poolblood and Ben Lee Are Here to Give You the Dirt

The songwriters talk social media, selling out, and more.

Maryam Said is a Toronto-based singer-songwriter who performs as poolblood; Ben Lee is the LA-based singer-songwriter and producer whose latest record, I’m Fun, came out last year on Warner Music Australia. Maryam’s debut record as poolblood, mole, was just released on Next Door Records. To celebrate it — and Maryam’s imminent appearance at SXSW — the two hopped on a call to “dish” about Taylor Swift, Kylie Minogue, selling out, and much more. 
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Maryam Said: I am super stoked to talk to you!

Ben Lee: It’s such a pleasant surprise! I mean, we just met kind of recently.

Maryam: Yeah.

Ben: I’ve been listening to your record, and I like it a lot, and I have things I want to chat to you about it. And I’m curious why you wanted to talk to me!

Maryam: You know, you’ve been making music for a while, and it’s really inspiring to talk to someone who’s been doing music for a long time. And also, I’m on a rewatch of One Tree Hill and one of your songs is on One Tree Hill. [Laughs.] I was like, Hang on, this is such a cool, surreal moment.

Ben: Oh, man, I’ll tell you what: you’re exactly in my sweet spot of when I was getting a lot of syncs. Between, like, 2000 and 2006, you could not turn on an American teen TV show without hearing one of my songs. [Laughs.]

Maryam: Which is so cool. I mean, what was that like?

Ben: It was really interesting, ‘cause it was another time, you know? Syncs back then — how old are you?

Maryam: I’m 27.

Ben: So you’ve pretty much entered the music industry, or whatever we call it, with this idea that getting your songs in things is the way you move your career forward. But for me, coming from the ‘90s, that stuff was a little bit taboo. Like if you had a song in a commercial, you were a sellout. It wasn’t really until Moby sort of knocked the whole sacred cow over and was like, “OK, this is how we’re getting our music across, in commercials and shows.” So it just felt like, especially then in the early 2000s, this whole competitive world opened up. And it wasn’t something I’d thought a lot about before, but my songs do work well within narrative cinematic storytelling, I guess because they’re sort of romantic and they’re interpersonal and they’re positive. It felt like I just got lucky in that the music I was making slotted well into things music supervisors wanted.

Maryam: Yeah. 

Ben: Have you had syncs? 

Maryam: Not yet. I hope to one day. But I was thinking about it because I’m someone who loves music in TV and film, so it’s such a cool world to have your music [in]. I guess now everyone wants to sell out. Everyone is desperately trying to sell out. That’s why TikTok is such a big thing. 

Ben: It doesn’t even exist anymore, selling out. Does it? It’s just called success now. [Laughs.]

Maryam: Yeah, essentially. And if you don’t, it’s now what selling out was like in the ‘90s, I guess. It’s crazy. But yeah, I love music in film and TV, I love soundtracks, so I think it’s such a cool [thing] — when you write music, it’s personal, but then when it gets out into the world, it belongs to the listener, essentially, and is up to their interpretation. So it’s funny when you can watch it in a TV realm and you’re like, Woah, these characters are living in this song?

Ben: It’s sort of nice, because I grew up making mixtapes for people, which is just like making playlists now. But the idea that you could use songs to express things that you didn’t have the words for — that’s the essence of why I’m a songwriter. There were things I wanted to say to girls that I didn’t know how to say directly, and I was like, Well, I could play a song and express it. So I find that whole idea of a song telling a secret story for a person is still very compelling to me.

Maryam: Totally. I highly relate. I kind of also write from that realm of being too afraid to say what I have to say. So I’m just going to be so annoying and write a song about it.

Ben: How long have you been writing songs for?

Maryam: I’ve been doing it since, I want to say, middle school. But they weren’t really songs. I think when you’re young, you’re just kind of writing things to practice, as an exercise. But real songs, I guess, when I was 14, because I was a big early Taylor Swift fan. 

Ben: My daughter like “Love Story” when that came out.

Maryam: Yeah, I really loved Fearless, that record. I think it’s her second record.

