I do not get many opportunities to interview…
artists from New York. I have been talking with HEGAZY about their E.P., Young. I find out the themes and ideas that compelled the work; which song each sister favours; what it was like being raised in a multicultural household – and why Leila and Omnia decided to start recording music together.
I ask them about their influences and the lure of N.Y.C. They talk about their father’s influence on their music; why they took a break from music; if they are coming over the U.K. this year – some cool artists we should watch out for.
Hi, HEGAZY. How are you? How has your week been?
Hey! It’s been great. We just released our first E.P. as a duo - so we’re pretty ecstatic!
For those new to your music; can you introduce yourselves, please?
We are HEGAZY: an Indie-Soul/Pop twin-sister duo based out of N.Y.C.
Young is your debut E.P. Can you reveal the themes and inspiration points for the E.P.?
Young is a coming-of-age story...
All the songs reflect our experience(s) finding our way in the world as millennials in light of all the social and personal challenges we’re facing (economic uncertainty, falling in/out of love and the current climate of racism/xenophobia in our government). It sounds heavy - but most of the record is pretty light-hearted and hopeful.
Which songs do you each connect hardest, would you say?
Leila: Track-three (Smolder) is the most personal to me. It digs into how young love changes into adult love over the course of a long-term relationship and all the worries that come with this evolution (i.e. is it ok if the butterflies are gone? Are we just becoming boring adults?). It speaks to the record’s overarching theme of ‘growing up’ and what that means.
Omnia: The first single off the E.P., Alive, resonates with me the most. I wrote it about quitting my day-job in the music business to pursue my own music full-time. So many people stay in situations that are unfulfilling just because it’s the safest option - and this song was about breaking free; not only of the corporate world, but of our own sense of security, which can hold us back from achieving what we really want most.
As twin-sisters; I can imagine you two shared a love for music. When was the moment you decided to form the family-named HEGAZY?
We formed HEGAZY after the death of our father, Ashraf Hegazy, in December 2015. He always wanted us to work together and, in the year before his passing, we were already heading in that direction. Once he passed away, we became a band quite, naturally. In the years leading up to his passing, we had already been living together in an apartment, writing songs in adjacent rooms and going to each other for feedback. When our songs started to sound more alike, it made less sense for us to be separate - and we both knew that we would be better received as a duo.
We named the band after our father’s/our last name, because he always insisted that we were stronger together. He was right.
You were born to a Brooklyn-Italian mother and Egyptian father – growing up on Staten Island. How influential were your parents’ backgrounds to your own music? As first-generation Arab-American twins; was it quite confusing growing up in Staten Island – or did you feel a sense of belonging?
Our parents’ backgrounds definitely reflected the music we were exposed to at the time and we’d like to think that everything we’ve listened to has contributed to our music in some way. Our mom loved Billy Joel and Disco music and our dad played classic Egyptian music around the house as well as recitations of the Quran, which are very melodic in nature. Growing up on Staten Island, which has a large Italian-American population, was an interesting experience. We, ourselves, were half-Italian - but we didn’t quite fit in with our peers because we also Egyptian and Muslim. We looked nothing like our mom, who has blonde hair and blue eyes, but looked more like our father - he had darker skin and North African features. When 9/11 happened; we were in the sixth-grade and we experienced a lot of bullying as a result. Other kids called us ‘terrorists’; ‘Bin Laden’s daughters’, etc.
It was a pretty rough time and that experience has stayed with us.
It seems you embarked on different paths before forming HEGAZY. What did each of you learn in your respective music roles during that period?
Leila: I have always been a vocalist first and foremost and, in our time apart; I gravitated towards R&B/Soul music because of the vocal prowess needed to sing in that style. In the meantime, I played piano and learned/listened to a lot of Jazz music - all of which really helped me to grow as a musician. I went to college for music composition and songwriting, which was a difficult thing to learn in a classroom setting. My songwriting got better because I was constantly writing - that was my job as a composition student and I loved it. It was also during this time that I started performing at venues in N.Y.C. and recording my solo records.
I learned so much about writing, performing, recording and navigating the music business - and all of these experiences have laid the groundwork for HEGAZY.
Omnia: I went to school for music production and music business (NYU Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music) while continuing to work on being a singer-songwriter. It was there that I learned to produce myself, record and edit my own vocals…and see my own visions through from beginning to end. When I work with a producer now; it helps to have the vocabulary to be able to communicate the sound I want and to listen to mixes and masters with the ears of an engineer. I learned so much about the music business and what it takes to be a D.I.Y. artist in my four years of college.
The Arab Spring was also the backdrop of my college experience; so I found myself writing a lot of very political and socially-conscious Pop music. I used my songwriting to vent about my frustrations with the world. This has definitely followed me into HEGAZY.
Do you feel, when you reunited in 2012, you were stronger and more rounded musicians/humans?
Definitely. Had we never gone our separate ways for school as teenagers/young adults, we would never have figured out who we were as individuals and musicians separate from each other. Our band now has such a diverse pool of influences and our differences have made our music that much stronger.
How inspiring is New York and its varied communities? Is its diversity the reason the music scene is so fresh and evolving?
