CAIRO: “I was very lost and disconnected from my environment and from myself,” says Egyptian singer-songwriter Malak El-Husseiny (who goes by the artist name Malak). “I didn’t know if I wanted to do music that much.”
Malak is talking about the time that preceded the writing of “Can’t Catch An Emotion,” her latest single, released late last month. The song contemplates a painful state of inbetweenness (“The sun frustrates me and the moon don't look as good”) and examines the young artist’s crippling inability to connect with herself.
The five-minute video follows Malak as she walks through different manifestations of nature, navigating her confusion and trying to re-establish that connection.
The 26-year old artist tells Arab News she suffered from a prolonged mental block — weighed down by indifference and an inexplicable heaviness of heart — that she couldn’t seem to shake.
“It’s not that I couldn’t make music. I just had no feelings to connect to and express in music,” she says. “Eventually I knew that writing about this was going to help me move forward and reconnect to my art, to myself and to my truth. It took a lot in me to be able to finish (this song) and I’m happy I did.”
Malak dropped her debut EP, “Alters,” in 2014 and immediately grabbed attention with her dark English-language electro-pop that drew comparisons to Lana Del Ray, among others. She featured on season four of MBC’s “The X-Factor,” and received critical acclaim for a couple of singles around the same time, particularly “Wild Summer Hearts.” But she has been out of the headlines for quite some time before the release of “Can’t Catch An Emotion.”
Not that she hasn’t been busy in that time; she launched her own music production company in 2016, which focuses mainly on commercial work — ads and radio jingles, for instance — and has been writing for other artists too, exploring her love of other genres, including hip-hop and trap.
Her wide-ranging musical taste is something that stems from growing up in a family with an extensive and eclectic record collection. “Their hobby was to collect vinyl records, so I grew up listening to Fairouz, Umm Kulthum, Guns & Roses, Dire Straits, Scorpions, and Bon Jovi,” she says. “My dad would spread out his collection and we’d play music all the time. My mom also played the guitar. So there was always music around the house.”
Around the age of 12, Malak realized that she wanted to do more than simply listen to music — she wanted to perform. She started off by trying to recreate beats (“just tapping along”) and practicing on her karaoke machine.
“That’s basically how I got into loving music,” she says. “I guess it just came naturally to me.”
Having performed cover songs at numerous events, Malak was spotted by Subspace Records, and signed a contract with the label when she was just 18. That was when she began writing her own material.
Initially, she says, her writing was more of an attempt to copy her favorite artists. "I had no guidelines,” she says. “I was a kid and I hadn’t written anything before, except for poems and short texts. But I had never written a full four-minute song. Melodies were the most difficult part, because they required a knowledge of music and (melody) matching.”
The label set Malak the task of writing a song a day for three months. “It didn’t have to be a finished song,” she says. “It didn’t even have to be good. But they assigned this exercise so I could learn how to express myself and find my (own) voice.”
The exercise also taught her not to become too attached to the outcome. “It was true expression and that’s what mattered,” she says.
After months of trial and error, Malak began to settle into a songwriting process that she was comfortable with, one that allowed her to tell her own story.
“I was singing because I knew this was what I wanted to do. I wanted to take a shot at it, to do what I actually believe in and live my truth,” she says. “As I grew up, I wanted to do it in a more authentic way. I didn’t want to have to make music that I didn’t believe in just to be more popular.”
Her approach, she adds, is “more about authenticity and releasing emotion.”
The press release for “Can’t Catch An Emotion” stresses Malak’s commitment to authenticity, claiming that she “sings of the vulnerabilities of being a modern Arab woman” and “explores her journey through love in its different forms and all the euphoric revelations that come with embracing it.”
Those themes will apparently continue throughout her upcoming debut album, which she says explores various manifestations of love, from “the romantic, to spirituality and one’s relationship with God, (all the way to) one’s relationship to oneself.”
It is an act of questioning that is both subtle and versatile — one in which Malak posits her own inquiries as a modern Arab woman who is curious to understand why things are the way they are; inquiries that Arab women may shy away from because they’re “wired to be scared to rock the boat.”
The album also challenges expectations about how Arab women should perform in society — including having to fit a certain mold “for families to accept you as the wife of someone.”
The album was originally set for release this summer, but the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed it. However, Malak hopes to be able to release — and tour — the record soon.
As for the future, the young star says she’s open to exploring more musical options whilst “staying true to my roots and where I come from.” The key, she asserts, is to stay vulnerable.
“I’ve listened to artists who have changed my whole life just because of one song,” Malak says. “I’ve always wanted to be that type of artist — to write something that is so personal to me, put it out to the world and be so completely vulnerable that people feel it.”