Az plays well.
Now that’s an understatement. His list of educational achievements reads like a brag-list of all the institutions he’s ever walked through. There’s ICOM, then there’s Berklee, then there’s the MA in Jazz Studies. There’s also the teaching stint at Berklee. Az Samad does not just mess about with a guitar. He has mad technical skills.
You see this preciseness under the bright stage lights that shine down on him. The quickness of his fingers as they scrambled up the frets. The pressure-release of his grip, modulating the tone he wants from his instrument. Watching him play on stage is a joy, but watching him play in front of you is unbelievable.
I used to take guitar lessons from him, believe it or not. I remember the first lesson well.
I picked up my guitar and told him that I liked my classical instrument because it had a wider neck. Classical guitars have wider necks and typically use nylon strings, unlike the usual steel-stringed acoustics. I plucked the strings to recreate a song with flat, halting notes, arryhthmically for the next few minutes, with Az there smiling.
“So that’s the song,” I said, to inform him that the song was finally over and that I hadn’t given up. This was when he started playing his guitar. The first few notes were the most painful. The notes rang out, filling the entire space of his apartment, and then came the melody — like it was ripped from a CD. I would’ve blamed my guitar, but he did the same with my guitar too, so he left me no one to blame but myself for being so bad.
That was more than a year ago Since the lessons ended, I haven’t been playing much but I’ve gained a more adult appreciation for the role of practice and repetition in making one’s self a good anything. That itself was a lesson worth learning.
It seemed like a good time to catch up with him, and for what better reason than ISSUE. In a strangely ironic twist of fate, our supposed casual chat with him morphed into a masterclass of sorts (“This feels like my jazz theory classes,” Az joked) as ISSUE editors Syar, Syaz and I, along with perennial ISSUE pal Lynam, sat around the small round table at Swich Café, Publika, enthralled by Az Samad’s thoughts on the magic of music-making.
Now, don’t roll your eyes yet. Yes, Magic.
That thing that moves you and puts your hair on end when a piece of music plays. The x-factor, the secret ingredient, the you-either-got-it-or-you-don’t piece of the puzzle that makes everything spectacular. Can you take lessons for that and forget practice?
Technique helps, Az told us. “The better your technique is, the clearer the definition for the idea that you want to express can come across to the audience.
“Still, the most important thing is to actually have something to say; the content is what is most important. With a clear idea of your content, you can determine how much technique is needed to express the idea.”
He disagreed with the notion that having the best fingering for a tune or the clearest tone was the highest goal in music-making. “People mistake technical mastery as the final goal when it’s merely a path to get the music across,” he said.
I’m inclined to think that songwriting is basically story-telling, but with sounds instead of words, so his thoughts square well with me. In both disciplines, skill and a wide vocabulary help but they are secondary to the presence of a good idea. But how do you define a good idea, or in this regard, a good song?
“A good song is something that touches people’s hearts. It’s something that resonates with someone who listens to it.
“Stare at birds or stare at turtles, I do that. Or talk to turtles. The thing is, if something inspires you, try to capture that in a song. You may fail but that’s art — you don’t know if it’s going to work.”
I asked him where you can stare at turtles to get inspiration. “The park at Kiara.”
Does a good song have to be commercially successful?
He pondered this for a moment. “Being successful commercially means that a lot of people like it, so it’s a good song to a lot of people. Does that mean it’s a good song to me? Maybe; then again, maybe not. But to other people it might be.
“Technically, sophistication is something that generally appeals to the musically educated crowd. Again, being sophisticated on its own should not be the merit on which it is judged on, unless that is the only thing you’re looking for in a song.
“For me, a good song has a mix of beauty, honesty, technique and craft.”
But that’s just it, isn’t it? A song, when you think about it in a logical way, has to have those elements to be deemed a ‘good song’. There is a lot of thought and effort that goes into making a song seem effortless and dream-like, so much so that songwriting is a huge chore for a lot of writers.
In the past two years, Az has not only spent his time touring the world with his guitar, playing festivals across Asia and Europe — he has also found time to compose new music and is coming out with a new record this year (which includes the track at the top of the page, an exclusive preview for ISSUE Magazine).
I asked him: how does he maintain that level of productivity, and what was the process he applies? How does he make it look so easy?
“The actual process of writing a song again and again can result in the process of learning how to write a song,” he explained.
“In my experience, it’s a feedback loop. There’s a natural cyclic process that I’ve seen in [my] own work and of people whose work I love. You write a song and then you see what you have. You learn from other songs, you get inspired, you write another song; you repeat this process and over time your songs change, they evolve.”
“It’s usually a very gradual process over 5 to 10 years or more, and then you see things that you retain even after years and things that have changed in your writing.”
“The main thing is to write,” he emphasised, because repetition allows you to learn. “But, you have to want to learn. Some people keep writing the same song over and over because they never challenge themselves to write something different.”
Of course, there’s that — the dedication, craftsmanship and discipline of writing — and then there’s the matter of the audience.
The music industry today is a global machine that that sucks in talent, marketing, and money to churn out highly polished, well-tested acts where nothing is left to chance.
In this age of viral hits — Gangnam Style and Harlem Shake come to mind — I asked Az if he felt that it was more than the music.
“In terms of pop music, the music is just one small element of a song becoming a hit,” he said.
“Baauer’s Harlem Shake is not just a song — it became a viral phenomenon and a point for discussion. The song in that case was simply a trigger for the simplicity of the viral video format, which came from Gangnam Style.
“The image, publicity, the appeal of the artist him or herself and also the music video as a medium of delivery,” he suggested, were all elements that went into making a song a hit on the charts.
“The only thing about the current viral hit song promotion is that it has a very short time frame and it is usually forgotten much faster than in the past.”
The revolving door of pop music today is indeed brutal. Who still remembers the #1 song on the charts from this time last year? (Hint: singer’s name starts with a G.)
Thankfully, there are songs that pass that test of transience and continue to be relevant and remarkable, even decades after they were released.
Az suggested to us some of his picks for ‘most magical songs’ (see his Magic Mini-mix below), which to me seemed like a curious combination of the old and new.
“You’ll notice the thread running through the songs,” Az said as he listed down his choices: In My Life and Yesterday by the Beatles, and I Will Follow You Into The Dark by Death Cab For Cutie.
AZ SAMAD’S MAGIC MINIMIX
“I Will Follow You Into The Dark – it’s not very fast, and the lyrics are quite introspective. It’s about love, but it’s not about happy love — it’s a yearning. In My Life is also about nostalgia, and it’s a combination of the lyrics and the music. There’s a great marriage of words and music, and it really fits the emotions.”
Finally, we talked about music as a form of communication. There are many among us who produce things often, but we keep our output strictly within the confines of our bedroom. Perhaps out of fear or sometimes laziness, but it is after all just something we’re making for ourselves, isn’t it?
Az demurred with that notion of private art. “Art as a form of communication — if you just keep it to yourself, then what’s the point?
“If you want to get your message across and tell people something and affect someone in some kind of way, then you have to share your art,” he insisted. “It has to be shared with someone, even if it’s just two people.
“If you have something beautiful or angry and you’re keeping it to yourself, you’re almost depriving them of it. If someone’s feeling depressed and they get more depressed listening to your song but [then] they know they’re not alone — if it’s not shared, you’re depriving them of discovering that.”
“For me, part of creating art is that you have to create the art, you have to finish the art, then you have to release it.”