Bedouine Knows the Meaning of Life and It's Somewhere Between Love and Hurt
We talk to the LA singer about heartbreak, growing up, and making her minimal folk masterpiece.
Jason J. Cohn
This article originally appeared on Noisey US.
Azniv Korkejian, known as Bedouine on record and stage, is a hugger. When we find each other outside her Echo Park apartment building, my outstretched hand is knocked out of the way as I'm told to "bring it in" – a refreshingly open-hearted welcome from the mind behind one of the year's equally intimate standout folk releases. Hans, her placid German Shepherd, ushers me into their cozy one-bedroom abode, kept comfortable thanks to Korkejian's strict "one in, one out" policy for any new items.
We were originally angled to meet at a bar, until her publicist told me she doesn't drink much these days. "She said that?" Korkejian laughs. "I just kind of lost the taste for it. I had a really terrible hangover like a year ago, and it's a long time for it to be so present in my life, but for some reason I've completely lost the palate for wine because of that, and beer is kind of filling for me."
Talk turns to ice cream instead, but we end up settling in at her kitchen table, where we spend the next several hours discussing a whirlwind year that has taken her from Hollywood music editor, to Fleet Foxes supporting act, to headlining artist in her own right, with an international tour kicking off 15 September.
"Lots of tours," Korkejian adds, "and then I'll have my first little headlining show at a small venue, which is so wild and nerve-wracking because my history of playing shows, especially in LA, has been just kind of filling time slots for friends, opening up for them. So for a room full of people to have intended on seeing me, that's pretty wild."
Since its release in late June, Bedouine has enjoyed near-universal critical acclaim. The record is a striking work of 60s folk and country pop that recalls the candour, wisdom, and ache of acts like Leonard Cohen and Nico. The attention has left Korkejian negotiating how to position herself in her new world, and whether she desires to abandon her old one, which includes working behind the scenes as a music and dialogue editor for film and TV. She was recently rewarded with her first breakthrough in recent hit indie film The Big Sick.
"I never thought being a full-time musician was realistic, but of course if I could, I would love that," she says. "It's so weird because we think 'full-time,' but there's nothing about it that's full-time. It's so all-or-nothing, because when you're on the road you're fully there, and when you're not, you're adjusting and taking care of your house and doing laundry."
After floating through East LA's music scene, a chance encounter with producer/bassist Gus Seyffert (Beck, Norah Jones, James Supercave) opened the opportunity to hone her voice and step out from behind the scenes. Korkejian eventually connected with Matthew E. White's label/production house Spacebomb, which allowed her the space and resources to release her art to the world when she was ready, rather than as soon as she could cobble something together. Over the course of three years, 30 songs crafted alone on her living room couch and recorded into an iPhone were whittled down to a lean ten, and their patience and meticulousness has paid off.
Debuting her music to the world at age 32 has helped Korkejian stamp Bedouine with a visceral maturity, authenticity, and purity that commands a respect normally reserved for veterans of the game. The result is an atypical folk record more focused on servicing its stories with a colourful palette of pace, tone, and theme, rather than one that falls into genre-defining tropes. The orchestration is rich, but not sappy. Korkejian's vocals are sweet, but not fragile. The lyrics, tackling revelations, decisions, and fallouts, are often brutal, but not didactic. Bedouine feels like listening to a friend delicately explain lessons gleaned through the glory and misery of past relationships.
"If it's true that I feel / More for you than you do for me / It's stunning, honey, how love /
Has some delays," she sings on the toe-tapping, elegant "One of These Days."
Her chosen moniker, Bedouine, suits Korkejian's diffuse roots—she was born in Syria, raised in Saudi Arabia, and is of Armenian descent.
"It feels relevant," she explains, "Syria is this buzzword right now. I don't know if people realise right away how Americanised or Western my experience has been, but maybe if they do it's some interest to them to become familiar with someone who has had both worlds. My experience was going from cousin to cousin's house, it was really just the emotional connections between family members. It could have been anywhere. So I try not to feel like a fraud, like a hack. I don't even speak Arabic, but I still do feel a connection to those places."
