Interview: Mayssa Jallad – Music is Memory (May 2024)

Words by Marco Canepari / Photo by Ely Dagher

Lebanese musician and architect Mayssa Jallad weaves Beirut’s battle-scarred past into haunting melodies. Released just over a year ago by Ruptured Records, her critically acclaimed debut solo album, Marjaa: The Battle of the Hotels, offers equal parts captivating musical experience and sonic exploration of the city’s traumatic history. With visual elements and an uncompromising approach, she breathes visceral life into a pivotal yet often overlooked chapter of the Lebanese Civil War.

Back on European soil this spring with a tour that cements her status as a uniquely powerful artistic voice, Mayssa reveals the creative fire, haunting inspiration, and ambitious vision that shape every note of her solo debut.

In a recent in-depth phone conversation, we delved into her artistic journey, from her early days with the band Safar to her current solo work. We explored the evolution of her music and how her architectural background profoundly influences her sound, revealing deeply interconnected narratives that bridge past and present, sound and space.

We began our interview by discussing Mayssa’s current European tour contrasting it with her previous live music experiences with her band. “When I was with my band, Safar, it was very DIY,” she remembered. “I was arranging the bookings, trying to contact different little venues. I didn’t really understand how a tour could be done, so I did my best. But this time, it’s different. This project has reached so many people; they’ve connected with the album itself, reaching out to invite us to their festivals and venues. Working with a booking agent also makes a lot of difference.

Our conversation then transitioned to her immediate plans, including a performance tonight at Folklore in Hoxton, preceded by a workshop at UCL – University College London. “The workshop at UCL is going to be about the album with several different people discussing it. It’s been really fulfilling to talk about the research behind Marjaa, which I’ve become obsessed with over the course of the last 7 years now.

Exploring how her architectural background influenced her album, Mayssa explained, “The journey actually began in 2008 when I enrolled at the American University of Beirut to pursue architecture. It was during those years that I began contemplating architecture’s role in contexts of violence and conflict.

The conversation took a poignant turn as Mayssa discussed the continued relevance of her album’s themes in light of recent events.”Sharing the research from grad school through music, and discussing urban violence in Beirut has become, unfortunately, a universal conversation. The way real estate thinks about our cities as objects to be traded is really something we all have to grapple with. It’s getting really, really under everybody’s eyes. And to see this super obscene image of Israeli real estate developers starting to think what they’re going to do with Gaza once they occupy it, it’s so absurd and so heartbreaking. And we actually need to do everything in our power so that it doesn’t happen.”

She then shared her academic journey, and how her focus on historic preservation unexpectedly intersected with her music. “I was always interested in existing buildings, even as a student. I think I went into architecture to understand the history of the city… What’s the difficult or the violent thing that happened in a place? How can I uncover it and address it in a way that my generation can call for change? I wasn’t really interested in preserving just for the sake of it. It was more about events. What difficult events would make buildings significant enough for preservation?

This focus on the significance of events led her to delve into her thesis work on the Holiday Inn in Beirut, a pivotal site during the Battle of the Hotels. Mayssa revealed, “It’s not something you study in history class. They completely avoid talking about the Civil War in our curriculum. So, the Battle of the Hotels was this urban legend. But then in grad school, I really delved into the nitty-gritty details and drew the timeline of events of the Battle of the Hotels. I discovered so many incredible facts about this battle. Like, it was the first battle in the world where skyscrapers were invaded. It was also the battle that resulted in the rift between East and West Beirut. There was also a massacre during that battle that I had no clue happened, and I remember breaking down in the studio when I found out about it. It was a really incredible experience to write this research.” Her direct engagement with this hidden history inspired her music, making it a vehicle for education and reflection.

Reflecting on her post-graduation life, Mayssa shared the challenges of juggling a demanding architectural career in New York with her musical aspirations. “Then, I graduated, put my research on the shelf, and had to get a job in New York. Both this research and music took a backseat,” she explained. “I was still with my band, but it was difficult to make music while away from Beirut and caught up in a demanding architect’s life.”

This changed drastically a decade after her journey into architecture began, “2008 was when I started architecture school in Beirut, and 2018 was the existential crisis,” she continued “Ten years later, I decided I couldn’t live without music or without sharing what I knew about my city. So, I merged them, writing music about Beirut, its history, and the violence it has witnessed.

Intrigued by this transformation, we asked about the function music had before the 2018 revelation. Mayssa recalled her earlier approach. “It was an escape, a kind of catharsis from daily life. It was a way to dream and express our heartaches over leaving home. But with ‘Marjaa,’ it completely shifted. The purpose became bringing forward these histories, a kind of activism,” she emphasised, highlighting the turning point in her career and eventually life.

