Zohra Atash (Azar Swan) Talks the Anxiety of Influence and the Double Standard of Female Fandom

Azar Swan’s singer talks about the feeling of having the music you love held against you.

Talkhouse writers are musicians, and they write with a passion, insight, poetry and empathy that you’re just not going to find anywhere else. That’s why we’d rank the best writing in the Talkhouse with the best music writing anywhere. This week, we’re celebrating some of our favorite Talkhouse pieces of 2014.
— Michael Azerrad, Talkhouse editor-in-chief

I grew up in South Carolina, the daughter of Afghan parents who managed to get the hell out of Afghanistan before the Soviet War, the civil war and the US-Afghanistan war against the Taliban turned the country to a pile of dust and rubble. I was the youngest of four sisters, and we were all taught not to be competitive. We were taught to be supportive of each other because, goddammit, life is hard enough.

I was awkward-looking by the standards of the South, which I believed to be universal standards at that age, so I cultivated things other than my looks to stand out, particularly singing, dancing and wisecracking. I started smoking at 14 in hopes that it would sandpaper my theater-trained Little Mermaid voice into something more like Wendy O. Williams or Lydia Lunch.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that cigarettes wouldn’t turn me into some iconoclastic beast of provocation. Back then I was still pretty scared of my mother, so my provocations were gonna have to stay under the radar. In her mind, the trajectory of my life was already mapped out, and the cartographer was God. The fact that our culture generally didn’t support women who wanted to become musicians was just a minor detail. You don’t rebel against the divine plan.

Meanwhile, the dudes in my extended family could do whatever they wanted. They would assault us with a cappella versions of “Nuthin but a ‘G’ Thang” at family gatherings, and ask me why I was turning my back on my people by listening to punk as, apparently, gangsta rap came out of the Hindu Kush. A girl was supposed to remain chaste and focused on education until one of these thugged-out idiots swooped down and decided to marry her. It was like Jane Austen minus the charm and more violent than South Central or Tora Bora. The unfairness of it all is what drew me to women like Lydia Lunch. Her music planted the seed of “you don’t have to take this shit,” and she was a niche kind of beauty. No Afghan dude would ever want me, but maybe some dude who played guitar and loved nihilism would.

Alas, cartons upon cartons of cigarettes later, I realized that my voice was just gonna be my voice. I wanted to find vocalists I could sing along to that could sit comfortably on a mixtape with Patti Smith and Fugazi, i.e., no dry-humping chairs or glorified Hooters girls. I discovered Björk, Meredith Monk, Diamanda Galás, Leonard Cohen, Marianne Faithfull, Nick Cave, Nico and, yes, Kate Bush.

In lots of ways, finding Kate Bush was a blessing. Having grown up listening to all kinds of music from “the East,” something about her voice on those early records was familiar and beautiful. It reached insane heights that were reminiscent of the old Bollywood classics I loved. I’d never been ashamed of my heritage, but I’d never felt overwhelming pride in it either. So not only was it amazing to sing along in a language I could speak, but her love of world music made me feel less self-conscious about my dad playing his harmonium and singing at the top of his voice when I had friends over.

On records like The Dreaming (1982), I also felt a kinship with her because it was clear to me she was a fan of theater. She would take on different characters and different accents, using both her chest and head voices, both of which could tear and glide in the same melodic line. The Dreaming remains my favorite Kate Bush record. But at the same time, there’s now something a little sour between me and those records. Because now, despite all of my actual biographical details and artistic inspirations, if you ever read about my work, half of the time you’d think I’m nothing more than a mosaic of Hounds of Love (1985) fragments. You could be forgiven for assuming, based on a quick Google search, that it’s one of three records I own. An eccentric girl from Kent opened her mouth to sing, and out I came.

But before all that happened, my big dream was to move London one day, start a band and marry a dude from Scotland, just like Chrissie Hynde or Suzi Quatro. I decided to move to New York once I realized I was too lazy to do the paperwork to move out of the country. When I arrived, it was all electro and leather-pants rock & roll. The shows and parties were lots of fun, but in my quiet moments I was writing and recording alone at home. The songs I was making for my band Religious to Damn were somewhere between Tindersticks, Angels of Light, the Bad Seeds and Tom Waits, with tinges of psychedelia from the “old world” like Selda Bağcan. Ian Caple, who produced the early Tindersticks records, even agreed to produce the album, I just couldn’t afford to bring him over to the States. My first seven-inch had Jim Sclavunos from the Bad Seeds on drums and was mixed by Warren Defever of His Name Is Alive. Love Kate as I did and do, her influence was very far back in the backdrop. Then I finally made Glass Prayer (2011).

Reviews for Glass Prayer were, sometimes, glowing. Many mentioned Kate Bush, but explained precisely what it was about the record that went beyond Kate Bush. But one review had a peculiar sting. An English reviewer designated me as a Kate Bush copyist and said that I wasn’t quite meeting the standards set by some of my female contemporaries. It’s really important here for me to emphasize that what stung about that was neither the comparisons nor the criticism. What stung was the fact that the artists to whom he compared me didn’t make music that had anything musically in common with my record. The primary thing I had in common with those female contemporaries was my affinity for a certain kind of dramatic visual presentation. This, in itself, is a fine observation to make. The problem arises when this becomes the central observation that overshadows or crowds out all others.

