North Africa, West Asia

Everywhere we looked was burning: an interview with Emel Mathlouthi

Emel Mathlouthi’s new album is the soundtrack of the apocalypse.

Tugrul Mende
17 December 2019, 12.01am
Emel Mathlouthi.
Picture by James Mountford

On September 20, 2019 just a week before Tunisian experimental artist Emel Mathlouthi released her latest album “Everywhere We Looked Was Burning”, the campaign Fridays for Future called for a general strike to raise a voice against climate-change. This time, not only kids were demonstrating, but adults were asked to join as well and millions around the globe took to the streets.

Artists have the opportunity to make a statement on these issues and raise awareness in order to create a forum for debate. Emel Mathlouthi is such an artist who uses her music as a way to challenge the current debates on different issues, and help to encourage people with her music.

With her newest album, Emel Mathlouthi created a concept-album revolving around nature, and raising awareness about environmental problems. In this interview she gives a background on the history of her new album and how the politics on global warming inspired her. I met her before her concert at the Fraanz Club in Berlin.

Everywhere we looked was burning, was released on Sept 29 via Partisan Records. Emel Mathlouthi became famous with the song Kelmti Hurra (my word is free) which she performed at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Oslo back in 2015. After releasing Ensen with the same label, Partisan Records, she wanted to move into new territories, experimenting with words and sounds in a way which was new to her.

She started working on Everywhere We Looked was Burning even before her previous album Ensen was released. Beginning in 2016 she began her journey on creating a sound-scape involving sounds of nature and electronic elements, which ended now with the release in September 2019. She explains that: “It is more natural, the arrangements, and it was more sophisticated. It was better, than anything I have done in the past. I didn’t change my instincts. I don’t like to set any limits, I like to try anything”.

The album consists of ten songs, and only two are in Arabic. It is the first album that she started to work on since she moved to New York. She explains: “In New York, I was moving all the boundaries, I started to trust myself as a music-producer and musician. I felt empowered, I felt that there were no limits for creativity”.

It made a difference for her to write lyrics in English, it took definitely more time and research but it was one factor for her to distinguish herself from her previous work. She elaborates further on why she chose to concentrate on writing in English for this album: ”Writing in English took me more time, but I enjoyed it because I went through the process of reading some poetry, I had a selection. It feels like my brain is working, rather than just feeling. I like literature and poetry. Sometimes when you do music, I like to think of myself as a bit of an intellectual.”

This album is a complex entity, and tells a story on it’s own, which is diverse and rich in nature. The songs are connected to one another and you can hear it in the style of her music, and how it is recorded. It is a concept-album which is mainly based on nature and how nature is destroyed in the past and the present. For this album, she recorded the sounds of wind, fire, and water. She took those elements and rearranged them with her equipment and changed them to her own sounds. It is a very unique way to experiment with nature and to use the sounds that are available without technological tools.

”It’s an album that is about the past, but also an album trying to take what was best in the past, trying to reach a different reality. My first inspiration was from nature. It was very melancholic and poetic at the same time. I turned towards nature which became a kind of conductor and guideline throughout the album. It is a very important character, sometimes it is the victim, sometimes the tyrant. Sometimes it is justice. It starts in the present, goes throughout the past, and the last song is the future, where we are standing on the edge of the cliff wondering about the aftermath of the apocalypse. Maybe there is hope, the first song, is right in the apocalypse. The fire is extending, we are still trying to hold on to the things we know and which are still valid, and throughout the album it explodes.” The first single from the album “Rescuer” sets the tone and characteristics of the album.

The style of the album is definitely more cinematic and sophisticated than her previous album, but actually it started with Ensen which was more like a transitional album for her, trying to experiment with sounds and find a new voice, establishing herself within the alternative music-scene. Debates about the challenges and problems of global warming are huge around the globe, and they will intensify within the next few years. Music and art will play an important role in this debate, not only to make it more visible for a broad audience, but in order to challenge the audience by thinking about the issues at hand, which are important for this and future generations.

While Emel Mathlouthi doesn’t see herself as an activist in an original sense, she definitely raises awareness with her music and her art. She describes this album as the soundtrack of the apocalypse. She states that: ”This album is like my Guernica, but it is not grey. There are still colors, I still believe in the human, we have still tools like music and art, and, as long as we have those I think we can still be strong and hopeful.” Emel Mathlouthi doesn’t only write to create beautiful songs, which is a secondary aspect for her, she is more concerned with creating songs that are meaningful and powerful. This album is a powerful expression of her understanding of what nature means. It is a step forward in her musical expressions, in creating her own sounds by experimenting with electronic and cinematic sounds.

When giving interviews, Emel Mathlouthi is always asked about her involvement in the Tunisian revolution and about her songs made during that time. The media isn’t much concerned with the material she is releasing now, she is always asked what she thinks about the past, but she doesn’t want to be defined only by this subject. Her music and her art is much more complex and diverse than what is normally told about her. While the album is very dark and rather gothic, there is a hopeful tone at the end of the album, believing in human nature and the need for surviving the challenges of global warming. ”It is very important to keep the senses and feelings. I think that is the key to react. The only way to save people’s conscience and sense is by exposing them to very powerful art.”

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