Bringing it home: The New Arab Meets R&B star Mariam Sawires
Singer-songwriter Mariam Sawires has entertained global audiences all over, but in early 2020 when COVID-19 halted international travel, she decided to turn inward. The green-eyed soulstress introduced harp-playing to her instrumental repertoire, painted artwork for each new song she recorded, coloured her corkscrew tresses blonde, and became more intentional with her presence on social media.
Over the past decade, Egyptian-Australian Sawires has honed her Arabic-flavoured R&B onstage one international locale at a time: from small Danish bars to Ugandan jazz stages, the Egyptian desert to a 17th-century French castle.
Currently stuck in Sydney till skies open up, she’s now spent months on end happily still. Deeply introspective and refreshingly open, The Healer’s release signals that Sawires is now ready for the world to come to her.
"Being Egyptian-Australian, I’m happy to acknowledge space for diverse artists has increased within the industry. CaLD artists are taking a huge role in the forefront of talent in the music industry and the arts"
How have you experienced the COVID-19 pandemic?
“It has been a very confusing, transformative and challenging experience. When it began I was living in a beautiful, large cottage in the Blue Mountains surrounded by nature and space, so initially, I welcomed lockdown as an opportunity to write music, paint and explore my creativity.
"After moving back to the city shortly after, I saw things were not going back to how they used to be. It deeply shocked and saddened me that creative cities like Berlin and Paris had practically shut down all nightlife and live music concerts, and Australia was also significantly impacted and had an international travel ban. The hardest part of COVID for me was having my grandparents move back to Cairo in 2020, and not having the same fluidity of seeing them as we did in the past.”
Have you suffered a significant loss of income during this COVID-19 pandemic?
“Here and there. I consider myself lucky as I haven’t seen the incredible financial hardship that a lot of artist friends of mine in Europe have faced. That said, the frequency of opportunities from creative jobs like doing gigs and working as a creative facilitator/producer for community centres has decreased due to COVID. It has been a little difficult organising gigs with restrictions placed on venues and new structures put in place.
"The main challenge with losing these opportunities is my creative work used to generate money to pay for production, mixing and mastering costs for new music. For this, I’ve sought alternative funding sources, like applying for grants and the 1000 x 1000 Crisis Cash For Artists Relief Fund (a one-off emergency payment to support independent artists in the performing arts). However, most grants take a few months for a response and the demand is very high.”
Have you created more or less art during the pandemic?
“I’ve created more art (both painting and music) during the pandemic. Due to fewer live performances, I’m in the flow of writing and recording many songs and painting their cover artwork. This period has been a very transformative time internally, which I translate through my art. I began playing the harp, which was always a dream of mine. My approach to songwriting has broadened and developed in recent months.
"Travelling was a huge part of my identity as an artist and person, and I lived like a gypsy for many years. The international travel ban has been a challenge as I always enjoyed ‘renewing my palette’ and gaining new experience and inspiration overseas. I’ve since worked with the new framework of being in Australia, beginning to see this country in a new light and find different places and spaces I never knew existed.”
To what extent has your everyday life as an artist changed, especially during times of quarantine?
“Creating more structure has helped the creative process, dedicating certain days to certain tasks regarding my music and art. Since the travel ban to leave Australia, I’ve turned my focus to here and now and documenting my days, so my art can reflect the time. Previously I gained inspiration through touring and travelling abroad and experiencing new cultures and places; a lot of movement and different locations were involved in the making of new work.
"With the current restrictions, I’ve adapted my creative process to document my daily experience through phone memos, photos, journaling and more. I’ve adopted a beautiful daily spiritual self-care practice of meditating more, journaling, eating healthy, exercising and being in tune with myself. I’ve also adopted other passions which I feel have become a healthy balance including roller-blading, spending time with family and loved ones, creating comics, learning French, cooking and more."
Has your artform pivoted more to digital since the pandemic? If so, how have you adapted to that change?
“I’m engaging directly with my audiences through social media. This includes creating and uploading music videos, performing live streams, creating snippets of music content or simply sharing stories or ideas on a daily basis. For so many artists, their tours and shows have become cancelled (and the ability to plan ahead is quite difficult given the inconsistencies of the government changing the laws frequently) so you see a lot of artists engaging now in the digital space. Sharing my art and connecting with my audience online feels different, direct and immediate.”
"Women in general work harder to have their voice heard in most industries. The music industry needs a reboot in terms of providing greater opportunities for women in all areas, as well as a board protecting the rights and interests of women"
How do you see the COVID-19 repercussions on the arts sector: one of optimism or pessimism?
“I feel the arts sector in Australia has always struggled in a generally conservative environment. Since COVID, things have become increasingly restrictive and we’ve seen venues, events and businesses shut down. There has been a huge decline in mental health for so many creative people as they’re trying to navigate through an industry that’s suffering and not really supported by the government. The future is uncertain and currently fragile. However, artists are powerful people and many are using the resources available to them. But yes, I would say COVID has affected the arts sector negatively as it’s seen as non-essential work and I feel there needs to be more support.”
Do you feel being a woman of colour has added to the struggles of being a performer during this period?
“Women in general work harder to have their voice heard in most industries. The music industry needs a reboot in terms of providing greater opportunities for women in all areas, as well as a board protecting the rights and interests of women. Being Egyptian-Australian, I’m happy to acknowledge space for diverse artists has increased within the industry. CaLD artists are taking a huge role in the forefront of talent in the music industry and the arts. In the past, I did struggle to express myself and find the right opportunities, and there are still many stories of women not having adequate support. We’ve come a long way, but we have a long way to go.”
To what extent did/does the pandemic influence your art?
“The pandemic has definitely influenced my art. As an artist, my mission has always been to honestly reflect on the time that I experience. Through journaling, I’ve been able to process my thoughts of the intense changes erupting around the world and put them in my songs. Social and political ideas have come to the surface in my thoughts and lyrics, as seen in my EP.
"The impact of COVID still affects my creative practice a year later, as I find myself producing more of my songs than sending them off to producers. This has been rewarding but also challenging as I’m confined to my own ideas and sound. I feel it's a transformation of the musical world I tap into and my music’s overall sound.”
What have you been working on?
“I’m excited to release my five-track EP! Some of the songs were written in a French château before COVID hit, and others were self-produced during the pandemic. My hope is the music gives my audience a renewed sense of hope, love and inspiration. I’ve written songs that have healed some of my personal experiences, so if they can help someone in a similar situation I’ll be very happy.”
This interview article was commissioned by Diversity Arts Australia as part of the Creative Lives During Covid series, with support from Create NSW.
Simone Amelia Jordan is a journalist, host and consultant with two decades of media and marketing experience in Australia and the United States. She's held senior positions at Channel 10, The Source Magazine, Daily Mail, SiriusXM Radio, DrJays.com, Monster Products and founded and edited Australia’s most successful Hip-Hop magazine, Urban Hitz.
Follow her on Twitter: @SimoneAJordan