The notion of risking it all is not a new one for Iranian singer Layla Kardan. She left a successful corporate career to follow her dream of being a singer and bringing her brand of music to the world. In doing so, she lost the support of some of her family and the security of a full-time, nine-to-five job, but gained freedom from pursuing the truest side of herself. Drawing upon personal experience and persevering despite the critics, she’s forged a career rooted in the UAE but with huge international potential.
This is fitting, because, if there was ever a person that personified the notion of a global citizen, Layla is it. Of Iranian descent, Layla was born in Belgium before living in Los Angeles and Sydney ahead of moving to the UAE in the mid-1980s. “I’m a citizen of the world, though I’m very proud of Iranian heritage, my Persian roots,” Layla tells Bazaar as we sit down to chat in her apartment which overlooks Downtown Dubai. As for where she calls home? “In my mind home is the place where you arrive and don’t want to leave and right now, that’s Dubai.”
Photography by Ausra Osipaviciute
Dress, Dhs42,500, Gucci. Earrings, Dhs450, O'De Rose. Ring, Layla's own
Her “love story with Dubai”, as she puts it, began in the mid-’80s when her father relocated her family from Australia and although she’s been in and out of the country over the past 30 years, she has lived here permanently for the last nine. It was during this period that Layla decided to leave behind her job working in the corporate field – “I worked across different industries but mostly in strategic planning, business development, marketing and growth opportunities” – to pursue a music career. Far from a spur of the moment decision, it was something that she had been building to for her whole life. “I realised at a young age that I could sing, I was no Whitney Houston phenomenon, but I could hold a tune,” she says with a laugh. However, given cultural constraints, Layla was not free to follow that path. “In our culture, traditionally, it’s not acceptable for girls to be entertainers so my parents didn’t encourage it or push me forward, so, instead I focused on my studies.” She remained connected to music through school theatre productions as she was often cast in the leading roles, but it wasn’t until much later that she realised it was all she wanted to do. “There was this constant conflict in my mind,” she says of balancing cultural and familial expectations with her own inner desires. “I realised that I couldn’t live this life feeling like I was so unfulfilled. I tried to live the conventional life of a good Middle Eastern girl and I failed miserably because there was too much of a dissatisfaction within me. Even if you’re good at something, if you’re not satisfied within, that’s a recipe for a downwards spiral into a dark place.”
It was around nine years ago that her inner hunger to explore this suppressed side of herself could no longer be satiated – although she wasn’t then in a position to leave her job. Instead, she began to diligently save for her next chapter in life and three years ago, she began speaking her own truth. “I decided to use the power of words. If anyone asked me what I did, I would say I was a singer, and although I’d sung every now and then at events whilst I had my corporate job, I wasn’t actually a singer. I didn’t even have a band. Then, over the course of a month, I got a residency gig at the Capital Club, I formed a band and it all began falling into place.”
Upon retiring her corporate persona, Layla took a year and a half away from it all to “recalibrate and re-centre because you can’t go from being corporate to creative overnight. You need to have stories, experiences, and my life was dry,” she admits, laughing. During that 18 month period, Layla crossed continents and countries, and immersed herself in the cultures of the places she visited. “I explored the world. I lived in Paris for a few months, I spent time in London and Italy. I drove across the south of Spain for two weeks and did a flamenco dance class and hung out in little surf shacks where I met amazing people. I went to a hippy festival in Portugal, went hiking in Nepal, and visited the Seychelles and Thailand where I did a retreat,” she explains before adding with a self-deprecating laugh, “It was the Eat, Pray, Love tour without the love! It was really magical and that really set the tone for what I was going to do next.”
Dress, Dhs2,000, Dee by Dalia at Bloomingdale's - Dubai. Dress, Dhs8,300, Endemage
Although she’d been writing poetry since she was 15, the trip helped Layla find her voice for song writing. “Had I not have done that, I think I would have had a really difficult time writing songs and being able to speak from a place of truth. I needed to detach so that I could get to a point where I could cultivate my skill and then start writing a project that was from my heart and not just what I thought people wanted to hear.”
This authenticity is central to Layla’s music (which she describes as “lyric-heavy electronic dream pop with mature melodic lines”) and is part of the reason she has chosen to remain independent as opposed to signing with a label. “I didn’t want to be controlled by a label who said ‘you look like this so let’s make you this, dress this way, sing pop music.’ When you say ‘I can sing, make me a product,’ you’re basically handing over your soul and you’re a canvas for them to paint whatever they want on. I was very certain that if I was going to embark on this journey I wanted to have creative control over the messages I put out, what I look like and how I’m presented to the world. It was a conscious choice I made.” The path that led her to this point was an important factor in the decision making process, too. “I gave up a very comfortable life to do this so I’m not about to go and sell myself to get on stage. I’m not interested in the fame, I’m interested in creating art that I’m proud of and that I want to be a legacy for myself.” That’s not to say that she’s against any kind of label involvement, as she hopes to sign a distribution deal for her forthcoming debut album “so that the project gets the right push.”
This independent approach has also meant that all funding had to come from her own pocket. “It’s self-funded, but I’ve worked my ass off,” she explains with a smile. “Unlike a business you don’t see the fruits [of this career] straight away so it’s something you have to invest in and sit on and let blossom in time. It’s been difficult, though I’m not willing to go to an investor and say, ‘Hey! I can sing! Can you fund me? But I don’t know when I can pay the money back, I don’t know what the return of investment is, I don’t know how long it’s going to take…’ because there’s no guarantee. I didn’t want to put myself or anyone else in a position where I wasn’t able to fulfil my duty of returning the investment.” She’s found support through the community here in the UAE, most recently from the government of Ras Al Khaimah who allowed her to film the video clip for her next single Keep Running, which was produced by Adam Baptiste who has worked with the likes of Katy Perry, Rihanna and Usher, in the emirate. “Without their support, I wouldn’t have been able to do it,” Layla explains.
