There are some artists out there, who when you hear them, all you can do is ask yourself is ‘where have you been all my life?’. Creatives whose sound is so refined and so realised that you can’t understand why you haven’t been listening to them for years? Singer-songwriter, Mariam Sawires is one of those artists. Raised in a large Egyptian Australian family obsessed with music, Sawires seemed almost destined to become a musical force of nature. Her songs draw obvious influence from artists like Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu, nestling somewhere between soul or RnB in terms of sound with similar sultry quality. However, in my opinion, what separates Mariam from her inspirations and contemporaries is that she allows space for her Egyptian roots to come through as well with controlled vocals and subtle use of ululation that give her songs a hypnotic, almost prayer-like value. It’s near impossible to pick someone whose voice sounds like Sawires’, it’s completely and truly her own.
Her newly released single ‘Trust’ from her EP ‘Healing’, is dedicated, not to a relationship of her own, but to one of a close friend’s that she observed in real-time for ten years, watching two people with no faith or belief in each other,
slowly come to rely on one another and form the song’s namesake. Mariam found time to answer some of our questions, about healing, travelling and self-discovery.
Your travels have taken you to places all over the world like France, Berlin, Japan, and Columbia just to name a few. How did each place affect you as an artist or as a person?
I think that each place gave me a very different perspective about life, myself, and what is possible. I left Japan with a renewed sense of creativity and purpose creating music I enjoyed and having a dream to pursue music. I learned Japanese and I gained a lot of independence about what I felt is right for me as a person as opposed to listening to what others thought I should do. In Colombia, I was exposed to very strong women who used their art to explore and protest against social and political injustices and so reflecting on my Egyptian heritage I collaborated a lot with musicians and artists there which was very inspiring. Berlin was like I entered another dimension! There
was just such a huge variety of different ways of doing art and I felt freedom in how I could express myself for the first time. There I birthed my debut EP ‘Ahnuma’ – I just felt very comfortable being myself. It influenced me in such a positive way. France was very fairytale-like because I lived in a castle and there was a lot of solitude. I appreciated the past and the present where I wrote a lot of songs.
On that note, which do you think made the most important impact?
I think they all collectively make a little impact one after the other on my life journey. However, I would say that Berlin had the biggest soulful impact on my heart and creatively as an artist. There, I really felt this inner power to just be
myself and perform, create, record, release music, and really just live as an artist. I also felt very supported by a community of other musicians who encouraged my musical expression and yeah I was performing all the time,
which taught me so much. Berlin gave me the push to express myself confidently.
‘Trust’ is a song written about a relationship, but unlike many songs of its ilk, it’s not about a relationship you were in, but a friends’. What was it like writing such a personal song about something that didn’t happen
to you directly?
The lyrics of ‘Trust’ came effortlessly and it’s strange I felt I was expressing something that had happened to me. What was interesting was when I poured out the words I realised that it wasn’t my experience I was channelling but my best friends. I feel like because I was so caught up in it all after knowing her all my life, it started to take up space in my head as I was always worried about her. Writing the song I suppose was a way of releasing and transmuting those emotions that didn’t serve me and I no longer wanted to carry.
Do you feel like any of your Egyptian heritage comes through in your music? If so, in what way?
Absolutely. From a very early age, I was exposed to Egyptian and Middle Eastern music as well as my dad playing the tabla and teaching me traditional Arabic songs. I would try to copy a lot of the Egyptian singer’s techniques like
Oum Kalthoum when I was young because I was fascinated by how much emotion and storytelling was conveyed in the music. I think that’s something I’ve always tried to keep in the songs I write – having a very raw and
emotionally honest projection of the experience I’m trying to express, which is felt in a lot of Arabic music. My five other siblings are all musicians and there are a lot of traditional rhythms played around the house and so I think that
catches on in the heavy rhythmic melodies I write. I’ve tried writing Arabic songs and my dad (who also composes music) has gotten me to sing on multiple albums in Arabic. He and my siblings created a family band playing
traditional Arabic and contemporary original soulful songs and we sometimes play shows altogether in Sydney. It’s definitely a huge part of who I am and my musical expression.
You have a very distinct and identifiable singing voice. Did you hone it this way on purpose or does it come naturally to you? Has it changed over time?
