Not so long ago, Layla Kardan lived with a secret: a private passion for music and singing but with no option to take to the stage. She was worried her family – of Iranian descent – would object to her ambitions, and so she continued to work as a corporate strategist in the family business. Eventually Layla decided to pursue her dreams and use her voice – which lends itself to the jazz genre – to redefine beauty and fight against stereotyping in the Middle East. Here, the star, who grew up in Sydney but moved to Dubai in 1986, details the lyrics of her first album, Saved, and what she believes needs to happen in the region to ensure independent artists’ voices are heard…
When did you fall in love with music?As for a defining moment, it was at the age of four, watching The Jungle Book. That made me fall in love with jazz music.
Did you draw on your Iranian heritage when developing your sound?
Absolutely. I grew up listening to Iranian music so it comes through in my melodies and also my rhythms.
Was the concept of Saved born out of personal experience?
Yes, Saved is a personal diary, an insight into my deepest and inner thoughts and my journey to come out of the dark and find my voice. It’s about the struggles of being a Middle Eastern woman having so many expectations and pressure to be a certain way, but having a wild and free spirit and finally having the courage to go up against those expectations. It’s also about love and heartbreak, but with a little tongue-in-cheek humour when it comes to dealing with Middle Eastern men.
What was it about Sade, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, and Nina Simone that inspired you as you were finding your voice?
I love the authenticity of these artists. They are true to who they are. Also, they are feminists, and I appreciate that. Their voices are deep and husky and filled with pain, and that really resonates with me.
Why is the Khalil Gibran quote: “Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars,” important to you to share with the release of your new album?
I feel that through suffering you have the opportunity to be reborn, an opportunity to allow the light shine through your wounds, and an opportunity to see the world through a fresh perspective.
Why did you choose to use the Japanese art of kintsugi on your album artwork?
I love Japanese traditions and this notion of wabi-sabi and kintsugi really inspires me, as it celebrates the idea of perfect imperfections.
Why is it important for us as women to embrace our “perfect imperfections”?
The definition of beauty is so much more than a manufactured and industry-forced measure of perfect aesthetic. I see some women who have scars but their beauty is so radiant from the inside that you’re blown away by their presence. As nurturers of gender equality, it’s time we shed some of the pressure to be perfect and be our truest selves.
Well said. How have you fought against the stereotyping of Middle Eastern women through music?
I have gone up against my family and consistently tried to change the opinions of people through discussion. I have also worked on mentoring younger talent to allow them to believe their worth.
Describe to us the musical landscape in our region for recording artists…
The opportunities are still limited. Original artists need more support from the labels in order to blossom.
What’s the message you have for women of the Middle East through your album?
Be your most authentic self; be strong and bold yet also vulnerable and open. Raise your voice.
• You can download Saved now from iTunes, Apple Music, Spotify and Anghami