It was definitely a revelation,” she affirmed. “A moment filled with extreme confusion about who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do. I realised that maybe I could pursue both architecture and music simultaneously, and that this dual path meant returning to Beirut.” She added, “People thought I was crazy for leaving New York in 2018, with a storm brewing in Beirut. And, unfortunately, in some ways, they were right. But witnessing the 2019 uprisings made it all worthwhile. There was a time when the city truly felt like it was ours, and I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.”

Mayssa paused, then continued, “Living through everything your city endures—explosions, a pandemic, economic collapse—creates a depth of understanding you can’t achieve as an outsider. My voice changed after witnessing all this. By the time we recorded some tracks in December 2019, just after the revolution, it had taken a long time to write and craft the album. When we resumed recording in August 2022, my voice had a new depth, transformed by the events. What we’ve lived through in Beirut has changed us all, necessitating some re-recording.”

The conversation shifted to how Mayssa could transform her research, thesis, and personal experiences into music. “For this album, I started with a session I had with YoumnaSaba, a brilliant Lebanese oud player and singer. I was somewhat stuck on where this project should go. But after sitting with Youmna, we began to explore how we could musically represent the mapping of a city, articulating both the spaces and the silences within them. Collaborating with her on ‘Etel’ and ‘Kharita’ really opened my eyes and helped shape the rest of the album,” her voice animated as she recounted the collaborative efforts that brought her vision to life.

Her work deepened in collaboration with Fadi Tabbal, a producer at Beirut’s Tunefork Studios. Reflecting on their discussions, she shared, “We spent a lot of time debating the value of this project. Delving into such difficult history wasn’t straightforward.” She paused, then continued, “It took a while to also convince Fadi that this was a worthwhile endeavour. I’ll never forget the meeting when I told him, ‘I think, Fadi, this is the history book that we never had. We need to approach it that way.’ He agreed, saying, ‘Okay, let’s adopt that attitude,’ and so we began.”

During the pandemic, Mayssa fully immersed herself in the dramatic history of the Battle of the Hotels, crafting her album with a unique narrative approach. “I decided to color the opposing militias blue and red. That’s how I wrote the story—the reds did this; the blues did that. I also personified the buildings, shifting the point of view from song to song to reflect the buildings themselves,” she explained, painting vivid images of conflict through the lens of the structures caught in the crossfire. “This point of view also helped me write the lyrics of the battle. ‘Birj al-Mur’ is referred to Birj al-Mur tower saying there is a red hiding in my body. There are reds hiding in my body. They go up my spine. They shoot from my eyes. They breathe from my lungs. At the same time, I started writing really simple melodies on guitar, kind of expressing or creating a kind of vocal melody as well.”

Reflecting on ‘Markaz Azraq,’ a particularly evocative track, Mayssa shared the personal origins of its powerful lyrics. “The song ‘Markaz Azraq’ was slightly different too. I had originally written it with different, more personal lyrics. The lyrics say, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever felt such violence.’ I wrote them after a particularly tough episode in my life. This transformed when I added them to the album, turning into the building’s voice saying, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever felt such violence. There’s a man screaming in my corridors, wanting revenge.’ This transformation turned the song into what ‘Markaz Azraq’ is now,” she recounted, illustrating how her personal experiences and the history of her country deeply influenced her songwriting.

Intrigued by her research methodology, we asked if she had conducted interviews with people who had firsthand experiences of those historical moments. “Yes, of course. My friend’s uncle lived near the hotels. When he listened to the album, I think he felt proud that this history was finally being acknowledged,” she told us.

This led us to ask about the broader impact of her work – did she envision the album as a document potentially spurring reconciliation in Lebanon? Her response was passionate: “That’s what I’m hoping. That’s the driving force behind this project. I wrote it for my generation, so we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past and understand how our parents’ generation was manipulated. I want this album to soberly explain what happened, how people were driven to madness. This madness fuelled the violence and desire for retaliation, growing increasingly intense. How can we break this cycle for good?”

The conversation then shifted to her live performances and how movements are integral part of them. Mayssa explained, “On stage, we try to convey a sense of movement because architecture is people. Without people, a city is a ghost town. Conveying the movement of people, and how these movements shaped the events of the battle, is what we try to achieve.” Her words underscored the vital connection between human presence, her music, and architectural history.

Her enthusiasm was contagious as we remembered her showcase at Babel XP in Marseille last March, a performance we were fortunate to attend. “That was the first performance! The very first abroad!” she laughed, correcting herself. “Well, it was actually a showcase, but the second performance overall. We did the first in Beirut. The Marseille show was our second ever, and the performance has evolved since then.”

She continued, her voice filled with gratitude as she recalled audience interactions. “The reaction from audiences has been heart-warming. In Prague, this 15-year-old guy told me, ‘I’m doing my own research about the civil war. I want to know what’s going on.’ This is amazing, exactly the reaction I was hoping for.”

