Zohra Atash trots into Birch Coffee dressed to the nines – which is hardly a surprise given the rising star's reputation as a “goth goddess.” Despite righteously rocking a bright lip, a fringe leather coat, and a mop of carefully fussed black hair, the diminutive singer seems...skittish. After she insists on buying the coffees, Atash admits that crowded spaces make her nervous – despite all her years in New York (and as, you know, a rock star). “It's good to make yourself uncomfortable,” she says. “If you don't put any risk in it, what's the point? You're better off, Zohra,” she laughs.
Give the people what they want!
While I'm a little surprised to hear that a front-woman considers herself a “recluse,” (and goes on to compare her creative process to the isolated ramblings of “Jack Nicholson's writing in The Shining”) Atash has set the tone for our date: she's a complex woman with many layers. She's an articulate, self-aware speaker, and a powerhouse performer. She's a public figure with an impressive check on her ego. She was born in Afghanistan, and her family fled the area as refugees after her Grandfather – a general – was killed in the Communist conflict. Atash was raised in the American South by semi-conservative parents, who instilled in her a deep sense of empathy. Nowadays, Atash is half the creative genius behind Azar Swan, a gypsy-punk-metal-industrial-pop-synth-rock band that – like its leading lady – defies a neat label. Phew.
Azar Swan is set to put out a new album later this summer through Zoo Records, and BUST Magazine has the skinny on their single – a re-styled cover of Marianne Faithfull's “Broken English.” Check it out here!
It might get loud..er
Atash's sound on previous records could be described as somewhere between The Knife and Nine Inch Nails; haunting, aggressive, and moody. “Broken English” adds to this formula as it mixes in a political aspect; Faithfull's original was about the Cold War, and Atash's update is intended to remind us of the lingering “small differences that divide.” She is drawn to the material because of her heritage, saying the song's coda encourages transplants to hold on to their roots. “It resonated with me through my upbringing,” she says. “The line that's recurring, 'Say it in Broken English/ Say it in Broken English' means [culture] should be your priority...don't speak English!”
This song represents a break in Azar Swan's style; despite the singer's history, the band has so far avoided both covers and a particularly political bent:
“I never thought I would want to write [political] things, just because it was my everyday experience. I thought that it would be good to make music as escapism from that. And dealing with these things that have been percolating for years because of where I come from...it's always been a shadow. And a shadow that didn't necessarily feel good, to explore.”
But Atash has recently changed her tune about culture and politics, acknowledging her background more and more frequently in an attempt to promote tolerance. She chalks this up to her perspective in life: “that feeling of creating for something bigger has always been a part of my life. You can't be selfish with this background...I have guilt eating something that costs more than sixteen dollars.” She mentions her family's efforts to provide charitable aid for others caught up in Middle Eastern conflicts – her father has helped to build a school, and Atash has corresponded with women from her home nation. “It's a bit of a burden, but it's good, that outlook of 'oh, there's actual suffering.' Sometimes when I'm feeling terrible, music is its own way of alchemizing that. Instead of becoming a basket case about it.”
“I'm plenty ferocious when I want to be”
Atash's perspective has also influenced her stage demeanor -- she couches her artistic philosophy in the belief that performing is its own gift. “The outlook about life that we are somehow better because we're performing...I can't get on board with that. I decided that there were ways of going about it that didn't lead to that,” she says. As a result, the singer makes a conscious effort to “not close her eyes all the time” when onstage, and prefers not to play on a raised platform as “it feels like you're disconnected.” She paraphrases a P.J. Harvey quote: “You have no business being onstage if you're not looking at the people watching you. The audience is as much a part of it as you are.” Atash seems determined, above all things, to be in concert with ideas and people – not outside of them. There's only one caveat to her strict regimen of selflessness: “I don't mind rock n' roll pageantry at all,” she laughs. “I'm plenty ferocious when I want to be.”
And just as she pushes herself beyond her comfort zone when connecting with an audience, Atash pushes her limits when it comes to creating. Citing her long-time creative partnership with the other-half of Azar Swan, Josh Strawn, Atash believes she's grown used to a ruthless collaboration process. “[Josh has] always been able to talk to me in a way I don't let anyone else talk to me. I feel blessed to have that relationship with anyone,” she says. Then the singer points to some of her own pop idols and speaks of their disappointing recent records, saying she never wants to be surrounded by sycophants and yes-men: “I like people telling me – in constructive ways – 'why didn't anyone tell you you should have tried a little bit harder?'”
What are you fighting for?
Atash starts every song she writes with a germ of an idea– be it from a book, a piece of music, or a piece of art. She merely requires “a seed of something that's really inspiring.” Curiously, the singer has just recently discovered she has mild synesthesia, a condition where the senses co-mingle; Atash says she sees colors when she's making sound. As a result, her approach to music is like patchwork. She'll attach various strands while working towards a cohesive whole. She shares that if she wasn't a musician, she might be a linguist, as her fascination with the basic qualities of language runs deep. This hyper-attentiveness to detail is evident in the new song, and much of Azar Swan's catalogue.
I'm struck when Zohra tells me near the end of our chat that she's never personally felt subjected to sexist treatment in her artistic life: “I've never worked with anyone who made me feel like my ideas were any less. Perhaps that's because of how I carry myself.” She was brought up in a house filled with strong female figures, and can also ground her confidence in her idols – Patti Smith, and various other empresses of punk rock. Zohra first came to music via a miserable adolescence. She recalls finding solace in her heroines, thinking “I can't place my trust in anyone, but I can trust Kathleen Hanna.”
It strikes me as rare to find an artist who can hold contradiction so well, who's unafraid to live in the tensions between rigor and creativity, performing and coexisting, history and modernity, obligation and ambition. You should admire Zohra Atash because she's intelligent, incredibly hard-working, a rigorous thinker, and a super bad-ass female role model. But you should listen to Azar Swan because their music is just really, really good.
Images courtesy of Jenni Hensler.
Find out more about Azar Swan's sound and vision on their website.