Rahill Jamalifard on Writing Music as the Daughter of Iranian Immigrants

By Rahill Jamalifard and Shannon Lee
May 16, 2023
Interviews

There’s a refreshingly sincere simplicity that shines across Rahill Jamalifard’s music. Her most recent record, Flowers At Your Feet, is no exception. Drenched in bright, reverberating samples; a thumping, steadily churning rhythm; and infectious, easy melodies, the album is a sparkling debut for Jamalifard as a solo artist; she previously fronted the psychedelic all-girl band Habibi. Written over the course of the last three years, Flowers At Your Feet is deeply personal and reflective. “It’s healthy, it’s healing; what mom said she told me. I’m old now, I know it. I’m growing, I’m growing,” sings Jamalifard in her characteristically clear and relaxed cadence on the opening track, “Healing.” Playing in the background are voicemails from family members in English and Farsi and audio clips from home videos. “And days pass real easy,” goes the song’s refrain.

Family is a throughline on the record, with songs devoted to her relationships with her sister and father—"He reads me tortured stories of heroes who died unnamed, The Prophet’s words of glory, the devil’s fortress of shame. Outside the world’s going by and dad’s inside my head,“ she sings in "Ode to Dad"—and the recent passing of her aunt—"I wonder if she is happy. I wonder if she can feel my warmth.”

This past March, The Amp‘s Shannon Lee spoke with Jamalifard over Zoom ahead of the record’s release to discuss its inspirations, the role of music growing up in AAPI families, and being oldest daughters of immigrant parents.

Shannon Lee: Happy Nowruz!
Rahill Jamalifard: Happy Nowruz! It’s spring! The sun is present today.
SL: Did you do anything to celebrate?
RJ: I did! I drove to Michigan to see my family. I went with my sister to surprise our parents. We watered the haft-sin; it’s so surprising how grass can look like nothing one day and grow three inches the next. We did all of the symbolic arranging on a sofreh, got the fish…all the symbols of good fortune for the new year. And then I drove back to New York on the first day of spring! It was really nice and cathartic to spend the first day of the new year alone in a car for 12 hours. I really enjoyed it.
SL: Does your family usually get together for Nowruz?
RJ: When we were young, yeah. But foreign holidays are hard to celebrate in the U.S. because it’s sometimes tough to remember that it’s a big deal. So I try to do that now and give it actual time if I can.
SL: That connection with family comes through so much in Flowers at Your Feet. It also feels like such a spring record even though it was written during the pandemic. It sounds so warm and sunny; was that something you were thinking about intentionally as you were writing this record or was it a more organic process?
RJ: It was a bit of both. I’d say this record was written in three parts: right before the pandemic, during, and when we had both feet out of it. Because it was such a personal record, some of the themes on some of the songs are kind of dark (“I Smile for E” is about my aunt who passed away). But it’s about taking that darkness and bringing light to it. That was the sentiment I was feeling about life. I want to celebrate everything because at this point in my life, I feel the most me that I’ve ever felt. That feeling of inner strength and security dosed the whole thing.
SL: Something I’ve noticed in your songwriting is that your lyrics are very direct in a way that feels akin to Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, Suzanne Vega, or A Tribe Called Quest. Is it important for your songs to communicate clearly?
RJ: I love the people you mentioned. I think the art of storytelling is such a beautiful thing that has always resonated with me. When you listen to Leonard Cohen, he tells you stories that can take you so far away. You can really feel his world. I was also influenced a lot by my dad’s love of Iranian literature and poetry. There’s this poet, Hafiz, who’s always talking in the first person. His poems are super dense with meaning but there’s also a directness between him and the reader. I feel like that’s just the only way I know. There is that kind of sexy, mysterious style of writing but I don’t think I could do that if I tried. It’s not so much that I want to direct the listener to what I’m saying but I want to be as helpful as possible.
SL: How did music enter your life? How did you get started as a musician and artist?

RJ: I started with writing poetry and drawing. Those were things that I just did at school and excelled in and connected to the most. In our house, my dad was always playing music. To this day, he’s constantly sharing songs on WhatsApp. I’m the oldest sibling so everything I found earlier on was from my dad which is why I developed such a strong connection to traditional Iranian music. I don’t know how common that is for first generation kids.

