In his search for the light, Peter McGee ran into Charlene Ava of Sun For Moon. A conversation was inevitable.
PM: You are considerably well-travelled for a young lady. Could you tell us a little about your background?
SFM: I was born in the United States, but both of my parents are from Egypt. I lived in Cairo a few summers ago and it was an amazing experience for me. I felt like I really got to know myself being in the culture my parents are from. I grew up in a suburban American town in Pennsylvania. It was surreal because I was in an Egyptian bubble. My dad and his siblings were seven altogether, my first cousins and I were a group of nineteen and we grew up in the same town, we knew each other from when we were babies, so we've always been close. Gatherings were always huge and loud (Christmas, Thanksgiving, birthdays, etc) so even though I was in an American town, I was raised sort of in this Egyptian tent in the middle of it all. I went to a church growing up where my grandfather preached in Arabic, as did my uncle. All these kids from all these Egyptian families were growing up as Americans and we would be downstairs in our English Sunday school taught by my older cousin. It was there that I started singing from the age of three. That's where music began for me. But the Arabic and American cultures are so wildly different; it is a very strange thing to come from the two, it has made me a complex individual.
PM: What led to you settling in New York?
SFM: Before New York, I was living in Nashville, TN, also known as Music City. I did a lot of work there as a demo singer and even though it is a very country music town, I sang a lot of pop and rock demos - I found my niche doing that work. And the last year I lived in Nashville, I worked as an actor non-stop doing various professional theatre.
After my time in Nashville, that is when I went to Egypt for the summer of 2006 and when I got back from Egypt, I went to Nashville, packed my things up in a cargo van and drove for thirteen hours to my parents place in Pennsylvania (and got a speeding ticket on the way!) I dropped my stuff off and went to New York. I had no idea where I was going to live or work in New York. It is a hard city to move into when you are not already set up. I crashed on a friend's couch for 6 months in his little one bedroom apartment in Gramercy Park and so many couch surfers would join us here and there. It was a very funny experience. At the time I was doing a little part time office job and it felt so surreal to be the one getting up in the morning and getting ready to go to work while all these various couch-surfers and temporary guests were sprawled out all over the floor.
After those six months, I decided to uproot my life again and do another big move on my own. I bought a flight to London with no plans really, packed a suitcase and decided to stay there for a bit. I was very "hippie" about everything. I stayed in London for a couple months and was couch-surfing a bit and renting temporary rooms here and there. I lived in five different places while I was there, it was really crazy. I was so bent on doing my music that I didn't care that I was living in such a raucous way. I had a lot of meetings in London and got good feedback on my music, I played a few venues there and then basically was returned to NY by the border people when I took a break in the States and tried to get back. It was very much that I was being guided back to NY to really do things right this time, it was very spiritual. When I was detained by the border people in the airport I was hanging around wondering how I was going to get my things from the room I was renting in Hammersmith. The strange thing is, the friend who I stayed with in NYC happened to be in London just for a few hours that day. He had gone to Belgium and was in London on his way to the airport. He stopped by the room I rented and got my things for me. It was so weird how things worked out!
I found myself back in New York, back on the same couch I was on when I started in New York. This time I got a job in a restaurant and moved out to my own sublet. Things were crazy with my living situation for a while and I jumped around quite a bit. I was miserable working at the restaurant. We had notepads to write orders in and my notepads were completely filled with lyrics and song ideas. It was like a fairytale, because I had only been there for three months and I got whisked into a gig being a cartoon singing voice in a film about Molecules that they were pitching to IMAX. This gig allowed me to quit the restaurant and I started working full time as a freelance singer. It snowballed very quickly and soon I was able to move into a more normal living situation. I got lots more singing jobs and have always been able to work in my field since. I'm so thankful for my life in New York, I definitely feel like I claimed my corner of the city, although I had to really grab it like a warrior it seems. It's just the perfect city for my level of drive and passion.
PM: Has any city you’ve lived in been of particular influence to you?
SFM: I've been very influenced by every place I've lived in. Each has served me in my growth personally and even musically. When I first arrived to Nashville, I wasn't sure what I thought of country music, but it grew on me and I was fortunate enough to be around some very talented writers in that circle that really wrote for the top country music artists. I had the chance to work with some great people and I grew to appreciate country music. The songs can be like stories and filled with sentimental longing and I found it so earthy and reflective of American life.
I really loved London too. I found the musicians were more out of the box than in the states and I felt like I fit there musically. Cairo influenced me much because I felt like I found myself in many ways, it being the city my parents' were from. I felt like I understood so much about my Egyptian side. Musically, most everything I heard was the usual Arabic pop and dance stuff, but I found that I could sing a lot of the Arabic vocalizations I was hearing. I bought an oud (a watermelon-shaped Arabic guitar) and took some lessons while I was there.
PM: What does “Sun For Moon” mean?
SFM: I always wanted to be in a band and I started a couple with some friends here and there. I just didn't want to be a solo artist. I wanted to be in a band, I wanted to record under a band name and release music that way. It kind of de-personalises it in a way and stamps it all with a different vibe. The music you create comes under this entity rather than this "ego-ish" thing where you are always promoting YOU and your name - "come listen to Charlene Ava's new stuff!" For me it's like taking on another persona with this name, as you do when you are an actor.
I would say Sun For Moon is like an exchange. I will give you my brightest, my best (sun) for just a glimpse (moon). Also, my music can be a mixture of dark and light sounds and feelings which is reflective of the name.
PM: You recently released an EP called “Trois,” which has received a good deal of positive reviews. Is a full-length album in the pipeline?
SFM: I'm constantly thinking of a doing a full-length. But I don't want to rush one or do one just to do it. I know too many independent artists that constantly put material out there just for the sake of looking like they're doing a lot and I'm not really focused on building myself a giant discography quickly. I'm more focused on songs than albums. I record myself all the time. I have a small set-up in my apartment and I'm constantly recording songs here. I'm actually planning on going into the studio this April, working with Kieran Kelly in NY (who’s worked with Angus and Julia Stone) and we decided to scale things down to an EP. I think it's important to listen creatively and take the right steps. Right now for me, the EP “Trois” I released was three selected songs from many demos I recorded from home. And the creative story behind it is that most the songs I do at home are written spontaneously as the tape is rolling. “Trois” was written that way: I would turn the mic on in the middle of the night and just play guitar and sing, not knowing what I was going to sing, but just record that fresh first thought (“Naked Legs” was done that way). “Insomnia” was done with a tape recorder and most of the lyrics I found as I recorded the vocals. And there was no plan when I would do these late night sessions, I wasn’t thinking of releasing the songs so much. So it definitely has this intimate feel and I want the listener to feel they are in my place, sitting on the couch listening to the song as it’s been created.
The project I’m doing in the studio in April is another EP. We're not sure how many tracks right now, but to me it's more important to not rush things and at this moment I'm still putting Sun for Moon together, I am focused on smaller amounts of songs with more care and energy poured into them. I'm also excited to be working with a new little label called Wild Kindness Records whose focus is very pro-artist and also supporting charities. We're working on a couple things and also I will be on their compilation album “Sunshine Off the Tracks: A Benefit for GEMS “.
You can read more about it here. GEMS is a program geared toward young women in New York who have experienced sex trafficking.
PM: As you know, your rendition of KISS’s “Crazy Crazy Nights” is currently the soundtrack to Smirnoff vodka adverts all over the world. You must be delighted! When did Smirnoff first get involved with you?
SFM: I got called into a studio in NYC just to demo the song for another singer that was going to record it. It turned out they decided they wanted me to do it in the end. It was really a great opportunity. I had a lot of fun working with everyone on it and was really honoured that they wanted to use me on the advert. I sing a lot of dreamy and melancholy type songs, so when they showed me that they were taking this high-energy rock Kiss song and turning it into that vulnerable expression, I thought my voice was good for it.
I gained a lot of new listeners through this commercial. It ran all over the world and I think it may still be running. It's always great to hear from new listeners and converse with them. Much of music is not just about you, the performer up there singing or releasing your recordings. It's about the audience too who are very much a part of your performance. The exchange of energy between performer and listeners is so important. You have to be aware of those watching you. The thing is, the listener is part of the creation of the performance, they add to it. It was really fun for me to be opened up to whole new group of international listeners, and especially fun to practice my broken Spanish on my Facebook page with the South American fans!
PM: What are your plans for the year ahead?
SFM: I wish I could think in increments of years. I never know how to answer questions like that or "where do you see yourself in 5 years?" type questions. I have never been right about where I see myself. What I do think about it is the kind of projects I want to do, I try to press them into the present year, but some things elude me and take longer. Having said that, I have a couple short films I want to shoot. I am also a very serious actor. I have a couple works I want to make this year. Beyond that, I'm focused on the EP to make this spring/summer and I hope to continue putting out more great recordings as they come.
My focus is the people I'm working with; I just always want to make music with the right people. That team is so important to me. And over the years in NY I feel I have the perfect team of musicians and collaborators and I just want to make music with them. I have never been a person to be turned on by celebrity at all. I think it's all so pointless to hunger after that. I'm all about the music. I feel all is perfect in my world when I'm performing or the correct thing to say is exchanging with listeners.
To me, the point of building my fan base is about building a platform from which to exchange. Not building myself into a celebrity, to just be applauded, but rather to exchange -to just focus on making it in terms of celebrity is very selfish and the creation of art has no place in an attitude like that. It's also a very false confidence; you will be up and down and never steady if your only focus is fame. And also, people know when you're giving them a wall, when your performance is not real, when it is not alive emotionally and it’s only about you. Even people who are not very artistic and can't judge art know what they are getting. So it is important for me to continue building a live show that captivates and that involves those watching/listening. It should be like a spiritual experience. I'm hoping to get on the road more and take that live show outside of New York more this year.