More fitting, perhaps, is the name's allusion to the wayfaring intimacy of Korkejian's music, a quiet collection of the connections we keep with us, and the pieces we must leave behind.
Noisey: There's a particular line in the song "Dusty Eyes" that stuck with me: "You could have been some other guy". After this enchanting story you're telling, this person is just a mathematical coincidence. Does any relationship matter? Azniv Korkejian : Yeah of course it does. I think that song when I was singing it, it was also trying to convince myself it didn't matter, trying to intellectualise an overwhelming emotion. I was hurt but saying: don't let it get to you too much because it could have been some other guy, and it will be some other guy. I think relationships are the closest thing to the meaning of life that we have, our interactions and our conversations. I think it's a duality. You can be in love with someone, and be really hurt by someone, feel devastating by somebody and at the same time know it's a temporary feeling and know that the hurt and pain will go away, because it has before and it will again.
What's the most heartbroken you've ever been? Getting over my first real relationship. I think it was the first time that I realised that some decisions were irreversible and you have to live with them. It took a long time to resolve that feeling. But I'm so glad it happened, I feel more capable because of it. I think feeling sad is an important part of our lives. It's definitely the most alive that I've ever felt, feeling sad – it's just the most overwhelming feeling.
Does that make you a masochist? No! I'd rather be content. When I do feel content and calm I recognize it and I'm grateful for it because there's times I've felt very anxious. But I think heartbreak is important.
Did you get broken up with?
I broke up with someone after trying to revitalise a relationship and get it out of a rut, and it didn't work. And then he became this independent guy and I was like, wait a second that's the guy I wanted to date. I don't think he forgave me for breaking up with him, which was fair.
Did you really want to get back together?
Oh yeah, very much so. But who knows? Maybe I just wanted it because I couldn't have it. I think those were early lessons that we learn, to not take things for granted. I think relationships are like jobs: everything has a ceiling. If you want to jump into a different pay bracket you've got to hop.
What is it like having fans now?
At the Austin show opening for Fleet Foxes, I assumed nobody was there for me. But there was one girl who knew all my lyrics and she was closing her eyes and swaying and it was so insane to me. I kind of gave her a little 'hey I see you, that's pretty cool'. Everything's just so new right now. Not that I will stop being this way but I don't take it for granted when someone is present and familiar with a song. Oh and Elton John just played my music on a Beats 1 show. Can you believe that? My manager told me the day before it was happening. We were in the van on the way to Tuscon and he told me Elton John is going to play 'Dusty Eyes' on Rocket Hour and I kind of freaked out. I was like: Elton John knows I exist. I couldn't believe that he said my name.
Did you tell your parents?
No. My parents are supportive but they're very foreign parents. It's kind of tough because I don't always get to share all my excitement with them because they're not really as clued in. They're very self-conscious about their English. It's like their fourth language. They learned English from us [Azniv's siblings] because we went to American school. They've heard my record. They ordered 5 copies. I thought it was very sweet.
Did they like it?
I think so. They're kind of subdued. I shared a link with them when it was done and my mom was like 'good job', before she heard it. I'm not really sure. If they know what I'm up to, I'm surprised. There's a bit of a gap between our upbringings and lives and we've have had a very Americanized upbringing and they have not at all. There's still language barriers even with my parents.
Does that bother you?
Sometimes I take note of it and I wish they understood it better, but I can't blame anyone for it, we just had very different upbringings.
I read you started fooling around with a guitar in college.
I was just kind of fiddling around. But my mom had me play piano when I was young. I played trumpet. I think I had musical intuition but I had kind of a beginner's mind with guitar for sure. Half the time I don't really know what I'm even playing. I'm not a great guitarist, it's just kind of a vehicle for writing songs. Sometimes I think about getting lessons but I feel inspired right now and I don't feel like I need to interrupt that.
Are you afraid of getting lessons because it could somehow impede your creativity?
Kind of, that's how I feel about piano. I'm not great by any means but I was good for my age when I was doing it so I'm familiar enough with it. It's not that uncommon for someone who's trained classically to refuse to improvise so I think that translates to writing. It's nice to guess your way around sometimes, it makes room for the other elements like phrasing, or lyrics.
