K Á R Y Y N is sitting in her mother’s car when the Skype call connects. She’s there because she has a hypersensitivity to sound. She’s startled regularly and is distracted easily by the buzz of the world. I wonder if this is a blessing or a curse for the Syrian-Armenian-American composer, but as it will be for most of the questions I ask her, the answer is both yes and no.
“I think it’s a gift but I feel startled all the time and it’s not fun. Like when someone sneezes I’m that ridiculous friend of yours who overreacts… I get a lot of headaches, but part of it is that I can hone in on something. I hear something that might barely be there so that’s really interesting to me. I’m really honouring that and trying to see how that can be enjoyable for other people.”
K Á R Y Y N’s sound is like nothing I’ve really heard before. It’s ethereal and meditative, and euphoric at times. You’ll quickly notice the benefits of her ability to hear sounds that others don’t. Although born in America she has strong ties to her father’s homeland of Syria. When discussing her process of creating a song she explains to me that she struggles to work to a click track and that her internal meter ticks to a Middle Eastern beat.
“I don’t work in time. I never do anything in 4/4. Everything is like 15/7. I always sing on the two instead of the one. I grew up listening to just Middle Eastern music. Every time I was in the car with my mom as a child all we were listening to was Arabic and Turkish music. They sing on the two; the beat hits, the singer starts. So, I naturally sing on the two. It’s so uncomfortable.”
K Á R Y Y N’s father left Syria through Lebanon to follow his dream of becoming a doctor. He avoided conscription into the Syrian military and got to America via the Red Cross.
“You just have to hear the story, it’s insane. My dad’s so awesome and he’s a big part of why I have this ambition… My father is what you would call the ‘American Dream’. He came from shanty town living in Syria to doing anything he could to become a physician. He’s one of my heroes and so is my mother.”
Although her father can’t return to Syria, K Á R Y Y N was christened in an ancient church in Aleppo and travelled back as a child every May. Her memories from those visits are still strong.
“Imagine at home (LA) I’m drinking a Coca-Cola out of a can, but in Syria we would be going from the hotel and we would take a van. You’re going through the desert and you’re hot so you stop for a drink and there’s a little something set up and you’re drinking Sprite out of a plastic bag with a straw and a rubber band to tie it. Then I got home and it’s like air conditioning and milk that’s not powdered.”
This is a perfect painting of the juxtaposition in K Á R Y Y N’s life. She’s as Middle Eastern as she is American, and influences from both cultures exist within her. While her natural meter represents her Syrian descent, she first discovered her voice when performing a Dolly Parton song for her parents.
“I’ve always been very musical. There’s a silence in it actually. My mantra is ‘exist in the chaos’ because if you can exist in the chaos and be quiet in the eye of the storm then you’re cool. Things are going to come to you and it’s your ability to respond that is everything.”
Our conversation is punctuated with fragments of wisdom like this. Religious words and imagery re-occur in K Á R Y Y N’s vocabulary. That and the haunting nature of her music leads us on to spirituality and belief.
“I’m constantly practicing the Lotus Sútra and the Upanishads,” an excited K Á R Y Y N tells me.
A quick Google search tells me that the Lotus Sútra is a scripture of Buddhism, widely regarded as one of the most influential and sacred. The Upanishads are a collection of Indian texts written approximately 800 years BCE.
“All of these ancient texts talk about how we perceive our existence and one and other and I’m very interested in how it is that we’re all interconnected… Music is the continuation where words are left behind. My music really is about tapping into feeling something that isn’t even there yet. When I make music I just record the room. I don’t think at all. I make a sound and I just get out of my own way and I let what I call my higher self just come through.
“There’s much more to my reality than this 3D that I’m looking at. There’s something beyond me, that’s much bigger than me and I may be fuelling that energy as I think we all are. Individually we’re all gods.”
K Á R Y Y N’s music doesn’t follow the traditional verse, chorus, verse, structure of most songs. Instead her tracks transcend these rules and become almost hymn like, ‘Moving Masses’ in particular.
“I’m really interested in figuring out how you make a song that’s at once profound if you want it to be, like if you uncover the layers, or it’s really catchy and it’s really pushing sound boundaries. My dream is to be making pop music that feels like classical music. When I say classical like post-classical, sophisticated, beyond what we have heard so far and maybe you’re going back to the 70s or the 60s when what was popular and was pushing the boundaries way more than what is now in the Top 40.
“I really want to be able to make a piece, and I’m working on it, maybe it will take a whole career, who knows, but a piece that resonates with millions and millions of people and they’re going, ‘Wow I like this song and I never would have thought I would have liked this song’.”
In February 2017 K Á R Y Y N released ‘Aleppo’. The accompanying video is a compilation of home footage shot in Syria the early noughties showing her family, their home and city. Set to a backing track of K Á R Y Y N’s poignant vocals it’s haunting and heartbreaking knowing that Aleppo now lies in ruins, the old city, a Unesco World Heritage site, devastated by years of conflict.
“I called the song ‘Aleppo’ because I knew what was happening there because of my family, but nobody was talking about it. One time I saw the city’s name in a very small print on some news network and I thought, ‘Woah, that’s so crazy no one even knows what that is’. I thought I would do it as homage, ‘I’ll name it ‘Aleppo’ and it will be like this special thing for my family and me’.
“When I wrote and produced the song I was still not ready to come out as an artist. I was making the work but I was not sure it would be effective enough or worthy enough to be out there and it’s been a real process to try and feel that I am worthy to be heard.”
K Á R Y Y N plays All Together Now, August 3-5.