Female Disruptors: How Rising Music Star Ashley Zarah Aims To Shake Up The Dark-Pop Universe
I began to wonder how different the world would be if we all had the opportunity to meet regular people from different countries and different walks of life. When I was a kid, it was common for elementary students to have international pen pals. This was facilitated by our education system. If kids could be raised having pen pals from two or three countries for several years in a row, that would bridge a very large gap and teach children that we are all the same human beings just existing in different locations.
As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ashley Zarah.
She is an Iranian singer/songwriter and Dark-Pop performer hailing from Los Angeles, CA. Merging millennial pain and pop culture, she is drawing listeners into her Dark-Pop Universe to engage with their truths in a world that is becoming increasingly superficial. While on scholarship at the highly prestigious art institution, Berklee College of Music, she revealed herself to be both a prolific writer and expressive vocalist but hooked viewers with her insight and relatability. Her Middle-Eastern influenced 2-track single Awake (produced by New England’s Producer of the Year 2013 and 2018, Sean McLaughlin) will be featured in the upcoming LA indie film, Back In the No. Her Valentine-themed release, “Like I Do,” is a Pop/Dubstep collaboration with electronic producer MKBLV that debuted on the world-renowned music editorial, The Hype Magazine, followed by a feature on NPR’s Sound Opinions: “Buried Treasures” segment. Zarah’s highly anticipated project, the Better Mess — LP, is currently in post-production for release in the Fall of 2020; leading with fan-favorite, “My Boyfriend,” as its first single in July.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I was raised in a music loving family, so it was easy for me to pick up the same attachment. The difference was, my family enjoyed it as a pastime (as many people do); whereas for me, it was a sort of religion. I reached out to music for everything; when I was looking for answers, when I sought comfort, when I needed a friend to both hype me up but also sit me down. But sometimes, despite all the music that exists, I couldn’t find the right song to describe what I was feeling or experiencing. So I started creating them. Then under a lot of force, I sang them for a few people, mostly just a few kids in my schools. We were literally children… but after I’d finish, I’d look up and see tears in their eyes. In a moment, I understood that maybe they were suffering from a pain that I was suffering from, and they were being forced to be quiet about it. Maybe listening to me made them feel understood, less afraid, and less alone. As I continued to dabble in the industry, I kept getting this reaction. Later in life, I accepted that I was a vessel for people’s healing; telling stories, thoughts and feelings in hopes that they would give a voice to those who felt unheard and suppressed. Having this ability made it pretty clear that my purpose is to heal others with art. I was told all my life that I would be a great lawyer or a great therapist, but I always felt I could bring more justice and more healing into the world with art. Music guides and saves people’s lives, myself included. It’s been that way since its inception, and it feels like my responsibility to continue that tradition for others.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
So I come from a conservative Middle-Eastern background. There is a path that is strictly set for both men and women in this community; but for women, it’s much narrower. I was always being told how to dress, what to want, what to eat, how to behave, what to believe… Growing up, I saw that women in our community didn’t have their own identities. They were individuals until they became “Mom” and/or “Wife;” only meant to serve their kids, their husbands, and their in-laws. In the Iranian-Jewish community, procreating is seemingly every woman’s destiny; so if you’re a girl who doesn’t have marriage on the top of your to-do list by the age of 13, there is something wrong with you.
Revealing to people that I wanted to be a musician was extremely disruptive. It also became everybody’s business. People were sending their kids to talk to me, they’d lecture me at family events about stability and conformity, that this wasn’t the “Iranian way” nor the “Jewish way” — but ultimately everyone’s greatest fear was that I’d deviate from the path. Because “what man would ever marry a selfish woman who’s getting naked every night on tour, rather than staying home and raising his children?!” Clearly, I thought very differently than most of my community growing up. I may have grown up a social pariah, but now that I’m more self-assured, and now that I’m doing well, the same people who were threatened by my disruption of the status quo now admire my “boldness” or my “bravery” as they call it. They tell me how much their kids look up to me, that they feel represented and proud to see an Iranian woman challenging the music industry. They also see that my intentions are pure, that I’m a professional, and that I have a good heart. I think those paths they laid out for us from the beginning are paved with the intention of yielding just that. But when their kids choose not to conform, they no longer know who that child will become. The unknown is very scary, but the unknown is where growth happens. That’s where all the magic is.
