Last year, as his country descended into chaos around him, one Iranian musician was fighting to complete a creative vision that brought together post-rock artists from all around the world. Exclusively for IDIOTEQ, one of those artists takes us behind the scenes of this extraordinary new album.
Late September, 2022. Iran is in turmoil as a wave of protests sweeps the country following the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini.
From three thousand miles away in the UK, the author of this piece is trading audio files and anxious Instagram messages with Iranian multi-instrumentalist Siamak Ghorbanian Aghdam. We’ve been working on this collaboration between our musical projects – Atonalita (his) and The Glass Pavilion (mine) – since before the unrest began, but now there seems to be a real risk of the project collapsing. I’m hoping Sia can add some of his trademark violin to the section of our track I’ve just recorded, but the Iranian government is restricting internet access – and with two of his close friends in police custody after being arrested during a protest, Sia is struggling to find the creative focus he needs. Nonetheless, he assures me, he’ll try.
When Sia manages to upload a rough mix of the finished track to Soundcloud a week or two later, I listen for the first time as new violin parts intertwine above my familiar chords, finally soaring into a heartbreaking expression of sadness and hope. And that’s when I realise I’ve become a part of something truly special.
That “something” is Atonalita’s new album Collaboration of Souls, a collection of eight new tracks featuring bands and artists from four continents, all tied together by Sia’s creative vision. I spoke to Sia about the project shortly before its release on 16 February.
This isn’t the first time you’ve released music in collaboration with other artists. How did you come to be so active in this area?
When I started the Atonalita project, the idea of collaborating with other musicians hadn’t really occurred to me. It was Carlos Herrera of Non Somnia who first suggested working together on a track [My Own Storm, from Stella Meae (2021)]. That attracted a lot of attention from other post-rock artists and led to a whole series of further collaborations – the most recent being the Post-Everything Collective single Freedom, which featured seven fellow artists and was dedicated to the people of my country and their fight for basic rights.
So was a whole album of collaborations always going to be your next step?
No, actually this album wasn’t supposed to exist at all! I was intending to release a completely different album, entitled Fall, plus an EP called The Four Seasons, both of which are already finished and ready to go. But while I was planning those releases, I put out a single [Loners in the Universe] featuring Dennis Abstiens of At the Grove on drums, then another [Lost in Memories] with drums by Robert Evstaens Jr of Hereafter. As I completed more of these collaborative tracks, and began to develop a unifying concept around them, the potential for a whole album became clear.
As you just mentioned, Collaboration of Souls is a concept album. Can you tell us more about that?
The album tells the story of a person who travels alone to the moon in the hope of gaining a deeper perspective on life. To explain it track by track, this person reflects on The Details of Life (Track 1), experiences a sense of Vertigo (Track 2), and travels to the moon (Track 3 – Departure) in the hope of unlocking some great secret. While Walking on the Moon (Track 4), he or she looks back at the Earth (Track 5 – Looking Back at Home), hears the Song of the Lonely Whale (Track 6), gets Lost in Memories (Track 7), and finally comes to the conclusion that the only truth of life is that we are all ultimately alone – Loners in the Universe (Track 8).
With such a strong concept, was it difficult to keep control of your vision while also leaving room for the other artists’ creativity?
Actually I think it really helped me to manage the project, and even to choose collaborators. Social media has enabled me to connect with some of the best post-rock artists in the world, and I wanted to feature each of them in a way that showed off their own signature style – and the more different from my own style, the better! So it was about choosing the right artist for the right track, and explaining to them the concept behind that track and the album as a whole. Then as I slotted each track into place between the others, it was like completing a puzzle.
Of course there were technical difficulties involved in working remotely with so many different artists, but in the end they didn’t seem to matter because I felt everyone understood what I was trying to express and shared a lot of my concerns. I felt very close to everyone in spirit and that made it surprisingly easy to manage our collaborations and any side issues.
The project was already under way before the death of Mahsa Amini and the subsequent unrest in Iran. Do you think those events have influenced the direction it’s taken?
The death of any innocent person hurts every person’s heart, and I’m certainly no exception. I wish peace for the people of my country, Iran – who are the most peace-loving people, with so much ancient history and such a rich culture – and for all the peace-loving people of the world. Life is too short to spend in cruelty and killing. That sense of life’s transience has always been a theme in my music, alongside the sense that we are all ultimately going through our own struggles alone, but I think the situation in my country prompted me to really bring those themes into focus on this album.
Collaboration of Souls by Atonalita is available now on Bandcamp and all major streaming services