For a while, ABIR’s songwriting didn’t quite match her reality. Not having been in one, she was “writing these heartbreaking songs as if I’d been in a 10-year relationship.”
But as she rose through the NYC pop scene, and upon discovery by Atlantic Records in an opening show slot, it’s been an authentic adjustment. Hearing her story will illustrate that progression, while also letting you in on her early attachment to Keyshia Cole, and explaining why she decided on “MINT” for her 2018 EP title. Simply put, you’ll meet a rising creative at peace with herself, along with the life experiences she now has to draw upon.
“Respect: The Women of Atlantic” is a special series on What’d I Say. It’s hosted by Colleen “Cosmo” Murphy, founder of Classic Album Sundays.
ABIR — “Tango”
Colleen Murphy: “Tango” was the opening song off “MINT,” the EP from ABIR. She’s an artist I guarantee you’ll hear more from in the near future and one I recently had the pleasure of meeting. Welcome to “Respect: The Women of Atlantic,” a special series here on What’d I Say. I’m Colleen “Cosmo” Murphy and on today’s episode, I caught up with ABIR just before her very first tour.
She’s a young singer who’s incredibly talented, possessing a real finesse to her stunning voice, one that pours over soulful, yet modern and minimal production. She writes honest lyrics that are sometimes sassy and sometimes beautifully poignant. But perhaps even more important than her natural ability with voice and words is her warmth and charisma. ABIR knows how to connect.
She’s right there with you, whether you’re a fan listening to her music or sat across from her in conversation. And she has quite an interesting story, from her birthplace, to her musical upbringing, to how she finally got discovered.
Let’s delve into the world of ABIR.
ABIR — “Tango”
Colleen Murphy: I interview so many different kinds of artists, artists that have had long careers and artists in the middle of their careers. And here I am interviewing you at the start of your career, which is really exciting, exciting times.
ABIR: Thank you for having me.
Colleen Murphy: Well I just wanted to kind of start just going back, and you’re originally from Morocco.
ABIR: That’s right.
Colleen Murphy: And you moved here when you were?
ABIR: 6 years old.
Colleen Murphy: And where did you move to? Was it Virginia?
ABIR: So I was actually born in Fes, Morocco, and then I moved to Arlington, Virginia. And then I lived there. I was raised there pretty much all my life. I actually turned 6 on the plane, like over, coming over. And then I was raised there all my life until I moved here about three years ago to New York City.
Colleen Murphy: And what was it like trying to adapt to a new culture? I mean, coming from Northern Africa to the South, basically, the United States. It must have been a huge, huge cultural change for you.
ABIR: Yeah. I think coming in at such a young age, I was able to adapt fairly quickly. So, I didn’t really experience like a crazy culture shock or anything like that. But my sisters did because they were a little older than me. So, I kind of lucked out. I was like able to adapt really, really quickly.
Colleen Murphy: Right. And when you have parents who are…are they trying to protect you and try to keep the old ways, or were they quite happy for you to assimilate into American culture?
ABIR: Yeah, my parents did a really good job at keeping Morocco in the crib and the house and the tradition. But then when we walked out the door, they were like pushing me to learn more about where I was. Like, “Oh, you know what? Celebrate Halloween. Let’s get a Christmas tree.” They were very open to the culture here. So, I felt like that’s also what just made me adapt quickly too.
Colleen Murphy: Well, that’s really great that they were so encouraging on that side because so many others may be it’s quite the opposite. And a lot of times, all of our families when they come from other countries and they just want to keep the old ways. So that’s great that they were very forward thinking on that.
Colleen Murphy: So can you remember your first musical memory?
ABIR: It’s actually one of the reasons I started singing. There is a song called “Whatever Lola Wants.” And I just remember being in the back seat of my dad’s car and that’s legit being the first song that I actually remember hearing. And it’s like a very jazzy song…oh my god, my jazz friends would hate me for saying the word jazzy. Literally, they’re like, “Don’t ever say jazzy. That’s disrespectful.”
But no, it’s a really, really great record. And that was probably my first song.
