USA: "When making music, faith is incidental", by Ani Zonneveld

Common Ground News Service
"The fact that I am a Muslim woman is incidental when it comes to this process. I'm judged based on the success I've had as a songwriter, the body of work I have produced and the awards I have won."
"As a songwriter, my business is to write songs tailored to the style of specific artists. Publishers inform me which record labels and artists are looking for songs for their upcoming albums, and with that information I sit down in front of my computer, which is loaded with music software programs and sounds, to recreate what I hear in my head. Within a day, I usually have the beat and melody lines completed. Within two days, the lyrics are in place.
In a collaborative process, an ideal creative environment is one in which a proposed idea is made even better, triggering another idea which is improved upon in turn, and so on. Due to time constraints, one's personal background, faith or politics are hardly discussed. If there is a connection between songwriters, it stems from the chemistry that the music sparks. In other words, one's faith, skin colour, age and gender are irrelevant.

The fact that I am a Muslim woman is incidental when it comes to this process. I'm judged based on the success I've had as a songwriter, the body of work I have produced and the awards I have won.

Although my faith is largely extraneous to my work, occasionally during conversation my writing partners discover that I am Muslim. When this happens there is an "Ah, let me ask her all these questions I have on Islam" moment. Topics range from the hijab or headscarf, to Muslim men marrying four wives, to my thoughts on politics in the Middle East.

Writing with an artist in the room is a very different process than writing for an artist who is not. As a writer, I have my own style of phrasing a melody, marrying words to the music and so forth, so when I am working with artists I have to allow them to "live" with the ideas I've contributed; that is, personalising a musical idea with their own musical interpretation.

Two artists I write with are Keb' Mo' and Melissa Manchester. We usually start out by catching up on each other's personal news, exchanging notes about the music industry and even discussing politics and religion. Their musical genre requires a lot more depth and reflection, and the personal connection we have developed over the years helps in creating music that is meaningful and multi-layered.

An example of faith coming into play is in the song Thank You for Your Faith in Me, which I wrote with Melissa Manchester. The song is thanking God for believing in us and for not giving up on us. In this case, our spirituality comes from the same space, hers through her Jewish faith and mine through Islam.

My relationship with Keb' Mo', a multi-Grammy winning Contemporary Blues artist, goes back 15 years when he used to record guitar parts for my songs in the studio. Our professional relationship doesn't really feel like business because it has evolved into a relationship of mutual respect and friendship based on the common belief in "doin' the right thing" – a spiritual value that Keb' Mo' lives by. One day, he invited me on stage at the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles to talk about our songwriting process and then unexpectedly sent me a cheque to thank me for my efforts. Such thoughtful actions are rare.

With artists such as Melissa Manchester and Keb' Mo', I'm comfortable talking about my non-professional life – my social activism as a Muslim, and listening to their religious and political perspectives. Perhaps surprisingly, it is these broad personal conversations and the acceptance of each other's diversity that often trigger a song title or theme. Our willingness to listen to our diverse narratives nurtures an organic creative process.

Even though we may be engaged in a business relationship, at the end of the day we are all part of humanity. And the foundation for peaceful relationships, no matter what the nature, is our respect and acceptance of each other as equals."

20 November 2007