I first came across the music of Eliza Shaddad on New Eyes, the debut album from classical/dance/pop hybrid Clean Bandit. Her voice appears on a bonus track called 'UK Shanty', a kind of British take on Balkan Beats, with Shaddad's vocal rising above the slightly awkward marriage of instruments and styles. She's also on original album track 'Birch', a dark electronic number that has a definite folk feel to it, and a better song purely because it gave Shaddad's voice and playing style a little more (necessary) room to breathe and grow. Just one song, but you could hear someone with a folk heart and a talent for songwriting ready to take centre stage herself.

After being spotted busking by Clean Bandit's Jack Patterson and appearing on those tracks, Kingston-residing Shaddad went back to her own gigging, writing and recording, and released her EP Waters (another EP was released back in 2012) in June of this year. And it's a total revelation. Given the chance to sing her own songs, it couldn't be more different to the pop of Clean Bandit; Waters is four songs of dark, turbulent folk that switches from acoustic introspection to plugged-in ragged glory, matched by Shaddad's beautiful voice moving effortlessly from a whisper to a powerful roar. Death, broken relationships, the ambiguity of water as a metaphor...the EP may only be four songs long but it has a depth and dynamism many albums fail to find.

I spoke to Eliza a few weeks after the release of Waters to find out more about the EP, and to trace the evolution of the singer's career to date.

Hey Eliza, now that Waters is out and has been for a month or so, how are you feeling about it?

Relieved! The songs were written about a year and a half ago, and I've been playing them live for quite a long time now. It just seemed to take an interminable amount of time just to get everything done basically. I mean, it's all worth it in the end but at the time it was a bit of a struggle... four songs! Surely this should be out already! It was worth the wait.

So you've had it recorded for quite a while then?

Recording was quite fast, yes. We did it in five days - I don't know if that's a lot for four tracks but that was all the instrumentation, working it out from scratch. That was October/November and it's been out nearly a month ago now.

And what of the reception? Are you excited to see what people think of it?

It's been really, really, really nice to see people enjoying it, basically. Especially people who I've known for the past couple of years who have never seen me play with a band... it's cool to see their reaction.

If we can start at the beginning, you come from an interesting background...

My mum and her family are from Perth, Scotland and my dad is from Khartoum in Sudan...

Where did you grow up?

In neither of those places [laughs]. We moved around a lot when I was growing up, in Europe and Africa and then I came and did some school in the UK, and went to University in Birmingham.


You must have been exposed to quite a variety of music then? I'm guessing it had an influence on how Waters or the music you play...

Yeah I think so; I heard so much - from like traditional Scottish and Irish folk music to the solo voice and drum you see at Sudanese weddings - and all that definitely settles in you somewhere. My mum had all these strange CDs that we listened to - Slovak Christmas carols, Shooglenifty - just a really random selection of music, and I definitely think it all had a strange influence on me.

Are either of your parents musical?

No, neither of them are, actually. But my great, great grandmother was a singer in Scotland called Eliza.

Where did your own interest in music and singing start?

I always sang; I used to make up songs on the school bus and I wrote my first song aged eight. It was about love and time passing by!

Wow, pretty deep for an eight-year-old...

I know! It was pretty cheesy, I'm not gonna lie... but, y'know, I'm kinda proud of it. And then I was at an American school in Warsaw and they had a student council... I had an audition for that and I did it via the medium of rap. I don't really know why because I'd never heard any rap music in my life, maybe I was trying to be a poet or something but I was like "My name is Eliza / so vote for me / Because I wanna be / your secretary." That was when I was nine, so I think I must have been a precocious child...

Was guitar your first instrument?

No; I took piano lessons but never really got into it, and then I asked for a guitar for my sixteenth birthday and started learning all sorts of things... Radiohead, and I remember trying to learn System of a Down. I found it really hard though and I didn't put a lot of effort in until I went to University and started going to festivals. I started watching people like Nick Harper play, Martha and Steve Tilston, Martin Simpson... I was completely blown away by their guitar skills and knew I needed to practice more!

Is what you do primarily influenced by folk, given those names you mentioned?

Yeah, I think so - it's always been like that. It's only relatively recently that I started playing electric guitar and playing a lot louder and going for a more overdriven sound with some of the songs. Before that, I had a huge folk influence heading towards a rockier, darker place I guess... folk is already dark so... a messier place!

Well, yes - you don't get much darker than some strands of folk music...

Well, exactly! There's nothing better than a murder ballad.