We all need a little help along the journey — who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
My mentors have always been my teachers, and they’ve made an impact in countless ways, so I don’t have one particular story that comes to mind. I believe that teachers genuinely want to their students to succeed. Therefore, they need to be extremely observant and emotionally intelligent to be able to identify when a student may be struggling outside of the classroom. They sought me out because they saw something in me that needed nurturing and direction. With all the issues I had at such an early age, I was Grade-A addict material. My greatest fear in high school was alcohol, because I knew if I tried it and it eased my ailments, I would drink it day and night like water. I’m not sure if they even knew it when they’d hold me after class to just talk and listen — but I hold my teachers and professors accountable for rerouting my journey because they rerouted my thinking. They made me believe I was worthy of an education, I was worthy of success, that I was placed on this Earth for a unique reason, and that I had the power to make a difference.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason. — I was very influenced by my middle school math teacher. This statement was directed toward a really great kid, but nonetheless, a student who could not seem to stop talking during class. I remember exactly where I was sitting, watching the yellow glow of the overhead projector beam onto my teacher’s shiny head like a holy halo when he spoke these words of wisdom. As someone who never felt listened to, this struck a chord. There is so much that we miss when we insist on being the loudest in the room. This sentence emphasizes the value of silence and the value of learning. If you’re the only one talking, there are plenty of great things you’re probably missing out on. In music, our whole careers are based on how well we listen; to pitch, to harmony, to stories, lyrics, textures, mixes, masters — all of it has to do with staying quiet and really thinking about what we’re hearing.
Don’t worry about things that haven’t happened yet. — My entire family raised me, my brother, and my cousins on Persian metaphors and anecdotes. I owe a lot of my perspective to each and every one of them, but my father has an endless account of Iranian lessons to pull out of his pocket. One I heard countless times from him, was this. When I used to be faced with a problem, it felt like the world was collapsing because I was already dreading the domino effect that was bound to come. I would fall prisoner to a chaos that hadn’t even happened yet, wasting precious time and energy on something that did not exist and may not actually exist in the future either. I could be spending that time and energy on finding valuable solutions. By worrying about something that hasn’t even happened yet, we almost manifest it into existence. But confronting each problem one step at a time helps you remain more present and keeps your mind clear so you can actually anticipate and prepare for your next challenge.
Your perspective is everything — Two people can approach the same hurdles in life, but have completely different outcomes merely on the basis of their perspective. One may advance the hurdle as a challenge and are inspired by what they will learn afterwards; while another only sees a problem and focuses on their inabilities and helplessness. There are so many small choices we make every day that shape our way of thinking; our diction, how we frame our experiences, how we solve problems, etc. How we choose to see things will become what we see. Perspective is everything.
How are you going to shake things up next?
With my new LP! I call myself a storyteller before anything else because all that I’m really doing is telling a story, just in my own way. The Better Mess — LP is a collection of stories that encompass roughly the same theme — that denial of truth keeps us from growth. Every song is about admitting or exposing a difficult reality. Iranian culture is built on a lot of restraint. We are raised to be very moderate, always well-tempered, never opinionated enough to be disruptive — our culture is very much about our guests and how we treat others than it is about ourselves and our feelings. I have learned how to be an incredible host because of my upbringing, but I was also trained to be incredibly numb and ignore nearly everything that could make me visibly emotional. If you are visibly emotional, you are no longer moderate and likeable, and the community dissociates with you and maybe even your family. I think it should also be noted that there is a mental-health crisis in Iranian communities, and unfortunately it makes a lot of sense. Lifetimes of emotional repression will implode the host.
