How music transcends identity

Great creative accomplishments are created by shutting out other people and their expectations says Soho Rezanejad, a rising talent in Copenhagen's underground music scene. Her debut EP is the sound of a restless and melancholic generation bent on challenging norms and the mainstream's fake-it-til-you-make-it path to success

It’s a Sunday night, but young men are drinking beer in the corridor and techno echoes down the green-tiled stairwell from one of the floors above. We are in Musikværftet on Refshaleøen, the former industrial enclave a ten minute bicycle ride from the city centre. Dozens of musicians have their studios here, among them 26-year-old Soho Rezanejad.

She greets us at the door and, as we pass through the communal kitchen, we meet a tall man with turquoise hair. She stops and leans on the metal counter next to him. The contrast between the two makes her slight frame and monochrome palette even more stark – her dark hair, pulled into a tight ponytail and unfussy clothing is simple and unassuming.

“I was the only white girl who didn’t try to booty shake,” she says of her time in a high school in Atlanta, Georgia. “I think that’s why the black girls liked me, they thought ‘that girl knows where she’s from’.”

Soho’s first EP Idolatry mixes 80s-inspired anthemic electro pop with sharp synths and melancholic melodies – at once forlorn, romantic and futuristic. It’s a well-crafted debut from a musician embedded deep within Copenhagen’s underground music scene, who until now was best known as the singer of electro pop outfit Gold Lip.

While both projects burst out of a restless and club-oriented youth culture, Soho’s solo work has a more nuanced emotional range. This is partly because her voice is now deeper, echoing the trademark low voice of Velvet Underground legend Nico.

“I created the voice as a confrontation, to show that by making myself more male I become more of a woman. I often get called out for being pretty or beautiful so I thought it would be fun to show how ugly you can get by sonically letting go and getting really intense. The point is to challenge this vanity and demand that your audience looks at something as a whole, to see it as neither beautiful nor ugly.”

Keeping focus
We settle in her room adjacent to the kitchen – narrow, high ceilinged, compact and clutter-free. There are clothes, keyboards and records, but few other personal adornments. Candles burn beside a typewriter on the heavy black desk beneath the tall windows. A bed is lifted above the working space and she sits on the steps against the wall that lead up to it.

Idolatry has the potential to launch Soho beyond the small Copenhagen community, although talent is no guarantee of fame in a music industry dominated by short attention spans and extreme competition. But Soho doesn’t seem anxious.

“I’m not very good at promotion. I don’t see the need for it. I think that if something’s good enough people will appreciate and acknowledge it. Self-promotion just doesn’t come naturally to me. Things can get so embarrassing when you have to fake it.”

It’s not that she can’t be bothered. Idolatry is self-released, and she worked on almost all aspects of writing, producing and publishing the EP. She wanted to be able to understand the records as a collaborative process and the work that different people put into it, in case she did get signed.

“But it also means that you know if people are doing their job so you can drop them if they’re doing badly, or just don’t understand you.”

Idolatry’s success was probably helped by how seriously Soho takes her work.  She details the habits and rituals embedded in her creative process – some were reinforced, some broken. Soho says she often found it hard to express why and how she creates music, but she makes it absolutely clear that she’s not burning for recognition.

“I don’t play instruments for the sake of entertaining. I use instruments to make music because I have to, though I really don’t know why. I could analyse why, but I think it distracts from the creative process. Your work stops being directed by the urge to create. So it’s important for me to isolate myself and get so caught up in myself that I completely forget about what other people might think. Because otherwise I can get totally thrown off. All of a sudden the material isn’t worth anything anymore because it’s not coming straight from you.”

Photo: Kenneth Nguyen

Photo: Kenneth Nguyen

Fluid identity
Copenhagen wasn’t necessarily going to be Soho’s home. She was born to Iranian immigrants in New York, but as a child she and her mother moved to Copenhagen to be with her father, who was studying in the city. After completing primary school here, she moved to Atlanta for high school. Since graduating she split her time between Copenhagen and New York, and was thinking of relocating to Berlin a few years ago. That was until she was diagnosed with narcolepsy.

“I always knew there was something wrong with my sleep, but neurologists and psychologists  couldn’t find anything wrong with me. One even called me lazy and it hit me so hard. I was constantly tired and I felt deprived of being able to deliver what I wanted. When I was finally diagnosed with narcolepsy I took the diagnosis back to the guy who called me lazy and said, ‘I just wanted to show you this and you should feel ashamed, it’s the worst thing to call someone.'”

She now works antisocial hours at a nursing home to finance her music career. The irregular working patterns suit her, she says, but it also balances out her tendency to be self-absorbed.

“I either work really early or really late, which feels good because I feel like my own boss. I couldn’t have a boss managing every step of my day. That would be humiliating. But there’s no ego at the nursing home – I’m there to care for someone who needs a particular type of help. It’s not about me, it’s about doing what I can to help that other person get by. I need that because I ooze with ego. I have to if I am to take myself seriously.”

Not all her friends understand her work ethic, she explains. Some have accused her of working too hard or neglecting their friendship. Other conflicts emerge about her identity that sits somewhere between Denmark, the US and Iran – she grew up speaking Danish, English and Farsi at home. A friend calls and she answers with accentless Danish, but when she puts the phone down she explains that English is actually her preferred language

“I’ve never really been able to explain why I don’t want to speak Danish. Why should I even have to explain? So many people demand an explanation, it’s like they inherently divide English and Danish, like they can’t understand that it’s possible to switch between the two.”

She seems irritated that she is made to answer for being different because she doesn’t quite fit into the Danish monoculture. There’s no doubt it helps her get noticed – with dark hair, sharp features, and an alien name, Soho naturally stands out in Scandinavia. But that hasn’t stopped other people from trying to push her into a mould.

“We live in an internet age where everything is so fast paced and accessible. People tap you on the shoulder and say, ‘I can make you a pop star, you just have to do what I say’. It makes it real tough for the rest of us, who want to do it regardless of the money, because there are girls lining up for that sort of opportunity.”

Like any emerging artist, Soho is at the mercy of the music industry and media to give her a chance and an audience. But she often chooses to ignore their advice anyway. Booking agents have pressured Soho to play her EP the way it would sound on music streaming sites like Spotify. But being told how to perform her work makes her feel uneasy, as if she’s trading her integrity in for a chance at success.

Women should dare
Soho’s bold choices – from adopting an unconventional voice to limiting her media exposure – hits back at a mainstream music industry where artists are under pressure to conform to audience expectations. Soho explains that she wants to build up an audience who appreciates her work for what it is, and she wants other women to dare to do the same.

“There are standards and expectations of being a woman, and when you don’t live up to these expectations you lose the right to be womanly,” she says.

“I want to show girls on the way to becoming women in my position that you have to be provocative, even though that’s seen as masculine. But why is it? It doesn’t need to be, that’s just how it’s been. So I try to fuck with the media, in my own way. It’s so important because the media has built for us expectations which we blindly follow. You’ve got to stop and take a deep breath to realise that these expectations weren’t really there in first place. Then you’re free.” M


By Peter Stanners

Co-founder and Editor-in-chief. Occasional photographer.

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