The UAE, Dubai in particular, is where the singer has decided to lay the foundations of her burgeoning career instead of the well-trodden paths of London, New York or Los Angeles and she says it has to do with, not only the opportunities, but also the inspiration she finds within the city. “Dubai is a great place for performance, there’s an event every other night. Plus, had I have gone to LA, I would probably have the same kind of sound and visuals as everyone else but here I have a different positioning, working with the pool of talent here means you have a different artistic expression.” The film clip for the first single off her album, titled As One, was shot in the Meena Bazaar in Bur Dubai which Layla holds close to her heart. “I love the souks. Whenever I want to get in touch with reality, I go there. It reminds me of my childhood, weaving through the maze of the bazaar with my mum. I think that’s the most interesting part of Dubai and that’s what I wanted to show in the clip.” Endearingly self-aware, she adds with a laugh, “There was a humility to it, but then I was also wearing Gucci.”
Despite this, she admits she wouldn’t classify herself as a fashionista but does enjoy the expressive outlet clothing provides. “I love prints and colours, they make me happy, and flowy pieces in beautiful fabrics. I always like to dress with a bit of modesty and I don’t follow trends.” Her greatest sartorial joy comes from antique jewellery, which she collects, and vintage clothing (coats “with beautiful embellishment and embroidery” in particular) which she is drawn to because of the craftsmanship of eras past. She also uses headpieces and accessories as a form of armour when she performs. “When you get on stage you really do have to get into character and if you’re having a bad day, you can’t show that, you have to bring it so putting on my jewels, cuffs and headpieces makes me feel like Cleopatra.”
When it comes to regional designers, Layla counts Lama Jouni and Arwa Al Banawi as two of her favourites. “Lama’s pieces have a very romantic, sexy-yet-bohemian vibe to them. I love The Suitable Woman by Arwa because it’s got a lot of edge and she uses traditional fabrics in sleek, loose silhouettes. She’s a great woman and she’s got a great message.”
Dress, Dhs5,100, Tory Burch at Bloomingdale's - Dubai. Shoes, Dhs2,595, Salvatore Ferragamo
Something we notice about Layla during our interview is that she’s incredibly supportive of other females, particularly those from the Middle East. This undoubtedly stems out of her own experiences of not feeling supported and the general stigma attached to careers in the creative field in her family’s culture. “My mother and my sisters are extremely supportive, it’s more the males. They’re very progressive and open-minded in many ways, it’s more that they care about my security and my wellbeing. They’ll say, ‘No one is going to marry you because you’re a singer’ and I’m like, well I don’t really care because if that’s the mentality they possess then I definitely don’t want them to be the father of my child. What kind of an example does that set?” Strangers too, offer their opinions based on their idea of what women should and should not be doing. “Here, more than anything, I struggle with the perception of Middle Eastern people and how they say, ‘Oh she’s an entertainer.’ Like, come on guys, we’re beyond this.” Her father in particular does not support Layla’s chosen career but, she says, “it comes from a good place; it’s just that we’re on completely different spectrums of ideas of what is acceptable and what is being free.”
The themes of self-reliance, going after what you want and female empowerment are all very prevalent on her aforementioned debut album. “It’s very much a message of following your dreams, about being a female in this society and defying social conventions. I want that message to be heard by any young woman who doubts her God-given talent and creative abilities and is concerned with what other people think. It’s not easy to branch out and do it, it’s not for everyone, but you need to believe that what you have is a gift rather than a curse or taboo or something to be ashamed of.” The 12-track album, which features “Middle Eastern influence in some of the production,” was recorded in four days in a studio in New Zealand (they very same one that Lorde used to record her EP, The Royals) where Layla worked alongside up-and-coming artist Miloux. By the time the album is released, which she tells us will be “at the end of this year, or early next” it will have been about a year in the making, though Layla jokes it’s been “in the works for my whole life.” Her favourite track on the album is still pending a name – “I’m deciding between She or Goddess” – and she says it’s “for all my sisters out there. Although you’ve been through hardships and difficulties, it’s about remembering the goddess in you.” At the end of the day, the album is her own outlet to share the struggles she’s faced and she realises it won’t be for everyone but that hasn’t stopped her yet, nor will it ever. “I have this message, I have something to say. You don’t like it? You do your thing and I’ll do mine.”
It’s evident that for Layla music is much more than just melodies and performances, but rather a discipline that has helped shape who she is. “Music has most certainly changed me as a person because I can use the trials and tribulations in my life to create art and express myself through the music. It’s made me dig deeper, to ask different questions to be able to come up with rhymes and truths in the songs. It has also allowed me to go inward so that I can really bare my soul.”
Jacket, Dhs5,000, Rami Al Ali. Trousers, Dhs2,745, Roland Mouret at BySymphony. Shoes, Dhs2,720, Santoni
Her ultimate career goal is to be “in a position where I can continuously create and make music and tour jazz festivals and big festivals in Europe and have my music heard on an international stage,” she tells Bazaar. However, there’s a deeper goal at play too. “The arts are the only way we’re going to bridge gaps between the Middle East and the West and this is a way that we can learn to have more tolerance for each other. And it’s a beautiful touch point, it’s culture. And if I can properly convey that kind of Middle Eastern essence in my music and my visuals and represent Middle Eastern women in a different way to what the West knows, then how is that a bad thing?”
By offering herself the opportunity to pursue happiness and providing a much-needed alternative to the global narrative as a result, Layla is certainly hitting all the right notes.
This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia.
Photography by Ausra Osipaviciute