Thank you so much, that’s such a nice compliment. From a very young age, I was encouraged by my mum to express myself and not follow the crowd with everything. When it came to singing, I really wanted to find my own unique sound. However, I was inspired by a few key icons, especially Egyptian singers growing up where I tried to match my tone to theirs being young whilst trying to keep my feel and frequency. I’ve listened to old recordings of songs I wrote when I was 8 or 15 and I laugh because like with everything, there’s a certain control and development that comes with time and practice. I think I’ve always kept the same energy and awareness singing but I think I’ve learned to tuck in the emotions a bit. Having musician parents who encouraged me to express my own voice and creativity, I adopted an intuitive approach where I just ‘feel it’ when I sing as I’ve never had any formal singing training.
What are some sources you felt have informed your sound? Are there any specific artists or genres you felt have had a large hand in your actualisation?
I’d say the biggest artist who had a huge impact on me was Erykah Badu because she is just so unapologetic about being herself. It wasn’t even necessarily her music that transformed and transcended my own creativity
(even though her music did have a huge impact on my singing and performing), it was more her sense of strength, power, freedom, and apologeticness that I just fell in love with. That being said, I grew up with a
beautiful foundation of soul, Arabic, and jazz listening to Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Sting, Lauryn Hill, and Bob Marley which then influenced me to study jazz piano and jazz harmony when I was 15 with a teacher at the
Conservatorium of Music in Sydney. Those influences have definitely shaped my style and songwriting a lot. I would say Erykah Badu till today has had the biggest impact on me musically. Of course, I admire current Contemporary
Soul artists like Mereba, H.E.R. Anderson .Paak, SZA, and Daniel Caesar just to name a few.
You seem like a rolling stone, moving around a lot and experiencing as many new things as possible. How have harsh COVID-based restrictions affected you in recent memory?
At the start of 2020, my intention was to again take a one-way ticket to Berlin and move around Europe. Once the restrictions were in place and I saw the world was changing quite fast, I think like many of us, I was very confused and it hit me hard that I couldn’t travel. What was hardest for me was that my grandparents who I’m really close to moved back to Egypt from Australia and I can’t visit them so it has been hard and challenging. At the same time I’ve
taken this opportunity to explore other dimensions within myself, picked up new hobbies like time travel (joking like rollerblading) and I’m using this time to see Sydney and Australia in a new light, trying to expand my experiences and my community here, which has been really wonderful and for the first time, I feel very connected. I think COVID especially has been a time where family and loved ones are the most important thing so I feel lucky that I’ve been able to have those wild, crazy, spontaneous solo experiences (and I do definitely miss them) but at the same time, I’m just shifting my focus onto the people around me and expanding here where I am and really letting go and letting
Your 2019 single Choose was apparently written in a seventeenth-century French castle. How did that strange situation come about and what was that like?
I wrote Choose and Meaning of Our Love in the same castle in France – it was a wonderful experience that I am very grateful for. I’m going to keep the mystery of how that came about and keep the persons involved anonymous,
but I will express that it was a very Divine meeting with someone who gave me an opportunity to spend time there. It was just magical, it felt like stepping back in time. As soon as I stepped inside it felt like time had stopped and it
wasn’t in 2021… the air in the rooms felt different – it was such a huge monument with high ceilings where it was so easy to get lost. Five stories with forty-plus bedrooms and most of the rooms still had belongings of the people
who used to live there such as brushes and mirrors on the bedside tables, diaries etc. Napoleon’s signature sat on a desk right next to me where I laid my piano in one of the three libraries. It was just insanely beautiful (not only
inside but outside) as it was surrounded by a forest. I would take lots of walks to reflect. I wish I could’ve stayed longer.
Your EP Healer is about healing (obviously). Have you gotten better at healing as you’ve gotten older? What are some ways of healing that have gotten you through difficult times?
I think as I get older, I learn to understand myself more, which then is very useful in providing myself with methods of getting through challenges. So yes, I definitely think I’ve gotten better at healing as I’ve gotten older. In the past
year, I have done a lot of work on myself in my own spare time as well as seeing alternative and traditional forms of therapy such as hypnotherapy, Chinese medicine as well as normal psychologist sessions. But the strongest
impact I think is made by the small day to day little steps such as breathing deeply, tapping, meditating, speaking and communicating anxieties to people that I love and trust, going outdoors or in nature, exercising, channelling my anxieties or experiences through my art and music, eating foods that nourish me, painting when music isn’t thriving, spending time with my siblings, just switching off and expanding my mind on other things and most importantly
resting. The main thing is to channel an inner healer because I do believe that we all have the ability to heal ourselves as well as heal others and that part of ourselves needs to be nourished constantly. I think in life it’s not a ‘one fix solution’ there’s always going to be challenges and that self-love and healing is daily care and routine.