Emel Mathlouthi, photo credit: Ebru Yıldız (@ebruyildiz)

 

Emel Mathlouthi (@emelmathlouthi) is an inspiring Tunisian singer who has just released her new album The Tunis Diaries in October. Her protest music gives inspiration to people from all around the world and brings people under the same roof with its lyrics which encourages solidarity. In her busy schedule, I had a chance to contact Emel and talk about both her music career which entangles with the ideas of revolution and resistance and also her new album The Tunis Dairies.

Hi, Emel. First of all, thank you for accepting our invitation. I want to begin by asking about the beginning years of your music career. You’ve started your music career in the mid-2000s with your political songs. How did you decide what kind of music you wanted to create? What were your influences?

I had such a huge pack of influences, lol!!

I grew up listening to European classical music. My heroes, even today, are Beethoven and Vivaldi. I also listened to Chikh Imam, the legend and protest singer-songwriter from Egypt, as a child. Then, I had a pop-divas phase where I taught myself how to sing with Mariah Carey, Whitney, and Celine Dion which led me to my grunge, metal, and goth years.

Later on, I got inspired by John Lennon as much as Joan Baez, Anathema, Tori Amos, or The Cranberries. As per the political side of me, I think it’s always been there, probably thanks to the Marxist father I have who gave me my rebel free spirit but also, thanks to my character. I’ve never felt easy with oppression and dictatorship, whether from the government or the society, the system or the family.

Have you faced difficulties at the beginning of your career because your songs had political meanings?

Of course, there was absolutely no space for that, except in some underground circles and theatres, which in a way gave me more freedom to create and not follow any rules because I didn’t have any expectations. No music industry and no structures! So, I just exploded my potential to create without boundaries. However, at some point, I started to feel oppressed and empty. You want to grow after a while, and you need recognition and spaces to explore your art and fulfill your dreams.

Nostalgia and the feeling of the home drove me to want to create and to revisit the old spirits that haunted my first years as an artist. All I had was my laptop and a zoom recorder, but through Facebook, I was able to find a fan who lent me a classical guitar (a guitar I haven’t played since my first ever guitar when I was 18) and a much-coveted mini-USB cable which turned the zoom recorder into an interface capable of decent recordings.

Although your songs were banned on Tunisian Radio, they also became anthems for Egypt and Tunisia’s uprisings. How did that happen? How do you interpret the process?

It was social media, even though I feel it’s getting out of control nowadays, and I hate the ways it’s controlling people’s lives now. But there was a time where it was people’s only escape and safe space to express themselves and fetch information. So, I was there with my songs and my first videos and performances from Paris, and it resonated with the youth especially. I am so grateful for that as it will always be a source of pride to me.

Your new album is released recently. Could you please tell us more about the creative process behind the scenes? How did the Covid-19 outbreak affect your work and album preparations?

When COVID began, I was visiting my family in Tunis and got confined in my childhood home where my daughter and I went to celebrate my father’s 85th birthday.

I was separated from my husband, my band, my collaborators, and all my equipment. But I was immersed in nostalgia and memory, and surrounded by the blossoming wildflowers, the tweeting birds, and blue skies of my hometown. I was also sheltered with two of my favorite people in the world, and together we were three generations under the same roof, free from school, from work, and outside world distractions.

Nostalgia and the feeling of the home drove me to want to create and to revisit the old spirits that haunted my first years as an artist. All I had was my laptop and a zoom recorder, but through Facebook, I was able to find a fan who lent me a classical guitar (a guitar I haven’t played since my first ever guitar when I was 18) and a much-coveted mini-USB cable which made the zoom recorder turn into an interface capable of decent recordings.

I started playing live after putting my daughter to sleep (if she did!), sometimes with very little preparation time and last-minute setlist changes. And, the most remarkable thing happened, the turn-out and feedback were so great, especially among my compatriots for who it meant so much that we were going through the same struggle, apart but still on the same ground. And, as I played and sang so many of my hits and standards, I realized I was falling back in love with music that is simple, direct, and from the heart. Far away from the luxury of music studios and gear, I was confronted with my very own abilities and yet challenged to produce music that is relevant and emotionally driven.

I think If I could, I would perform in churches all the time. It’s my favorite place to sing actually. I’ve always loved big spaces with huge reverbs anyway, so it’s kind of a singer’s ultimate fantasy to find an empty old church to sing at.

Your new album is The Tunis Diaries. What Tunisia means to you; do you call it home? Do you miss Tunisia?

Yes of course, and most especially after my 2 months confinement period in my childhood home last year. As I played my life from the womb of my childhood back in April 2020, I began to feel more at home, in so many senses, than I have in a very long time with no clock ticking to pack up. After living on three continents, touring to dozens more, and recording three studio albums of increasing complexity, I was back with the basics, I was myself again, and nothing else.

You’ve performed your song “Holm” at the Church of St. George in Cairo, but there were no audiences; I guess it was due to the outbreak. How was the performing experience in such a magical place but without audiences?

I think If I could, I would perform in churches all the time. It’s my favorite place to sing actually. I’ve always loved big spaces with huge reverbs anyway, so it’s kind of a singer’s ultimate fantasy to find an empty old church to sing at.

They are such magical places, especially the old and historical ones. I feel they are safe spaces for so many people where they come for a very intimate spiritual experience.

Music does that to me so being in such a space, singing, is a very spiritual experience for me.

I had the opportunity to sing at some churches converted into concert halls or art space, it’s gorgeous and very very emotional but also, like going into a church by myself just to sing a small lullaby or prayer.

In the lyrics of your song “Holm”, you talk about a tyranny whose walls crushes people in their dreams and reign darkness and greed into all hearts. What can we do to fight against it? Do you think that music is a way of fighting? Can art save us from all of our miseries?

Music is an AMAZING and a powerful way to fight, probably one of the most immediate and natural ways.

I have the immense gift of having a beautiful voice, so when I need to express my pain, my anger, my frustrations, my empathy, I know I can do it in the most beautiful and highest ways.

What we can do about it is to defend the most vulnerable ones, to see injustice, and speak up!

To feel empathy for the less lucky ones, and be active any way we can around us, by volunteering, joining a nonprofit, helping any way we can around us and in our most immediate circle. There are many ways to be helpful and empathetic.

Thank you Emel for joining us to do this interview!

Thank you!

Photo credits: Ebru Yıldız (@ebruyildiz