Colleen Murphy: Was that, “Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets?”
ABIR: Yeah. (singing) Yeah, it’s so good.
Colleen Murphy: Can I get a private concert? It’s fantastic. Well, you have a gorgeous voice. Now, which artists were you listening to growing up before you got into pop music? Because I heard that you were into jazz, like “jazzy” stuff.
ABIR: Oh, god. You know what? I listened to a lot, well, it was like jazz and soul. So, it’s Etta James and Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan. I pretty much attached to myself to those three artists and then I was introduced to more mainstream, like R&B, like Beyonce, Destiny’s Child, Whitney Houston. And it always ranged from there.
Colleen Murphy: I could hear it in your voice actually, this kind of melding of these influences. What is it that you learned from singers? Like let’s talk to about the jazzy ones first. Etta James, Sarah Vaughan, what did you learn from them?
ABIR: Jazz is like vocally, it’s a really, really…you need to know how to control your voice and the technique is really interesting. And I just remember being in the back seat like trying to mimic everything. Like they were going from one note down to the next note. I’m like, “How? How are they doing this?”
So, it was just interesting to see how the voice could possibly work. And so, I saw it as a challenge. I saw jazz music like as a challenge. And then I saw the more like R&B stuff, it’s like just fun, just fun to sing. But yeah.
Colleen Murphy: Now you also started writing songs quite young. What inspired that?
ABIR: That was definitely my R&B days. I got so attached to Keyshia Cole, one of my favorites growing up too. And I was like, dang, like every song she writes is like she’s telling a real story, and she’s telling about her relationship. I started writing songs and I hadn’t even been in a relationship; I was writing these like heartbreaking songs as if I’d been in like a 10-year relationship. And I don’t know, from then I just started writing about…I was imagining things until I eventually started having my own experiences that I could write about.
Colleen Murphy: Right. So you were kind of putting yourself into those situations?
ABIR: Right. Exactly.
Colleen Murphy: Well, you moved to New York a few years ago.
Colleen Murphy: And it seems like you had a lot going on since you moved here, like you’ve really been doing the New York hustle. Good for you. So tell me about your experiences in New York. Like how did you start to kind of get yourself out there as an artist?
ABIR: Oh that’s a good one. So when I first started coming to New York, it was more so on the weekends, like during college. Just whenever I could have a chance to just come up here and hang out with my friend who was actually an artist. And I would always go to these shows and I was just like, “Wow, why am I not up on the stage singing? Like why am I in the audience?”
I’m just going to school, not really thinking about music more than a hobby. I was just kind of, I felt trapped. And every time I came to New York, I was like, “Wow, like this could be me. Like, what are you doing? You got to get yourself out there.” So I started coming up every other weekend like networking, meeting people, getting myself out there, going to like open mics, anywhere I could. And then eventually, I started getting some friends, started meeting the right people, getting in the right crowds and like people actually wanted to help me get on the stage.
Colleen Murphy: And were you singing other people’s songs at this time?
ABIR: Yeah. I was doing a lot of covers, and I was also doing songs that I had wrote back then and none of them were released. I would like get up on the stage and expect people to know what I was going to sing. But it was a good experience because I actually learned what it would take if I took it seriously.
By my senior year in college, I had graduated pretty early and just dove in. Just came immediately to New York and was like, “You know what? Signed a lease on a whim literally.” And it was like, “Alright, I’m here. Let’s get it. Like, what am I going to do now?”
Colleen Murphy: Well that’s the attitude it takes. That’s the attitude it takes to get things done. How did you realize that you had such a distinctive voice? I mean, you were doing talent shows when you were young and it is a very distinctive voice. How did you first realize, “Wow, I really have a voice here”?
ABIR: Well, I guess, honestly, I owed it to all my friends and my family because it’s always the people around you that support what you’re doing if they believe in you. And my mom would be like, “Oh my god, you got to keep going. You got to keep going.” Or my friends would be like, “Oh girl, you killed it. You killed that note or you killed that song. You should sing this, you should sing that.”