Do you want to get back into piano?
I don't sit around thinking about it regretfully but sometimes adults do have the foresight to see the value in something. For instance trumpet I didn't continue because I didn't think there was any career path for trumpet, and here I am in LA where people are making a living doing session work for records. I still think about trying to find a mellophone or a tuba and playing 3-valve brass instruments. I kind of have a secret dream of learning the tuba and then being invited into Solange's band. I think I have the right aesthetic for it, my hair would fit in. Also because I feel like her music can be bombastic and she has a small brass section, and I feel like she would be into having a female tuba player. I'd play the sousaphone of course because it's a marching standup tuba.
How is a Bedouine song made?
It's a line or a melody, it's a combination of all those things. I could never just do one thing without the other. I wouldn't write a poem and turn it into a song, I wouldn't write an instrumental piece of music and turn it into a song. It's very connected.
What story are you trying to tell with this album?
I think there's a couple takeaways. I think a lot of them have to do with detachment and trying to figure out what's worth the trouble [Laughs]. Trying to be independent. Also giving myself permission to love someone when the time is right.
You've said you like the sounds of the past. How do you negotiate the balance of having such a strong retro sensibility without being derivative?
You take it as it comes. If you are starting to write something that is reminiscent of something you might want to touch on that and figure out what it is or if you're straight up copying it.
Have you caught yourself doing that?
I don't think I did. There's one song that Gus [Seyffert, producer] pointed out sounded a little too much like Nick Drake, so he thought to make the instrumentation intentionally unlike a Nick Drake song. If something [I write] sounds like something else, I don't know if it would really bother me. It's certainly not my intention. And I'm guilty of finding reference points. Even if it doesn't hit me over the head I'll search for that, so I'm not offended if someone was to tell me I sound like someone.
Who do you think you sound like?
I want to say Bobbie Gentry, who I didn't even know about until after the record was done, but only because there's a similar fullness in the voice in that it's not super breathy. I think my voice has changed a lot. I used to sing very breathy intentionally thinking that was my singing voice. Thom Monahan [mixer] said he felt that my voice was more similar to my speaking voice than it has been in the past.
You recorded on analogue which is unusual. Have you always connected to the sound of tape?
I don't think I've been an audiophile but I probably appreciated it before I even realised that was what I was appreciating. What I like about tape is the mindset it puts you in. It's nice thinking of what you're about to do in a whole, beginning-to-end way. Thinking of it like a performance, tape does that for me. You get your shit together because it's not as easy to composite stuff. I even hear people who work in tape saying that it's not the be-all-and-end-all. You can do something in digital if you need to, if you don't have the resources to do it on tape. Now there's plugins that would make it difficult to even distinguish the difference. But to me it's not about the added hiss or flavour, it's the front-end of that. It's being in a particular mindset as you assume the position and plan on making it through a song with the best performance that you have.
You noted that people are interested in your background, having been born in Syria. Are you particularly political?
I don't know how to answer that question because it's so relative. I feel like there are so many people that are doing more than me or more engaged than me, but I do call my senators almost daily.
Do you think most people call their senators every day?
I don't know. It's so hard to tell because there's so much chatter online that you wonder what actual work is being done. When the Dakota Access Pipeline was going down I finally left my bank for a credit union and I feel like that was biggest difference I could make politically. The way I'm political is by holding myself accountable in my lifestyle choices like being with a credit union, being an egg short of vegan, buying my eggs at a farmer's market, buying used, supporting local businesses. This sounds so self-righteous but I think if everybody did that, corporations wouldn't have the stronghold they do on our government.
What makes you angry?
The last time I got so angry was when [Turkish president] Erdogan showed up in DC. My blood was boiling when I heard about his security guards attacking the peaceful protestors literally seated on a lawn. Fuck. I was so furious. I couldn't believe it, in plain sight, peaceful protesters being attacked like that. I think any injustice really infuriates me, but something so blatant was very infuriating. And it's frustrating trying to understand America's relationships with Turkey, Saudi Arabia. Especially when you hear things like that on the news.
So how do you feel about Syria being talked about so much?
