Leading Ladies is a column about our favorite female vocalists from every corner of the world—supremely rad girls whose voices pull you close and ring in your head long after they've slipped out the room. It's written by Yung Klout Gang's interviewer-at-large Lina Abascal.
For vocalist Ayah Marar and producer Calvin Harris, making "Thinking About You" was as easy as two former roommates messing around in the studio. The disco house track gave Jordanian-born, UK raised singer Ayah a taste of the mainstream, plucking her out of the dark drum and bass underground where she had made a name for herself. Moving to the UK in the mid-90s, Ayah dove into drum and bass while working at Uptown Records in London's Soho district, a classic origin story in a time when the best place to make connections was in front of a wall of records. She ultimately landed herself a residency at Club Herbal in the heart of Shoreditch, holding court for four years in London's hippest nightlife neighborhood.
This summer, Ayah released her album The Real on her own label, Hussle Girl Records. Reminiscent of her powerful vocals on Calvin Harris' track, The Real is easy for mainstream house lovers to digest, but a few tracks in, eases into her signature UK bass heavy style. After years of frustration with major labels, the choice to release it on her own was easy for Ayah. With a busy summer that included an independent record release and a high-budget music video for an international chart-topper, the singer's career embodies an interesting fusion of mainstream and underground. Though it's been a long journey from record store clerk to vocals on a summertime hit, Ayah Marar has proven she is a "hussle girl."
THUMP: How did you get involved with Calvin Harris? How was working together?
Ayah Marar: He and I have been mates for over 10 years—we met when I worked behind the counter at Uptown Records in Soho. He needed somewhere to live so he moved in with me and we made music and shit.
How does your solo music vary from the collaborations you do?
I'm an underground artist but I'm open to musical suggestions. Most of the time it's just semantics, titles, and label copy because generally it doesn't make any difference to my writing. Although I sometimes feel I can be a bit more free lyrically with my solo stuff as I am only talking about me.
Coming from the underground, how was it having a chart topping hit with Calvin? How are both spectrums of the world of dance music different?
It was cool. We never expected it to be a single, so the way I see it is any exposure that we got is something I want to put back into the underground.
You've been called the queen of bass. How did you initially get introduced to drum and bass and how do you feel about it's recent revival?
I moved to the UK in 1998 and fell in love with Wormhole by Ed Rush and Optical, and became a serious disciple of Good Looking records—I followed them to every rave around the UK. I then helped run a drum and bass night (dated a DJ; shat where I ate—standard drama), then created the label Lucky Devil Records which signed Alix Perez, Sabre, Icicle, and Switch. I toured the UK and Europe as a drum and bass MC for a few years then moved on to a soul, reggae and hip-hop residency at Herbal for 4 years (Therapy Sessions ran downstairs). It's been my life for a long time. I think the revival is exciting and inevitable. The good thing is that there are so many denominations and sounds that you can adapt it however you like.
You're from Jordan, but based in the UK. How is your culture represented in your music?
My parents had diverse musical tastes and international kids at my school introduced me to grunge and rock, so I would say that it's less my culture that influences my music and more my exposure to different musical genres that shape my musical interpretations.
Aside from vocals, you've also had a DJ residency, hosted a radio show, and helped run record labels. What are your favorite things you've been involved in? Did this make it difficult on working on The Real?
I'm lucky to do what I love for a living but I want to be involved in more than one facet of the music and media industry. We can't just be performers anymore. We have to be able to know what makes things work, and exciting ways to so business. My main aim, at the risk of sounding dumb, is paying my dues to music so, as difficult as it gets, I'm lucky to do what I love.
What's Hussle Girl records? How did putting out The Real on your own shape your process?
HG is my record label, born initially out of a frustration with the major labels. It has now turned into an immense happiness for me at being self-sufficient. I wanted my album to be the first venture but I want to start bringing through new talent as soon as I have made a strong enough mark to represent them successfully.
With all the trends in dance music, what do you think gives something longevity?
Honesty, a track like James Blake's "Retrograde." I believe that anything done with a certain amount of honesty and integrity will stand the test of time longer than anything else. It's all so "throw-away" these days that making your mark or forging some kind of individual path is becoming increasingly important. The James Blake track is the latest electronic record that I really admire. The combination of his voice and arrangement and a glorious backing track make it a perfect example of musical revivalism.
Lina been had listening to James Blake -@linalovesit