Phoenix Rising: Mahmood Interviewed

Phoenix Rising: Mahmood Interviewed

“I’m very intentional about what I’m putting out into the world...”

A true nonconformist, Mahmood became the voice of Italy when his brand of nebulous pop took him from relative obscurity to the primetime. As he readies the release of his sophomore album, he’s setting his sights on a global takeover.

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2020 was a year of epiphanies, career pivots and revelations for many; for Mahmood it was one protracted delay from being able to devote himself fully to his foremost passion, music. “My creativity is closely linked with travel, discovering new things and meeting new people; I need that to create, I need that to get inspired. Last year, I was really struggling with inspiration and creatively I felt blocked,” he says earnestly. Did he pursue hobbies in his downtime? Try his hand at a new craft? He laughs. “The truth is I can only do music; I can’t do anything else.”

Mahmood emanates an affable, earthy warmth during our virtual tête-à-tête; he takes time to consider his answers, reverting back to Italian when trying to decode and decipher his thoughts, apologising when a translation eludes him. His knowledge of music is extensive and rounded; he even asks me which artist I’ve favoured this year. When I utter the name “Jazmine Sullivan” he gestures animatedly, eyes widening with unabashed glee. It turns out the agile contralto of Jazmine Sullivan is an all-time favourite of his. “For me, she’s the best; her voice is like honey. I’ve loved her since her debut but the project she dropped this year cannot be topped,” he says ardently, proceeding to flawlessly hum the melody of ‘Price Tags’.

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A rhapsodist himself, Mahmood is capable of emoting like a seasoned balladeer but also distorting his instrument into something metallic and mechanised. His voice took centre stage when he won the prestigious Sanremo Musical festival in Italy with his song ‘Soldi (Money)’; he’d later represent his country at the Eurovision Song Contest as the ceremonial flagbearer. How does he feel about the year that catalysed his career? “To be honest, it’s still surreal looking back at Sanremo. I wasn’t a popular artist when I competed and I had no expectation of winning. It absolutely had a profound effect on my career but I feel quite distant from it now,” he reflects.

His victory parade at the Sanremo Festival in 2019 laid bare the growing schism between the old guard and the progressives in Italy. By venerating Mahmood, the esteemed institution - comprised of industry figures and journalists - finally reflected Italy’s multiplicity, challenging the dominant expression of ‘Italianness’: heterosexual and white, rigid and sectarian. Far-right ideologues seized the moment to fan the flames of latent xenophobia, decrying Mahmood’s win as “undemocratic”, believing Mahmood’s competitor Ultimo to be the worthy winner.

Mahmood’s response to the views espoused by separatists at the time was a shrug of the shoulders and a cool “I’m 100% Italian” retort. Now, he’s even further disengaged from it all. “Honestly, I found it funny, I really did. These things are external, they don’t factor into my day-to-day world; I don’t and won’t let it. My cultural identity has always added value to my music and I’m very proud of where I come from,” Mahmood says with a hint of vim.

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Many would not have predicted a mostly structure-less song sung in Italian (and Arabic), with references to Ramadan, hookah, a withdrawn, taciturn Father and the tremors of childhood neglect and estrangement would become one of the most-streamed Italian songs in Spotify history. Whether Mahmood’s win was derailed as a politicised talking point or not, the viral success of ‘Soldi’ was completely organic; a crossover anthem that spoke not to the monoculture of “Old Italy” but to newness and inclusion.

Born Alessandro Mahmood (his stage name is a portmanteau of his surname and the expression “my mood”) in Milan to a Sardinian Mother and an Egyptian Father, Mahmood’s dual heritage has been underscored in his work since the very beginning, a cultural exchange he’s catechized and celebrated: “My Mother is from Sardinia and she used to play classic Italian music in our house, but also traditional Sardinian music. From my Father’s side, he’d play his favourite Egyptian songs to me and that influence is there in my work. My roots and origins have made me the artist I am today. There was no shame in my household about who we were, so why would I let shame define me as I grow?”

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Mahmood sees influences everywhere. He belongs to a cohort of sonic shapeshifters like Rosalía and Bad Bunny who bend R&B, trap and electronic music with the folkloric sounds of their respective cultures. Mahmood’s sound design has been labelled ‘Morocco Pop’, most evident in the staccato rhythms of his 2020 song ‘Dorado’; a borderless middle eastern-flavoured, reggaeton amalgam.

His songs are emblems of the cross-pollination prevalent in Italy’s music scene today, a phenomenon he sees as necessary but overdue. “For a long time, this classic pop sound dominated the radio and charts here. There was no variety. There are a lot of rising stars challenging traditions now, influenced by sounds from around the world. In our charts, rap and trap is a big feature, as well as indie,” he says. “For me, I try and channel a new sound or vibe and a new way of storytelling in my songs.”

Mahmood’s debut album ‘Gioventù bruciata’ (Italian for ‘Wasted Youth’) peaked at number one on the Italian charts, an angsty if formulaic collection of euro-skewed pop and R&B: “It was a fairly easy experience recording my first record, maybe too easy. I was just beginning and I didn’t think too much about whether it would be a success. Now, I’m very intentional about what I’m putting out into the world. With this next album there had to be growth and evolution.”