Ben: Did that have “Mean” on it? I like that song. The one that was about the rock critic.

Maryam: Yeah, totally. I remember when that came out, I was like, Hell yeah, she’s like, sticking it to them, which is awesome. But I think it was right before that. I’m like kind of outing myself as a secret Swiftie right now.

Ben: I’m in a weird category where I’m not a huge fan of Taylor Swift’s music, but I’m a huge fan of her as a CEO.

I honestly think she has handled the music business probably better than any artist ever, and that is a real gift, even if it’s just picking the right people to surround yourself by. I listen to her records and I like them, but I’m really interested in her business moves, because I think it’s amazing just how much she’s kicked ass on her own terms. I have two daughters and I feel like growing up in a world with characters like Taylor Swift in the media is a positive thing.

Maryam: Totally. I find it so funny because, yeah, she’s essentially a girlboss, but she’s pretty good at being a girlboss. It’s so interesting because she has this arc of people pigeonholing her into this space of a songwriter who just writes songs about revenge, [but] I think she kind of has made her way through the music industry, from my eyes at least, kind of elegantly. Also I’ve seen a lot of interviews with her where she’s kind of down to earth. She just likes cooking and brings her fans over and stuff like that, which is kind of interesting. 

Ben: Well, whatever. That’s the publicity spin. [Laughs.]

Maryam: [Laughs.] OK, sure, sure. I ate it up!

Ben:  So there was that stuff, pop music on the radio, but you liked the songwriters. You didn’t care as much about the world of more sonic-oriented pop.

Maryam: Yeah. I was a huge fan of that guy, I think his name is Ryan, from One Republic. 

Ben: Oh, Ryan Tedder.

Maryam: Yeah. I think he’s a really great songwriter, and I did like One Republic at the time.

Ben: [Sings,] “It’s too late to apologize…”

Maryam: Another sync great. 

Ben: I have a Ryan Tedder story.

Maryam: Oh, dish.

Ben: You know how on The Voice they have the coaches, but then they used to have a helper — the main artists would bring in another artist as an assistant coach or something. So I did that role for the Australian Voice under Joel Madden from Good Charlotte. He was the coach and I was his helper. But Ryan was the helper of another coach, this artist called Delta Goodrem, an Australian pop star. 

But anyway, he was editing the whole time —like between takes, he’s editing mixes of artists he’s producing. I at that moment had just made a mostly instrumental psychedelic record called Ayahuasca: Welcome to the Work, so I was in a fully different headspace. We were talking about pop songs and I said, “I don’t really believe you can write a hit on purpose,” because that was my experience. And he said, “I used to not believe that until I worked with Max Martin, and then I realized you can.” Firstly, it kind of blew my mind that there are people that do believe they’ve got the formula, but they’re not the types of hits I ever wanted to write. Like, my idea of a hit song is a song that almost distills your vibe, your message, your style as an artist down to its most concise delivery for three minutes. I think Nirvana writing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” — I don’t know, maybe Kurt was trying to write a hit, but I think he was also just trying to write the best Nirvana song he could. And that’s more the types of hits I like rather than the ones that are crafted with, like, a mathematical attitude or something. 

Maryam: Yeah, I totally agree. Like, if you are able to portray yourself and be so [formulaic] — I think it also comes down to that emotion, too. You can really feel it when someone’s being real through the song. I think a lot of pop songs — I’m not trying to be mean about—

Ben: No, you should talk shit. Come on, let’s do it here. 

Maryam: OK, We’re here to talk shit, okay?

Ben: But that’s why people tune into Talkhouse, they want the dirt.

Maryam: They want the full dirt. [Laughs.] But Netflix original series music, whoever writes those songs, you can tell they’re being paid to write for those scenes. Whereas when someone is genuinely writing a good song that they really believe in, I think people can really sell you in a good hit song. When I think of a really big hit song for me, I think of “Iris” by Goo Goo Dolls. You can hear emotion, and it’s like you said, it does really set you up for what they’re going to be and what you’re going to hear next.

