New York singer, songwriter and producer Mizan is the true description of a multi-faceted artist. Her delicate vocals, reflective songwriting and smooth production got my attention when browsing through soundcloud, and as I listened- I knew I needed to know more. A while ago, we caught up on skype. Mizan is light, funny yet opinionated, intelligent and composed. She is clearly someone who loves their craft, and an artist with potential for greatness. Check out our interview with the New York musician here.
I saw that you recently did something with Aldo, a track called All These Lines. It came up on my Soundcloud?
Oh my God, they released that? I recorded that about 5 years ago basically. I didn’t know they’d released that! I didn’t really like the song, we were really just experimenting and freestyling, things like that. Woah...I need to talk to them about that haha. I had no idea.
haha, So are you guys friends? How did you decide to collaborate?
Well, I don’t normally collaborate with producers, I try to make a point of producing my own stuff because that’s the only way I can get fulfilment from making music - the videos, the production, everything. I kind of have to do that myself. I really like doing that.
Umm, so how did I meet him? He [Aldo] goes to SVA - School of Visual Arts, here in New York. He and a couple of other artists and illustrators wanted to come together and form a collective. We had a few meetings but it wasn’t really anything official. Then he sent me this thing and I was freestyling over it and sent it back to him as a joke really.
Well, it seems like it’s doing pretty well! I’ve seen it posted a few times.
No, he will have to take it down immediately haha. I definitely do not like it.
I will have to rip that off of Soundcloud before you delete it! So actually that brings me onto my next question, I wanted to ask you how heavy a role you play in the production etc. So did you start by producing music or have you always been a singer-songwriter, and production came afterwards?
I started learning the basics of music when I was very young. I started taking piano lessons which in a way is its own kind of production because you’re arranging music and things like that, so you gain a familiarity with the process, musicality, the notes. So that really gave me a base.
I mean, there’s two sides to my music. There’s the classic, more piano-based stripped down style, which I would say is a Nina Simone style of music. I really appreciate that side and that’s how I started. But as I got older and I started making more music, I also started getting interested in the more electronic, experimental side. So I started adding beats and more percussion-based stuff to the piano that I was already playing and that’s how it evolved.
You can really hear that through your music - the fusion between the electronic and the more classical side. Did you listen to Nina Simone and artists like her when you were growing up and learning music from a young age?
You know what, I think actually I didn’t listen to Nina Simone until later on in my life. A lot of artists that have stuck with me are the people I discovered myself. First, you have the influences of your parents, family and friends and what’s being played on the radio. But then, you grow up and you start requiring certain things from music and then you discover those things and some music changes your life and the way you see the world.
But yeah, Nina Simone, interestingly, though my parents listened to a lot of Motown, for some reason she wasn’t part of it. I discovered her when I was about 19 or 20 and I was just blown away.
So you grew up listening to Motown and that kind of stuff. Do you have any favourite Motown artists? I know that’s a hard question.
No, that’s a great question, I have many favourites. Marvin Gaye, I don’t really know if he’s officially Motown but Al Green...
Yes, and the Temptations! Classics. That’s my kind of music too. I feel like it’s actually coming back a lot through this small digital movement that’s happening at the moment. A lot of the stuff is being sampled.
So I wanted to ask you about your family and your background. Did you grow up in Ethiopia or have you always lived in the States?
I was born in the States, I was about 4 when we moved back to Ethiopia so I spent a lot of my life there. I mean, we went back and forth, during my summers I would come back here [the US] but I officially moved back here when I came to college and then immediately after college I moved to New York.
Where did you live before in the States and why did you choose to move to New York specifically?
Well, I chose New York simply because it’s the best place to do what I want to do. It opens the most opportunities. It’s a great city. I mean it’s intense and it’s crazy but it’s brilliant. Have you ever been?
I haven’t, no! I’m actually planning a trip though.