New York has a million different kinds of people and it’s amazing to be a part of that diversity. At the same time, we believe that gentrification has played a big role in the music scene here in the past few years. Although our style (Soul/Pop) is pretty timeless and will always have a place: the type of music that is considered ‘cool’ has shifted to genres typically preferred by white people (Electro-Pop, Indie-Rock, etc.). This isn’t to say that there aren’t people of color engaged in these musical styles: it’s just to say that when people from outside N.Y.C. started moving here in such large numbers, this changed the scene pretty dramatically. So, truthfully; a lot of the music you’re hearing from our city these days isn’t being made by native New Yorkers.
But, this city is evolving and if there’s one thing all New Yorkers (native or transplant) have in common, it’s that we’ll all be racing to keep up! It’s both exhausting and exciting.
Leila and Omnia. You two seem very different – in terms of music and personalities. Does that difference extend to music tastes? What do you each listen to away from HEGAZY?
Leila: Sure. I will always lean towards the Soul realm; but I’ve also gotten a little more inclined towards Electronic music in the past year or so. Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of music from my peers who are making waves (Gabriel Garzon-Montano, Mitski; Luna Shadows and Verite to name a few). All of these artist were classmates of mine from either high-school or college - and they’re amazingly talented songwriters/artists. Listening to new music keeps my perspective fresh, regardless of genre.
Omnia: I listen to so many different things on my own time and don’t like to classify my musical tastes - because they’re constantly changing. At the moment, I’m listening to a lot of Vulpeck (they’re so funky!) and Larkin Poe (they’re a kickass sister-duo from Atlanta). Last year, I was listening to Sia and St. Paul and the Broken Bones on repeat. The year before; it was Alabama Shakes and Emily King (though this is still my go-to when I just want to feel good).
I also listen to a lot of alternative Arab artists like Mashrou Leila and Yasmine Hamdan and try to keep up with what’s happening on the ground in Indie music around the world; especially, in the Middle East. I’m still a violinist at heart and totally dork-out on Classical music (Antonio Vivaldi is my favorite composer; he was so intense and listening to/playing his works invigorates me).
How important is your late father with regards your music and working together? Was he an instrumental guide and voice for you both?
Our dad is our muse - and we try to remember him when if/when we experience conflict with each other in the process of building our band. He had a fascinating life and his story inspires us to go after what we want without fear. He moved to the U.S.A. at seventeen years of age knowing no English; he did every odd job to make ends meet (all while going a little too crazy with his newfound ‘American freedom’ at first); finished college and made a life for himself. We also used to argue with him constantly about religion and politics – and, even if it seemed that no one was growing at the time, we all grew because of it.
All of these lessons have shaped who are as people and artists.
If you each had to choose the one album that means the most to you; which would they be and why?
Leila: The Seven EP by Emily King
This record makes my heart melt every time - and it’s my go-to whenever I need to calm down. The vocals are beautifully delicate and lush and the songs are stunning…
Omnia: Oum Kalthoum means the most to me (no particular record; because she released mostly recordings from her live performances) because it reminds me of spending time with our dad. I enjoyed listening to Arabic music with him and, when I hear Oum Kalthoum songs like Inta Omri or Alf Leila w Leila, there’s a feeling of being in his presence again.
Can we see you on tour soon? What gigs do you have coming up? Will the U.K. be among your plans?
We’re playing at The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia on March 2nd and Rockwood Music Hall on March 16th (in New York City). We’d love to take our music across the U.S.A. in 2018 and plan to do so in the fall.
The U.K. would be such an ideal place for our music - so when we tour Europe it will be part of our plan.
What do you both hope to achieve, personally, in 2018?
Leila: As we mentioned above; I’d love to tour, see more of the U.S.A. and the world. Traveling is always helpful, on a personal level.
Omnia: I hope to be more mindful in 2018 amidst all our big dreams and professional goals, which can be a challenge. For me, this means meditating every day and pausing before responding to things. This is easier said than done and takes constant practice.
Have you each got a favourite memory from your time in music – the one that sticks in the mind?
Leila: I opened for a sold-out Allen Stone show in N.Y.C. a few years back and the crowd’s energy was unbelievable. That was the best performance experience I’ve had - and I’d love for HEGAZY to share in that.
Omnia: I performed at Women in the World Texas a few years back and got to meet Gloria Steinem - who was speaking at the event! Her dressing room was right down the hall from mine and I still wonder if she could hear my embarrassing vocal warmups before I went onstage.
What advice would you give to new artists coming through?
Leila: Make music that you like to listen, not music that you think people want to hear…
Omnia: You are your own boss and you need to embody that when managing your own career! Don’t wait to be discovered by someone else: work on building your base one fan at a time and making real connections with the people who dig your music. It’s not an easy path to be an artist, but there will be moments when you’re reminded of how much it’s worth it.
Finally, and for being good sports; you can each choose a song and I’ll play it here (not any of your music - I will do that).
Leila: Jacob Collier – In My Room
Omnia: St. Paul and the Broken Bones - I’ll Be Your Woman