It's so confusing. It's devastating, the violence first and foremost. But it's also confusing because visiting Syria regularly, twice a year every year until I was 15 before the war started, we always regarded [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad as really progressive. Very tolerant of minorities, anyone not Shiite, Alawite. So it was confusing – it's still confusing hearing him branded as a war criminal. I think now the blood is on everyone's hands so to speak. But it makes me think immediately about what the difference is to America between al-Assad and Erdogan, and what are the motives that are driving those differences.
You have some affection for how you remember al-Assad?
Well it's hard to say now, a lot has happened since then. Even with the chemical weapons, I feel like we didn't quite figure that out or come up with a bunch of evidence before retaliating. It feels like there's a narrative that we've stuck to in America, and I wonder about it. I don't have any answers, I don't think I have the truth, but it's very confusing.
So what makes you hopeful?
Bernie Sanders. [ Laughs]
Catch Bedouine on tour:
Fri. Sept. 15 – Seattle, WA @ Fremont Abbey Arts Center *
Sat. Sept. 16 – Bellingham, WA @ The Green Frog *
Sun. Sept. 17 – Portland, OR @ Doug Fir Lounge *
Mon. Sept. 18 – Eugene, OR @ HiFi Music Lounge *
Wed. Sept. 20 – Ashland, OR @ Brickroom *
Thu. Sept. 21 – Sacramento, CA @ Harlow's *
Sat. Sept. 23 – Cincinnati, OH @ MidPoint Music Festival
Sun. Sept. 24 – Mill Valley, CA @ Sweetwater Music Hall *
Tue. Sept. 26 – Berkeley, CA @Freight & Salvage *
Wed. Sept. 27 – San Luis Obispo, CA @ SLO Brewing Company *
Thu. Sept. 28 – Los Angeles, CA @ Largo at the Coronet *
Fri. Sept. 29 – Pioneertown, CA @ Pappy & Harriet's *
Fri. Oct. 6 – London, UK @ Spacebomb Revue at Barbican Centre
Mon. Oct. 9 – London, UK @ The Islington [SOLD OUT]
Tue. Oct. 10 – London, UK @ The Islington
Mon. Oct. 16 – Birmingham, UK @ Symphony Hall #
Tue. Oct. 17 – Salford (Manchester), UK @ The Lowry #
Wed. Oct. 18 – Perth, UK @ Concert Hall #
Fri. Oct. 20 – York, UK @ Barbican #
Sat. Oct. 21 – Liverpool, UK @ Philharmonic Hall #
Mon. Oct. 23 – Exeter, UK @ Great Hall #
Tue. Oct. 24 – Brighton, UK @ The Dome #
Wed. Oct. 25 – London, UK @ London Palladium #
Fri. Oct. 27 – Falmouth, UK @ Arts Centre +
Sat. Oct. 28 – Southampton, UK @Joiners +
Sun. Oct. 29 – Bath, UK @ Komedia +
Mon. Oct. 30 – Ramsgate, UK @ Music Hall +
Tue. Oct. 31 – Brighton, UK @ Haunt +
Wed. Nov. 1 – Oxford, UK @ Bullingdon Arms +
Thu. Nov. 2 – Dunlaoghaire, Ireland @ Pavilion Theatre +
Fri. Nov. 3 – Galway, Ireland @ Roisin Dubh +
Sat. Nov. 4 – Limerick, Ireland @ Dolans Upstairs +
Sun. Nov. 5 – Cork, Ireland @ Cyprus Avenue +
Wed. Nov. 8 – Dublin, Ireland @ Grand Social
Tue. Nov. 14 – Washington, DC @ DC9 ^
Wed. Nov. 15 – Richmond, VA @ Capital Ale House $
Thu. Nov. 16 – New York, NY @ Joe's Pub
Sat. Nov. 18 – Allston, MA @ Great Scott ^
Sun. Nov. 19 – Philadelphia, PA @ Johnny Brenda's ^
* w/ Willie Watson
# w/ Michael Kiwanuka
+ w/ Matthew E. White
^ support by Domino Kirke
$ support by Howard Ivans
Jason J. Cohn is a writer living in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter.