In this interview with Instep, Meesha Shafi talks about the incredible year she has had, developing as a songwriter and a decade in music.
“Think I left my name/By your windowpane/Within our art.” – ‘Pink’ by Abdullah Siddiqui
It’s midnight on Christmas Day in Toronto and the holiday season is in full swing. So is Meesha Shafi, who has impressed the most cynical of us with her six releases in 2020. Six releases via multiple, mainstream platforms and singles; it is almost akin to releasing an EP.
She closed the year with Mughal-e-Funk’s ‘Sakal Banal’ in which she featured on vocals, a glittering Meesha Shafi singing Amir Khasrau. Before this, she sang the all-female anthem, ‘Na Tuttuye Ve’ and stole the show with her rap. Joining Ali Pervez Mehdi as the featured artist in ‘Gal Sunn’ later in Coke Studio 2020, Meesha stole the single without trying too hard.
On the other end of the spectrum, Meesha sang the hottest club banger with a cover of Nazia Hassan’s original ‘Boom Boom,’ paying an ode to the eighties imbuing the performance with an energy that had people dancing via the new series, Velo Sound Station. She followed it up with ‘Amrit’, showcasing a kind of abandon rarely seen on stage and in doing so went onto give pop music its most electrifying, personal, pertinent performance in the sacred Venn diagram of a song called ‘Amrit’.
Neither of Meesha’s two performances on VSS had been choreographed. She was flying on her own and given her love for dance, she fashioned each according to what the performance required. Before this, earlier in 2020, she had joined Abdullah Siddiqui for the independent release, ‘Magenta Cyan’ singing in English and Urdu and co-directing the monochromatic music video.
In 2020, Meesha Shafi finished her decade in music that sprang to life in mainstream fashion with Coke Studio in the year 2010 and a big little song called ‘Alif Allah,’ which she sang alongside Arif Lohar.
“Sleep/By me/If you dare/In daydreams and nightmares/Why are you here.”- ‘Magenta Cyan’ - Abdullah Siddiqui ft. Meesha Shafi
Talking on Zoom is the new normal and embracing it, Meesha and I begin our conversation about what prompted her to work with independent artists in 2020.
“It was a lot of fun and very creatively juicy,” she begins. “My biggest motivation is to work with exciting new artists. They are not yet sort of jaded. Artistically for me it is about forming connections, both personal and professional ones. It’s about being in the loop and being aware and curious. I’m curious to see what the young, fresh minds are doing.”
Meesha reiterates, “Abdullah (Siddiqui) is the freshest of the fresh because of his age; Mughal-e-Funk have been doing music for a long time, all of them, and they are very well established session players; I would say that they are very senior musicians. However, in Mughal-e-Funk context, what they are doing is something very new and that’s what I am drawn to and excited by. I had a wonderful time with both.”
“It also aligned me with where I am at the moment because I do feel like I’ve come back full circle. There’s been this path that has included commercialism or being in the spotlight via branded platforms and mainstream shows, original soundtracks. You come full circle.”
To Meesha Shafi, the idea of collaboration is important in order to form not just connections but explore a multitude of genres and adventure in cross-over genres and embrace being a cross-over artist. She admits that she can do things independently but collaborating allows for an exciting prospect. It gives a song more ingredients, making it richer, more eclectic and unpredictable. “Hence, these two collaborations,” she adds. She has not forgotten her indie roots with Overload it seems (2009) even as Meesha reflects on the decade of music she completed in 2020.
‘Speaker Phaar’, an original song Meesha presented on Pepsi Battle of the Bands while being a program judge was an answer to naysayers wondering what and when will her own narrative emerge. The song is uplifting, fierce and dramatic and in a nutshell, bloody cool. But Meesha Shafi entered a new stratosphere with ‘Mein’ (2018) followed by ‘Leela’ (2019). The songs, however, were presented on a corporate-fueled platform called Pepsi Battle of the Bands and the link between corporate and music is often seen as acrimonious. Some even carry the perspective that corporate-backed music has killed music. But Meesha disagrees.
“I don’t carry this burden of criticism and it’s a whole other conversation. But in these last ten years – when I was working with corporate-based platforms of music - I felt like I was being pushed to justify my stardom. Otherwise, you’re doing commercial gigs or whatever you want to call it. I consciously deflected that critique because my journey, choices and timing are only answerable to me; I am not answerable to others or how they do things. Giving myself that time to be ready to write again and tap into what I wanted to create was good for me.”
For Meesha, in the last decade, working with senior producers, working on various platforms, was a development that she considers very valuable, one that provided an education, something she isn’t apologetic for.
It also informed her of the music industry. “You have to be somewhat aware of how music as a business operates in Pakistan and where you want it to go; how to navigate and find your identity or lose it – it can be either.”