So, I started like getting confident in music in general. And then it really wasn’t until I got to New York where I felt like I was starting to find my own voice. Because covering a lot of songs, you’re essentially just mimicking what the artist is doing. But when I started writing more original music, I started figuring out, “Oh, like this is my thing. Like, this is how I sing.” And I honestly owed it to my manager because he’s the one who kind of helped me figure that out.
Colleen Murphy: How do you, in your own ears, hear your voice as being distinctive? And how do you separate yourself from other singer-songwriters? What do you think you bring to the table?
ABIR: I don’t know. I do have a bit of a jazz tone. And then when we were first starting to figure out my “voice,” we would call it the Etta. There’s this thing that I was doing constantly, like too much. And it would be something like…I’m going to give you an example like (singing) or whatever. I’d always do this like extra jazz tone vocal. And they were like, “OK, let’s scale back. Let’s add a little bit more Keyshia in there. Get some more Beyonce. Get some Whitney in there. Like get the power vocal in there and see what that forms.”
And so, then I started kind of like opening up, singing bigger notes, trying to get to a higher scale. And I felt like eventually, I don’t know, it all kind of fell together. I don’t know. I don’t know how to really explain it, but it all kind of…the jazz part of me was in there. The soulful side of me was in there. The Celine Dion powerhouse vocal was in there, and I was just happy that we could pretty much mend all three together.
Colleen Murphy: And then with your lyrics too, it’s very much your generation, your age living in the city. It reminds me of when Amy Winehouse first came out. Now, Amy-
ABIR: Oh I’ll take that. That’s a huge compliment.
Colleen Murphy: I mean Amy has…Sarah Vaughan was a massive influence on her just like yourself, and she was doing a similar thing where she was kind of bringing jazz, melding it with hip-hop and R&B. And then singing about things that were very real and very straight forward and not sugarcoated at all. And very much, like you’re talking about your Uber rating, which is just something in real life. I don’t even know what my Uber rating was until recently. And someone’s like, “Did you check out your Uber rating?” I was like, “Oh, my God. I have to check this thing.”
ABIR — “Reunion”
Colleen Murphy: Anyways, it’s fantastic. It’s really cool because it makes it very modern, contemporary, very now, very your generation as well, which is really cool. But melding it with something that’s a heritage and legacy, basically. Is that something that you’re doing consciously? Do you hear that yourself?
ABIR: I did make a conscious effort to just try to stay in this age. When I first started really writing music, I was like 19, 20 years old. And I was like: “Don’t try to write about a 10-year relationship. Just write about what you’re going through. Write about your subway rides. Write about your long trips on the bus. Write about what your friends are making you feel.” So that I could relate to people that are like me.
That’s honestly the type of music I like to listen to. I like to listen to something that I feel I can relate to on a personal level. So, I don’t know, I try to keep it hella thorough but real, real.
Colleen Murphy: That’s great. Now you’ve collaborated, before you have your new EP “MINT,” you did a load of collaborations. Cash Cash. Is it Masego? Masego?
Colleen Murphy: Masego.
Colleen Murphy: Masego. What did you learn from these different collaborations? Did it help you find your voice more or your musical style more?
ABIR: Masego is one of the first people I had ever worked with in general, and he’s just such a cool cat. He’s so soulful and so great at what he does, and he doesn’t really think about it. So from him, I’d say, I definitely learned like sometimes don’t think too much. Just open your mouth, see what comes out and go with it. And I took from that experience and be like, “You know what? I got to chill a little bit and whatever I’m feeling, just got to let it out.”
And with Cash Cash, “Finest Hour” was such a personal song. And I think before I was like always…like I’m saying, I like to tell about my experiences. But sometimes I would hold back just a hair on the real, real stuff. I mean, like the sadder or not depressing, but just not the most exciting things you want to sing about. And working with Cash Cash, I was like, “You know what? I’m going to be real open right now, and I’m going to be personal and let you guys know what I’m really feeling.” And that’s what I learned from Cash Cash working on “Finest Hour,” that it’s OK to just be raw too.