I’m not the first to point this out, women get this all the time. What does Karen O. have in common with Siouxsie Sioux? What does White Lung have in common with L7? Other than lady parts, not much. I understand, folks need a sonic comparison, but that’s not even what’s being done in those cases. Instead, those are crude comparisons meant to exhibit “femaleness.” To some degree, I understand why folks compare me to Kate Bush: I sing in a high register about dreamy shit. But after a point it becomes harder and harder to sympathize. I begin to feel like the female politician having to deal with undue attention being paid to her clothes. Because, at some point it becomes clear that some writers couldn’t be talking about much apart from my haircut and my outfits. It’s totally cool for dudes to write the same song about wanting to get laid for the last 60 years; when they do it’s somehow accepted as common experience. But more than one or two females tapping into feminine sensual dreamspace? Apparently, that’s a “no can do.”

Anyway, playing live shows with Religious to Damn was always difficult. Being in a band of six folks or more in New York City with no money is hard. Playing shows on tiny stages is harder. Playing shows on tiny stages with six other folks in basement dungeons with instruments that need precious attention to miking is the hardest. I finally decided to make a change and that change was my current, more electronic approach in Azar Swan. With Azar Swan I can orchestrate anything I want, however I want, and maintain control over both the recording and the live act in very crucial ways. It also opens up new dimensions for expressing aggression and paranoia. Josh Strawn (my best friend and producer) and I were prolific and inspired. Not only musically but in my lyrics, I began to speak about my experiences as an Afghan woman more explicitly than I ever had in Religious to Damn.

So imagine the stress I felt when I got the opportunity to attend one of the first live performances by Kate Bush in more than three decades, the Before the Dawn performances at London’s Hammersmith Apollo. Here was a chance I never thought I’d get, to see Kate Bush, whom I love and who hadn’t played shows since before I was born. I wasn’t even sure I could be open about the fact that I even wanted to go to this show or about how much it meant to me. I was in the final hours before my new record And Blow Us a Kiss was about to be released, and what if I posted about my plans on social media, and some nameless blogger or anonymous commenter found out? What if that just encouraged more of the same kinds of lazy comparisons that essentially suggest that the art I make is superfluous? What if, after creating something so personal, something which literally drew blood and tears out of me, all of the me in the record got overlooked again?

This brings us almost up to date. I was wiping the tears from my eyes the other day because I had been made aware of the aforementioned English reviewer’s write-up of And Blow Us a Kiss. His criticism this time, after again comparing me unfavorably to Kate Bush? My music just isn’t Afghan enough. That’s like saying to Natasha Khan, “Needs more Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan,” or “Hey FKA Twigs, this isn’t quite black enough!” It takes a lot to make me cry, but the perfect storm of racism and sexism? Intentional or unintentional, that’ll do it. I believed that rock & roll was for the outcasts and the misfits. Making music was my catharsis. My art was my escape. Now the things that define me — my gender, my ethnicity and my rock & roll — are reduced to categories in some sick pageant.

I understand my music ain’t for everyone. But this was personal because he was locating the issue with my records as some failure to live up to a script of identity that he took it upon himself to write for me. Flabbergasting, then, that he was saying this about music and lyrics that more fully expressed my experience as an Afghan woman than anything I’d released to date!

I know all artists have to deal with comparisons. I know. But outside of outliers like Interpol, male artists rarely have to live and breathe their comparisons until (and after) they break up or die. The truth is that for women, it’s worse, because either you admit to fandom and deal with the comparisons for the rest of your career, or you have to deny something you care about, something that shaped you and helped give you the strength to be an artist in the first place. Time after time, and I’m not going to throw them under the bus by naming them, female artists have flat-out had to deny Kate Bush. That’s crazy. No dude has ever had to deny the Velvet Underground.

This kind of habitual influence-mongering caters to the “Customers Who Bought This Also Bought” mentality of shopping on Amazon. It has made a strange new culture for musicians, one in which everyone apparently feels so anxious about those comparisons and the dreaded label of “unoriginal” that they are compelled to project some narrative about themselves that’s exotic to the point of being fake in order to avoid being tossed into the lineage behind their godhead influences. We’re surrounded by screamo bands that avoid being called screamo because of their black metal album covers. Industrial bands that avoid the pitfalls of genre and influence by marketing their techno-ness. But that’s just marketing.

I don’t want to deny my influences. I don’t even want to downplay them just to throw some critic off the scent. I don’t want any artist, male or female, to have to do it. Art and music and poetry are made up of similar themes and designs and compositions over hundreds of years, across hundreds and hundreds of cultures. Bending to some overdetermined, juvenile ideal of originality is useless. It becomes disingenuous fast. Our artistic DNA isn’t that different from our ancestors’; an extension of what came before, but with variation. No amount of doctored press releases and silly interview denials (“I’ve never even heard Stevie Nicks!”) can change the fact that we all listened to music before we started making it. I’m not sure how it got to a point where those denials and press releases actually work on otherwise intelligent people.

I guess what I’m saying is, it’s reached a point where it sort of feels punk-rock as fuck to say, “YES, I LIKE KATE BUSH, COME AT ME.” I’m not going to pretend that Taylor Swift is my biggest influence or that I’ve never heard of that whimsical lady who sang “Cloudbusting.” I’ll be making records on all the haters’ graves, so rate my dress if you must, assholes.

Zohra Atash is a singer, songwriter and musician. Her projects are Azar Swan and Religious to Damn. She is an irregular columnist at slutist.com. Her family founded and runs the Nooristan Foundation. You can follow Azar Swan on Twitter here.

(photo credit: Julia Comita)