So, do you consider yourself digital artist or are you just a singer-songwriter? What category would you put yourself under if you had to decide?
Well, I’m not really sure what a digital artist is. I mean, is it someone who creates using digital materials or who only exists in the digital arena?
I’d say that it kind of comes under both things. I mean, to exist in the digital arena or sphere can only last so long and once it becomes successful your music is going to go onto other platforms. I would consider a digital artist as someone who originally started in that arena and owes their first recognition to that and also, people that use digital sounds and create their music digitally.
It’s becoming a lot bigger, especially with platforms like Soundcloud. What do you make of it all? Do you think it’s a good thing?
Well, I think it depends on the artist. I definitely am a person that owes a lot of my success to digital media and social media. Even though I’m not a big Twitter or Tumblr person, I don’t really like sharing my life in that way, I like sharing my music. For my work, it’s been great.
We’re in the digital age. These days what’s on the television and what’s on the radio is so completely different to what’s on the internet. The internet is the real shit, you know. You can go on YouTube to watch videos and listen to music that wouldn’t otherwise appear in the censored TV circulation. It’s very important and I think digitalisation gives artists freedom to do what they want. They can curse online, they can tackle topics that are controversial and nobody will shut you down or anything like that.
So yeah, I think that’s really important - not only for the distribution of your work but also the content of your work. I definitely am an artist that owes a lot of my - well I don’t want to say success because I’m not successful yet - but whatever I have, to digital. I don’t know if I answered your question...
No, you did! So you said yourself that you don’t really use Twitter or Tumblr, that’s probably quite healthy in this day and age. People are really going to the extreme and doing things just for the purpose of posting it online. Where do you spend the most of your time online?
Umm, I don’t know, I mean I’m not really on the internet that much honestly. Maybe just different blogs.
What kind of blogs do you follow?
I follow a few art blogs, just people who are graphic designers or something, I think that’s really interesting. I follow a few young women who write about feminism and a lot of political blogs, things like that - just so I stay informed.
There are really intelligent bloggers and young people online but there’s also the flip side which is just not informative and you can waste a lot of time on the internet if you’re not aware of yourself.
That’s so true. You mentioned at the beginning of our conversation that you have a new EP that you’re working on. I wanted to talk to you a bit more about the EP you released last year: Dark Blue. How long was that creative process seeing as a lot of it was you creating it from scratch?
Just those 3 songs took about 6 months to a year because everything was being done by me. I mean, I have no label but I also want my music to be really good quality.
So I would record it but then I would want it mixed and mastered in the best way possible and then I would want to make a video that’s interesting but when you’re making it yourself you have to rent out equipment and edit it. It just takes so much and there’s so many details. It might not feel like that when you’re watching the content but it is especially if there’s only me doing it.
So the EP you’re talking about will be Dark Blue: Chapter 1 which will include No Fool, Anxious and Thru and then there’s going to be Dark Blue: Chapter 2 which is going to be the next 3 songs I’ll be releasing. So it’s kind of part of this EP, the themes and the energies relate, part 1 and part 2 will have a certain theme running through them. It should be interesting.
The first part meant a lot, I mean I’ve just been obsessing over it. The video software, the music software. I was doing it myself because no-one else could see what I could see in my mind.
That’s the thing, it’s really hard to translate your vision to somebody else and have them create it.
Exactly, so you have to do it yourself.
Would you consider yourself a perfectionist when it comes to that kind of thing?
I personally wanted to know what did you study at college? Did you do anything music-related? Obviously you did a lot of composing and playing when you were younger but what made you decide “This is what I’m going to do and I’m going to pursue it and invest time into it”?
Well, I studied Literature and Philosophy.
I studied Philosophy too!
Oh you did? Yeah and I minored in Legal Studies so I was supposed to be a lawyer essentially. Then I realised that’s not what I wanted to do. It was very simple. I decided I’m going to do all that I can to work really hard to be the best I can be at music. It was a very instinctive choice.
