Julia Sabra, Fadi Tabbal, & the Pointed Heart of Beirut

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I’ve written extensively about Julia Sabra and Fadi Tabbal’s incredible new album, Snakeskin, so I want to avoid repeating myself repeatedly in this intro. I will reiterate, though, that it’s one of my favorite records of 2022 and is an album that continues to reveal new layers as I continue listening. It’s a marvel, and in this conversation, Sabra and Tabbal offer additional context and insight as to why it’s such an important record.

Snakeskin is out now on Ruptured and Beacon Sound.

Let’s start with your formative memories around music and sound. What were some of the earliest memories and experiences that have stuck with you, whether it’s a song, an album, or something else entirely?

Fadi: My brother and friends were very into metal and classic rock, which is very common among teenagers in post-war Lebanon. The first time I heard something different was when I was 9, and Achtung Baby by U2 had just come out. I was blown away by The Edge’s anti-guitar hero approach and sonically oriented playing. The song became my introduction to a world of music that does not revolve around guitar solos. Later on, when Radiohead’s OK Computer came out in 1997, I understood the importance of sound within musical composition.

Julia: I grew up in a very musical family. We sang together at every opportunity (complete with harmonies and all); I took piano lessons for 10 years and joined choir when I was seven. My formative music genres were choral/classical and folk/pop (lots of Beatles, Peter Paul & Mary, Seekers, Beach Boys, etc.). Later on, as a teenager, I never related to the mainstream songs played by the handful of radios in Lebanon, so it was through movies like Juno and 500 Days of Summer that I was introduced to “indie” music that I fell in love with, with Belle & Sebastian, The Smiths, etc. In my early 20s, Fadi gave me Minimalists by K Robert Schwarz and introduced me to the world of ambient/minimalist music. 

Did you all grow up in musical households, and have your families supported your creative work?

Julia: I guess I answered that in the previous question. My parents are very supportive. My mother is a musician and music teacher, and my family, in general, is very enthusiastic about music. I’m very fortunate that they actively encouraged me to pursue this.

Fadi: During my childhood, both in Lebanon and in Canada, my mother used to play the piano in her free time, so I grew up with live classical music playing in the house. Other than that, my family is not really artistic. Both my parents are chemical engineers. I guess my interest came as a reaction to the seriousness and coldness of my childhood home.

What first inspired you or pushed you to start writing your own music?

Julia: For me, it was when I met Pascal Semerjian and Marwan Tohme, my current bandmates in Postcards, at 19. I hadn’t thought of making my own music before that, and it didn’t really seem to be necessary, as there’s a very big cover band scene here, and you could make a living doing that. The band was the first time I started to express myself properly through music and writing. 

Fadi: I started playing bass in a prog rock band with my friends. We didn’t really click on a musical level at all. I began creating soundscapes using bows and materials and adding ambient-oriented parts to the songs. I think it all started as a reaction to the others.

You began writing this album after the infamous port explosion in Beirut in 2020. Can you give readers an idea of how the explosion impacted you personally and how that led to the making of Snakeskin?

Julia: Fadi and I have known each other for nearly a decade, and we talked about collaborating for years but never seemed to have the time or be in the right mindset. After the explosion, our priorities shifted, and music kind of became our only refuge from the chaos. We were commissioned to write a piece for a streamed drone concert organized by Ruptured (a Beirut-based record label, also our label along with Beacon Sound) and Lumen (Stockholm), which is how we came to write our first track together, “Roots.” The rest kind of flowed from then on. 

There was obviously so much to say, so much that needed to come out post-explosion. I live with my partner around 600m from the port, and we were home when it happened. He was severely injured and had to undergo surgery, and our apartment was badly damaged. Fadi was in the studio, not too far from my house, and saw the cloud from the balcony. Like everyone else in the city, we witnessed this terrifying, traumatic moment that shifted our lives forever. The general feeling, for me at least, was that I didn’t feel safe anymore in my own home, in my own city, and feeling that death was ever-present – all big themes in the album.

Fadi, you also run Tunefork Studios in Beirut. Can you give us some background on your studies in Montreal, how you started the studio, and how you’ve kept it going through successive periods of upheaval in Lebanon?

Fadi:  I lived between Canada and Lebanon until I was 24. I did some of my school years there, and then after I finished my Mechanical Engineering studies in Lebanon, I enrolled in a sound school, Recording Arts Canada, in Montreal. It gave me the minimum to be able to start working by myself.

