“It’s funny in the pop world because everyone’s really worried about losing their spot. Everyone’s worried that if someone new comes along they might depose them, so everyone’s always looking over their shoulder.” So says Ayah Marar and she’d know. From her unique vantage point as part of both the pop world and all that it brings (she’s recently collaborated with both Calvin Harris and DJ Fresh) and engrained in the dance underground for the past 10 years, her vantage point is better than others. Basically, it’s probably time for those with crooked necks to start facing forward.
Dance music is a broad church but within each parish there’s usually a set of rules. A doesn’t always go with B and X shouldn’t really mix with Y, but sometimes those rules are meant to be broken or manipulated into odd new shapes. Ayah Marar’s kaleidoscopic debut album, The Real, is a case in point; thirteen songs that take inspiration from the underground dance scene, cherry-picking the very best elements of drum and bass, techno and house and bolting them onto well-crafted pop hooks that look set to shatter dance floors. “It’s an homage to dance music in whatever form, whether it’s garage or two step or house or drum and bass,” she explains.
Born in Jordan to a Czech-Bulgarian mum and Jordanian dad and attending an international school with members of Jordan’s royal family, Marar refers to herself as a “proper mongrel”. From an early age she was exposed to a myriad of musical styles, the Marar household was full of everything from Elton John, Boney M and Freddie Mercury to The Beatles, Deep Purple and Thin Lizzy. Whilst at school, Marar moved onto hip-hop, finding an immediate connection: “I latched onto that, that was me”.
At the age of 17 Marar decided that she needed something more; more freedom, more autonomy, more of a say. “I told my dad I was leaving and there was nothing he could do about it. I just stormed off” she says with typical candour. “I was cut off for a few years and just came to the UK. It just seemed natural; it felt like home to me. I knew that I couldn’t do what I wanted to do musically in Jordan. I came to the UK with the mindset, ‘I need to prove it to myself’, hang out with the big boys.”
Completely unfazed by her new-found independence, she launched herself into the drum & bass scene, starting her own labels, club nights and touring as an MC. Along the way she met Calvin Harris in a record shop she worked in, offering him a place to stay and collaborating on some of his early singles. Soon after, her manager introduced her to producer Paul Epworth who was looking for vocalists to work on Jack Penate’s second album. Marar suddenly found herself warbling alongside Florence Welch, hanging out in a studio and absorbing everything around her.
In a pop world dominated by quick fixes and TV talent show acceleration, Marar’s put in the hard graft, be it adding guest vocals to tracks on Hospital Records and the Metalheadz label, touring Europe with DJs or having her own four year DJ residency at Herbal. Not that she’s prepared to rest on her laurels. Music means too much for that to happen. “I’ll never stop paying my dues to music, because I adore it and there’s nothing else in the world that I could or would do”.
It’s this passion mixed with a willingness to collaborate and form creative bonds that’s come to define much of Ayah’s career so far. That early friendship with Calvin Harris has lead to a recent recording session between the two, with the “happy, 90s house” song they came up with nestling alongside recent bangers for Rihanna, Ne-Yo and Example (who Ayah recently toured with) on Harris’ new album. Another old friend in need of an amazing vocal was DJ Fresh, who called Ayah out of the blue. Their two collaborations are set to appear on his soon-to-be chart slaying debut album. The key thing with Ayah Marar is that the two worlds – the mainstream and the underground – co-exist because it’s all part of
who she is. “My job is to be a songwriter, a performer, run a label, to be involved in the mechanics and all the behind the scenes of what I do, so I don’t separate it: it’s all part of one big job” she describes. “It might not be directly related to my project but I wouldn’t do something unless I believed in it.”
Self-belief is key. After Yogi (who produced Wretch 32′s Top 5 smash Traktor) remixed the amazing Follow U earlier this year, Ministry Of Sound immediately wanted to release it as a single. Cautious about relinquishing any control over her output, she agreed but only on a one single deal, the rest of her output remaining on her own independent label Hussle Girl. “I’m releasing all my stuff myself so I said to Ministry ‘look, you take this, it’s all you’re getting, I keep the rights to everything else, it’s him featuring me, that’s that’. It gave us the exposure we needed for the months that followed and that’s why we did it really.”
In fact, it was the success of this single (the video premiered on The Guardian’s New Music blog) that lead to a host of other collaborations with the likes of drum and bass producers Camo & Krooked (on the huge drum and bass anthem Cross The Line and forthcoming single Unstoppable), lava hot rapper P Money on the ridiculous Alive and a host of underground producers who recognised in Ayah a genuine passion not only for dance music but for music in general. It’s this love for all genres (Marar used to be in a ska covers band and had a huge crush on Zach de la Rocha in her youth, fact!) that makes The Real such an eclectic listen. Lyrically it’s that alluring mix of strength and vulnerability, with boxfresh beats and Marar’s supple, characterful vocals providing an emotional anchor. From Mind Controller’s yearning, bass-heavy pop (which was championed by KISS FM earlier this year), to the ravey synth stabs and hands-in-the-air chorus of Beg Borrow Steal, via The Predator’s brilliantly black-hearted dubstep rave up, it’s all anchored by real human emotion. “The whole album is really a sensationalised autobiography, taking things you feel and making them even more dramatic. People don’t get the point unless you’re overly dramatic”, she says, dramatically.
There’s plenty of drama to be had throughout. The Eastern-influenced Camouflage Girl is a nod not only to Marar’s roots but also to production powerhouse The Neptunes, whilst the amazing Sign Your Name bounces along on huge stuttering synths and a hint of modern day R&B production touches. It’s this diversity that sets The Real apart; “The first few tracks on the album are unabashedly pop and they’re very straight up, but I don’t want to make an album for singles, I want to make it as an album. I wanted it to be a journey. I would like to do something that resonates in the future.”
With seemingly every other new pop star trying to marry a gargantuan dance beat to a pretty melody, it’s a competitive world. The difference here is that Ayah Marar isn’t faking it; she lives the life of an underground dance fiend, of a DJ and MC, of a strong woman in a male-dominated industry. Her two worlds – the underground and the mainstream – have been brought together organically, co-existing in a way that sounds fresh rather than forced. “I’m trying something that I don’t think has been done in the way we’re trying to do it,” Marar states. “It’s what I love to do; it’s trying to find that balance.”