• Record Collector: Rotana

    Saudi Arabian singer Rotana walks us through some of her favorite records of all time and tell us how each one inspired her unique pop sound. 
    Photos by Cara Robbins

    Can you tell us about yourself and your background? 
    My name is Rotana. I was born and raised in Saudi Arabia. Music was never really a part of my life at all because where I come from it's forbidden for a female to be singing music in public. Music was never like in the realm of the possible for me. There were a lot of rules as to who you needed to be and how you needed to behave as a woman in order to fit in and be respectful. It's just a more conservative and strict culture. 

    I graduated from college a year early and ended up working at an oil company. I was like 21, just making more money than I could handle and I for the first time in my life, I got really depressed. The depression made me understand that I had no idea truly who I was or what I really believed in or how I wanted to live my life. It was a feeling that wouldn't go away and that's what led me to L.A. and to pursue music. I knew I could write. I've been writing essays my whole life. I sort of knew I could sing. Singing was a very private experience, but I was dumb enough to follow my intuition and move out here. That was three and a half years ago now. 

    What’s that transition been like? 
    It’s been a wild ride transitioning from that person to the person I am today. It’s been amazing. It’s kind of like a delayed adolescent phase, if you will, but in a mature human’s mind. 

    You mentioned that before, singing was a private experience. Was it difficult transitioning that skill into the public? 
    Yeah, I mean, I sang around my family and around my friends, but it’s not like I could go and put on a show anywhere. It’s been the most incredible experience doing that. I’ve always been a very sensual person in my movement and I’ve always known how to move my body to express myself. The culture that I came from attached a bit of shame to that notion. It’s really empowering to be onstage in my power and moving my body the way that feels right to me. I’m a very explosive artist, it’s just where I am right now, so being able to explode like that onstage and allow those that are watching the feeling of permission to do the same is the most rewarding feeling. I think that I’ve gotten to know myself by giving people a really genuine and authentic performance. There’s nowhere to hide. You can’t just fake it on stage, people will know. So for me, it’s been a way to get to know myself. 

    Tell us about the first song you ever put out. 
    It was three and a half years ago, it was called “Red Door.” I had this dream when I was a kid, I’ve had the dream a few times, about a city that was all white and there was this one red door and it was mine. It’s always been an image that I saw. 

    When I moved to L.A., I did this cover of Lorde’s song, “Team.” I put it out to protest the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia. I unexpectedly ended up getting a lot of international press and it went viral. At the time, I was still on a scholarship from my company, which is owned by the government, but I was protesting the government. That created a lot of unwanted attention and I started to get a lot of backlash. People started to find videos of me performing in public, moving the way that I do, and I got tenfold support. I started to feel what it means to move closer to myself. And that’s kind of where “Red Door” came from. It’s me coming to peace with being an outlier, being an outsider and understand that that’s okay. 

    Can you walk us through the process of writing a new song? Do you have to be in a specific mindset? How does it all come together? 
    It happens one of two ways. I'll be walking around daily, and melodies will hit when I least expect it or I'll write down just phrases and words and concepts, in my little notebook. I'm always writing about what is happening in my life, which is why I write a lot about heartbreak. I've been dealing with it for, like way too long, almost a year and a half now. Usually what happens is also that I'll be overwhelmed with an emotion and I'll just sit at the piano and just start playing some chords over, and over, and over again, and I don't really think much and I just start spitting out gibberish, and I'll let that ride for like 30, 40 minutes. And by the time I'm done, almost every time I can listen back and there's a story that's already been told. Even if there are no words, the melodies and the way that I'm singing the words will just kind of write itself out. 

    But sometimes it’s really just sitting down and forcing myself to write on a regular basis. I really believe that’s how you get great, by doing it a lot, whether or not you feel monumentally inspired. 

    So you’ve put out three singles just this year. What are you working on now? Is there an album in the works? 
    So there’s a fourth single coming out called “Bad Weather.” Those four songs will be packaged together and put out as a cohesive EP. I’m going to continue pressing that, do a little tour, look out for dates on that. I’ve been writing a ton, so there’s a second batch of songs coming out. I just made a trip to London have been thoroughly inspired by the writers there, so I’m going to go and finish my project up over there and then hopefully put it out next Fall. 

    Can you tell us about some of your favorite records that have inspired you over the years? 
    Sade’s Love Deluxe changed my life. That whole album is so incredibly sensual, even the way that she expresses pain is very sensual. As a girl turning into a woman in Saudi Arabia, to be able to witness someone like Sade that as sensual but still a woman and respectful and powerful, it kind of rebuilt my relationship with sensuality. What it means to be really sexy, so that album got me in touch with my femininity. I learned how to move to that album. 

    Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morissette changed my life too. She was absolutely insane on that record and I remember being 9 years old and thinking, “Holy shit! This is total permission to be as explosive as you need to be,” like to get that angry and to be that pissed off. I had never really seen a woman do that before, so that was incredibly inspiring to me, and still is. 

    And then Lana del Rey. To be honest, Born to Die was something that I was into a lot in my depression. For me, it was a sense of permission to not be okay and to feel that sad. That carried me through my depression. I was really into it. It allowed me to kind of ride the waves and i came out on the other side. I was resisting it a lot and that record helped me to just say, “Okay, I’m depressed. This is here. Let’s just ride this out. It’s not permanent.” 

    What advice would you give to young women who want to make music, or who want to find a way to express themselves? 
    I remember thinking that the greats are not insecure and not afraid. I’ve been around really incredible artists, and the truth is that everybody is scared. The greatest people do it anyways. Everyone is insecure. The greatest people are bold enough to be vulnerable and insecure in public and own that and create art from it. I wish someone had shattered that misconception way earlier in life for me. 

    Why do you make music? 
    I make music because I want to inspire people to get a little bit more animal with the way that they live. A little more instinctual. When you’re in touch with that animal instinct, it’s sexy and powerful and unyielding to outside circumstance. I think we live in a world right now that distracts us from that. Whether you’re in Saudi Arabia or Los Angeles, there are mechanisms that distract us from that animalistic power, and I think the world would be a better place if we were aware of that. Yeah, that’s why I make music.

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