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Wednesday , February 8 2023

POP with a pinch of nostalgia – ’90s kid cuts through the layers

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Omar Afuni
Omar Afuni
Singer, songwriter, and producer Omar Afuni is gearing up to release his third album this summer that will feature a set of catchy and soulful numbers aimed to appeal to young music listeners and especially hit an emotional chord with the generation raised on 90’s chart pop.

His debut album ‘Resurrected’ was released in 2011 and his sophomore album ‘Soundproof’ came out in 2013. With talent in spades, an unrelenting work ethic, and a formidable stage presence, Afuni is poised for big things and it won’t be long before his voice spills over the airwaves. In this interview, he discusses the upcoming album, dishes on the local music scene, and delves into the challenges and constraints facing local artists today.

Question: When did you first become interested in music and singing?

Answer: It was a very natural thing for me. When I was younger, I had one of those toy Casio keyboards. I would pick up any song that I heard on the television and play it on my keyboard. My mother noticed that I had an ear for music and told my uncle who then got me a professional keyboard. Initially, I wanted to be a pianist, but I was unable to take piano lessons. I figured that if I couldn’t learn the piano on my own, I could at least learn to sing on my own. At that time, I didn’t know if I had the talent for it, I just knew that I loved it.

Q: How would you describe your musical style?

A: My style is essentially pop. I am a 90’s kid, so I grew up with feel good music. I was especially interested in British pop music. I remember that as a kid I would go to the Manara Bookstore and The Video Club record store in Salmiya every weekend to pick up the latest music magazines and CDs. That is how I spent all my allowance. I’m sure that others my age, when they hear a song from that era, experience a sense of nostalgia. There is nothing quite like that and that is the kind of music I want to make.

Q: Is there an audience for pop in Kuwait?

A: Absolutely. When you’re driving down the streets, you can hear pop music being played in cars. People request pop songs on local radio stations all the time and at live shows, the audience knows the words to all the pop songs and will sing along every time.

Q: How is your third album different from your earlier endeavors?

A: It is a different direction. The first two were more electronic based due to the fact that I produced them myself at home. I wanted to write feel good music for the new album, I wanted it to be organic.  I got rid of all the electronic elements and went back to the music that I love, that of the 80’s and early 90’s. I am going for a retro sound, but at the same time I want it to cater to the music of today. So the album still sounds modern but with a hint of nostalgia. I want to awaken that sense of nostalgia that comes from feel good music, but at the same time I want kids today to be able to relate to it, find it fun and want to dance to it.

Q: How important is it to you for your music to have a message?

A: Quite important. I really care about that aspect of being an artist. Music empowered me and gave me strength to pursue my ambitions when I was growing up. I was encouraged by songs about self-awareness, confidence and believing in yourself. These are the songs that really resonate with people who have big ambitions. One song in particular from the first album, Layers, is about exposing yourself to others, peeling off all your layers and showing who you are. My second album is completely devoted to empowering listeners. I wrote that album when I lived in London and going to auditions, so it is reflective of that experience. The album is called Soundproof and it is about not listening to what people have to say about you, believing in yourself, and going forward, regardless of what obstacles you face.

Q: Who have you worked on your new album with?

A: I worked with a very talented producer whose name is Sarj. This is the first time that I work with a producer. His input was very valuable and helped steer the songs in the direction I envisioned for them. I also worked with Adel Al-Qattan who is quite possibly the best guitarist I’ve ever worked with; he played all the guitars on the album. Keys were played by Lester Rodriguez who I call ‘Legendster’. There’s not a single instrument this guy can’t play. His talent blows my mind. What I loved about working with these guys is that they come from different musical backgrounds, and we were able to create a melting pot of all of our influences on this album. It’s very diverse sonically. Every single song has a different unique identity, but they all sound like they came from the same era of music. I’m so blessed and grateful to have worked with these guys and I’m so honoured to call them my friends. The album wouldn’t have been the same without them.

Q: How long have you been working on the new album? What is your daily routine?

A: I have been working on this album since the end of June last year. I work in project management, so my life has been waking up early in the morning, heading to work until 4 pm, and then going to the studio where I would stay until 11 pm sometimes. The next day I would do it all over again.

Q: Does your day job in anyway complement your musical aspirations?

A: Absolutely. I think it’s important to be passionate about different things. I am just as passionate about project management as I am about music. To be honest, a lot of being in music requires project management skills; you have to work on a lot of different areas – with producers, other musicians, people at the live shows – so it is very similar. The content and product is different, but the process is similar.

Q: What is your songwriting process?

A: Usually I just write songs when I am in the moment. The best ideas come to me unintentionally. Often, I will wake up in the middle of the night or first thing in the morning with a melody in my head. I reach out for my phone, record the melody and leave it in my voice notes to dig up later.

However, the best songs come out in the heat of the moment, when I am feeling powerful emotions. In those moments of happiness, sadness or even anger, I can finish writing a song in 5-10 minutes with complete music and lyrics. This was the process for most of the songs on the new album. The song that I wrote the fastest on this album was ‘Perfect’. It is my favorite song on the album.

