Maral: Aural Histories
For producer and DJ Maral, sampling is a deeply personal affair.
“I see myself more as a listener than a producer,” she reveals over video call on a bright LA morning. “I’m always looking for that three to five seconds of a song that makes you feel something deeply. The nostalgia or memory of an emotion within the music – that’s what I start my work with.”
By taking a heart-first approach to production, the Iranian-American artist has carved out a distinctly intuitive and experimental sound for herself over the past three years. Since her 2019 debut, Mahur Club, Maral has taken snippets of the Iranian folk music and poetry she grew up listening to, and repurposed them as glitchy sound experiments to bring the Persian classical repertoire to the dancefloor.
On her latest album, Ground Groove, Maral splices lines from the Persian lute setar together with the yearning vocals of poet Forough Farrokhzad, snatches of conversation from rural Iranian shepherds, and waves of crushing distortion and uplifting melody. “I’m envisioning what these ancient sounds could be in the now,” Maral says. “How could they grow and expand into the club, or what would they sound like if they were played by a rock band?”
Maral developed this unique, time-eliding approach to music during her childhood in northern Virginia. With her parents largely playing Iranian music at home, Maral was left to her own devices to discover a glut of musical genres and subgenres through online chat rooms and downloading platforms. There was suddenly a world of music available to her all at once. “I only started discovering different genres in the early 2000s when I got really into internet forums and diving down musical rabbit holes,” she says with a smile. “My parents wanted me to focus on school, and my friends were more into pop, so I’d be in my bedroom alone, listening to anarcho-punk bands on really low volume and switching it off suddenly when my mum would walk in.”
Delving further into wide-ranging tastes that traverse the likes of art-pop group Animal Collective and British punk band Crass, Maral soon started making mixtapes to soundtrack her friends’ parties, before embarking on a thrillingly inventive, self-taught DJ journey at university. “I would only use Ableton to make loops and mixes on the fly, blended with sounds from nature,” she laughs. “It was pretty out there, but it led me, ten years later, to where I am with my sound now.”
Maral began writing her own compositions, to be improvised live during her DJ sets, by extending and editing minute sections of her favourite Patsy Cline or Buddy Holly songs. “I’d take a moombahton track and slow it down to 60bpm before putting these little samples on top of it,” she explains. “I just wanted to make sound experiments and textures that might start discussions.”
After moving to LA in 2013 and partying in warehouses filled with music from future-facing club collective Fade to Mind, Maral suddenly felt a nostalgic pull back to the music of her youth. She started treating her samples as “bandmates” that help govern the sonic arc of each track, and subsequently switched out the Cline and Holly tunes for the 80s Iranian music her parents would share with her via their own mixtapes, as well as the classical sounds she would hear on summer trips to visit family in Tehran. “It began as a way of me showing people the Iranian music I was excited about,” she says. “I wanted to hear these folk songs in the context of the clubs that I had found so inspiring.”
The result was Mahur Club, the 15-track album that seamlessly blends the longing cry of Iranian folk vocals with bitcrushed melodies played out in the classical Mahur modal system and layered over crawling, drum machine rhythms. “Interpolating those samples was a way of expressing my nostalgia,” Maral recalls. “This music is the cry of the people because I sample folk music from all regions of Iran. It tells their often sombre stories, placed in the modern-day context of where I was when I was making it.”
The follow-up, 2020’s Push, was similarly created as a means of recontextualising the struggles of the Iranian people, this time amid the backdrop of the pandemic. “I made that record during a time of upheaval in Iran, when Covid was hitting hard and I was depressed about the state of the country through its lack of response,” Maral says with a pause. “Yet our history has been one of oppression, from when the Arabs invaded right up to now, so I wanted to reflect the resistance of the people through difficult times. I was thinking about that entire history and was led by my emotions when it came to choosing my samples.”
“The way that I sample has now become my mark on Persian classical music”
It is mainly through the anguished, female perspective of modernist poet Forough Farrokhzad that Maral communicates that lasting persistence of Iranian character, featuring keening lines of her voice on the track Salaam. “She represents so many aspects of humanity within her poetry,” Maral says. “Her voice is soothing and represents the enduring power of femininity, which is why I keep coming back to it.”
Farrokhzad’s feminist poetry feels more important than ever. Women in Iran are currently protesting the authoritarian government, following the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was arrested in September by the so-called “morality police” for allegedly wearing her hijab too loosely. Although Ground Groove was completed long before the protests began, Maral believes its music speaks to the perseverance of the Iranian people. “I wanted to be more hopeful for this record and pay homage to the strength of [our] people,” she says. “They give me the energy to be positive. I hope this music can reflect that for its listeners, too.”
The motivation to imbue her sampled soundscapes with optimism also comes from the collaborative origins of Ground Groove. Initially asked to work with artist Brenna Murphy to create an audio-visual piece for the 2021 edition of Rewire Festival, Murphy’s bright, prismatic visuals spawned a new response in Maral’s accompanying music. “I’ve [previously] been lonely in my music-making because I do it in such a particular way. It’s just me and my laptop at home,” Maral says. “Brenna reignited my creativity with her visual responses to my work and it ended up influencing me to expand my sound to make shimmery music.” That glittering inspiration is weaved into the closing four tracks of Ground Groove: a fizzing stream of distortion gives way to an ethereal falsetto and downtempo syncopated rhythm on Mari’s Groove, before whispers of the setar cut through on A Walk and a Talk, ending the album on the melismatic melody of Glimmer’s Kiss. From this palette of sounds, Maral then built up the sonic identity of the rest of the record.
“I wanted to pay homage to the strength of the Iranian people. They give me the energy to be positive”
Maral’s musical creations may be driven by artful experimentalism, but the release of Ground Groove has seen her reaching new audiences. The past two years have seen her collaborate with two of her idols – Animal Collective’s Panda Bear and Crass’ Penny Rimbaud – and share line-ups with James Blake and Beach House. “When I first started, I was just after respect, since for so long I felt like an outsider,” Maral admits. “I hope this goes to show that experimental artists like me can still achieve major goals through a genuine interaction and love for music.”
It also seems that Maral has broken through in unexpected ways. With master musicians typically memorising the centuries-old disciplines of Persian classical music, the way in which they choose to play it becomes their lasting impression on the canon. “The way that I sample has now become my mark on Persian classical music,” Maral says. “The tradition is about evolution, which is why I’m always pushing things forward.”
To keep pushing towards the future, Maral is breaking out of her creative isolation, and stretching the boundaries of her music out to reach others. “I want to work with younger artists and participate in a musical ecosystem that means we can all grow without sacrificing our experimentation in the process,” she says. “I want to actually make music in a studio, too, since I’ve never done that before! Maybe I’ll get into the world of producing for other artists, since I haven’t had a chance to do that much.”
Until then, Maral hopes the speaker vibrations of Ground Groove will allow listeners to feel their own emotions through her deeply personal selection of samples. “This music is about how small sounds collide with each other and go on to produce something new in a brief moment before they disappear,” she says, gesturing towards the camera as if holding the shape of this music in her hands. “It captures feelings – like I’m singing to you through my samples.”
Ground Groove is out now via Leaving Records