I never thought I had the tools to become a musician; it was just something I loved. We didn’t have cable growing up so when I went to my uncle’s house, I’d run downstairs, turn on MTV and BET, and immerse myself in these worlds of R&B and pop. I would check out CDs from the library; it wasn’t as easy to search for cool music back then! Music was something that really mystified me because it didn’t feel as accessible. I wanted to be a rapper when I was a kid. It just seemed so cool to have swag. My parents signed me up for piano lessons but it was with a 60-year-old lady that would fall asleep; I wanted to be rapping and dancing like Salt-n-Pepa or Aaliyah.

SL: It’s striking that you had this relationship with your dad through music. For me, I’ve only just started to connect with my dad over music he grew up with in Korea. He has this amazing repertoire of songs and singers that he loved but wasn’t able to indulge in or continue to listen to when he moved here. It’s only now that I’m able to dig through YouTube and Spotify and send him what I’m discovering that he’s reconnecting with this part of himself.
RJ: I feel so lucky that my dad brought over his tape collection and programs from the ‘70s that were recorded on VHS. I have so many friends from all different places who all have the same exact feeling where they’re only discovering this music now as adults together with their parents which is really cool.
SL: Speaking of Korean dad music from the ‘70s, can you tell me about your cover of the Kim Jung Mi song, Haenim?

RJ: I was talking with my producer, Alex Epton, about doing an EP of covers. He’s a kindred spirit and we start every session by listening to music. We had listened to Kim Jung Mi in the studio before and I wanted to pick artists that not only felt personally resonant but who were also not as known. Alex was the one who suggested the song and I was so obsessed with the idea! Then I got home and was like, “I don’t know how to sing in Korean! This is way too ambitious.” But I was determined; if there was a way to make it work, I was going to try.

I ended up asking my friend Mindy Seu, who translated the lyrics from Korean to English with her mom. Mindy’s Korean is good but it’s more conversational. It ended up being that in order to translate the song properly, it was necessary for both Mindy and her mom to work together. Then I took the lyrics from English to Farsi with the help of my dad. It’s something I’ve done a bunch with him, and it’s always so fun asking him for synonyms between the Farsi used for casual speech versus poetry. I love this song because it ended up being this unique family affair.

SL: Translating is such an intimate act, especially when it comes to lyrics and poetry. The fact that it was passed between cultures and generations adds a whole other layer of trust and connectiveness that’s so beautiful. I also wanted to talk about the song, “Note to Self.” I was curious to know if the lyrics in that song are actual notes and personal mantras you’ve written to yourself over the years.
RJ: I have a younger sister, Nazila, and I’m often giving her advice that’s reflective of my own life. She’s also a creative. “Note to Self” was very much a song inspired by my conversations with her. Our relationship is so special to me because it allows me to constantly look back at my own life.
SL: There’s growing internet discourse around being the oldest daughter of immigrant parents. I guess it’s a thing.
RJ: Oh my god! I didn’t even know! Are you the oldest too?
SL: I am! All the TikTok and IG Reels I’ve seen have been identifying how oldest daughters carry the family and are probably the most traumatized and have the most going on in their lives.
RJ: That’s so interesting! I’d say we probably do hold the most trauma. That said, I’ve never gone to therapy in my life and, like everybody on the planet, could probably use it. But I still feel so dutiful. I feel like as the oldest, we were the guinea pigs and just kind of had to swallow so much.
SL: There’s also this idea that the oldest daughter acts as the torchbearer and takes on the responsibilities of upholding family traditions and telling the family’s story. In a really moving way, I think Flowers at Your Feet is emblematic of that.
RJ: It’s weird but also great to know I’m not alone in feeling like I have to carry the torch! When you compound that with being an immigrant in this country, it becomes this gray area: I’m too Iranian for America but I’m too American for Iran. But that’s the story of my life and why I started creating art! It’s to express this identity. I feel like our generation is the first to really be free and encouraged to self-express.
SL: I agree with that. I think we’re finally starting to see a critical mass of art and culture from diasporic creatives that are articulating that third space.
RJ: Despite coming from different countries, we share so many of the same experiences. I also grew up within such a diverse community. Michigan is one of those places that has a huge immigrant population from all different cultures, from refugees and asylum seekers to students in university housing. Growing up, everybody was from somewhere and everyone was encouraged to celebrate that. There was such strong allyship.
SL: I know this is your first venture as a solo artist. How has that been compared to fronting Habibi?
RJ: I’ve never not had to bounce my ideas off of someone else. It’s interesting to have to go with your own gut and intuition all of the time; it’s not like there’s ever a right or wrong answer in this process. But because the other art I do is done alone, I do still feel comfortable in that space. It’s a means of evolving to trust myself and not be subject to outside opinions.

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