I did a really enjoyable interview with Geoff Wood on ABC Radio National’s The Rhythm Divine, talking about the spiritual inspiration behind my music and lyrics. Here’s a little except from the program, which you can download in full here.
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It reads like a film script—struggling musician posts demos online and gets interest from a Grammy-winning producer who offers to co-write her new single—but it’s what happened to young Perth-based Baha’i singer-songwriter Shameem, writes Geoff Wood.
‘It shows that MySpace isn’t completely dead,’ says Shameem, laughing as she recalls the day a Grammy-winning producer turned her life upside down.
‘I got this message on MySpace from James Bryan and I hadn’t heard of him. He’d actually found some demos that I’d done. He said, “I really love your voice and do you write your own music?”
‘I wrote back and said, “Yes I do.” And he said, “Well would you like to come to the UK sometime and do some co-writing with me?”’
The path from online demos to a British recording studio sounds like fiction but that’s the way it happened for Perth-based singer-songwriter Shameem Taheri-Lee. The result of those recording sessions with James Bryan, who has worked with the likes of Nelly Furtado and Olly Murs, can be found on Shameem’s new album of neo-soul, The Second City.
‘Neo-soul is based on soul music, so it’s got a lot of the feeling of soul music, but it’s got a lot of other influences,’ she says. ‘It often has more hip-hoppy beats, and more of an R&B feel to some of it, and sometimes it has quite jazzy chords as well.
‘We’re talking about artists like Jill Scott, Erykah Badu; Alicia Keys can even be considered a neo-soul artist.’
It turns out that Alicia Keys has been a touchstone for Shameen for a long time.
‘Music has always been around me growing up. My grandmother used to chant prayers around the house, my parents both love music a lot.
‘When I was in high school I began writing songs quite seriously and I became enchanted with Alicia Keys because she played the piano and wrote her own songs and she was very soulful. I loved that about her.’
Before Alicia Keys, though, was Shameem’s faith.
‘When I was 15 I chose to become a Baha’i myself,’ she says. ‘One of the central teachings of the Baha’i faith is that everybody should investigate the truth for themselves, independently and come to their own conclusions about the reality of things.
‘The age of maturity is considered to be 15 years old in the Baha’i faith and so at that age I was free to make my own choice and I did choose to continue living as a Baha’i.’
Shameem’s mother, also a Baha’i, was born in Tehran and came to Australia in 1973, where she met and married her Chinese-Malaysian husband. Baha’is have suffered persecution in Iran for many years, which was one of the reasons the family settled in Western Australia.
There have been Baha’is in Australia since 1920, though.
‘Its core belief is that all of humanity is one, that we all come from one God … and that all the different religions that there are owe their existence to that one God as well,’ says Shameem.
‘He is infinite and incomprehensible to human beings but he makes his will and purpose known to us by sending us a spiritual teacher. We call it a manifestation of God.
Baha’is believe that these manifestations of God include Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, Krishna and Moses. The 19th century founder of the faith, Bahá’u’lláh, is considered by Baha’is to be the latest of these manifestations. As Shameem explains, that message continues to have relevance for Bahá’ís today.
‘Some of the teachings that come from the idea of the oneness of humanity include the equality of men and women, the principle of universal education, the elimination of the extremes of poverty and wealth, the harmony of science and religion and even the development of an auxiliary universal language so that we can transcend barriers of culture and language.’
For those inclined to listen closely, the songs of Shameem’s album clearly embody core Baha’i teachings. The album title has special significance.
‘The title The Second City comes from a work by Bahá’u’lláh called The Seven Valleys,’ she says. ‘It describes our journey towards God in seven stages. It calls them seven valleys or seven cities.
‘One of the songs on this album is actually inspired by the second valley or city, the Valley of Love, and I just really loved the imagery of the Valley of Love, which is what led me to write a song about it.
‘When I was going to name the album I thought well, it’s my second album and there’s a song inspired by the second of those valleys or cities so I’ll call it The Second City.
The influence of Bahá’u’lláh’s The Seven Valleys extends to two tracks which feature a rhyming couplet from the original text chanted in Persian by celebrated Australian Baha’i vocalist Shidan Toloui-Wallace.
Though it’s only her second album, The Second City is a showcase for Shameem’s exceptional voice, mixing soulful grooves with inspiration from the teachings and poetry of the Baha’i faith—what we might call Baha’i soul.
She’s not alone, either. Shameem is part of a new wave of young Baha’i musicians who have made their mark on the international music scene, ranging from Nashville-based devotional group The Humming Birds (featuring the daughters of prominent Baha’i duo Seals and Crofts) with their crafted pop harmonies, to young Australian artists like Shadi Toloui-Wallace, Tahereh Etehad, Natasha Chiang and Mana, who perform Baha’i-inspired Pacific Island music.
For Shameem, the reason for this musical outpouring is obvious.
‘The Baha’i attitude towards music is that music helps to uplift the human soul, that it is food for soul.
‘When you pair beautiful music with words of beautiful meaning, it’s seen as a very powerful force for transforming the human heart in a positive way.’