked about how Iran’s most internationally famous pop singers, like Googoosh, who you just heard, embody this in their performance. Another of Maral’s favorite singers, who she samples on the album, is Iran’s Hayedeh. 

"I'm so in love with her and the way that she approaches singing and you feel it in her music," Maral says. "That feeling of melancholy. You know, so I think she epitomizes like the Iranian spirit and soul so well with her music."

Maral adds, "Everything in the way you express yourself as an Iranian is poetic, you know what I mean? The way that love is expressed, the way that grief is expressed, it's all dramatic and poetic."

 

Iranians have used art as both a form of expression and a form of resistance throughout history. Maral and I discussed how both of our grandmas had a deep love for the poet Forugh Farrokhzad. She dared to write from the perspective of a woman and advocated for women’s liberation in the 1950s and 60s.  Coming from a culture steeped in poetry, with world-famous exports like Rumi and Hafez, she revolutionized how women were able to express themselves.

Tragically, Forugh died in a car crash in 1967 at only the age of 32, but her words continue to inspire.

"Forugh is definitely someone who I think a lot of Iranian women connect with and wish they could be more like," Maral reflects. "That's what Forugh represents to them is that freedom of expression that they're not allowed to have, you know? Like, my grandma had to stop going to school, like after elementary school or something, you know, and then she got married not soon after. But, she continued, my grandma continues to write poetry, which is really cool. And she always thought that if she was able to have continued going to school, that she could have been a poet or something. It's just so sad. You see these lost dreams."

Maral channels one of her final messages on the album through Forugh’s voice. We’ll get to that at the end. But first, we dug into some more influences on the album. After all, Maral spent most of her childhood in the U.S., and even had a rebellious phase.

"For so long I felt like I had to keep hidden what type of music I was into from my parents because they just wouldn't understand, you know what I mean? Like, they wouldn't understand Crass and I would always have to listen to Crass really low on my computer speakers. Like, somehow I didn't have headphones," Maral recalls. "So I was like illegally downloading this music and discovering so much amazing punk, especially anarcho punk. Crass was one of my biggest, biggest, biggest influences in high school. They were really non-linear about how they made their music and also just didn't care about, like, the technical quality of it. They just made music from the heart, or from the rage that they felt." 

 

Penny Rimbaud, the lead singer of Crass, actually appears on Maral’s album. In a very modern fashion, she found him on Twitter, and reached out with some her music. To her surprise, he actually responded and asked if she wanted to collaborate. He sent her one of his poems, where he speaks about the mistreatment of the Middle East and specifically of Iraq and Gaza, and asked if she wanted to make a track around it. What she made is called “They Not They.”  

You may notice that the song at times resembles an old radio broadcast, which Maral says is a nod to Crass’s style - they often incorporated spoken word into their music. She also wanted to highlight the underlying message of much of Penny’s art, by looping the word “love.”

 

For the album, she collaborated with another one of her musical heroes, the dub pioneer Lee “Scratch” Perry.

"So Mark Frosti, the co-founder of Dublab, had interviewed Lee “Scratch” Perry and he knew how much I loved dub music and Lee “Scratch” Perry," Maral says. "And he had asked me and a couple of other dublab DJs if we wanted to take stems from that interview and just do whatever we wanted with it. And he would air those sound mutations of the interview on Dublab." 

Her interpretation of the interview became the track, “Protect U."

 

"So I just took sections of that interview that I felt like impacted me," she says. "He talks a lot about evil government and dirty money, “politicians go to hell.” That's another line I love. And I kept doing the 'go to hell part.' But then I put this distortion over the “go to hell” part to just like have it hit you in a physical way. So I was trying to replicate his vocals in a physical way."

Throughout the album, Maral allows her samples to shine in new contexts.

"When I was making this new album, I wanted to replicate that feeling that I had in my head of these classical singers or folk singers being rock band lead singers and what that would sound like," she says. "I hope to pass on their stories and their songs as well. One of the songs I sample a lot is a song called Dashti. That's a Persian mode of playing and it's a ready, predetermined set of melodies. But then, how does this singer sing those set of melodies and what words does he associate with them? And the singer that I sampled for that is Mahmoud Mahmoudi Khansari. I didn’t affect his voice too much because I wanted him to shine."

