pushing boundaries with Dania Shihab
Imagine being an emergency medicine doctor and running an independent label between shifts? That’s just another day for Baghdad-born Dania Shihab, a musician balancing her time between saving lives in rural Australia and working on creative projects in her home studio in Barcelona.
Running Paralaxe Editions since 2014, this year she decided to take sound into her own hands and released her debut album Voz on Geographic North where she intertwined contemplative ambient loops with abstract vocal expressions with the greatest kind of sensitivity.
Intrigued by her sound and her story, we caught up with Dania to learn more about what fuels her drive and creativity.
After years of running Paralaxe Editions, you finally decided to release something of your own this year. How did that come about?
I have actually been recording music for a while, but laying down and realizing a piece from beginning to end was something I had to find time for. I work as an emergency doctor in Australia and also run Paralaxe on top of that, so finding time to record music can be challenging. The pandemic changed everything for me though. I was unable to return to Australia for nearly a full year, as the borders were essentially closed, even for citizens and doctors. This meant I had a lot of free time and energy to spend, so I spent it in the studio immersed in music. That’s when I decided that I wanted to finally release my ideas.
Can you walk us through the recording process of Voz?
The recording process involved a lot of experimentation with tape, a bit of modular synthesis, and a lot of Ableton. There was a steep learning curve with a lot of the instrumentation. Just learning what works and what doesn’t. When I’m in Australia, I read a lot of manuals in my quiet moments during night shifts at work, and when I go back to Barcelona I record in my small home studio. I’ll often sketch out ideas on my phone and then take them into the studio later on, although sometimes I will just use my voice notes as they are. My phone is full of voice memos. It was a stop-and-start process, trying to record whilst travelling to and from Australia, and learning from friends along the way whenever I encountered a hiccup.
What ideas guided you in creating Voz?
I really wanted to use my voice. I see it as my primary instrument, but it has kind of atrophied over the years. I was also interested in fusing some Western and Middle Eastern harmonic structures and wanted to explore that. I started by working with a multitrack Tascam and layering vocal loops on that, which really reminded me of what I loved doing when I was a kid. I used to harmonize at home over vocals I had recorded from the radio onto blank tapes. I suppose Voz is a maturation of that idea.
You grew up in a household where singing was culturally frowned upon, but your pieces are filled with your voice. What does it mean to you, both to use it and to finally use it freely?
Of course it’s quite liberating. I grew up in a Muslim household, where singing was generally seen through a sexual lens, especially for females. Gender norms in Islam are strict, and even public recitations of the Koran and the call to prayer, both of which can be quite musical in nature, are only to be done by men. Of course there was still singing in the household. My mother was actually an incredibly beautiful singer and I too loved to sing, but never in front of men, and never in public. It takes a lot to shake the ingrained cultural taboo of using my voice in public.
So what does this debut mean to you as an artist? Is it a form of a diary? Is it some kind of statement?
I see it as a cathartic start to being a musician. Musical expression was something I always kept at arm’s length, self-censoring my output and ideas, and now I feel like I’ve activated a creative part of myself that I wish to explore more and more.
Can you tell us a bit more about the very beginning? How did Paralaxe come to life?
The seed was planted whilst I was working in Australia almost a decade ago. I saw that a local photographer I loved had his books at Offprint Paris, and the photos of the festival looked incredible, with tables and tables of books and zines. I was determined to travel to Europe and see it with my own eyes, and I eventually did!
In 2014 I decided to start Paralaxe with a friend (who left shortly after when he moved to Berlin) with the idea of making objects, both print and music. At that time, I was an avid photo book collector, and he was also a musician. That was the era of the self-publishing movement, where people were moving zines and tape culture into larger platforms like Offprint and other art book fairs, and hosting their output alongside big publishers in the same venue. I remember being particularly moved by Akina Books and Bruno Ceschel’s Self Publish, Be Happy organization.
I’m less involved in that printing and publishing world now, but I’ve certainly taken some of those ideas with me, especially when it comes to working outside of conventional methods, outside of established institutions and away from set procedures. Those things were also particularly appealing to me as an immigrant, as it can be challenging to navigate the institutional systems and accessing their support networks for ideas I’ve had. With the advent of platforms such as Bandcamp and SoundCloud, music has become more democratically disseminated, but there still exists an old guard, especially when it comes to physical production and distribution.
All the releases on the label are designed by Oficina de disseny, which brings a certain kind of coherence. Why is that important for you?
Since the inception of Paralaxe, I have worked almost exclusively with Oficina de disseny. They are an integral part of what I do. The quality of their design work goes without saying, but that’s just part of why I chose to work with them. Their philosophical outlook is also key, as they prioritize working against the commodification of culture and seek to return value to physical objects. They also work closely with a collective printing plant here in Barcelona. I feel they are quite grounded. Another design firm once told me that Oficina de disseny are quite “punk” in their outlook, which made me smile. Because so much time and care goes into their design and printing, I also take curation quite seriously. Paralaxe isn’t a factory, but a platform to share beautiful ideas that are lasting.
Is running a record label still something you see yourself doing in the future?
I find the term label quite limiting. I see Paralaxe as something more fluid, a platform where I can find ways to operate away from existing paradigms. I always pivot my objectives according to what I find important or interesting at the time. I’m now working with certain venues in Barcelona to showcase artists that I admire and respect, especially females involved in sonic arts, and I’m hoping to expand that into a formal series in the future. I think it’s vitally important to invite artists to perform in intimate settings where their work can be appreciated in isolation from other artists. I find the large city festival experience to be contrary to a true listening experience, and I suppose this is my way of countering that. I may also return to book publishing one day! Of course, publishing music will always be a part of Paralaxe.
Do you consider yourself more as a label runner or musician then?
I’m not sure I can really put a concrete label on it. It really depends on the context that I find myself in.
Your latest release under Superpang, Downtime Salon, is slightly different from Voz. What differences do you notice between composing this kind of long-form piece and shorter ones when working on a release?
Interestingly the Superpang release is a collage of many short-form pieces, so I suppose it is a long-form piece composed of different sketches from my archive that were never released into full “songs”. It’s essentially a mix of my own music, so it didn’t necessarily involve a different approach in terms of composition.
What sort of experience is it for you to perform on stage?
Interesting! I was actually thinking the other day that it’s not dissimilar to some medical procedures. I usually have my set rehearsed, and rote learning procedural steps is quite integral to live performance, but there is also the improvisational factor, the thinking on your feet. Thankfully I’m feeling more and more comfortable with that the more live shows I play.
That’s good to hear! Any plans for the near future that you are looking forward to?
I’m currently collaborating with a few artists and friends at the moment, mostly adding vocal parts to compositions that they have been working on. Some of the songs I’m really excited about, as they’ve taken a direction I wasn’t anticipating.
I have another release coming out next year called Foreign Body, which is a bit more conceptual, exploring ideas of identity and my own status as an ‘Adult Third Culture Kid.’ I also recently finished a song for Hivern Discs. It’s part of a collection of three cover songs by myself, Cucina Povera, and Céline Gillain.
Aside from making music, I’ve also begun collaborating with an Arts Residence called Hangar here in Barcelona, and will be curating a series of events. It’s a very special venue and I’m looking forward to bringing unique acts to the city for the first time.