Israeli-born with Persian parents, Tel Aviv dwelling artist Liraz is no ordinary electro-pop musician. For the creation of her incredibly popping and danceable second album, she took a big risk to confront religious-political tensions between Iran and Israel, and collaborate with Iranian musicians to create an album influenced by 1970s Persian pop.
Not only was this risky and illegal for most involved, Liraz ended up on a larger journey to unite women and musicians from Iran with emotional consequences that she wouldn’t have been able to foresee. And in order to take this path retracing her heritage through art to fill the void in her heart, she had to leave a successful career and relationships in Los Angeles behind. Nonetheless, she started a female movement.
Her first album, NAZ, was fiery with the kind of tunes you’d easily dance to all night in the club. The new album, ZAN, due to be released on November 13th, is a force to be reckoned with. Even without understanding the language, you can feel the passion, determination and anticipation in the writing.
In her own words, her soul belongs to the earth, and you can see this portrayed in her music videos as she shares her favourite parts of the Israeli desert landscape with the audience.
Liraz talked to us about the incredible journey she has been on during writing her music and where this is leading her. It’s clear from our conversation that despite all the challenges, this is not the end of her big dreams and plans.
Liraz, it’s such a pleasure to meet you. It’s hard to know where to start, but can you tell us your story. What made you want to embark on such a huge and politically controversial project?
Actually my story is very complex, but as a determined person I wanted to grow up exploring myself, my music and my heritage. It gave me a big reason to change my life. It didn’t happen immediately but the minute I understood it I was walking down the street in LA nicknamed Tehrangeles. I had a great career in Israel with my acting and I had two records in Hebrew. But I understood that the emptiness that I grew up with was growing bigger and bigger, as my parents left Iran when I was a teenager and they left Iran before the revolution. They were looking for a new identity in a country where Israel was just building itself. This country was just a baby.
I felt growing up that I was inside this two home of two faces, one is my Iranian culture and the other is my Israeli culture. I would go back and forth between Iran and Israel, you know each day I would go from my home to school. I felt foreign. Even more than my parents. Because they made a decision to move away and start a new life. But I was born into a situation where I am now trying to build myself as a person, and I did not know what to put my finger on. What am I, am I Iranian, am I Israeli?
When I did my singing and acting, it was ok in Israel. But the minute I was in Los Angeles I got so many auditions there and it was so boring. I understood that I cannot mend this hole in my heart, and explore my roots and my heritage in the town that I’m really longing to be in that I don’t know. How am I solving this crazy question mark in my heart. It was a very emotional time for me, I was twenty seven, everything happened to me in Los Angeles. I got agents, I got managers but still I was asking so many questions. So what I decided to do was to explore the Iranian neighbourhoods and I got so many opportunities to meet my Iranian family in Los Angeles. So I stopped going to auditions and I started digging inside.
So you felt you had no option but to start over in order to dig deeper into your own identity with your new community through the music?
So what happened is that I was flying back and forth between Tel Aviv and Los Angeles and I took with me overweight suitcases with Iranian records and vinyls and I understood that I needed to sing in Farsi. My parents thought that I was crazy when I told them that I was going to switch to Farsi. They said, you are crazy, you have a great career, you cannot do that. It is a niche. And I said yes I know, I want to be in the niche! Both as an artist to grow and as a woman in this world. And my agents, everyone, they said you are completely out of your mind, no-one will listen to an Israeli voice in Farsi. Well I said ok, if not in Israel then I will look for somewhere where people will listen to my music in the world. It took me almost ten years.
So this led to you releasing your album NAZ, which you mention was full of Iranian songs, electro-pop songs and electro beats using traditional instruments?
Yes and this led me to the realisation of my biggest, biggest dream the moment that I understood that Iranian people are listening to my music and to my story and dancing to my music at parties and weddings. I was getting underground videos of women pulling out their chador and hijab and dancing with Versace clothes underneath and it was an honour. And I was like ok something is really happening here. On one hand I’m afraid to talk about it because as you know, Iran and Israel are not friends. But in their heart, the people, we are real friends and we are talking to each other every day. And we are talking to each other on Telegram and Instagram every day and they really love us and I love them. Ok so this is the hole inside my heart is starting to be full.
And I thought ok I can shout out my next dream. And my next dream was to write an album with Iranian people from Tehran.
You mention how controversial this was, how did people react to this?
People looked at me, even my manager, saying who cares where the songs are coming from. I care. I want to write an album with Iranian musicians that I have started to know better as I listen to them and their music.
So actually I posted my story on Instagram that I am looking for Iranian musicians to work with and I got a full inbox of messages and music to listen to. So this last year I’ve been working on my upcoming album which is out on November 13th. ZAN. This means ‘Woman’.
Congratulations – this sounds like a big accomplishment. What inspired you to write about women’s experience specifically?
Well when I was listening to the Iranian music from the 1970s, after the revolution and after my parents had already left, I felt that when I am really listening to the singers, to the women. They had such courage inside their voices. And they sounded different. They were singing without the Iranian manners, without this crazy naz they lived with.