 

On Maral's "Dashti", she uses effects like delay and distortion to create new sounds, even conversations within the song. I asked her what sparked her initial interest in using effects in this way.

 

"My obsession with delay and distortion and why I find them so emotional is through my experiences in Iran," she says. "Like, you know, when you're walking down the street and you hear the call to prayer, it's usually through these distorted speakers.

 

"So I always loved the sound of those distorted speakers for the call to prayer. And then also when you listen to live recordings of Persian classical music or Persian singing, there's always this slight, really quick slapback delay, or this reverb on their vocals. And I think it's just because of the settings that they had available to them, but I became really obsessed with the feeling of that slap back delay on these Persian classical vocals and the emotion that you felt within that."

Maral first started experimenting with these effects as a club DJ. She found that, as long as she started with a beat that made people want to dance, she could introduce them to new sounds from her diverse library.

"I've always DJ’d in a very experimental way and used DJing as a way to express myself, she says. "So for a long time I was DJing with lots of distortion. So I would use this kick tone effect on Ableton where I could mess around with the pitch but also with the distortion. I would have like a moombahton or reggaeton beat then I would add the noise effect and it would be really shrill and sharp, but people would keep dancing because that fat beat is under it. And it was an interesting concept of how far you can push your audience as long as you have a driving beat. And I think that's when I really understood what distortion could be, how you can express yourself emotionally while still keeping people engaged." 

We talked about this in the context of her song, “Vortex in Love.” There’s a moment toward the end where this very traditional sounding musical ritual goes through a vortex, like the title implies, and it’s transformed into a club sound.

 

KEXP: Thinking of these cultural spaces in the past that were tied to like religion or spirituality, and there was this inherent connection and community between people through those rituals and now I feel like we have the club, like we have the dance floor.

Maral: Definitely.

KEXP: And that's why I like that juxtaposition in that track where there's like the sound of a ritual and then turning into the sound of a ritual in a club. 

Maral: Yeah. 100 percent. That's actually a really good connection and a big part of my DJing. Probably the center of my DJing is connecting that spiritual element of repetition and transcendence with what the club can bring. And that's where I see clubbing or going to a rave or going even to a live show, that's where you can really transcend yourself and get to that higher space of consciousness through the music. And I always try to do that with my DJing. I always incorporate different types of music. A lot of time when I DJ, I put folk and regional music on top of, like, bangin beats. [laughs]

Of course, the club scene is one that many of us are missing right now. I asked Maral what she’d like to see reimagined once we are, hopefully, on the other side of this pandemic.

"There are so many things, I mean, I think already people are doing such good work in changing how we participate in the system, the system that we're forced to participate in. But how can we do better within that system, within the constraints we have? And I think mutual aid has been a big part of that. And a big part of the conversation is how we can help each other in small ways. And I want to see that reflected in how we interact with each other in the music scene," Maral says.

 

She continues, "It'd be really great if after this we all stopped thinking of ourselves as individuals and see that if we help each other out, we in the end are helping create a better ecosystem for all of us to live in. I think that people get really focused on their own success and think that they have to be a certain way to become successful or disregard others to become successful. But I think there's a way of doing both. And I just want to see that reflected in how we, once things open up, on how we book shows, how we provide resources. I guess I just want people to take more risks on each other. But that's kind of a hard thing to say as we approach a time period where resources are even more limited. So I don't know, it's hard. I just want people to be better to each other, you know?"

On the song "Sweet Thing," Maral embraces this optimistic outlook on human relationships. It’s also one of the few songs on the album that Maral lends her own vocals to. But, her final message on the album is channeled through someone else’s voice, one you may recognize from earlier in this story. The song is called “salam,” or, “hello.”

"That vocal sample is actually Forugh Farrokhzad. It's her reciting one of her poems," Maral says. "There's a section where she says 'Salam' and I'm like, oh this is a really cool way to end the album because it's me kind of saying 'hi' to the listener if the listener has listened to the album all the way through, which is how I really want people to listen to this, because I worked really hard on getting the tracklisting to flow in a way that felt like a journey. So it's kind of me acknowledging the listener and saying, 'hello, thanks for listening.'” 

 


'Push' is out now via Leaving Records. The album is available for purchase through Maral's Bandcamp.

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