Maryam Kiani is an Iranian-born-and-raised musician and composer, and her debut album, Embrace, is out today on Low Versions. It’s an emotional record with visceral throughlines, building on the concept of changing life’s trajectory. Kiani uses an array of instrumentation and compositional techniques to create unique sound worlds filled with emotive synth passages, angular rhythms, and textural samples. It’s rich and immersive, reflecting the journey of the album’s protagonist as he alters his destiny to discover his own power. Embrace is such an impressive debut.
Let’s start with your early memories of music and sound. Are there particular sounds or songs you heard as a child or even experiences you had that are related that have stayed with you?
I grew up in Abadan, one of Iran’s southern cities. There was always music and dance in that city, and people had unique tunes to express their feelings: grieving, celebrating, and other occasions. These images stuck in my head forever. But by and large, my strongest and greatest association with music is images. Somehow, each scene in figurative art automatically forms a sound and a tune in my head. When I was a child, My aunt (who was a theater script supervisor and actress) often took me to theaters. These (especially musicals) greatly affected my interest in the relationship between story, narrative, and music.
Did you always want to play music?
Yes, I have always wanted to be a musician. I also really liked working with computer programs. When I was 10, my brother bought Magix Music Maker software for me. After that, I spent all my after-school time with the computer and my first digital audio workstation.
I read that you started by playing guitar and writing melodies. What first pushed you to pick up a guitar? Was your family supportive?
Choosing the guitar was an entirely emotional decision. I fell in love with this instrument when I saw John Williams play “Asturias” by Isaac Albéniz. I also really enjoyed how the guitar is held, how the guitar’s body is so close to your heart, and the intimacy when you pluck a string with your fingers and immediately feel the frequency and intensity of the note with all your being. I really enjoyed this feeling. Definitely, they always supported me in many ways, and they are like my best friend.
Eventually, your interest turned to electronic music and synthesizers. Can you tell me a little bit about how that first started and what your early experiences improvising with synths were like?
The story of me and electronic music began when I bought (or maybe received as a gift) the disk of an album called “Happy Electronic Sounds” by the great master, Alireza Mashayekhi… He is an indefatigable innovator and modernist with the widest repertoire among Iranian composers, and he is regarded as a pioneer Iranian avant-garde composer. My enthusiasm for this genre of music pushed me to seriously enter the world of electronic music-making. It started with a personal computer and Ableton Live as a DAW. Later, an Akai APC40 mkii controller and then the first synthesizer(Korg Minilogue, a polyphonic analog synthesizer) were added to my setup. After that, I entered the world of buying more synths, effect pedals, and drum machines, but after a while, I almost reached a point where I would spend all my money on these gears and food for my cat! I mostly improvised and ended up playing a couple of live tracks. Simultaneously playing my ideas was enjoyable at first, but after a while, that synth sound would become repetitive. I constantly looked for new synth sounds as I wanted the synth with a specifically intended sound. It was also very costly. Because of that, I got interested in sound design and started taking sound design lessons.
You’ve got this fantastic new record out now, Embrace. When did the ideas and concepts for this album first start coming to you? Was there a particular motivation?
It’s complicated! It goes back to about 2 years ago when I was having a tough time in my life, and I wanted to know the world around me and especially myself better, and finally, I had a deep need to express these feelings in the form of music.
And speaking of the concept behind the record, can you tell me a little about it?
Accepting yourself with all of your shortcomings has always been a challenge for many people, including myself. It’s challenging to love yourself for what you are and not censor yourself to please society. The initial idea came from the depths of my personal life, a milestone that can manifest differently in anyone’s life. Changing is always difficult, but when you feel the need to change with all your being and thoroughly accept yourself, then you see that you can shape your life. This self-acceptance can be different in each individual’s life, depending on their personal and social challenges. Accepting that idea is the starting point for making any belief and beginning any transition; when you desire an idea so much, it changes your nature and causes a new birth. I also wish for everyone to be able to value and love their unique self. At first, the idea was only brewing in my mind. Then I began picturing it in my head. After that, I wrote it as a story and started making music for it.
I think a natural tension builds throughout the album; it especially comes through on “Trajectory,” with the rhythms and beats a significant element in creating that tension. What kind of mindset do you try to have when approaching this part of the music-making process? I’m really taken by how the beats and cadence add so much to this music beyond just building a rhythmic framework.
Well, in terms of meaning, this track portrays a part of a person’s path when despite all of the obstacles, he is moving towards his wish or belief with indescribable enthusiasm. This situation has tension attached to it. Somehow, it’s like where there is a contrast of powers, tension can be heard and seen too, and in a way, it’s a pleasant tension. So here, it was necessary to show excitement and controversy along with a sense of passion at the same time.
Sonically, I find it so interesting because of how diverse the sound palette is. The synthesizer elements are heavily featured, but different voice elements and things sound like field recordings. First, these different samples and recordings… how did you collect these and choose what sounds you wanted to work with? And then, second, when you were putting them through various digital effects and processing, what’s the purpose of altering these recordings? I feel like a lot of those added textural elements enrich the sound world and bring another layer of emotion to the music.
Well, before the process began for this album, I first heard it all in my head and illustrated it. That way, while making music, I knew exactly what I wanted, and I did just that. And as a primary palette for each track, I designed a series of sounds and effects or recorded them if necessary and did the rest of the processing.
Personally, I really enjoy manipulating and distorting sounds, and I often prefer to separate them from their raw and initial form. It brings the timbre and texture of the sound closer to how I imagined it and also makes that sample unique. In this album, some recorded sounds are not changed much because of their nature and application. But some sounds were processed to be completely different from their original form. These are used in various places and for different applications throughout the album.
What were some of the biggest challenges you had to overcome to make Embrace?
Honestly, I’d say the biggest challenge in this album was converting those inner feelings into a story and eventually drawing the idea for the album.
And what surprised you most about this album in the end?
Maybe not astonished, but I can say that I was really thrilled that I managed to create an atmosphere by understanding and embracing my emotions. I was also excited that I managed to showcase that atmosphere through sound.
How do music and sound play a role for you in processing emotions and thoughts?
In this modern world, where many of our feelings are designed and implanted in society to serve the interests of corporations, the world of advertisements, or governments, understanding our emotions is really crucial. And I think music, and art in general, is the purest, most direct, and most natural way to understand and process emotions.
As 2023 rolls forward, what are you looking ahead to?
Currently, I am working on new projects with a different atmosphere which I am very excited to see the result of. But as a whole, since I turned my observations into music, I prefer that the preconceived idea in my mind won’t stop me from seeing and experiencing what the world has to offer.