Days before the release of the single Stranger Things, we spoke to up-and-coming singer-songwriter Aleem about songwriting, social media, and what we should expect from his debut UK tour.
So, you’re in LA right now, and it’s 7am…
Yeah, I’m very much trying to be up early these days…
How do you train yourself to do that?
Trust me, when you’re on tour… first of all you don’t sleep until three or four in the morning, then you’ve got a flight to catch to get to the next city. So you learn quickly how to sleep for really short increments of time and then be ready to go.
So ten minutes here and there is as good as it gets?
That’s all you need sometimes, you know… [laughs] I think they call it a ‘power nap’.
Your new single Stranger Things is out on Feb 9th. What can you tell us about the song?
Stranger Things is one of those songs that I actually wrote here in Los Angeles with a very talented group of people. It’s about getting into a relationship and not really knowing what it’s going to turn into. You’ve got the other person being apprehensive that what they’ve been through in life may bring the whole thing down, but you’re in a position where you’re saying “I’ll take whatever you have – you’re crazy, but I accept it.” It’s a really cool story and one of those songs that came to be really quickly, and came to be very close to my heart.
Stranger Things reads almost like the flipside of your last single So Damn Good. Are the two related?
As a musician and artist in the music industry, you have to kind of adapt and be willing to introduce new concepts into your music, but without losing your identity. With a song like So Damn Good, it’s very much who I am as an artist, coming from a singer/songwriter background. But I can also add the pop element with Stranger Things that I really like. Of course, I was apprehensive at first, because it is a different sound, but once I heard the final version I was blown away.
It’s a definite progression, but it works. It’s a great song!
Thank you. You know, it’s not straight up pop, but it’s not something crazy that you can’t connect with either. I think it sits in the realm of what’s very current and on trend today.
In terms of development, you’ve been writing and making music since you were really young. Has that process changed through the years?
For me, I’m self-taught as a vocalist and musician. I figured that I could play the drums really young, so for me it was all about listening to different types of music and really learning what was happening. That’s how I got into songwriting. I’d listen to the top charts and try to figure out what they were writing about, how they were writing it, and how they presented it. Basically, what’s the formula behind these huge songs? I believe songwriting is a practice that we’ll never perfect, but every song is a way of getting closer to that. It’s about staying true to what I write about, to my sound, and what I really want to accomplish.
It’s interesting that you started on the drums and built-in rhythm and harmony. Do you think that anyone can be musical, then?
When I started out as a drummer I was in a band, and the band was so lazy that I was the only one who was writing songs. I knew that we had to keep things moving in the right direction. So, I was forced to try to figure out how to play the guitar and sing so that I could present the songs to the guys. When you’re uncomfortable, you try to figure out what’s best for you. So, I had to put myself out of my comfort zone and learn through the process, I guess.
What do you think when you look back on those songs that you wrote in your earlier years?
Those songs need to be buried in a little box and burned…
Oh, I think they need to be out there. Someone needs to get them online!
[Laughs] If that happens, I don’t think this tour will happen! But it’s fun… it’s cool to look back and have a good chuckle at what you’re writing about in fifth grade, or when you’re twelve years old and writing about heartbreak. Like, who even experiences heartbreak at twelve years old?!
On a more serious note, though, you said that you see songwriting as a way of “taking everything going on in [your] head and then putting it back out into the world.” How important do you think creative expression is in terms of mental health?
It’s so important. For me, writing is such an amazing form of expression, because it allows me to escape my own head. It allows me to write down my thoughts and not be connected with what’s going on with the whole situation. As a songwriter, you’re a storyteller; you have to put yourself in the shoes of the listener and be able to write a story that they can listen to and relate to. That’s what music is – it’s a universal language. We all experience it. When we’re happy or sad or down, we listen to that one song and it hits you. That’s the most powerful moment.
So I think it’s extremely important. For me, freedom of expression is such a privilege because, not only does it help me to learn about myself as a human, but it also allows me to help others with whatever they’re feeling.
When I first sat down to listen to So Damn Good, I expected a tongue-in-cheek kind of thing, then I realised exactly what experience that song is speaking about.
I always think that a good song – and I know this is cheesy to say – has to come from the heart. It has to be real. If I write a song that’s not real, it’s not going to come across to the audience as a genuine story. So, with So Damn Good, that’s about being in a relationship that you love and hate at the same time because the person isn’t right for you, but you’re just used to taking a bite out of that same old apple. We’ve all been in that situation, right? It’s about finding situations where you as a listener can go “I don’t know that guy, but I know what’s going on.” That’s what’s most important to me.
I wanted to talk a bit about social media. Nowadays, it seems like we’re all the centre of attention in some ways because our lives are so accessible. And for someone in the public eye like yourself, even more so. How do you deal with that level of attention and focus?
It’s tough. I was a very personal, shy kid growing up, and I wasn’t really on the social media train when it first came out. Everyone around me was on Snapchat and Instagram and Twitter, but it was just not for me. Now, obviously, social media is a huge part of the pop industry and an amazing platform. I think it goes back to the fact that, if you’re yourself, and you’re real, that’s going to come across. You have to have the confidence to put out what you feel is best. It’s hard sometimes, especially for younger audiences to feel like they are confident enough to do that and not be judged. I think you have to be confident enough in your own skin, and at the right time in your life when it becomes fun, and you get to see the interactions with people all over the world. It’s so accessible, it’s such a cool platform to be on.
