Best of the Listening Room | Meet Samar Mehdi

Best of the Listening Room | Meet Samar Mehdi
January 8, 2021

We’re shining a spotlight on some of the standout performances that have taken place in the listening room this year. Every week, we’ll share a song or two from a past livestream show that you shouldn’t miss. Find the videos on our YouTube channel and learn more about the artists, their work, and their music journey, here on the Sofar blog. 

This week we’re featuring Samar Mehdi, an Indian songwriter and performer who brings percussive style to the acoustic guitar. His energetic and original songs made him a clear listening room standout. Check out his Best of the Listening Room performance and see for yourself!

If you could hear one album on repeat for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?

That would be ‘One Day Remains’ by Alter Bridge. That album has impacted my life beyond music. It has some of my all-time favourite songs and every time I go back to it, I learn something new or observe something really personal to my connection with music. Whenever I’ve felt lost in life, I have gone back to this album and it has pumped air back into my lungs.

Can you name a moment that you realized how important music is to you? How did that moment shape your transition into a music career?

I must have been around 5 or 6 years old, when every morning, while waiting for the school bus to arrive, I’d hear the sound of a cassette player coming from the other room. That would be my parents’ collection of their favourite traditional music (called ‘Ghazals’) and it’s some of the most-carefully curated, creatively-rich and dynamic music I’ve ever heard. I didn’t realize back then, of course, but it shaped my understanding of music and introduced the magic that music can be, so much so that even a child who cannot understand a single word being said or what the song is about can still feel everything. Looking back now, I know that I fell in love with music here and I owe a lot to that unintentional learning. As I grew older, all of that learning felt like knowing the existence of a superpower within reach, so when I started making music, it was like having an opportunity to tap into that superpower. I knew that if I express myself authentically, that would give my music the best chance to forge that connection with someone else, no matter where they’re from or how old they are. I have carried that knowledge forward into my life and that has shaped my career into what it is today.

Dream collaboration and why?

This might sound too good to be true but since we’re talking about dreams, I would love to collaborate with Steven Wilson, A.R. Rehman and Mark Tremonti (imagining them collaborating with each other in the first place blows my mind! I really think something generational will be created there), because of the way their minds work, as is evident in their music and everything else they do, even in the way they perform with their respective acts - it’s all unique to each one of them. The biggest reason is that they’ve been delivering great music after great music for as long as I can remember and I feel that’s down to how inventive they are and not shy of experimenting and pushing boundaries. They take big risks and it is quite incredible how often they get it right! They have been the biggest inspirations for me and it would be an absolute dream to get a chance to work with any or all of them!

How has your music career changed in the past year since the start of COVID-19?

I am a full-time musician and I spent my entire 2019 touring my country and loved every bit of it. But as much as I love touring, I do lean slightly towards the joys of composing music for longer stretches, which was something I couldn’t do with all the touring. Of course, for it to have stopped completely in 2020 after COVID-19 took over was a huge setback - I was actually in the middle of a tour and the rest of it had to be cancelled. That made me rethink much of what I had imagined my near future to be and clear my calendar which had entries and plans charted for as far as 2024, but in doing that, I was able to take a step back from that ‘tour-new music release-tour again’ mindset and focus on composing for the love of it. Since then, my life has been much more about the ‘now’ than the ‘what-could-be’, and the best part is that while I enjoy every bit of every musical process I am involved in so much more now, it hasn’t stopped me from dreaming. In fact, it has made me dream with a lot more groundedness when it comes to my immediate plans or the near future. I feel a lot more acceptance in my being about all that I have as well as want - a welcome shift. I have also enjoyed trying my hands at the livestream technology for creating the next best thing to the actual live music, albeit it can only go so far when it comes to recreating that experience. I have also been able to make more time to interact with people who have been listening to my music and love my work, so that has been a beautiful silver lining to an otherwise dark, dark cloud.

Tell us about the music you’ve worked on this year — what inspired it?

I have been able to use this introspective time to create stripped down versions of songs from my first and second albums, that were originally written in percussive-fingerstyle (“one-man band”) capacity. So, that was a LOT of fun, to deconstruct the songs to bare minimum and just let the songwriting shine beyond the showmanship element of emulating an entire band on the acoustic guitar. I’ve also experimented with my sound beyond the guitar-based songwriting that featured on my music before 2020 and I was able to create with a new freedom. My battered, unaesthetically-taped acoustic guitar has been my workstation but my latest single, “Sukoo.n” is all keys and vsts! I love to let each song decide its own arrangement and it was a breath of fresh air to put the guitar aside for a bit and just compose like I used to when I was much younger. I composed songs with more heart and soul than I have ever done - I’ve always been authentic with my music but there is an added nakedness, a more “stripped down” version of myself emerging out of a blur - mostly because what we’re experiencing around the world together has really made me understand with greater depth the value of empathy and compassion towards others as much as myself. ‘Sukoo.n’ is effectively a “quarantine lullaby” that came from overflowing love that you feel towards someone when you see them in distress, which is what I have been feeling towards people I don’t even know, as much as people who’re close to my heart. And it doesn’t make me anything more than just human to feel that way. And that’s the inspiration - humanity.

What’s an album that’s gotten you through quarantine?

It kind of breaks my heart to realize how long it has been since I listened to an entire new album and it stayed with me, but from this time, I do have a few playlists and singles to thank for getting me through it all. Apart from the older stuff that I have always loved, this was the year of exploring a lot of new artists or ones I hadn’t been able to make space for before, and a lot of Indian folk music. To pick one song that has stayed on loop for a year, I’d go with ‘Words Darker Than Their Wings (Live at Royal Albert Hall)’ by Alter Bridge (goosebumps... every time!).

Any projects you’re working on right now?

I’m currently composing music for my first feature film! I cannot tell you more as of yet but it will be out on Netflix sometime towards the end of the year. Apart from that, I have a couple of singles that are underway and an album with my band, ‘Acrimony’. I am simultaneously working on an EP with my sister, Sarah Mehdi, which will have our renditions of our favourite ghazals and then there is my third album that’s now in pre-production stage. Cautiously optimistic about 2021 :’)

Find more incredible artists performing live in the listening room every weekday at 3 PM EST.