Colleen Murphy: It’s interesting because their version is very uplifting, but I like this acoustic version on the EP.
ABIR — “Finest Hour”
Colleen Murphy: It’s really amazing how the song really shines through on that, I think. And I think you should do more of that, to be honest.
ABIR: You know what’s crazy is that the song actually…when I first wrote the song, it started off just like that. It started off with like four chords and a little bit of guitar and that’s how we got through writing the record. And then to see Cash Cash take it and make it, it feels uplifting when you hear it, when you hear the Cash Cash version. But the more acoustic version, I feel like it hits the heart a little harder.
Colleen Murphy: Yeah it has more poignancy, I think, and more emotional gravitas, I think. And the other songs, you said when you’re writing these songs, are you writing with a team? Are you writing yourself or you have a team also on the musical side? How does it work?
ABIR: On “MINT,” it was the first time I actually co-wrote on a song that I was going to put on my project. So “For Ya,” for instance, I wrote all by myself. But then “Lose Me” is a collaboration and it’s such a dope record. I could not turn it down. I’m like, “Let’s get it.” Like it’s so good. And “Reunion” is another song I wrote by myself, but then you have “Young & Rude” who I co-wrote with Corey Latif. I felt like I did a lot of songs where I just wrote them by myself. But then honestly, the collaborations are my favorite on the record.
Colleen Murphy: And really inspiring, I suppose. You were gigging around New York quite a bit doing these open mic nights and did Craig Kallman discover you?
ABIR: There was actually a show I did at Rough Trade here in New York and I was opening up for Aminé who’s amazing. And I was like on a high that day. I just remember it was like a big room and I was like, “Wow, this is like the first big crowd I’ve actually performed in front of.” So, it was actually, it was Lon Rae who came out to the show and she saw me perform for the first time and like ran back to Craig. And literally the next week, I was sitting in the office and that’s how we met. That’s how he showed his interest in my music.
Colleen Murphy: What did it feel like when you all of a sudden, like here you are doing your first kind of bigger gig at Rough Trade, more people, and gosh, there’s an A&R scout there. And next time, you’re sitting in the CEO’s office of Atlantic Records. What was going through your head?
ABIR: At the time I was like, I’m one of those people that when something so great is happening, I just tried to act like normal, like nothing’s happening, just so I don’t get my hopes up or just get too excited that I can’t control myself. It was so surreal because I was like, “Wow.” I’ve dreamt about that all my life, just the label. And people think different things about labels, but I remember being like 10 and be like, “I want to get signed by a label. I want to sing in front of a CEO. I want to get the chance to have a meeting.” And being there, I just remember being like, “Wow, this is like all that I’ve worked for and I’m here now.”
And it’s not even like the pressure wasn’t as crazy as I imagined. It was such a calm conversation. Craig was so supportive and he was like, “You’re doing great things. We’re not going to change anything. You do your thing. We’re just here to help wherever you need us.” And that was honestly so amazing to hear because sometimes people were like, “Oh, you signed to a label and they’re going to change you and they’re going to do this.” And it’s like, “No, it’s not at all the case.” And I don’t know, it was just a really great experience.
Colleen Murphy: I think you found a really good home, or this really good home found you. Whichever way it goes. Now, your EP is out. It just came out a week ago?
ABIR: Yes, exactly.
Colleen Murphy: “MINT”?
Colleen Murphy: And could you tell our listeners, first of all, why you chose the name “MINT?”
ABIR: Yeah. Oh, man, like we were talking about, I was born in Morocco. And every time I would hear my parents or aunts or sisters gossiping, they were always having mint tea. That’s just the drink of choice that you have. You drink a little tea, tell gossip about the neighbor, about your sister, about whoever. It’s cool because you sit in there and you’re like, “Wow, they’re drinking tea and they’re talking like the most shady stuff.”
I decided to call it “MINT” because I was like, “You know what? I’m talking a little bit of shade on this EP, so let’s just sip this mint tea as we talk this shade.”
Colleen Murphy: That’s really good. Do you think there’ll ever be a time when you’ll have some Moroccan influence in your own music?