I think if you use it the right way it can be great. Your Twitter (@AleemMusic) is a great example of how to use social media to give the fans enough without oversharing, which is such a rare thing nowadays.
I think that the coolest thing about being an artist is that you can control how much you want to let people into your life. Some artists get obsessed with it, but I think you need to find a balance in being open with your fanbase but keeping an element of privacy that still brings people back because they’re interested in what you’re going to do next. It’s better than just laying it all out there because I think that can be counter-intuitive sometimes.
Exactly. As soon as you sell yourself out – unless you totally reinvent yourself – you’re kind of done, you know? There’s a reason that Lady GaGa’s had so many reinventions in so little time.
Absolutely. You don’t want to over-exaggerate yourself. I mean, just look at the Kardashians and Kylie having her baby. I scratch my head sometimes! Where’s the sense of privacy and family gone? It’s just the day and age that we live in. It’s interesting, you find so many people out there that are so crazed, which is awesome because that’s what fuels the passion and makes the fan base grow. But, I think that we’ve both hit it on the head – there needs to be a sense of what’s you. Social media’s great, but you need to keep a true sense of who you are.
You’re about to embark on your first headlining UK tour. What can we expect?
It’s gonna be so fun! The past tours that I’ve done with Fifth Harmony and Little Mix were incredible. Just being out with huge stars and getting to play arenas around the world was incredible, but this tour is going to be fun because it’s real intimate. I have a band on stage with me, and I get to play all my songs that I’ve written over the past year, so I think the fans are going to see a different kind of show than they’ve seen before. The setup’s different, the sound’s different, the musicianship’s different… I’m excited!
I love playing intimate rooms. I think that you get to really connect with the audience in a very personal way that you can’t in arenas, because they’re so massive, so you lose that connectivity. But, I’m really excited – it’s going to be great. The songs sound amazing with the band, so I think the fans are in for a very fun ride.
Is this the first time that you’ve toured with a band?
Yes. On my first two tours I had a DJ on stage, which was fun because you learn a different way of performing. Having the whole stage, which can seem scary at first, allows you to really sing the songs and let the audience really hear the record itself. Now, I’m doing the opposite of that, building off of the record and having a huge setup, which is going to be even more fun.
Your new music is more electronic than your previous work. How does that translate with a live band?
When I go to a live show, I want to hear the song exactly as it is on the record, because that’s what I fell in love with. You have to really be cognitive of the fact that you’re playing the song true to what it is on the record, but also of the intricate nuances of live instrumentation. It starts with finding the right kind of layers and instrumentation for the song and then getting a balance between what has to change in the live setting but keeping the skeleton of the song the same. With these songs that have a lot of programming and electronic stuff going on, we’ve found some really cool ways of incorporating live instrumentation with the track as well. It’s a cool balance.
You’ve released acoustic versions of a lot of your past material. What’s the thinking behind putting the two versions out there?
I think that, as a singer/songwriter, that’s where I come from, and it’s cool for fans to see who I am as an artist stripped down. For example, Stranger Things sounds great fully produced and it has a great vibe. But I love it when I’m listening to huge artists and they play a stripped down version that’s so raw and bare that you can hear the artistry. I think that there’s something very special and intimate about that, that it can pull people in, in a very special way. So, I love putting out the two contrasting versions of songs. It seems to have been received very well, so I think its a trend that I’ll keep going with. And, as I say, that’s how I started, so it’s very much comforting for me to just be out there with just a piano or guitar and vocals.
Will there be an acoustic set in the show?
Unfortunately not. You have the dilemma that you can’t play all of your songs, and we’re trying to pack as much punch as we can. We have a lot of upbeat stuff that would be interesting in an acoustic performance, so definitely in the future. I want to do an ‘acoustic sessions’ EP, or maybe an acoustic tour – just me and the guitar, playing small rooms. That’s when it’s most intimate.
I think that’d be great. Sometimes, when they get big, it seems like some artists lose the essence that you originally fell in love with.
Exactly, and I think it’s really cool for artists to be totally comfortable and confident that their voice with a guitar can allow the same kind of reaction as a full-on production. It’s important for the fans to hear that genuine realness too.
And it’s the mark of a good song.
That’s very true. I always tell people when I’m recording that, if I can play the song with just my guitar, and it still has the same feel and vibe, it’s a good song. So, you hit the nail on the head.
You’re going to be in London soon, playing the O2 Academy in Islington on February 28th. What are your favourite things about London?
Well, I’ve been in London quite often lately, and I just love how there are so many different cultures and races and ethnicities all in one huge city. You can experience so much more than going anywhere else. It’s awesome. The people are so friendly, the food is amazing – just to immerse yourself in the culture of not only pub food, but Pakistani or Asian food – there’s so much to do there. And, of course, the city’s rich in history. It’s just cool to be there. I have about a week before the show in London, and I’m hoping that I see the sun at least once, because the past five times I’ve come it’s been the most depressing weather. I give you guys credit.
It’s sunny now, but I make no promises! We’ll say a little prayer for you…
[Laughs] I don’t care if it rains or snows or whatever, as long as there’s some sun… and that the tour goes well!
Good luck with the single tour and the single! We’ll see you there.
Looking forward to it. Take care, man.