I was the type of person who openly debated on topics like women’s rights, politics, the LGBTQ+ community, racism, religion so on and so forth — but growing up, I was told that those discussions and ideas were inappropriate and a disturbance to others, then instilling guilt for possibly damaging our family’s reputation. The Better Mess — LP is inviting everyone to have those real-life discussions and to explore their truest feelings, publicly. The first song on it is about being sexually assaulted by a close friend. Another song analyzes Love’s destructive role in a family. These are taboo topics that normally I would be told to stop talking about; because, “it’ll just bother you and bother everyone else. Why don’t you sing about something pleasant? Like going to the beach!” This mentality inhibits people from healing by stifling their emotions, therefore damaging their mental health. I refuse to be quiet about what keeps us up at night. We have to study our wounds for them to heal, otherwise they’ll bleed forever, and even going to the beach will sting.
Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho is probably responsible for me applying to Berklee College of Music and pursuing music full-time. It follows a boy named Santiago as he travels the world seeking its most extravagant treasures; and on that journey, we learn some deeply moving lessons about seeking truth and finding “success.” I’d say the general theme is manifestation; understanding that the universe is on our side as long as we pursue our intrinsic purpose which, according to Coelho’s writings, is engrained within us at birth. It’s much like the Greek philosophy of telos. Pursuing one’s telos is akin to pursuing one’s innate ultimate end, purpose, or goal. So a knife’s purpose is to cut. If it cuts things, it is achieving its telos and adding harmony into the world because it is functioning just as it was “born to” or “destined to” per se. If us as individuals or as a collective, pursue whatever our telos is perceived to be, then we emit harmony into the world and aid in its functionality, also aiding our individual goals. When we don’t pursue our truth, our passion, or purpose, our part of the universal harmony gets broken and we gradually lose touch with not only ourselves but everything else around us because our great purpose is now lost. It’s essentially saying, if all people pursue what they love, the world would be a more harmonious place.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I’m blessed to have many friends from around the world, and so I’ve had the luxury of being welcomed into the homes of people with very different lifestyles and perspectives. I began to wonder how different the world would be if we all had the opportunity to meet regular people from different countries and different walks of life. When I was a kid, it was common for elementary students to have international pen pals. This was facilitated by our education system. If kids could be raised having pen pals from two or three countries for several years in a row, that would bridge a very large gap and teach children that we are all the same human beings just existing in different locations. Social media is a global platform that could easily connect us no matter how far apart we are. Imagine there was a pairing system, that when you create an Instagram account, you are instantly paired with 100 people with shared interests from around the world. Many would be surprised by the company they find and connect with. That would give people living in less diverse areas the ability to peek into the lives of those they may have otherwise misunderstood or feared.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Fear causes hesitation, and hesitation causes your worst fears to come true.” — I will admit, I am a very anxious person. No one else would probably say that about me, but I think it’s the truth. A good example of this is that I have a pretty big voice, but I wasn’t being taught how to use it correctly. Consequently, I used to be so scared about hurting myself when I sang, that I would hesitate right before certain notes, would suddenly fracture my confidence and technique, then would end up choking and cracking thus creating the exact outcome I was afraid of in the first place. My nervousness put doubt in the driver’s seat and it negatively affected all aspects of my work because it was like leaking poison into my self-confidence. I think about this quote before I do nearly anything that makes me nervous, because I know the nerves can block me from performing at my best. If I’m going to contact someone about collaborating, I pitch to them with enthusiasm; I don’t tear myself down in the e-mail. If I’m sharing my music with others, I’ll do it with pride and love, not with fear and doubt. This quote not only shifts my perspective on a daily basis, it also affects my practice regiment. The more I thoughtfully practice, the more confident I become in my vocal and writing abilities. So when I’m playing a live show and that intimidating note comes near — I tell myself, “you’ve done this a million times! You know how to do it,” and my hesitation is replaced with self-assurance. My audience can feel all my energy through my microphone. If I clench up, they feel it. If I’m open and laughing, they feel it. So the success of my business is ultimately based on my own confidence.
How can our readers follow you online?
They can join the Dark-Pop Tribe by subscribing to my website at AshleyZarah.com and following me on Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and Facebook. I’m looking forward to sharing the music with you all!
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!