Words: James Frostick
Banner image: Adam J Bragg
On May 28, Canberra musician Shoeb Ahmad will be releasing “quiver”, a full-length record of revelatory music. “quiver” is the culmination of an intense period of self discovery. It charts transitions and exposures, movements and divergences. It is a soundtrack of vulnerability, tenderness and empathy, with a sonic palette that ebbs and flows in mirror to life’s own peaks and troughs.
I envy the ability of musicians to put their true selves on display. The idea of peeling back layers of weather-beaten skin to reveal a tender core is an admirable trait, and undoubtedly the most affecting music is often set to the beat of a heart that you can plainly see pumping. For thousands upon thousands of individuals, revealing their true selves is hard. Under the titanic weight of prejudice, fear, confusion and ignorance, it can be terrifying and painful showing even a sliver of one’s identity. Due to countless privileges, I (and the vast majority of those around me) haven’t encountered those hardships, and only by the courage of those brave enough to unfold before us do we get a glimpse.
Shoeb Ahmad is a Canberra-based artist, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter that is on the cusp of releasing a new full-length record, one that documents a self discovery – a journey full of revelations that is being shared with the world. “quiver” is the name of the record, and I’ve been granted the privilege of sharing it here. The record is lush and all-encompassing, flowing freely between tempo and texture, unchained by limitation and fearlessly explores a range of organic sounds. Lyrically, the album is an exploration – written during a time in Shoeb’s life where the external persona was diverging from the inner – where fundamental aspects of Shoeb’s being were coming into sharper focus. Shoeb documents the revelations regarding their identity, grappling with the intersecting issues of gender, religion and race, collating it together and gifting it to the world not only as a relatable piece of art for those similarly struggling with their own self discovery, but also as an insight for the uninformed.
“quiver” is raw emotion harnessed and vulnerability explored. At a time where acceptance and empathy is needed the most, this album is crucial. It is a record forged through years of introspection, imbued with pain, happiness, grief, longing and acceptance. The act of embarking on this journey with Shoeb through this record can only help to further understanding and empathy, cementing the record’s validity and status as a ‘must listen’.
Before diving into the album, have a read of a chat we had with Shoeb about “quiver“, it’s conception, execution and intention:
Tell me about the album process! When would you say you started piecing together the earliest ideas of the record together?
It has been a long process but certainly worth the journey. Musically, songs such as “washed air” and “pinpointed” were pretty much finished as far back as 2013 whilst others like “mask-ed” and “romance” might have begun the writing phase around then too but went under numerous re-writes right up until I started recording in late 2016. The main reason why the songs from “quiver” have only seen the day of light in the last year is because I didn’t feel the urgency to put the music out there without anything important to say. When I realised that I needed to convey the many emotions I had inside of me – both as a therapy for myself and to help others not feel alone – that’s when I decided to start recording and fulfil the musical ideas I had.
Do you approach a body of work with a play-by-play plan or do you prefer to engage in a more free-form writing tactic?
With “quiver”, there was a vague plan of writing songs that wasn’t working to a ‘high art concept’ like so many things I had done in the past, but rather just try to make music I’d like to listen to at home and in the car. When the premise for the lyrical matter became evident, I tried to tie the various topics together to create a more structured narrative. Really, I was just trying to create a body of work I was proud of and something that reflects what music means to me.
As an artist, were there any conceptual approaches or techniques that you were interested in pursuing from the outset?
The number one thing I wanted to do with “quiver” is that I wanted to make the closest thing I could do to an organic album. Most of my records have been quite heavy on electronic production and manipulation, so I just wanted to use the instruments for what they were. This meant a lot of restraint on my end – especially when in the studio on my own – but I think I managed to achieve this pretty well in the end. The closest thing to any kind of electronic production touch came during the other conceptual approach, which was that I recorded everything myself but handed over different tracks to people who I thought could come up with a final mix that reflected the sonic space for the songs. The people who added the final touches to the album (Jonathan Boulet, John Lee, Lawrence English and Rhys Edwards) knew the right vibe for the songs they mixed and their decisions have helped to make the journey even more special.
As an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, your fingerprints are over nearly every aspect of the record. Can you quickly take me through the recording process and any significant players that assisted throughout?