What does naz mean?
NAZ is the name of this album behind me. We don’t have a word in English or in Hebrew. But it’s like polite Iranian manners with coquettish permission. An Iranian lady has to have the permission to be the lady she wants. But she has to be at the same time coquettish and nice and polite. When I speak about naz, I always think about the Kardashians. They use theirs all the time. They are very direct and determined but they treat you nice. It’s something you know that is inside our veins. You have to be nice, you have to be polite, you have to be a good girl.
So this NAZ that I talk about, when I sing, I can act it out in a bad way and in a good way. I can laugh about it, I can be mad about it. But this is how I grew up. Plus stories of my grandmothers who when they grew up, got engaged at eleven and got married at thirteen and fourteen.
I actually grew up on my grandmother’s knees, and that despite the fact that they have been muted all their lives, they had the opportunity to rejoice in the small things like having babies and kids, and singing in parties and weddings. And dressing up and putting their red lipstick on even when they were at home. Everything was with a big smile and a big happiness for life. Although it is very nice, I felt underneath that they had their own pressure to break their own walls, to be the women they wanted to be. Even my mum and her fourth sister, each time they broke in their own time, they broke their walls. It was beautiful to watch. On one hand Israel is a very normal place, democracy is a bit crazy and religion a bit extreme. But we are not religious people. And I felt that once I got connected after I released NAZ that I actually had an opportunity to sing for the women in Iran that have been muted since the last 42 years, since the revolution. I sing because of them, with them and for them. It’s crazy for me to watch from the sides and see the life they are living. And the only way for me to tell my story to them, is with my heritage and the circumstances that I’ve been thrown into.
I understand that for this second album ZAN, the collaborative writing process had to be very secretive and a lot of the musicians wanted to stay anonymous. What was this like, and were there any consequences?
The collaborating artists were looking to give their voices and their arts to the world. Many of them wrote to me immediately. They kept sending me messages and songs and lyrics and music. And it was like woah what am I doing from here. So it was night after night in the studio with my producer.
It was pretty tough connecting with them in a direct way because some of them disappeared after two to three months of working. Some of them said, ok you can take my song, but don’t publish my name because I’m afraid. Some of them changed their profile and number and wrote to me from another number. It was like chasing them all the time and at some point I found myself getting very anxious about it.
What made you anxious, were you anxious for them and their safety?
Yes I was anxious for them. I could not sleep at night because I had recorded a song with an orchestra and forgot about the money, this was after days of hard work in the studio and I sent it to the musician and he said ah this is beautiful but I want to take this song back. And I was like ok I won’t publish your name. Which is a shame. And on the other hand, I needed to put the record on the shelf and say ok here it is, it’s ready. So it was days of sleepless nights and there were days that I forgot to eat. It was crazy.
There were lots of emotions and the most disappointing fact in this process is that I really wanted to work with a lot of women. And I accomplished this mission but not all of them wanted to expose their names. So it was frustrating. So I got to this point but I cannot force them, for sure.
So their expression is still out there but they haven’t been able to own it?
For some of them, yes. The writing was back and forth between Tel Aviv and Tehran on Skype and it was beautiful, beautiful work from their side. And they were amazing, but all through this frightened look. At any time, someone will come and catch us. There was only one musician who actually wrote three songs and even the production in the studio in Tehran, and he said actually I’m going to jail so I don’t care if my name is out there.
So… rewind, he’s going to jail?
Yeah he is a protestor and it got very complicated with the regime. And there was a time he disappeared for one week. And I wanted to kill myself with the situation because I didn’t know where he was and it was the week before Suleimani got killed in Iran. And there was not an internet connection. And it was two weeks before I could reach him and I thought that he was gone. I didn’t know what to do because I needed to publish the songs.
But everything went well and he is ok and he actually did two news articles in Israel where he was talking. And of course they knew his face. He’s a very courageous person and he’s my hero. And he’s going to leave Iran soon. And so we are going to meet each other and for sure we are going to perform together the songs he wrote for me.
So what do you plan to do next? It must be hard to plan anything in COVID times.
I don’t know. Firstly I hope that I will offer hope to other people’s dreams to operate with other people, even though the countries are not in touch. Art is the only bridge for me with a country I don’t know but I miss so much. And it’s the only way for artists like me to handle this situation.
When COVID arrived and the label I worked with got cancelled and told me Liraz, the album will not come out. It took only a week, where my manager and I thought to approach Glitterbeat and we sent them the album. And I’m really proud of them releasing it in such a difficult time. Besides the music, they have a good feeling that people need to listen to this stuff.
But ultimately I look forward to a time when I can tour Europe and other parts of the world and perform alongside some of my collaborators. This will bring my biggest dream full circle.
This is exactly the time that we need music more than ever. We need artists and performers that can pull us together.
Liraz’s new album ZAN is released on November 13th with Glitterbeat Records and is worth listening to. Knowing the process can only demand more respect for the vision and end creation. Not only has she started a women’s movement in parts of the world but she has created another impressive collection of electro-pop songs. We can’t wait for her to come to Europe when the time allows.
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