Q: Who are your musical influences? Who do you emulate?

A: I look up to Stevie Wonder, Elton John, George Michael, and Freddie Mercury among male vocalists. From female vocalists, I greatly admire Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. I like real vocalists who take on the challenging bits of singing. I also love Robbie Williams and Justin Timberlake. I was also a big fan of boy bands growing up. NSYNC and Backstreet Boys are a huge part of the reason I learned to sing. I know all of their songs.

Q: How would you assess the local music scene?

A: I think we have a lot of raw talent, but it is lacking the environment to breathe and be refined. I think people don’t give their local artists enough attention or credit, but to be honest, I don’t blame the public because we don’t get to perform as often as we would like so we don’t have that much exposure.

Q: Do you think that your choice of language is holding you back from having a wider audience and following in Kuwait?

A: Possibly. The majority of people here do listen to Arabic music, but there is a good portion of society that is interested in English music. That is evidenced by the popularity of local English radio stations.

I think our main problem is the lack of English songwriting skills, not just in Kuwait, but in the Middle East in general. This is the reason that people who listen to English music do not take local and regional artists seriously — because we have a lack of good songwriters. Hopefully, we can work towards changing that.

I have a lot of high hopes for my upcoming album. I think it is my best work to date. The quality of music, lyrics and production competes with international standards. I’m excited to see how this next chapter will unfold!

Q: How do streaming services affect you as an artist?

A: For independent musicians, I think streaming services are a great blessing. Instead of people just downloading songs for free online or pirating them, they have the option of streaming them. Very few people buy records these days and I predict that less people will be buying digital music soon because it is so cheap to just stream music. For KD 3 a month, you have access to the entire catalogue of songs in history. Unless you’re a huge artist like Adele or Beyonce, streaming is your best option.

Q: What do you think is necessary for a music industry to thrive in Kuwait?

A: I don’t know if there is an industry for English music to begin with. In order for there to be an industry, you have to be able to sell products, make revenue and profit in order to keep producing content. That doesn’t happen here or in the region in general. The people who are involved in music in Kuwait are those who are doing it because they love it. I’m hopeful that with time, there will be a proper music industry in the Middle East that caters to listeners of international music.

Q: Do you think the music scene is competitive in Kuwait?

A: I think it is competitive in a healthy way. The beauty of the music scene in Kuwait is that everybody is doing something different. Be it pop, reggae, punk rock, or rap, etc. We are all very different. The local music community is very friendly and supportive of each other. You can always count on the rest of the musicians to attend your shows, support and cheer you on.

Q: Which songs do you perform the most? What are some of the crowd favorites from your repertoire?

A: I feel that people gravitate towards a song called Blind which is from my first album. I have also performed Perfect a couple of times and the audience responds really well to it every time. I think it’s the honesty and vulnerability with these songs that really allow the audience to connect to them. When it comes to covers I always seem to be asked to perform Faith by George Michael, Rehab by Amy Winehouse and All of Me by John Legend. These seem to have become part of every show I do. It really depends on the venue and the crowd I’m performing for.

Q: Do you practice any form of self censorship in your songwriting?

A: I have not so far; I don’t believe it’s necessary to use foul language to express yourself. I touched on a lot of social issues on my last album Soundproof and I let out a lot of anger & frustration, but I spoke my mind in a way that would communicate the messages I want to deliver. I don’t think you should censor your ideas. That limits creativity and artistry in general.

Q: Do you have any upcoming shows?

A: Yes, I have a show at Bayt Lothan on Tuesday, February 16th 2016. It’s going to be their final show, so please come and support this wonderful organization that has serviced the community for so many years enhancing the talents of the young children of this beautiful country.

Q: How can our readers gain access to your music?

A: My music is available on omarsings.com. My first two albums are also available on iTunes and streaming services such as Apple Music, Spotify and Anghami. You can also follow me on social media, my username on Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter is @omarafuni.

Q: What advice would you give to people who want to start a musical career?

A: I think the most important thing in starting any career — music or otherwise — is to be very passionate about your chosen career path. You have to want to do it for all the right reasons. You must also be unrelenting and stay positive & hopeful. Be prepared to work hard and put in the hours. Success doesn’t come easily, but when it does it’ll feel a hundred times better than if it did come easily. A huge part of being successful is self-awareness, you must be fully aware of your strengths and capabilities. If you can work on them and improve, please do so, don’t wait. If you know you’re not cut out for something, that is strength in its own right. Moving away from a losing battle is a win. Another important piece of advice is, no matter what you do, don’t be mediocre. Always strive to be different and innovative. Stand out from the crowd and make people pay attention to what you have to offer. Be a person of substance, ethics, and be reliable. Keep your promises, show up on time, stick to your deadlines, create a plan, start today!

Q: What is your hope for the future?

A: I hope that my upcoming album allows me to achieve all the goals I have set for myself. I really want to spend every single minute doing what I love to do; making and performing music. I also want to prove all the people who have been supporting me throughout the years right and make them proud. I feel like I owe it to them. My aspirations are not just about me anymore.

By Cinatra Fernandes

Arab Times Staff

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