Ben: But what you’re doing, you’re not competing in that playing field at the moment. That’s not to say you can’t — I believe that artists should be given the freedom to reinvent themselves many, many times over. But in terms of what you’re doing now with this record — is this your first full length?

Maryam: Yeah.

Ben: What’s the vision for that? What did you what do you want to achieve? What do you want to say about yourself? Like when you think of a debut album, no matter how you feel about it, it will be a touchstone of everything you do afterwards.

Maryam: Totally.

Ben: What is this one to you?

Maryam: I don’t know. I feel like this one is kind of a homage to my entire early 20s, mid-20s. It’s a nice way to look back at what I was actually feeling. But I do want to say, I’m a huge fan of debut albums, just because you can really tell who the artist is, where they’re coming from with no shtick or any outside music business stuff. And so I think for me, it really sits in a place where it shows like where I am production-wise, lyrically.

Ben: I love the production, by the way. 

Maryam: Thank you so much.

Ben: Did you do it all?

Maryam: I didn’t, no. Shamir helped — our little beautiful mutual friend. He did “Twinkie,” and he did a couple of other tracks on that record. And then my friend Louie Short had produced and arranged the entire record. He’s just a mastermind at work, too. 

Ben: Someone in the room likes dissonance.

Maryam: Oh, we both do. [Laughs.]

Ben: Yeah, I was really curious about that, becauseI was doing a little bit of research and reading some of your interviews and stuff, and all of the artists you mentioned were not dissonant artists. They work with conventional chordal structures, whether it’s Fiona Apple or whatever. They’re traditional songwriters. But you’ve got this other thing going on that’s almost like an art thing. Where is that from? 

Maryam: Me and Louie were talking about music that just feels kind of weird sometimes. We’re both big fans of music that leaves you feeling like, what did I just listen to? Like a big question mark. And I think art rock does that a lot. Like when I listen to Talking Heads, Fear of Music — I love that record so much. Also, we talked a lot about ways to get heavy, but not heavy in the traditional sense, where things get really dark and grungy, but more like dissonant where it feels really eerie. Especially in “Sorry,” I think we did that.

Ben: What’s the first song on the record called?

Maryam: It’s just like a heart [“<3”]. It’s like an interlude.

Ben: That really, you set the chordal intention of how much stuff is going to be going on. I like to lie down when I want to really absorb music — my two ways of doing it, either walk the dogs and I have it in my ears and I really lose myself on that journey, or I lie down and it’s like a meditation. And I was lying down for your record, and I was like, Wow, this is your mind musically. It’s got an unpredictable quality to it, which I love.

Maryam: Thank you so much! I think it’s very much a lay-down-core album. 

Ben: Tell me about your your the genesis of your relationship with Shamir, because I don’t really know about.

Maryam: Oh, yeah. So he has his label, Accidental Pop Star, and he signed me in 2018, I want to say. We met on Twitter, as everyone does nowadays. I went over to Philly and we recorded an EP together called Yummy, and then we just became really good friends. We just are always talking about music, and we kind of aligned with everything musically, which was awesome.

Ben: You’re in Toronto, right?

Maryam: I’m in Toronto, yeah.

Ben: Did you get into the music scene there, like going to gigs and stuff, or is it more like an internet thing, your artistic awakening?

Maryam: It was a little bit a bit of both. It was kind of online, mostly because I was obsessively reading music blogs all the time. But I was going to gigs in Toronto mostly to see friends play, and then through friends I would meet other friends and stuff like that. And then I met my friend that produced this record through one of my friends, because he is her partner. So we were just always hanging out all the time, and he has been making music for a while too and I opened for him, and then we start talking about making a record. It kind of happened all organically. 

It’s interesting though — I think about TikTok stars, where they will get viral and not really have that experience of being in a music scene or being connected with other other musicians. They’re kind of just thrown into this weird, big, viral viral space.

Ben: Yeah, that would be weird, wouldn’t it? I think one of the things that’s interesting for me as an Australian is, because we’re quite a small country — it’s kind of like Canada. Like if you build a career in Canada, you will get to know every single person in the arts in Canada, because it’s a small community. If you go around playing the Canadian festivals, you’re going to see the same 20 or 30 acts, right?

