In between Winter Jazzfest sets, I hurried through the slush and powder of New York City winter, in order to meet Imany in her cobblestone street meatpacking district hotel. It was a great walk, on which I listened to several her songs. I had never been to the district for any world music reason. The meatpacking district is known for its shops and restaurants that embrace the newest pop music; Kanye West was being played in the Hotel lobby as I walked in and to the checkout desk.
Imany, Swahili for ‘hope’, is a very lucky singer: not only is her voice splendid and her songs phenomenally produced but also a remix of one of her song “Don’t Be So Shy” by Russian DJs Filatov & Karas has topped the charts of several countries such as Austria, Germany, and Poland. “Don’t Be So Shy” wants to, more than anything else, touch the heart with elegant, and grave, sensibility, and so does its remix. The remix has Imany landed in the international dance music spotlight, but fortunately for her convictions, its success is not what has had her come to terms with herself and what it is she would like to accomplish as a singer of fragile songs.
I sat with the lively former model, now turned international music superstar because of platinum record sales in France, Greece and triple platinum record sales in Poland, in a conference room of her hotel for the night, the Gansevoort. We spoke with both serious and humor about her music career, commitments, convictions, and musical ideals.
I’d like to start out with what catches my eye, or my ears I guess: your singing style. Never arid, always executed with beautiful timbre, and always melodic…
[Laughs] Nobody has ever asked me that question! What do you mean! Who am I inspired by? I have always been inspired by the Tracy Chapman singers of this world. I always say that I am not the greatest technician you know but I sing with sincerity. I sing with what I have. I am never trying to be anybody else, or trying to accomplish any vibes or anything like that.
Why do your sing with sincerity? For example, some people first learn how to sing in a church, where you often have to be who you are not ..
I didn’t learn how to sing in the church. I started singing by myself. I am from a very, very, small country called the Comoros Islands. It’s really like a dot in the ocean. Noone there ever taught me music to be honest, so I sang by myself. I had no lessons or anything like that. The reason I sing this way is because I had no other choice. It’s not like anyone taught me anything else. I wanted to sing so badly, but I did not know how. The only way that I could do it was to be myself, to be honest. I didn’t know any way other way.
What do you attempt with your singing and your songs? What do you aim for? To entertain .. to inform ..
I guess both, but I really want to touch people’s hearts. As someone who sings in different countries, I’ve noticed that whether you sing in front of Turkish, Polish, or Italian persons, the audience might be very different but the thing that makes their heart beat is the same. If you allow yourself to sing with sincerity.., with what you have.. If I’m on stage and I have a fever, I sing with what I have. I am not trying to fake anything; I’m sick and this is what I am offering to you. It works all the time. As long as you are honest, they will respond to you. It’s about reaching the audience’s humanity, whatever that means for them.
Has being a mother, since you sing from the heart and as what you are, changed the way you sing?
It has. First of all when I was pregnant I felt like I sang better. They told me it was the hormones (laughs.) Now that I have a kid, to be honest, I care much less about what people think of me. For an ex-model, that’s a huge thing. As models, we think about what other people think of us. The fact that that little person loves you no matter what.. It’s given me so much more confidence, not ego, but more confidence to mess something up on stage. Before my maternity, it might have been the end of the world. Whereas now, I tell myself that it’s life. I feel a bit more free now, as a human being.
What role should a song play in a society?
It’s like what Nina Simone said. Musicians and artists in general should be the witnesses, and the reporters, of their times.
What are our times?
Our times are troubled. There’s much more inequality now, the wealthier are getting wealthier as the poor get larger in number, which is pretty concerning. Everyone is losing their minds about money. We are at war with the planet: the planet is suffocating. We need to stop acting like it’s not our problem, that it’s not happening to me. Values are going down the drain. We need to address the issues (laughs) whether if in the Comoros or in New York City. We need to look at each others in the eyes and address the issues.
When I first heard your music, I assumed that it was proverbial music, songs to guide us through romance and life in general. How does your music go about reporting, and perhaps addressing, your times?
On the first album I was in my twenties and I guess the thing that many twenty year olds are obsessed about is finding love. It’s who many of us women have been raised to be. If you don’t have a mate, you have nothing .. In your thirties, you realize that it’s a load of bullshit. You begin to raise your head, and think a lot about the world. I guess that’s the arc of my musical production.
My music is now about topics. I love telling stories and treat topics through stories. The name of my most recent release is The Wrong Kind Of War. The war that we need to be fighting is a war with ourselves. If we do that individually, than collectively we will be that much stronger.
A story always tells another story you know.
Are you presently living any of what you sing about, whether it be love or strife? Are you presently in love, etc?
Right now I’m much better than I was on my first album, The Shape of a Broken Heart (laughs.) I was a much more depressing time. I’m in love, but now in a very serene way. To answer your question, the way I write is very similar to way that I sing; I can neither write nor sing about something that has nothing to do with what I feel, or who I am, even if it’s your story that I am telling. I feel love in a not Hollywood, no champagne way. The kind of love that looks boring from afar, but is the right kind of war.
I would imagine that knowing and fessing up to the fact that one has a broken heart on your first album is also maturity, I don’t know..
We often confuse romance and love. Stuff like candles and chocolates are great but they’re don’t really mean love, right. The way that way have been raising women really, everywhere, teaches predetermined actions and expectations. My songs now address what love really is, as opposed to Hollywood [laughs], you know.
Despite jazz’s being born to warm weather New Orleans, a city full of “elaborate wedding-cake ceilings, wide sliding doors, tall French windows” to quote New Orleans native Truman Capote, the music has always adapted itself to cold weather living pretty well. If a life of surrounding swamps, deltas, briar patches,…