The culmination of these learnings led to personal songs like ‘Mein’ or ‘Leela’ or ‘Amrit’, each sonically ahead of its time when one thinks of most mainstream music and each carrying a Sufi component that is a part of Meesha’s beliefs. It has context. It has meaning. It has existential questions. There are ideas and innovation, vulnerabilities and abandon. Fans, irrespective of numbers, ultimately did find a much more profound musician and a singer-songwriter who was no longer being seen as just a star.
“I can’t see the world in magenta cyan/Through all the cigarette smoke produced from your hand.”- ‘Magenta Cyan’ by Abdullah Siddiqui ft. Meesha Shafi
A multidisciplinary artist who is well-versed in performing and visual arts, Shafi admits, “Music is not my only medium.”
But music has dominated Meesha’s public persona.
“In ‘Speaker Phaar, it was about failing a responsibility that I had not felt before sitting on a panel of judges. Opinions and criticisms are a dime-a-dozen and I don’t really bother with them or let them get to me. That seat, though, made me feel a responsibility. Judging other musicians and passing judgment on the kids for approximately three months and then getting up in the end and doing a whatever-kind-of-thing or a formula-based thing wasn’t on so when it was my turn to perform, I wanted to motivate them and I wanted that whomever came before me to audition knew that ‘okay, she is sitting there because this is what she does’.”
As for her personal trajectory, Meesha alludes to Pepsi Battle of the Bands doing a lot for her as a songwriter. “It brought out this songwriter, which had been sitting kind of dormant since Overload. It came out, again.”
The giant ‘Mein’ followed. “Sherry and I composed it, wrote it and took it to Xulfi and we wanted it to be produced very intelligently.”
“The song came from a very deep place,” says Meesha of the now-iconic song. “I had gone into this meditative, philosophical, existential space, the year prior to that. I have a tendency and I think a lot of people do, to hide behind a shell or a façade or some sort of veneer. I had both become a parent and lost a parent (father) and some very vulnerable, suppressed things were coming up that had to be acknowledged. It was time and to deal with all of it and honour it, I had to sit with it. And I use the term meditative because I had to sit with it. I was like, I’m not going to suppress it anymore; I’m going to let it have its day. And then this song, it’s the beauty that came from acknowledging. ‘Mein’, ‘Leela’ are not full of answers to some of the biggest, larger, intense questions that human beings come up with.”
Moving on to rapping in ‘Na Tutteya Ve’ on Coke Studio 2020, Meesha laughs as she recalls the story.
“I called Faris…”
They did it remotely from his voice notes to her practice; it was all done remotely and yet, it makes you wish for a Meesha-Faris rap duet.
“I’ll be the best mistake that you make/I’ll be an easy heart you can break/I’ll be your lifeline, I’ll be your lifeline” – ‘Magenta Cyan’ by Abdullah Siddiqui ft. Meesha Shafi
Speaking about what made her say yes to a new digital-only show called Velo Sound Station in addition to the well-established Coke Studio, Meesha Shafi confesses that it was due to her faith in Bilal Maqsood as captain of the ship. “I have great trust in his vision, in his standards; of quality, his ability to captain a ship and his own portfolio. I mean do we really need to mention that?”
Bilal Maqsood being a multidisciplinary artist as well also meant a great deal to Meesha. “Perceptions expand when you’re sort of working on ideas and developing them. If you’re multidisciplinary artists, your depth of perception is unmatched and there are such few people.”
Meesha admits: “I’m at a point in my life – from ‘Mein’ onwards – to use the multidisciplinary gifts in a way I can unpack them.”
She and Bilal unpacked quite a visual with ‘Amrit’.
It has to be asked that while one can draw a line in a blindfold and chains but a straightjacket? Where did that come from? These are dark visuals upon a beautiful song, given also the fact that it’s in a year where you’re threatened with legal actions.
“After meeting Bilal and Yasir, we met to discuss what we were doing onstage and the straightjacket was Yasir Jaswal’s idea. It was my first time working with him and I was very impressed. Bilal asked me: ‘What is it about? Enlightenment? All your songs are about Enlightenment’,” laughs Meesha.
“I laughed and said you could say that because like ‘Mein’, it’s non-linear poetry; you could interpret it in many, many ways. It depends on the listener, where they are in life and what their life experiences are. So, I said sure, you can say it’s about enlightenment but also about liberation. Liberation is an inside job. We referenced a book called The Little Prince and it’s a children’s book and if I were to sum it up, it is about not letting your inner child die or be forgotten. It was meant to be whimsical, dreamy and surreal. So, it starts like a lullaby and once the bridge comes in, and the children start giggling, spoken word comes, that was the bridge between lull of conformity. As you unpack it and go deeper, it can be uncomfortable, weird, trippy and painful. I wanted to retain the beauty. I was clear.”
In all these songs, notes Meesha, who has a podcast and an EP coming up in 2021, “In ‘Mein’, ‘Leela’, ‘Amrit’, I wanted to retain the beauty. There is a beauty in painful things,” she signs off.