Maryam: Yeah. OK, can I ask — do you know Kylie? 

Ben: Yeah, I do know Kylie! I did a duet of “The Reflex” by Duran Duran with her for a Duran Duran tribute album.

Maryam: Oh, that’s amazing.

Ben: We did hang out. I haven’t seen her for ages, but she’s cool. So I think just for me, being Australian, I know that whatever happens online is one thing. But I’m then going to have to hold my head up in front of my actual community for sure. It sort of is a built-in bullshit preventer, a little bit, because in America there’s this thing that can happen where everyone lives in their own reality.

Maryam: Totally. I was going to ask you what is it like to have… I think for me, I miss celebrity culture that was not so connected to social media. Even musician-wise, I think the idea of getting to write to your favorite artist… I don’t know, maybe I’m a little bit of a gatekeeper. I miss a little bit of the gatekeeping of the artist, a little bit of the privacy. 

Ben: Yeah. I mean, it’s sort of still there., I have an interesting relationship to it. I think the way capitalism frames our industry makes you feel forced to value “bigger is better.” So more social media followers, bigger concerts, more streams. It’s so quantified, everything. And maybe we connect on this — I’m a bit of an elitist, and I actually value the quality of my audience more so than the quantity. I like looking at the audience or walking through the crowd before the show and feeling like I like the people. And I’ve known big, big, successful artists where one of the trade offs is you have to start connecting with an audience that is not… There’s not enough to be super, super, super successful if it’s just people you like. You know? 

Maryam: [Laughs.] Yeah.

Ben: So the trade off of being really famous is that you basically have to play for a bunch of jerks all the time.

But truly it’s this community thing of finding my people that is more appealing. I think social media has really helped with that. Like Shamir I would never have met if it wasn’t through social media, and then through him. I met you and Grant [Pavol] and all these people. I believe you sort of vibrate your energy and your consciousness in your life through your art and through the way you dress and the way you walk and everything. And then the goal is to find people that you can vibrate with, and then you can join together and create really cool things.

Maryam: Yeah.

Ben: So I don’t miss the part that made it harder. It used to be harder to connect, you know?

Maryam: I agree for sure. I feel like it’s so it’s so interesting, because everyone’s making their own worlds through social media. And that’s kind of what I was doing — when I first started reading these blogs and connecting with people through music online, I just felt like I didn’t connect with anyone music-wise in real life. So I was like, OK, let me hop on Twitter and say a bunch of wild shit about music that I love, and whoever likes the tweet I’m going to follow and become friends with. And it just kind of spun off from there. Connecting with the audience, especially when you really like them, you’re like, OK, this is going to be a good show for me. It’s just cool to meet people that you can be like, Wow, I’m basically friends with every single person in this room.

Ben: So what’s next for you? What’s happening this year?

Maryam: This year I’m doing SX, which I’m really, really excited about.

Ben: Oh, cool! You got your work visas all sorted out?

Maryam: I did, yes. 

Ben: I’d like to take this opportunity to make an announcement to the Immigration Department that I did offer you a show in New York that I said, “Hey, look, we’ll do cash in pocket. It’ll be illegal. No one’s gonna notice. Just come across the border for the night.” And you were like, “No, I’m on the straight and narrow. I’m going to do this properly. I’m waiting for my work visa.”

Maryam: Please give me the O visa now, America, please!

(Photo Credit: left, Jibril Yassin; right, Warner Music Australia)

poolblood (she/they), the musical nom-de-plume of Toronto’s Maryam Said, announced their debut album mole, out January 13, 2023 via Next Door Records. Louie Short and Shamir worked with Said as producers on the project, and played on a number of tracks in addition to a cadre of musicians like Christian Lee Hutson, Eliza Niemi, Dorothea Paas, Grant Pavol, Victoria Bury, Annie Truscott, Nick Short, and Drew & Jeremy Harmon.

(Photo Credit: Jibril Yassin)