ABIR: Oh man, I can’t wait to get there. Yeah, for sure. When I was originally just trying to find a name for the EP, I was like, “Dang, should I save ‘MINT’ for the EP” where like I have the Moroccan influences. So I know it’s coming. I know it’s coming because it’s just [that] Moroccan music has such good rhythm. And the drums and the percussion like in general, I’m really, really excited to put that in.
Colleen Murphy: And also different scales as well.
ABIR: Yeah. It’s real different.
Colleen Murphy: There’s actually more. There’s more notes, aren’t there? It’s interesting.
Colleen Murphy: Let’s just talk a little bit about the future. After you have this EP, you have a tour coming up. Are you working on an album as well? Are you starting to write for an album?
ABIR: As soon as we…it was like the Friday we dropped “MINT.” I like hit my manager and I was like, “Wow, I’m actually already inspired to write another song.” Because we had been working on “MINT” for a really long time — like this past year just every day in the studio was on those same six songs trying to figure out how to make them perfect. And I hadn’t written a new song in a really long time.
And last Friday, I was like: “Wow, I’m actually inspired to write something. I’m so happy and so excited to just create more music now that this is out.” So I’m really excited. We’re already setting up sessions, already hitting up my favorite producers to get in. Yeah, I’d say we’re working on something.
Colleen Murphy: And anything you can reveal? Anything you can reveal?
ABIR: Not quite yet.
Colleen Murphy: OK. How about musically though? Is there any kind of new directions or new vistas that you’ll be exploring?
ABIR: What I loved about “MINT” is just being able to showcase a little more of my vocal ability, and it’s just always so fun. Growing up on Whitney, Celine, Beyoncé, they’re like…when you hear them sing, you’re like, “What the heck is going on? You guys are like, how can you do that?” I really want to have more of that appeal on my listeners. I want to show what I can do. So I’d say that’s what I would be aiming for on the next project.
Colleen Murphy: That’s really good. I mean, because there are, and the U.K. have these great vocalists like Adele and Amy Winehouse.
ABIR: Oh, Adele, yes.
Colleen Murphy: And the ones you’ve just mentioned are all powerhouses. And the jazz, your jazz influences or your jazzy influences as well.
ABIR: Oh, god. They’re going to kill me.
Colleen Murphy: But in this era where people are kind of auto tuning things and it’s really more about, not always, because I think cream does rise to the top. But it’s easy to kind of be a flash in the pan pop artist, in a sense, without having a great voice. It’s really wonderful, and I’m glad that you want to tackle that even more and to really explore your voice. I think actually maybe doing something that would match your Moroccan roots, as well, and digging in there could really be quite interesting and different as well.
ABIR Yeah, for sure.
Colleen Murphy: I have one last question for you, which it’s kind of a weird question. If you had to write your 50-year-old self a letter right now from where you’re at-
ABIR: Oh, man.
Colleen Murphy: Because you’re on the cusp of stardom, really. So you’re starting this tour, and it’s a very exciting time. I mean, all this energy and this…it doesn’t seem like you’re anxious at all. It seems like you’re completely positive about it. Where do you want to be? What would you write to yourself as a kind of a statement, a time capsule of where you’re at right now?
ABIR: Wow, that’s intense. That’s an intense question. Like, Jesus, I don’t even know what I’m doing tomorrow. Wow, wow. What would I tell my 50-year-old self? Man, girl, I hope you done helped all the people you wanted to help in the world. I hope you made all the money just to give it right back. And I hope you made the music that you wanted to make and share with the world.
Colleen Murphy: It’s so inspiring to speak with young artists on the verge of breaking big. And I’m sure you’ll agree that ABIR’s story is so interesting, starting in Morocco via the American South, and up to New York City where she made her own way to follow her dream. I’m Colleen “Cosmo” Murphy and thank you for listening to “Respect: The Women of Atlantic,” a special series here on What’d I Say.
You can listen to the “MINT” EP now, and you can find out more about ABIR at Abirmusic.com.