Aidan Crilly sits down with Farah Elle to discuss her music, her roots, and how poor music is like MacDonald’s.
Farah El Neihum, better known by her stage name Farah Elle, is a rising star on the Irish music scene. With ethereal vocals and haunting melodies, she explores issues like identity, her personal life, and honour killings.
Although she moved to Ireland at the age of two, she finds that her Libyan roots leave their mark on her music. “I never thought about it; I only realised it when I came out with it for the first time in ‘Silk,’” Farah acknowledges, referring to her single.
“But I don’t like to force it: if it happens, it happens. My brother plays the piano in this Arabic mode all the time, and he doesn’t even realise. And when my oldest brother played the guitar, he had that essence as well. I’m the most Irish one in our family, and it’s still something that’s in there, somehow. It’s so weird, I just don’t understand it. Sometimes it’s there, sometimes it’s not really there that loudly. Most of the time it’s like a mix of everything I ever listened to.”
Her other influences are very different to traditional Libyan music: System of a Down, Lupe Fiasco, Amy Winehouse, The Specials, Tool, Ratatat, and David Marley. She adds, “I was a massive punk when I was 16, I just hated pop music.”
The emphasis on her heritage means that sometimes her songs are misinterpreted. The veil metaphor in ‘Silk’ is often mistaken for a criticism of the burqa. “I haven’t worn a burqa in my life. The ‘veil’ is everyone’s façade, how everyone has a front that they put on. [‘Silk’ is about] what’s underneath it, what you’re hiding.
The veil metaphor in ‘Silk’ is often mistaken for a criticism of the burqa.
While Farah expresses her own feelings through her work, she also covers politically-charged topics, particularly in ‘Shafilea.’ The single was inspired by the honour killing of British-Pakistani teenager Shafilea Ahmed for refusing to go through with an arranged marriage. “Her parents killed her when she was 17. They got away with it for years. That’s just one of the horrible stories. It’s a very common issue everywhere, even in Ireland, but nobody talks about it.”
The single was inspired by the honour killing of British-Pakistani teenager Shafilea Ahmed for refusing to go through with an arranged marriage.
Farah was asked to write ‘Shafilea’ by Jasvinder Sanghera, an honour abuse survivor and founder of the charity Karma Nirvana. The two met while recording an episode of ‘The Women’s Podcast’ for the Irish Times. “She asked me to come to Leeds, where the charity is based. They had a national day of remembrance. It was to be loads of survivors getting up and telling their stories, and they wanted me to play some music as well.”
Writing ‘Shafilea’ for the occasion was a challenge, as Farah had to change from her more introspective style to capturing the horrors of something she had never experienced first-hand. “They sent me case studies, and loads of poems written by Shafilea.”
“Usually I just sit at the piano and see whatever I want to get out but this was more trying to see things from another perspective altogether: what I felt for her and for all the people, and trying to imagine what they felt, and somehow make a balance. I just knew how much more difficult it was for [the survivors] to get up and tell their stories. All I wanted to do was try and do it some sort of justice, with some music. I couldn’t just write any old song.”
Farah is keen to use the power of music to highlight issues in society. “I’d love to be able to use song-writing as a means of getting rid of problems in our culture, and open communication. I definitely think it’s important to use it as a safe space, to express things, to just make things better. Say for example, if you’re absolutely heartbroken, you need a good song that understands your feelings.”
Farah feels that listening to good music is as important as a nutritious diet. “You know people who [talk about] the importance of eating healthy? People need to have the same attitude to music. I’m not going to eat alone in McDonalds, all day, every day. So why would you listen to horrendous music that has no substance to it, no meaning – the McDonalds of music.”
Over the summer, Farah has been travelling across Ireland, performing at all the biggest festivals including Body and Soul, Electric Picnic, Arcadian Field, Castlepalooza, and more. “There was one called Sunflower Fest in Belfast, and I love sunflowers, so it was just the nicest thing ever: there were sunflowers everywhere.”
Now that the chaos of festival season is over, Farah is settling down to work on her debut album. “I’ll probably be doing a big show with my friends at the start of December, but over the next few months I’m just going to try and put my head down and get some song-writing done, before I record everything in January – just loads of pre-production.”
After performing all summer with two backup singers, a bassist and a drummer, Farah is readjusting to working with herself and her piano, the same way she started out at 19. “I’m back to doing everything solo now, but I like that too. It’s not really that much of an issue, because I have to focus on my work now.”
She hasn’t settled on a name for the album yet. “I’ve had so many ideas, [but] I don’t want to think about the next part of it yet. I would never rush anything, which means I don’t know how long everyone’s going to be waiting for that album!”
In the meantime, she has plenty of music on SoundCloud and YouTube to keep her fans going. “I did a tune with Bantum, called ‘Feel It Out,’ and I have a song coming out with this hip-hop group called CunninLynguists from the States. I was obsessed with them when I was growing up.” She proudly states, “Basically, they liked one of my songs, and asked me if they could use a chorus from it, and then we just made this tune out of it, called ‘Oh Honey.’”
Although her music is steadily gaining traction, Farah doesn’t let the prospect of fame go to her head. “I have no goals of becoming a pop star, no goals of being famous.”
“There’s no point in doing [music] as a self-fulfilling thing. I would much rather do it with purpose; to provide a voice for people who don’t have one, and shed a bit of light on issues that don’t get touched on. Just do something productive with it, as well as being able to express my feelings openly.
I have no goals of becoming a pop star, no goals of being famous.
She sums up her thoughts, “People might argue that if you do really well commercially then you have that power that makes a difference or whatever. But fuck that: at the end of the day, you just have to be comfortable expressing yourself, don’t you? And you have to be sound!”