When I first thought about recording the songs that make up “quiver”, I had certain musicians in mind to record it with, but as time went on I knew that I needed to make a start on it myself before talking through ideas with others. I’m lucky to have my own studio at home – Brick Lane – so when I decided to record I’d just head in there and start recording the music in bits and pieces whilst I kept writing words while listening back to the songs in progress. Admittedly, a lot of the process was backwards as I did all the guitars and vocals first before tending to the drums, which was maybe a bit more problematic than I thought, but it also meant that the songs worked themselves out in a pretty organic fashion. Having people like Luke Keanan-Brown, Hannah de Feyter and Matt Lustri around to bounce ideas off – both musically and emotionally – meant I was in a pretty rich recording environment throughout.
Through my listens I pick up ruminations on ageing, love, dependence, vulnerability the disintegration of relationships, our outward personas and inner selves. From your point of view, what thematic and emotional revelations are most evident in “quiver”?
The notion of allowing one’s self to “quiver” is to allow vulnerability be prevalent in your life. My initial struggles with a femme identity took a long time to break through a masculine veneer; however this made me realise that I’m on a journey and always will be. I like to think that “quiver” is about being vulnerable during change – going through change, watching changes happen, thinking of changes to come – and how it’s okay to be this way and roll with the punches of life.
It sounds like the album was written during a period of intense personal growth. What particular happenings directly influenced the content of the songs or sonic approach?
I found myself the victim of a hotel room robbery in August 2016 between tours and in a situation where I was presenting femme but in secrecy. This moment started a chain reaction emotionally and mentally so the song writing process was quite a therapeutic time in understanding who I am properly and accepting this. I usually use wordplay as an attempt at fun and wit within in songs rather than for depth so using words from the heart along with the organic nature of the music really resonated with me as I tried to create a work that captured my emotional state.
Many artists utilise creative expression as a form of catharsis. I see “quiver” in a similar vein, but through my listens it also speaks to common pains and relatable traumas. Do you believe your music can double as a catharsis enabler for the listeners as well?
I hope so – a lot of us find it hard to deal with inner turmoil and the pressure it brings on us so having experienced that first-hand, I want people who listen to “quiver” and feel okay to break down and cry, to hurt and feel vulnerable because without these feelings, you cannot begin to heal and find solace in what makes you the person you are. My narrative is now about showing empathy to others in similar circumstances so they know they aren’t alone.
I understand you are also an installation/sound artist. Can you give me some insight into the differences between your approach to your art/music disciplines (if any) and how it might play a factor in “quiver”’s composition?
It’s funny to ask this, because in a way my installation and sound art work has been quite separate to my song writing practice, as in that one is highly conceptual and the other has been about collating a selection of songs for a release. In this case, “quiver” is actually quite a lot more like a conceptual piece that has importance placed on the meaning of words, the sonic spaces created, the sounds used and so forth. All the songs on “quiver” are parts of a bigger puzzle so for the first time with an album of mine, I feel that everyone will consume and absorb it differently to one another but I think they will all share the same thing, which is the whole narrative.
And now, here is “quiver” by Shoeb Ahmad:
“quiver” will be released digitally on Monday May 28 (you can pre-order now), with a limited run of physical copies to follow. The CD edition will be accompanied by zine featuring artwork and photography by visual collaborator Adam J Bragg and a second disc featuring remixes by members of Spirit Bunny, Wives, Erasers and more.
Shoeb Ahmad will also be touring the release through the end of June and early July. The dates are as follows:
Saturday 30 June – Ainslie Arts Centre, Canberra w/ Happy Axe
Thursday 5 July – Toff In Town, Melbourne w/ Lisa Salvo (On Diamond) + Tom Lyngcoln
Friday 6 July – 107 Projects, Sydney w/ Medicine Voice vs Marcus Whale, Angela Garrick + Megan Alice Clune
Saturday 7 July – The Bearded Lady, Brisbane w/ Strangely Enough, Spirit Bunny + McKisko
Sunday 8 July – Sonic Sherpa, Brisbane w/ Kellie Lloyd + Julia R. Anderson *solo afternoon instore*
Wednesday 11 July – The Bird, Perth w/ Erasers + Original Past Life
Thursday 12 July – Revelation Music Days @ The Rosemount, Perth w/ CALMLY, Telete + Ryan Beno