Malak El Husseiny – if you don’t know that name, get to know it now. Since the release of debut EP, Alters, in 2014 Malak has been carving out one of the most unique sounds to have come from Egypt’s increasingly eclectic pool of musical talents and the sky is the limit for the Egyptian-Lebanese singer/songwriter.
Cairo Gossip’s Mahmoud Hussein lured Malak to CG headquarters for a little chat about her bumpy transition from YouTube singer to recording artist, her time on X-Factor and what the future holds for the 21 year old.
At 21, you’ve already achieved more than my mother keeps telling me I have – are you surprised with how the world of music has received you?
Well, I started professionally three years ago, when I signed for a record label called Subspace. Before that, I used to record covers and upload it on YouTube and I always knew that this was what I wanted to do in life. But it was only when Subspace contacted me that it started to become real. I started working on demos, my brand image and my development as an artist. It was the first time I worked producers and it was all new territory for me.
Then I released my EP and things got even better. It went really well – which I was surprised about because I sing in English. I didn’t think my music would catch on.
But you’re talented, you’re good-looking and you have really cool shoes on right now – it must have been smooth sailing for you, right?
Yeah, it was a piece of cake – no I’m kidding, of course! Nobody took me seriously at first – it was like, “okay let her sing and she’ll be over it in the morning.” But I always had a clear vision. I think that‘s what kept me going. It was a far from smooth process – not to mention that the revolution and the general instability of the country put things on hold for a while. But I knew that I had to believe in myself and I’ve grown so much since day one. I’d never written anything before, for example, but I decided that I wanted to write.
I had never recorded professionally before I started putting together demos, so it gave me the opportunity to experiment with layering vocals, using different instruments and generally find my style. I practiced and worked hard – there was a lot of trial-and-error.
Well if it was trial-and-error, then your debut EP, Alters, was a definite success. Many music aficionados I’ve spoken to appreciate the album because it defines and represents you perfectly – do you see it that way?
Yes and no. Basically, Alters comes from alter ego. Before I started singing professionally, I used to paint and draw and get involved in competitions, so there were a lot of different fields that I wanted to tap into. I had the feeling that I was being pulled in so many different directions and Alters is about me wanting different things in life. I try to find a balance that I’ll thrive in.
‘All We’ve Got’ is one of my favourite songs. I actually wrote and produced it with a friend. At the time, I didn’t have a producer because there were some issues in the record label. We were just sitting in the studio and we ended up producing it. It’s probably the most successful song in the EP and I’m really proud of it.
Your videos are very vivid, artsy and just plain cool – is this a deliberate approach you take?
For me, a video has to reflect my personality. With Alters, we wanted to create a cool art piece. We had a very low budget but we explored the idea of 3D projections and mapping – which no one had ever done, until Myriam Fares did with her song, Aman. I’m not jealous, though!
Let’s talk about the songwriter part of your singer-songwriter label – like it? Love it? Hate it? ‘Meh’ it?
Well, Alters was my first experience in writing and it took a while for me to really get into it – I wrote one song every day for three months. I just didn’t want to go to anyone to write for me, because it takes away a huge part of the creative input.
I’ve come to enjoy it because everything inspires me; whether it’s something I’ve read, seen or listened to. I start it with a subject in mind, and then I start writing the lines with the guitar. I then sit down with my producer and we start talking about how to make it into a full-blown song. That’s just one way to do it and, to be honest, it’s not my favourite way of writing, because the sound structure is always guitar-based. I actually prefer writing while sitting down with the producer – putting together a couple of bars and writing around them. It all depends on the mood and the situation.
My parents yell and throw stuff at me when they think I’m speaking ‘too much’ English around them – it comes from a loving place, apparently. What would you say to those who question why an Arab singer would choose to sing in a different language?
I grew up going to an international school and so I learned to express myself in English. I would love to be able to the same in Arabic and I’m working on it. I’m aware that I’m targeting a niche market, but at the end of the day, I just want to stay true to myself and right now, the best way of doing that is in English.
You collaborated with several musicians on Mashrou3 El Sa3ada – can we expect more ‘collabos’ in the future?
Mashrou3 El Sa3ada wasn’t necessarily my style of music to be honest; but it was all for charity, it gave me the opportunity to collaborate with some great musicians like Asfalt, Ezz Tarek and Osama El Hady and I wanted to be a part of something that can eventually make some positive changes.
Malak with Asfalt, Ezz Tarek and Osama El Hady and co. (Facebook)
There’s a song – another collaboration – already recorded, but I can’t tell you who it’s with! I’ve been working with a great producer called Funky Pharaoh, who has worked with Elissa and other big artists. We’re making a song which feels tailored for me – the type of song that I love to make.
I can’t have you here in front of me and not ask you about your time on X-Factor- what was the thinking behind it? Do you regret it?
I didn’t go for the show itself, per se – I went because the EP wasn’t getting as much exposure as I wanted. I needed a lot of exposure in a short amount of time and X-Factor producers were calling me every second. So I thought to myself, why not?
To be honest, I’ve never been fond of the idea of a music competition because there’s not a lot of room to be unique in these types of shows – but it did boost my social media presence and that in itself has given my music more exposure and a lot of fans across the Middle East.
But the show also opened my eyes – it changed my perspective of music completely. I was always fixated on my own style and my own vision; I wasn’t accepting of anything else until I went to the show and met artists from all different backgrounds. I heard so many different styles, so it was such an educational experience for me. I connected with musicians and I would even consider some of them good friends now.
Nice. Cool sunglasses by the way; you’re a bit of fashionista, some might say – is there anything you’re not good at?
I just love fashion! I used to design and own a fashion line. I’m into everything, to be honest. I believe that art, music and fashion go hand in hand. Having a unique fashion image gives you the edge you want for your musical persona. Even if you only wear a white t-shirt most of the time, it’s still a part of you and your unique personality. It’s just one more form of creative self-expression.
I suddenly feel really under-dressed. I’m going to distract both of us by ending this interview with a fluffy question – what do you do outside of music to chill?
I love to read and I always read two books at the same time – a fiction book and a self-help book. The last book I read was The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, but my favourite book has to be The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. She’s my favourite author and I also admire Franz Kafka and Haruki Murakami.
But as cliché as this is going to sound, what really changed my life and expanded my horizons was Eat Pray Love. I haven’t watched the movie though – I can’t bear the thought of it changing the identity of the book in my eyes. I’m also a huge Potter-head, though, and I wish was at Hogwarts…
Stay up to date with Malak on her official Facebook fan page.
By Mahmoud Hussein