Have you always felt that way, that music was really a passion of yours, throughout your childhood?
Yes. I mean, because of the way I grew up I never really saw it as something that I could do professionally and it took a while to figure out how I was going to make a living off of it. But I knew that was what I wanted to do, vaguely.
It just took some time, learning to know how exactly this was going to manifest into a career but I knew I wanted to do music for the rest of my life.
Have you collaborated with any people of note or a favourite person that you’ve worked with? Or have you just done it all by yourself? That’s fine too, haha. Is there anyone who’s helped you in your creative process?
Oh yeah! I have a small circle of friends who are really creative and they’re amazing. I mean I can’t shoot and be in a frame at the same time so that kind of help has been there. A lot of the stuff I do has been co-produced with Strange Creature who’s been a friend of mine for a very long time. My sister is also a visual artist and she’s amazing.
We do a lot of the videos and stuff with her. The ones that are coming up now are great. I think every artist has a main circle of people that they go to for real opinions and real feedback so for me that would be my sister and Strange Creature.
Cool, so 3 videos are coming for the songs you're releasing soon- And the 3 you have already done? What's the relationship?
Yeah, there’s already been 3 for the songs that are already out. I’ve recorded 2 of the next ones already and the last one I’m going to film next week. The 3 that I’ve already released are going to serve as a reference for the next 3. We’re not going to re-release them or anything. I just want them to be included under the Dark Blue theme because they come from the same time in my life and they discuss more or less the same kind of issues so that’s why I’m not doing a whole new EP because I want all these 3 songs to fall under Dark Blue. Then I want to move onto an album. I’ve also started working on a new album as well.
That must be so crazy having all these different things coming up and working on something new, I don’t know how you do it. I’d be so impatient. I know it takes so much time from the initial conception of the song up until being ready to release it.
It’s so much time and I’m really really busy these days. I’m supposed to be doing shows and all this other stuff. I think it’s easier when you have somebody producing for you and they send you a production and you only have to sing over it, which is a task on its own but it’s much simpler. It’s also much easier when someone’s writing lyrics for you and it’s also easier when you someone shoots for you or you shoot your video with somebody else and it’s their project.
But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I also want to be in the right frame of mind when I record my vocals because I feel like it’s someone’s emotional...I don’t know, it’s just intense, you know.
Yeah, I can imagine. I also wanted to touch on the future. You mentioned Strange Creature but what producers out there do you listen to personally and who would you love to work with?
I think there are many talented producers, many amazing people but I’m interested in really developing my skills, my own production skills, so I can produce everything myself. This might sound kind of odd because that’s not the usual way to do things but that’s what I’m interested in. It has to be my expression or I wouldn’t be able to be completely honest in saying “This is a Mizan song”, you know. It has to be my song.
You can’t take somebody else’s production and slap your name on it. For me, maybe their production is better but it’s not my expression or my articulation of those emotions. I’m just interested in learning more about production so I can achieve different levels and different variations and styles of production rather than depending on someone else. It’s not that nobody else is doing enough or anything like that.
No, I totally get you. I think that’s really refreshing.
One of the last things we wanted to ask, if you’ve had time to think about it, is what are some tracks that you would say mean something to you?
My taste is really weird. I mean I really like Nirvana but I also really like Fleetwood Mac...
That’s fine, it can literally be anything!
Anything? Okay umm...one of my favourite songs is In Bloom by Nirvana, and then, let’s see, Vogue by Madonna. I Wanna Be Down by Brandy. I really like this recent song called Where Is My Man by Eartha Kitt. I love that song.
Good choices. Well, Mizan- Thank you so much for talking to me today. It was really nice to get to understand your creative process, it actually really makes me understand you music a lot more which is awesome and we can’t wait to hear the new stuff.
Follow Mizan on Soundcloud here.
Interview led by Neela (@Foxyneela)