Did Mahmood feel the burden of expectation recording a follow-up to a commercially successful debut? “Yes, I absolutely did feel pressure recording this album but I think it helped me. I’ve worked so hard on this new record, really laboured to make something special. I think people will be shocked by the direction I’m going in,” he says as a Duchenne smile plasters his face.

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The prelude to the new era comes in the form of ‘Inuyasha’, a rousing, anthemic song borne from an unconventional recording session in Tuscany last summer. “Inuyasha was written and produced with my regular collaborator Dardust. I asked him to try and compose the melody with autotune without directly recording with a microphone - so the sound of autotune going out from the bass. I’m used to composing with my piano and guitar; this was first the time I recorded differently. It feels and sounds unlike anything I’ve recorded before,” he says with pride.

‘Inuyasha’ was named after the famed and fabled 90s Japanese manga by Rumiko Takahashi, later adapted into an anime series. It tells the story of a modern-day high school student Kagome, who befriends and eventually falls in love with the half-demon Inuyasha, after falling down the well at her family’s shrine and slipping back through time to feudal-era Japan.

It’s a tragicomic tale weaving together history, fantasy, an epic love story and immoral villainy; a bildungsroman laced with heavy, at times Eeyorish themes - multivalent themes that didn’t resonate with Mahmood until later in life. “I was a huge fan of this anime when I was 15,” Mahmood recounts. “I used to watch it on MTV at one in the morning and I’d be so tired going to school the next day. It’s stayed with me as I’ve matured: I watched all the episodes again on Netflix, and I was so overwhelmed re-watching it because I missed so many things that relate to my life now.”

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The original manga is of both of its time, laden with anachronisms, but also neoteric, subtly depicting the debilitating effects of toxic masculinity before the term became a modish talking point. Mahmood saw himself within the half-demon protagonist, particularly the tough exterior he conveys to the world and the quelling of one’s true self. “Inuyasha has to suppress his ‘demon’ side, he can’t expose his bad side to the world. It’s something I could relate to, that I used to do in my past relationships - I’d want to scream and shout but I’d end up hiding parts of myself,” he explains.

Thematically, ‘Inuyasha’ draws on “duality”, which Mahmood explains is a ubiquitous theme explored in greater detail on the new album: “I’m looking at the perception of ourselves versus the way we present ourselves to the world. It celebrates being an outsider and I’m promoting this message of acceptance, that people shouldn’t feel inadequate for being who they are meant to be.”

Mahmood plays coy when further probed about the record, but at times his avidity pierces through the PR veneer. He reveals the new album is expected in summer and currently, there are three album titles he’s mulling over. He teases his most introspective offering yet: Relationships forged through travelling, his itinerant persona and further deep dives into his family history forming the arc in this next chapter - reconciliation and healing two prominent leitmotifs.

“This time I’ve worked with Spanish, French and English artists and producers to create an international record. I feel Italian, I am Italian, but I’ve always felt like I’m from other parts of the world as well and this album reflects that. I’m incorporating more Arabic references through an electronic lens and it’s more experimental than the first album. I’m talking about my past, my travels to Egypt when I visited my Dad and met my brothers. There are some lovely memories that I revisit,” he says.

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In the video for ‘Inuyasha’, Mahmood appears as a lissom, elfin figure from a faraway land. A heady confluence of sound and spectacle and sumptuous set pieces converge in an audiovisual feast for the eyes. A chameleonic muse, Mahmood defies machismo, embracing a freeform expression in his videos and performances; it’s in this intersection of art, music and high-fashion where Mahmood has come alive: “For me, fashion and music work together, they go hand-in-hand. I invoke fashion to express the music I make; it is where my imagination comes alive. I’ve collaborated with some of the best designers in the world, but I still feel like I have so much to learn, so much inspiration to take from the fashion world”.

Mahmood is anything but a bystander, but a visual artist making every look his own. Clad in a crimson leather cape and gabardine trench coat, custom-made by Riccardo Tisci for Burberry, it joins his Margiela kimono shirt worn at Eurovision and his ostentatious, oversized Rick Owens attire at Sanremo, as looks that will be archived years from now. Indeed, another sensory visual, with eye-catching sartorial choices, is being cooked up as we speak: After our conversation concludes Mahmood tells me he’ll finalise the designs for his next single with his stylist and director, a song he describes as a “personal favourite.”

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As he approaches 30, Mahmood is taking command of his destiny, broadening his horizons and trusting his caprices and desires more than ever before. He’s also more wistful, looking back on where he was and where he’s heading: “It’s strange, I feel so much has occurred these last two years. Of course, I’ve changed and evolved but I still feel I’m only scratching the surface of my artistry. I still feel I have a lot to prove.”

What advice would he give to young musicians coming up in Italy, who do not want their artistic integrity compromised? “It’s a basic thing but it’s fundamental that you don’t listen to others when it comes to the important choices you make in your career; always listen to your intuition. Over the years people tried to give me bad advice, change my direction musically and make me record a song written for another artist that isn’t my style. Every song you record should have an intention, every video you release is something you should be proud of, because you will have to perform it for the rest of your life.” Mahmood is enlightened.

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Mahmood's new album 'Ghettolimpo' is out now.

Words: Shahzaib Hussain
Photography: Thibault-Theodore Babin
Fashion: Susanna Ausoni
Art Direction: Nicolas Aksil

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