And of course that plays into your time busking, which leads me to asking about working with Clean Bandit...

Talk about serendipity! That was one of those times where I couldn't be bothered, I was kind of down and I didn't want to go busking in Shoreditch where no-one has any money or wants to give it away anyway! But, I made loads of contacts in two hours of busking... I didn't make any money but I met Jack [Patterson, of Clean Bandit], this amazing beat boxer... loads of lovely people. Busking can be really fun!

On hearing Waters, the casual listener might wonder how your voice and musical style ended up on a Clean Bandit track... and somehow working?

I think, first of all, that's probably testament to Jack. He has an open-mindedness towards music; I think the songs that I'm on ['Birch' and 'UK Shanty'] do have a big folk influence, basically. They're not like the house tracks - once you hear them you understand it but before you might be like 'I'm not really sure that would work'.

I actually heard 'Birch' and 'UK Shanty' before your own EP...

Was it weird listening to the EP after hearing the Clean Bandit songs?

A little, because you expect to hear these dance-pop tunes - despite the folk tinges to those tracks - and then you hear something else entirely, something darker. Speaking of that darkness, it sounds like Waters is a record about getting through hard times?

Yeah, kind of about getting over things, being in the middle of things. It's about the moments where it's the most raw and you're right in the middle of all of it - and then it's stepping back from it, looking back and still trying to distance yourself from it.


I also enjoy the fact you pay no attention to running times; not worrying about writing a three-minute pop song.

It didn't really cross my mind, so it wasn't a conscious decision. I think I'm always trying to tell a story, and the track is as long as the story will be. I also really like long introductions... I think there's about a minute of an introduction [on 'You For Me'] which is part of the length issue. I just love introductions that really set the tone for the song, and I just like fade-ins. I also like the idea of a secret song; so it's the last track which starts in silence and opens up over a minute...I thought it would be nice to suggest a secret song with that space, without actually having a secret song.

You've got a degree in philosophy; does that feed into your music, or give you a deeper understanding of the stuff you're singing about?

I think it has quite a lot of influence on my understanding of life, I guess. It's weird, because I didn't draw any firm conclusions after coming away from studying it, so it didn't help in that sense but there were a few things that I got straight in my mind.

What did it help you with?

Things like, I don't think we have free will as we think of it - I just don't think we do! So that kind of colours the way you view your actions or other people's actions and makes it a bit easier to take... but I find it hard to reconcile believing that with having really strong emotional reactions to what people do! It's hard to combine those two things: 'No, no it doesn't matter they're not choosing to do it!'....and 'it makes me really angry, why have they done this!' I think maybe that's the impetus behind a lot of the songs: confusion and lack of understanding as to how the world works, and thinking you have it straight and then it all blows up in your face.

That's one thing I liked about the EP, that there was a real ambiguity to what you're singing about, and how to interpret the mood...

Yes! I've been listening to it a lot lately and the other day I suddenly realised it was about something... else. I always thought it was about a particular thing but it turns out it's about something else! So there's definitely ambiguity in there, even for me.


Can we talk about the Girls Girls Girls collective you're involved with? It sounds like a very empowering initiative, so how did it start?

My friend from university, Samantha Lindo, who is a wonderful musician was at Glastonbury watching Beyonce with her all-female band. She was always very active in the community and she's a very inspiring person, but she came back from it feeling like something similar had to be done. So she called me up and said 'let's do something; we're both musicians trying to get to that main stage at Glastonbury - what can we do to help us on our way, and help other female musicians.' We'd both done a lot of gigs in London and been on a lot of male line-ups and we thought it'd be really nice to but on an all-female event.

It's not just focusing on music, is that correct?

We decided to make it cross disciplinary; it wouldn't just be music, it'd be art, photography and it would be a big celebration of women in the arts. We got a beautiful artist and photographer involved, sorted the website and started putting on events. We'd try and make them quite special; we'd use places that people don't use, kind of abandoned old village halls that are still in bits of London. The scene is very supportive and we also work in conjunction with a charity called Orchid Project, who are working to end female genital mutilation. We make the entire night a profit for them, try to raise awareness, raise money and raise the profile of the artists involved.

It certainly sounds like a worthwhile cause. Okay, final question - when will we hear new music... and is a full album on the way?

There's new music in the works; I think it might be an EP first, and an album a little bit later. I think I'd still like to kind of experiment a little and I feel a first album should be an unequivocal statement!

You can visit Eliza Shaddad by heading to her official website.