Mayssa also shared how deeply audiences worldwide connect with her work. She recounted, “I’ve been so moved. People are coming to me… there was a girl in Bratislava who was crying. I asked her why, and she said, ‘I really feel the pain of your city.’ Violence is a universal experience, unfortunately – whether it’s Ukraine, Slovakia… Palestine is always on our minds. I think people need to talk about this, listen differently than just watching the news. This is a way to start thinking and feeling for the city, creating something from pain, keeping hope alive.”

We moved the conversation to her captivating music videos, which visually translate the album’s themes. Describing her creative role, Mayssa detailed her collaborations to meld music with historical and architectural motifs. “The two lyric videos were my concepts, developed with Ely Dagher‘s help. With ‘Baynana,’ I wanted to superimpose historical maps onto modern Beirut, showing how the city has transformed – the hospital replaced by the Holiday Inn, itself a battleground. Today, the ghosts of that violence linger. This idea was conveyed through layered maps with lyrics flowing across them. For ‘Marqaz Azraq,’ I wanted to feature a calligrapher. I find the art form fascinating, and filming him writing the lyrics was powerful. Unexpectedly, he had such a captivating presence – a constant rocking motion before writing, then complete stillness when his pen touched paper. Since the song focuses on one man initiating a massacre, this lone calligrapher felt especially impactful.

Finally, for ‘Holiday Inn,’ Ely found a way to digitise video into 3D models. We filmed inside one of the abandoned hotels – corridors, desolate cars – and he transformed the footage into something incredibly evocative.”

Looking ahead, Mayssa shared her excitement about future projects and her ongoing commitment to her craft. “I want to continue touring this album, especially with the new visuals. Maybe some solo shows as well,” she mused. Expanding on the visual aspects of her live performances, she revealed exciting plans: “Starting in 2025, we’ll have a visual backdrop for the live set, also developed by Ely. He created these stunning visuals for the show, so I’m really looking forward to integrating those.” Her enthusiasm hinted at a more immersive experience for her audiences.

The conversation naturally progressed to the studio aspect of her work as she pondered her next project: “I’m already thinking about the next ‘Marjaa.’ But ‘Marjaa’ demands deep research. I need to become an expert on the subject before I can write. That kind of in-depth knowledge is essential to my process.”

We also touched on her current musical influences – a mix of European and American artists alongside the iconic Lebanese singer, Feyruz. “I’m listening to Jenny Hval… what’s her album called? Classic Objects… And Dominik Prok, who I discovered in Prague – he reminds me of Neutral Milk Hotel. I’m also listening to Mitski… and Feyruz. I wake up with Feyruz tunes in my head, maybe because I’m a bit homesick too,” she admitted, revealing a deep connection to her roots.

Mayssa shared her deep connection to Beirut, a city that continues to inspire her music and fuel her passion for its dynamic music scene despite its challenges. “The music scene in Beirut is wonderful. I’m so lucky to have two brilliant musicians with me on this tour,” she gushed, referring to drummer Pascal Semerjian and guitarist/keyboardist Julia Sabra, both prominent figures in Beirut’s creative community. “They’re part of several bands in Beirut that I absolutely adore. They have their own project called Postcards, this dreamy shoegaze pop band – brilliant! Julia and Fadi Tabbal also have a new album called Snakeskin, which I love. You should check it out. Pascal drums for Sanam as well. I love their work because they’ve merged several music scenes in Beirut. They started as an experiment and just kept going – they have such a fantastic dynamic. Actually, they’re releasing a live album soon via Mais Um, next month, I think. I’m incredibly lucky they’ve been touring with me, and they’ll be in London too!”

Discussing upcoming tour dates, she confirmed, “After London, we go to Arlon [Les Aralunaires], in Belgium, and then our final gig is at Le Botanique in Brussels. That’s going to be a big one.” Excitement filled her voice as she anticipated these performances.

She concluded with news of her team’s efforts to plan future tours and a special video performance premiere in Aix-en-Provence. “We’re trying to plan a tour at the end of this year – we’ll keep you posted! In the meantime, we’re premiering the video performance in Aix-en-Provence in December. They financed the project, and we worked on it during a short residency earlier this year. We’re hoping to build a small tour around that as well. Fingers crossed that it brings more exposure!”

The interview closed with us asking Mayssa what audiences should expect from her performances. “Be open to imagining the spaces I’m describing. I’m telling a story about Beirut, about something really difficult that happened to my city. Be open to imagining its spaces, and how it relates to you, your life in the city. How can we all create work that questions who the city is built for, who owns it, and who has the right to it?”


You can join Mayssa Jallad on the final stretch of her Euro Tour by purchasing your ticket/s HERE
Her debut solo album, Marjaa: The Battle of the Hotels, out via Ruptured Records, is available HERE



Photo ©: Ely Dagher