Being Yasmine Hamdan

How the Lebanese singer-songwriter overcame self-doubt, anxiety and frustration to redefine Arabic music for her generation

Yasmine Hamdan
Shervin Lainez
By Adam Grundey
Jul 31, 2014

YASMINE HAMDAN IS EXHAUSTED. "I don't know if I'm in one piece," the Paris-based Lebanese singer-songwriter says over the phone from Beirut. It's early June, and in a couple of days Hamdan will perform her first concert in her hometown for around five years. The last week or so has been a whirlwind of "everything you can imagine in terms of press," with hours (several of them with this magazine, both in person in Dubai and over the phone) of TV, radio and print interviews in English, French and Arabic. Not that this is anything extraordinary for the 37-year-old. “I’ve been touring and promoting this album [her solo debut Ya Nass] non-stop for the last three years,” she says. “I’ve become kind of hyperactive.” Her husband, the Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman, she says, “will look at me like, ‘Oh! You can talk to me, send an email, watch TV, talk on the phone and write a note all at the same time? That’s not normal.’ I’m in that place. All the time.”

Her homecoming has given her some respite. “It feels good to be home, with the sun and the sea and the food. It calms me somehow. I tend to be very intense and crazy. Being here is giving me some mental space.” It’s also reconnecting her with her very first audience. “They’ve been faithful to me for so many years,” she says. “And I’ve been faithful to them. I carry this audience with me whenever I sing anywhere. Even when I’m in France, part of my head is in Beirut.”

Since the start of this year, Hamdan’s routine has generally only gotten more hectic, though. Ya Nass finally received a U.S. release, she’s performed numerous gigs in numerous countries (including the U.K.’s Glastonbury Festival last month), and has received rapturous reviews for her scene in iconic U.S. filmmaker Jim Jarmusch’s latest movie, Only Lovers Left Alive, in which she appears as herself, performing “Hal” – a song she wrote specifically for the film. Of course, promotion for the movie then got added to her already bulging diary.

Hamdan isn’t complaining though. Life’s good. She’s spent the last 18 years or so working towards this point. From her early work in Beirut in the late Nineties to mid-2000s as a part of the hugely influential Arabic electro-pop duo Soapkills with Zeid Hamdan (no relation), through Y.A.S. – her major-label collaboration with producer Mirwais (who’d previously worked with Madonna) – to her solo work, she’s reached an enviable position in which she’s free to express herself pretty much any way she wants – not being tied to a particular genre. More importantly, she has developed the talent to do so, and has the experience and hard-won wisdom to know what she wants to say. For Hamdan, this is the payoff she always dreamed of from her music: It was a way to get to know herself. “You don’t always connect with yourself,” she explains. “You don’t always have the time or the opportunity, or the courage or the knowledge. Sometimes you seem like a stranger to yourself. So, I’m lucky and privileged to have the opportunity to get to know myself better. I think I’ve reached a point where I’m much more comfortable in my body and with who I am, but I struggled with that for a long time. I had to understand why I had certain emotions, why certain things were happening to me. And what’s magical about art is that it gives you some tips and some markers.”

IT'S STRANGE, REALLY, TO HEAR HAMDAN talk of struggling to identify with herself. She seems so self-assured. “I remember being really stunned,” says Jarmusch of seeing Hamdan perform for the first time. “I don’t know how to explain it exactly. There’s this intensity in her style that’s never forced. She has incredible control over her voice as an instrument, but she doesn’t show off, she just employs it for something very sensual, emotional and evocative. It’s not fake in any way. Her decisions are emotional and intuitive, she’s not really calculating for her career and stuff. It’s very sincere and very heartfelt. She’s just a true artist. She’s like a gift to the world.”

Hamdan’s charisma is undeniable, both onstage – where her presence is poised, fierce and sensual – and off, even when answering her hotel room door, disheveled in shorts and a T-shirt. If the TV show hadn’t turned the phrase into kind of an insult, you’d say she has the X-Factor. But it becomes apparent over our conversations that self-doubt and anxiety have played – and continue to play – a major part in the singer’s life, either by inspiring her music and lyrics, or by encouraging her to re-examine and re-invent herself.

“I get bored very quickly,” Hamdan says. “I need to feel that I’m free to transform and experiment and renew. When I start working on a project, I never know where I want it to go, so I have this period when I’m doubting. I have doubts every day, about everything. And that can be a pain in the ass. But it’s also, somehow, a blessing. Sometimes you have to go through pain and frustration and doubt. It’s an organic process. But at the same time, I’m open and alert. I can’t start anything until I feel that urgency.” She describes the urge to create as “a physical need.” “Like, I’ll get this pain in my stomach that pushes me to liberate it and [start work].”

Even her folk-tinged solo album, despite its laidback, mellow atmosphere, was born from this same emotional turmoil, she says. “When you listen to Ya Nass, there’s something serene about it, kind of calm. But things were tearing me apart. I was going through a very difficult time. I had to do it, to heal myself. Doing this album opened the door and brought back some light and showed me the way.”

For all her doubts, there’s a clear steeliness to Hamdan’s character; a belief that she’s doing what she needs to do. The way she tells it, she feels she has no choice but to continue to follow her creative instincts, even if that means moving from her hometown to Paris – as she did towards the end of Soapkills – or turning her back on a major-label deal to pursue music that was closer to her heart, as she did almost as soon as Y.A.S.’s album, Arabology, was released in 2009.
That strength, she says, doesn’t just come from within. “I believe that when you really desire something very strongly, certain things come to you. You see signs, you encounter people – dead or alive – who show you the way.”

Jarmusch is just one of the more recent examples of these ‘Encounters.’ They met in Marrakech in 2009. “He kind of came to me like an angel,” says Hamdan. “He blessed me with all these generous compliments. And meeting him gave me a certain confidence to pursue what I was doing. I was a bit lost at the time. It was after [Y.A.S.] and I was confused because I needed to find my way out and work out what my next step was. He’s very sensitive, and he’s a musician too, so we kind of connected. Aside from being in his movie, it’s a spiritual thing, too. Meeting people like him on the way is very important. I need to be surrounded by people who inspire me. I don’t need to be around them all the time; they can be in my heart. But all these people that inspire me – dead or alive – they’re allies. They’re with me.”

This is an extract. To read the full story, pick up a copy of Rolling Stone Middle East

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