MIDDLE EASTERN PROMISE – Former Sohodolls Frontwoman Returns With A Love Letter To Lebanon

Photo Credit: Marie-Fleur Charlesworth
Photo Credit: Marie-Fleur Charlesworth

As pouting minx Maya Von Doll of the Sohodolls, Beirut-born Maya Marie looked like she could do no wrong. Picked up by Alan McGee’s Poptones label, the band enjoyed critical and commercial success with songs like Stripper and Bang Bang Bang Bang.

Their music featured on top US shows like Gossip Girl and Maya found herself in demand as a songwriter, penning tunes for the likes of Girls Aloud songstress Nicola Roberts.

 

But then heart-break, the sudden death of a friend and her split from the band were to leave her label-less, crippled by self doubt and, by her own admission, in a very dark place for three years, before her recent re-emergence with the New Pharaohs.

Matt Catchpole caught up with Maya on the release of debut single Empire, a hymn to her homeland of Lebanon, which was partially inspired by the refugee crisis in Syria and its echoes of the strife which forced her family to flee to Britain.

 

Empire feels more polished with a bigger production than some of your work with Sohodolls. Was this a conscious decision

Absolutely yes.  I wrote Empire with John McKeown in a residential studio in Provence. We used the original analogue EMI desk that The Rolling Stones recorded their 1970s albums on. We recorded the band to tape, and the whole mix also went to tape. We all wanted an epic vintage production. I loved watching the reels constantly turning. 

Is Empire an example of what we can expect from the new album?

Empire is the love letter I had been meaning to write to Lebanon all my life. It is therefore totally unique lyrically. Sound-wise you can definitely expect the rest of the album to be similarly organic. I used Fiona Brice for her sublime string arrangements on a few other tracks too, my guitarist Rik Hornby has his signature sound all over and with Dimitri Tikovoi as producer he’s crafted the rock-pop 1970s vibe beautifully. We all balked when he said he was going to record the 17-piece string orchestra through one mic in mono! But that’s what you hear on Empire. 

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You’ve said that events in Syria had proved an inspiration for your new work would you care to explain that further?

My inspiration comes from my own story but being in Beirut one recent Christmas I couldn’t help but realise that what we’d gone through in Lebanon, myself included, was happening all over again to another generation but this time our neighbours – Syria. There are Syrian and Iraqi refugees everywhere – the schools are bursting with them, those with money are renting in every apartment block while the less fortunate are in UN camps. This new war has been like holding a mirror to my experience of having to flee, so perhaps I would have never written Empire without that glaring reminder.

As someone who arrived in the UK escaping violence in your homeland, how do you feel about Britain’s current attitude to immigration?

The UK gives more in foreign aid per person than Germany France, Spain or the US. From where I’m standing, the British remain overwhelmingly a tolerant and welcoming people especially compared with attitudes in most of Europe – not to mention the oil-rich Arab states that barely take any refugees – or the rest of the world. It’s still the best place to live!  Of course more can always be done. 

Do any of your new songs have a political edge?

I hope that None of them do! Empire is about how the Lebanese fought each other so hard that they destroyed everything around them including an exceptionally beautiful country. Like ‘Bang! Bang! I shot you down’ but literally. As children we’d fight physically because someone was suddenly from ‘the wrong side’ of the civil war. But the lyric can apply equally to two people in a relationship. Winning the fight is all we want, while being totally blind to the destruction we are causing to ourselves and others.

You say you’ve been doing a lot of growing up of late, what do you mean by that?

Horrible heart-break, crippling self-doubt, losing a close friend in a freak accident, being label-less, being aimless and thinking about my own and everyone else’s mortality. You know, the usual 4am in the morning ‘what the fuck have I done with my life’ sort of shit but it lasted over a 3 year period and eventually I found my new outlet – New Pharaohs.

Maya with the Sohodolls
Maya with the Sohodolls

You’ve had success writing for other people – what’s more important to you writing or performing?

Writing is probably slightly more important because, if it wasn’t, I’d be happy being in a covers band. It has to be my own material that I’m performing. I don’t have a big voice so for me I seek to make a lyrical connection with people. 

How do you feel about giving your songs away to other people?

There have been some minor regrets but overall not. When I gave Beat of My Drum to Nicola Roberts I knew she could perform that type of song better than I could. It depends on the nature of the beast. I’ve only regretted it when I think I could have done the song more justice.  And I’ll keep those opinions to myself 😉 

Describe your songwriting process, where do you get your inspiration? Do the words come first or the music?

I have a few different processes. Sometimes I start with chords on a piano, record them to my phone, then perfect by overlaying melodies over a few minutes or days. Other times I start with a drum sample then put chords down. I always have a list of song titles on my phone so I can do a quick scan to see if any of them suit the new music. Then other times I’ll decide that I really need to sing a song about this or that feeling. There’s a really fun song on the album that I wrote with Eugene McGuinness about that moment where you are teetering between taking a deep breath and counting to 10 or just losing it. It’s called Reload. I’d wanted to write about that split-second struggle between being good or bad for ages. 

 What do you hope to achieve with the New Pharaohs?

Honestly I’d be grateful if I made some people happier through it. I’ve come out of a pretty dark stage and thankfully I only knew how bad it was when i began to emerge from it. Oh, also it would be great to do some sold out shows. I have the best musicians in this band and I’d love to get all the string players on the same stage too. 

Do you enjoy the business and making music as much as when you first started, has anything changed about your approach?

I enjoy making music the same as ever but I’ve realised that doing less is more. Being focused on a concept is better than being sent off by your manager to write with every Tom, Dick and Abdullah for 2 years. Also, in Sohodolls we killed ourselves playing show after show after show without a real plan. This time, there’s a plan!

REVIEW: New Pharaohs – Empire
 
So what of the record? Well, straight away it’s clear that this is no Sohodolls Mark II. Instead of slabs of fuzz guitar and electro beats, we get a more reflective, atmospheric feel with strings sweeping in over delicately picked arpeggios.
 
Maya’s vocals are cool, but vulnerable, perhaps suggestive of the tough times she’s been through of late. The provocative pop siren of old is gone, replaced by a more mature, contemplative voice, perfectly in keeping with the mood of the song.
 
Inspired by her own experiences in war torn Lebanon and by the ongoing crisis in Syria, Maya sings a lullaby of loss and pain and damaged lives. The sweetness of the melodies is cleverly contrasted with the unseen devastation implied in the lyrics – a country tearing itself apart, or two lovers with ‘souls of steel’ bent on a path of mutual destruction. All in all a brave and powerful record from a songwriter who’s been to the brink, but is now back with a vengeance.
 
Battered perhaps, but unbowed, a songwriter who understands the bad things people do and how we can learn from it. But hey, what do I know? Listen for yourself (below) Empire is out now and will be followed by an album in the New Year.
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About the author

Full time journalist, music lover (obvs) and truly terrible guitarist. You can find Matt on twitter @matcatch

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