“I find Montreal to be a very liminal, blank slate kind of place,” Zara Ahmed tells me over the phone. We’re discussing the idea of creative reinvention in a new city — I just moved here last month for that very purpose, and she’s been here almost seven years.
The recent release of her first full-length album Act of Treason is proof of her success in cultivating a sound that is uniquely hers. Her smooth, gravelly croon often overshadows her percussive guitar playing so that the listener feels they’re alone in a dimly-lit room as Zara reveals truths slowly, intimately.
Production-wise, it’s a bit of a return to her early days of homemade tapes, so she ventured away from her previous collaborator, Vikas Kohli of FatLabs, and went for a more DIY feel with Kevin Lynn of Static Clang (though Kohli did still master the album).
“I wanted less studio polish,” Zara explains, “closer to the feeling of sitting in my room, spontaneous-sounding. I also didn’t want to get too comfortable with one way of doing things. It’s a new kind of intimacy working with someone new, and the difficulties in that new relationship come out in the sound.”
“Kevin and I had a really good partnership, even though we were coming from different places. He had kind of a synth-driven, electric approach, but was still of the same mind as me, wanting to preserve the dissonance and integrity of the sound.”
The album was recorded in Lynn’s home studio, adding an intimacy to the recording that can’t be replicated in a more professional setting. Take the song PABNA, for example, and its two happy accidents:
“I was playing Kevin’s acoustic guitar, and the strings were really difficult for me to play; it was really painful. After several takes, you could hear it in my voice — the vocals are really emotive, bare and open. That’s the take we decided to use.”
In an attempt to work with what they had at hand, Zara also gave the song a shot on an electric guitar. It was much easier to play and actually added a whole new element to the song. In the end, they used both electric and acoustic guitar tracks.
“I feel like we produced the album out of pain — it was one of our overriding aesthetics,” she says. “Just push through it, it’ll be worth it at the end.”
In further exploration of new energies, Zara is embarking on her first solo tour of the Maritimes, with the band Sockfoot. So far, there are shows scheduled in Halifax, Moncton, Fredericton and Charlottetown.
“They’re mostly house concerts, open to the public,” Zara says. “I think it’ll be an awesome way to meet new musicians and collaborators. There’s even an amazing woman out there who’s volunteered to drive me around in her station wagon!”
In Halifax, she’ll be playing the Open Mic House on February 23. The venue is actually home to some of the members of Sockfoot, which Zara thinks is incredible. Other dates include:
Saturday, February 11: Ste-Emilie Skillshare in Montreal, QC
Saturday, February 18: 100 Alma in Moncton, NB
Sunday, February 19: 15 Allison in Sackville, NB
Thursday, February 23: The Open Mic House (2539 Agricola Street) in Halifax, NS
Saturday, March 10: Yellow Door Coffee House (3625 Aylmer Street) in Montreal, QC