The importance of festivals, especially foreign ones, is that they introduce you to artists you would never otherwise come across. I found Iranian-born but now Berlin’s own Arya Zappa while watching an award ceremony at the recent Reeperbahn Festival. While rooting for Tuvaband, who is Norwegian, I was impressed by all the other acts and especially Zappa, who isn’t related to Frank as far as I know.
She didn’t win it, and neither did Tuvaband. Instead that honour went to ÄTNA, a frantic all-singing/dancing boy-girl genre-bending duo also from Germany who wear huge black contact lenses so they look like extras from Michael Jackson’s ‘Killer’ video. They’re a dramatic live act for sure, and as the Anchor Award “honours unique music quality manifested in the live performances” they were odds-on to win it.
Apart from Tuvaband, my attention was drawn to Arya Zappa partly because she doesn’t fit the ‘bill’ of successful female artists these days. For starters, she has a deep contralto voice, quite unusual in the era of the soprano. I’m hard pressed to think of artists of the same ilk. There’s Grace Jones (with whom Zappa is often compared), Toni Braxton, and Australia’s Gordi. Those are all that are readily comparable.
Her songs have a strong connection to 1980’s synth-pop of the Gary Numan, New Order and Depeche Mode (she’s also compared to Dave Gahan) variety. The aesthetics of the 1980s are present in her performances too. But there’s more to it than that. She is a showman as well, easily drawing comparisons with the likes of Freddie Mercury, David Bowie and more recently Anna Calvi and FKA Twigs. Yes, all androgynous.
She’s been described as “a comprehensive work of art – musically, visually, poetically, inspired by poetry, cinema and mythology as much as by her own dream diaries and reflections on the essence of being human.”
She was a record producer, since 1997, eschewing writing and performing, but kept a ‘dream diary’ in which she recorded her own metamorphosis and important life events, and on which her 2019 debut album ‘Dark Windows’ was based. She only took the decision to write and record when she felt she had come to terms with her voice, which she described as that of a whisky-gargling drag queen. Again, comparisons with Calvi, who was just a guitar player until she was approaching 30, and who taught herself, at length, to sing.
Two videos here. The first, ‘Now or Always’ is from ‘Dark Windows’ and the lyrics are based on Philip Larkin's poem ‘Is It For Now Or For Always.’
The second is her festival performance.
Philip Larkin’s ‘High Windows’, was the title poem of his fourth and final major poetry collection. Any connection I wonder?
The observant will spot that the shoes Arya wears in the ‘Now or Always’ video are the same ones she wears on stage.