Member Spotlight #13: Dana Al Fardan
Composer, songwriter, symphonic artist & Founder of DNA Records

Interview by: Tara Gardner

By: Molly Smith

shesaid.so: You are Qatar’s only female contemporary composer and the creator of its first and only record label, DNA Records (which you started in 2016). How did you become the type of person who achieves such accomplishments?! Are there certain characteristics, ways you work, or mentors in your life that you can attribute to where you are today?

Dana Al Fardan: I have always been a determined person in everything I do, with a real hunger for learning. The more I learn, the more I want to know. It was actually becoming pregnant with my daughter Layla that really spurred me on to transform my love of music into a career path. It was the first time I understood that I was a musician, as opposed to somebody occasionally tinkering about on the piano. I realised I wanted to leave her with a legacy and the example of a mother who followed the road she was destined to pursue.

When you’re in the middle of all this, it’s just a question of getting your head into the right space, surrounding yourself with the right team of people and getting on with it, but I guess the attributes I’ve relied on are a combination of passion, determination and creative vision for my long term goals.

ssso: And not to mention you were voted Woman of the Year last year by Grazia Qatar, monthly magazine! shesaid.so is an international group and many members might not be very familiar with Qatar — can you tell us what the music industry looks like there? What you might want to see change?

DAF: There honestly has been no industry to speak of in Qatar until the last few years. The Qatar Philharmonic was established about 10 years ago, which is a 110-piece orchestra comprised of mainly European conservatoire-trained musicians, and since then we have seen the arrival of Katara Studios, an incredible recording complex with full orchestral space and very advanced facilities.

There is obviously home-grown talent in the form of artists and writers. So we have some fantastic creative talent, but we genuinely have had no recognisable industry until the last couple of years. We are working hard with local institutions and our international network of music professionals to build an industry from its foundations, but it will take time.

There are certain limitations in the region that I would love to see change, such as the complete lack of royalties collection; that spurs me on even more to create original content for export as that is the only way it can be effectively commercially exploited out of Qatar.

I’m also passionate about nurturing our next generation of music talent and am very proud of the government’s arts education programmes, which are encouraging the move away from our previously carbon-based economy towards one that is knowledge-based. I support and endorse those programmes wherever possible.

ssso: What made you want to start your own record label? What does your day-to-day look like running your record label, DNA Records?

DAF: The label was borne of necessity; there literally was no pre-existing music industry in Qatar per say — as in no labels, production houses and no artist management. So I recognised that if I wanted to create and release original material worldwide, I needed to establish some kind of infrastructure to do that.

My day to day is all over the place, between composing and devising strategies to spread our repertoire (whether its mine or my artist) worldwide; it’s a very hectic schedule. Obviously with composing, I need to create a mental space in which to operate. I usually do that by looking up composers, reading about their lives and analyzing their music. I always use headphones so I can drown everything else out, even the sound of the AC. I call it my transportation device.

With my artist Ryan O’Reilly, we take care of everything from recording the album — which takes a lot of coordinating — to distribution and tours. He has already completed two sold out tours of Europe, so that took a lot of work on our part, finding the right partners and constructing the appropriate strategies to ensure the success of the tours. Since we started working with him, we released two EPs and two albums. The albums are Northern Line and the latest one, which we released a month ago, is called I Can’t Stand the Sound.

ssso: Tell me about the first time you started connecting with music.

DAF: My love of music began as a child, mainly through listening to and watching musical theatre, but that progressed to listening to all genres from classical across the board. I taught myself piano so that I could play my favourite tunes, and then I started experimenting with melodies. That all developed into a lifelong passion that has been fuelled by many composers and performers that have inspired me over the years. It was always a channel to express myself. It’s my therapy, it’s my lifeline, it fuels me. When I was on the piano, nothing else mattered.

When I would come up with a melody it was and remains the most exciting feeling in the world! I realized eventually that I never had a choice, I had to be a musician or I would always feel incomplete and off balance.

ssso: Supporting music education programs in Qatar is another focus for you. What does that work look like?

DAF: It has involved everything from endorsing education programmes for aspiring musicians to writing songs for school choirs and participating in the judging of our first ever national schools music competition. I am really passionate about the importance of creative education in young people’s lives; even if they don’t choose to follow a musical path as a career, the study of music and the outlet it offers can contribute so much to a more rounded existence as a human being. Participation in ensembles like choirs, bands and orchestras teaches children and teenagers all sorts of transferable skills like teamwork, empathy and patience.

ssso: You’re the official composer for Qatar Airways! Have you experienced any differences in your creative process when working for a commercial purpose versus your own work/other commissions?

DAF: Actually for me the process is always a creative one. I work very closely with whoever is giving me the brief in the initial stages to ensure we’re on the same page in terms of the overall creative vision, and obviously there are practical aspects to take into consideration like time limits, etc, but I’ve been incredibly lucky to have developed really strong relationships with everyone who has commissioned my work so far and there is a real sense of trust in me delivering content that fits their needs.

ssso: Share a piece of advice you were given that really resonated with you.

DAF: Visualize what you want to achieve, absorb it, manifest it, the whole world falls into place and it ends up being right in front of you.

I used to daydream all the time. My imagination was so active, I imagined debuting my first orchestral show since I was 10 years old. I would actually see the theatre, imagined the details, the musicians, even the faces in the crowd, everything was so incredibly real, and it eventually happened. And that’s when it got surreal!!

ssso: You’re a parent — What are your thoughts on work-life balance? How do you balance the two or how do they work together in your life?

DAF: There is nothing more important in my life than my daughter Layla. She’s at school now and it’s essential for me that I take an ongoing and genuine interest in her education and all her after-school activities, which include learning the piano, I’m delighted to say. We share a huge passion for music and she will always correct me if I get a lyric or key wrong, it’s overwhelming!

Just like any other working mother, I have to find the right balance between work and motherhood, and it’s sometimes a juggling act, but I am blessed in having a husband who is a very proactive and engaged father, which helps enormously. I also think the work I do and the work ethic I project are important lessons for Layla to observe and learn for herself.

ssso: What lesson have you learned the hard way?
DAF: I trusted a lot of people and got burnt as a result. Surround yourself with good people, but keep your circle of trust tight.

ssso: What’s something you recently discovered?

DAF: I have recently discovered the depth of my love and passion for Folk music. I have a very personal and creative connection to the genre — its ability to create a narrative and take the listener on a journey that tells a story, not only within its own lyrical and melodic setting, but reflective of a whole timeframe, and cultural and geographical landscape. It has struck me lately that it really is my greatest source of inspiration.

ssso: 3 things you can’t live without -

DAF: My daughter, my piano and my Labello!

ssso: What should we know about you or what you’re currently working on?

DAF: I’m working on a really exciting mix of projects this year, including three film scores for British producers, which is a fantastic opportunity and something I am thoroughly enjoying. But my main focus for the next year will be a musical I have co-written, based on the book, The Broken Wings, by Khalil Gibran. The author will be known in the West for his best-selling work, The Prophet. The story of Broken Wings is a universally moving and tragic love story and it has deeply inspired me to write what I hope will be music enjoyed by audiences all over the world. I don’t think there has been a musical written by a Qatari before, so this is something of a first. We are workshopping the score with West End performers in London in February, ahead of recording and releasing an album of the show’s music in April, and then showcasing the songs at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in August this year.

Other projects will include continuing my role as official composer to Qatar Airways, a series of live shows across the UK and hopefully the U.S, and seeing my work performed in Russia as part of the Qatar Russia Year of Culture. So 2018 looks set to be a highly productive, international and busy one for me; the work of a creative is never done!