In 2006, I came back to Lebanon and opened Tunefork with the goal of helping develop the music scene and push young and established artists while never charging for production. Today, with the studio growing into more of a collective of musicians and engineers (we are currently 6), this is the way we still work, with the core belief that knowledge should be free. So the studio became a hub for helping musicians in the local scene, and it survived because of that. We make ends meet by doing ads and projects for other Arab countries.

Can you describe the process of writing and recording the album? Were you forced to work remotely because of the pandemic?

Julia: We actually wrote and recorded over the course of a year or so. We would get together in the studio maybe once or twice a month and start improvising while recording everything. Most tracks, as you hear them now, were recorded in those first sessions. It was effortless to write and compose a track together. I think because we’ve been friends for so long and collaborated on so many projects, we were very in sync musically. The process was very instinctive.

The pandemic didn’t really affect the writing of the album much. Lockdowns aren’t very strict here, and we weren’t working on a deadline, so we took our time to write and tweak.

Most Americans have only a surface-level knowledge of Lebanon. Are there any books you can recommend for readers who want a deeper understanding of the region?

I am not sure if there are any books that are objective enough. It’s a long story, but we have (for many different reasons) a problem archiving and building a collective history for the country. If we had to choose a few that we like (historical or not), it would be the following:

  • A good historical overview: Fawwaz Traboulsi’s A History of Modern Lebanon
  • Some beautifully written fiction/poetry/essays on what it means to live here: Etel Adnan’s Sitt Marie Rose or In The Heart of The Heart of Another Country (or any of her writings)
  • A simple way of understanding our identity crisis: Amin Maalouf’s In The Name of Identity
  • A cool overview of Lebanon’s underground scene in the early 2000s and 2010s Untitled Tracks 

What are some of your favorite albums to come out of the Beirut music scene over the years?

Fadi: The scene in Beirut is so varied and gorgeous, to be honest. I can name a few releases that we loved, but there are so many others. This is definitely not a complete one:

El Rass & Munma – Unveiling the Hidden

Interbellum – Dead Pets, Old Griefs

Kid Fourteen – Love

Kinematik – Murur Al Kiram

Liliane Chlela – Safala

Malayeen – Malayeen

Postcards – After The Fire, Before The End

Sary Moussa – Imbalance

Soap Kills – Cheftak

The Bunny Tylers – Chance Meetings

Two or The Dragon – Dance Grooves for The Weary

Youmna Saba – Arb’een

Snakeskin has deep veins of melancholy and beauty. In the press release, you’re quoted as saying that the album is about “the disappearance of life as we know it and the decay of nature and living creatures. There is no rebirth, no renewal. It’s about what it means to feel at home in such a place.” Can you each write about what this means to you and describe what keeps you going?

Julia: There was an overwhelming sense that our world ended in the months after the explosion. It was like we witnessed an actual apocalypse. After that, we felt we were living in suspended time – everything felt lifeless, on hold, in limbo, pointless. So you’ve got that feeling of what I can only describe detached despair, mixed with a very strong love and connection to our home and a will to keep fighting back in a country that constantly tries to kill us.

Fe:  I believe in the natural circular process of everything: happiness to sadness and back, awareness to ignorance and back, life to death and back, etc. After the explosion, and until today, I feel that this natural process was destroyed, so making music is my way of reviving it, even though it feels hopeless at times.

Julia, your lyrics and melodies are incredibly evocative and crucial to the project. How long have you been writing and singing, and how did the process of creating Snakeskin differ from how your long-running band Postcards writes music?

Julia: Thank you! I’ve been singing all my life, really, but professionally, since 2012, with Postcards. The writing process starts the same in any project, but with Fadi, I guess I allowed myself to experiment a bit more because of the lack of a typical “song” structure. The fact that I was also composing with my voice, through pedals and processing, really pushed me even further. It was really interesting to have my voice take on this double role – synth/instrument vs. “lead” vocals with lyrics.

I also wrote two albums with Postcards (After the Fire, Before the End, and In Parenthesis Vol.1) while we were writing Snakeskin. Looking back, I realize that the 3 albums deal with the explosion and its aftermath in different ways like I’m holding a magnifying glass to different aspects in each release. So in Snakeskin, there’s a focus on the decay of nature, on my relationship to home, and on the things beneath the surface. 

Do you have any plans to perform together live? When is the US tour happening?!

Fadi: Definitely. We have a series of concerts lined up in Lebanon until December and hopefully some dates abroad (hopefully including the US), but we’re still working on it! 

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