The Arabic Singer Shining Light on Her Darker Days

Ruba Shamshoum's music is an elegant fusion of poetry and ambient dream pop


Using songwriting as her remedy for healing a sense of self-worth, Ruba Shamshoum’s work speaks of mental health, love and loneliness. With each song, Ruba's Arabic lyrics offer listeners a heartfelt insight into the way music became her form of therapy. Gently moving between the dark and light, through jazz-inspired, ambient soundscapes.



Photo by Joana Lirio

Currently based in London, Ruba Shamshoum was born and raised in Nazareth, Palestine, before moving to Ireland to study jazz performance. Drawing on her strengths as a jazz singer, Ruba’s free-flowing vocal harmonies move across multilayered instrumental soundscapes. She embodies a raw yet refined style, purposefully celebrating her Arabic mother tongue while effortlessly shifting between genres. We sat down with Ruba to discuss her latest EP release, ‘Risha’ (Feather), hearing how her connection to femininity became the foundation for this five-track musical story.


 

Ruba, we have loved swimming through your EP ‘Risha’. Could you tell us about your musical memories growing up?


I always knew I loved singing and I enjoyed listening to music. Mainly the voice, it was an instrument that intrigued me. But I was a very shy child. Speaking in front of people and expressing myself really took effort and I would cringe when people ever asked me to sing. It had a lot to do with confidence. Only when I finished high school, around the age of 19, did I start singing in a rock band. We practised in the rehearsal room for years and only had one gig! It wasn’t until I finished my degree in English literature, that I found myself at a crossroad, questioning what I wanted to do. I was torn between doing music, or music therapy.


What was it about singing Rock that you liked?


I actually think that as soon as I heard myself singing into a microphone, something just changed. I liked how I sounded and it helped me open up, it helped me love myself more. Because growing up as a teenager, I didn’t have much self-love. It was through music that I was able to unpack those things that I didn’t like and start feeling good. The first song I wrote was about self-loathing, discussing how I’m afraid of the sea and not being courageous enough to jump in the sea like everyone else. With that, I created this character who has all these phobias; she didn’t like speaking to people, didn’t like people in general, and I gave her a name, Madeleine. That became the title of the track too. It really helped me and I see how, in a way, I went down the music therapy route by going through this process of songwriting.


Growing up as a teenager, I didn’t have much self love. It was through music that I was able to unpack those things that I didn’t like and start feeling good


You grew up in Nazareth, and then moved to Ireland, how did the two countries shape your career?


At the time I was growing up in Palestine, going into music wasn’t a traditional choice. But I grew up in a house where we listened to a whole mixture of music, from traditional Arabic tunes to classical music. Thanks to MTV I started listening to The Cranberries and Alanis Morissette until slowly Norah Jones came into the picture. I remember the first time I heard her sing I just thought it was amazing. It was always the female voices that stuck with me. I then discovered Bossa Nova and Jazz. That just opened my mind to new soundscapes that I didn’t know and the beauty of Brazilian music and early Jazz from the 30s and 40s. From that moment I knew it was the kind of music I wanted to sing and I went deeper into that world. By the time I was 24, I decided to study music, specifically Jazz music. That was a big leap as I didn’t know any music theory, I had no clue which note was which on a keyboard. The fact that, 6 years later, I finished a bachelor degree in Jazz performance was a very proud moment for me.


Ireland was a good transition for me because it gave me more access to musicians and a variety of people whose style suited what I was looking for sonically. Whereas back home, you couldn’t be picky, there wasn’t a catalogue of musicians and different styles. I started playing with more people and touring and slowly the confidence came. This was helped by those small milestones of having someone want to book me, then someone booking me in a different country. It made me want to give more of myself, realising that people wanted what I had to give.

Photo by Tarek Zenati

How did you find the process of creating your own sound?


I had a moment of doubt before I started writing music because I don’t write traditional lyrics. When you come from a traditional society, that can be quite the challenge. It was after I wrote my first two tunes, Fuqaati (My Bubble) and Madeline, that I realised that people were connecting with and relating to what I was saying. Even though I was getting criticism and my music wasn’t mainstream, the few hundred people who were listening made it worthwhile. It felt very precious. My first album, Shamat, was the product of my degree in Jazz performance. But after that, I started to really question what I wanted to make. This new EP is full of what I would usually have described as guilty pleasures.


I feel connected to the freedom of female voices saying something profound. I don’t think there’s anything stronger than that.


We loved hearing your debut album 'Shamat', your arrangements and melodies were stunning. But 'Risha' definitely feels like a step in a new direction. Can you explain what those guilty pleasures are about?


I think I was afraid of the word pop for a long time. Having studied Jazz and “sophisticated” music, pop felt like a curse word! But I realise what I make is not mainstream still. It is poetic dream pop, three words that describe what I do. I want to create things that are lyrically creative, I love building a dreamy atmosphere, and at the same time, I want music to be fun. And that fun can have melancholy in it too, it can be a bittersweet atmosphere.



I think there should be more space for music that doesn’t fit into set moulds, especially when it's a fusion of sounds and languages


Can you tell us what inspired the track, Sununu, in your latest EP, Risha?


With the track ‘Sununu’, I talk about a person who put all their sorrows in a box and decided to sail away. Shadowing them is the swallow bird, the Sununu. Deep inside, I know the swallow represents my mother and the person is me during the darker times of my teenage years. My mother was always the character in my life who was trying to understand what was going on. The lyrics explore this state of depression, of feeling misunderstood and not being able to express oneself. In the final part of the song when I speak, the words translate as “I’m not little red riding hood, I’m the wolf. Sad and lonely in the woods. Everyday in the forest the loneliness increases and weighs heavy on me”. The song is an ode to anyone who feels they’ve had to be someone they are not to please or fit into society. It’s about showing the good and the bad.



The other tracks on your EP touch on themes of human relationships and love. Moonlight is a song you wrote about your nephew and the joy of new life. And Winti Hon (When You’re Here) is a romantic narrative about your husband. We loved this line in the opening verse “My heart has a boat sailing from port to port when you’re here”. Could you tell us about your process for writing the lyrics on ‘Risha'?


There’s constant movement in my music and I try to incorporate storytelling and folk tales in my lyrics. These songs are journeys, they were created over three years and I took my time creating them. It’s interesting because I’ll usually understand what the song is about years after I’ve written them, after I’ve let them grow up. I think very visually when I write and I love adding colours. I like to create a mood and provide a clear vision. I talk a lot about femininity and its connection to nature, this is something that’s very important to me. I grew up amongst women, with my mother, my grandmother and my sister which means I relate to the feminine voice and what sounds similar to myself. I don’t think there’s anything stronger than hearing a female voice saying something profound. This EP is a real love letter to that femininity.


 

You can listen to Ruba Shamshoum’s new EP, ‘Risha’ on Bandcamp and stay up to date with her upcoming gigs and news on IG @rubashamshoum