How Her Experience as an Iranian-American Shaped the Songwriting of sami.the.great

by | Jan 11, 2012 | Interviews and Features

“A huge inspiration for me is heartbreak. It’s not always about love either; the heartache from grieving for childhood or the heartache from putting my whole life and love into music without always feeling rewarded.”

“I think growing up I felt I wasn’t fully American or fully Iranian, and I never felt like I had a real place. I never had a clique.”

Through heartache, finding a place to fit in, and connecting life experiences through the medium of music, singer/songwriter Sami Akbari, aka sami.the.great, takes comfort in the catharsis of creating a place for herself in her songs. When asked why she chose her stage name, she humbly replies, “My last name, Akbari, means ‘the greatest’ and I wanted something fans would remember after seeing a show; something easy to Google and something more memorable than my name.”

Many singer/songwriters would take a choppy childhood where they felt pulled from one place to the next as fodder for tormented music, but Sami takes her experiences traveling the world, and living in Iran as well as America as fuel for positive inspiration. Sami says, “My mom’s a Jewish lady from Queens and my dad is Iranian – you don’t get that every day!”

The fact that she didn’t feel like she fit in well with cliques in either country’s schools created a place for her to fit into music. Sami says, “I think growing up I felt I wasn’t fully American or fully Iranian, and I never felt like I had a real place. I never had a clique; I was friends with different people. With music, I found something where I felt like I belonged to it and it belonged to me. I started my connection with music from feeling disconnected from my surroundings.”

Not to give the sense that her childhood was tormented, though, she explains, “The song ‘Candyland’ has more to do with how awesome my childhood was because of visiting family in Iran, and having that connection always there,” Sami says. Though it may seem contradictory, her experience with traveling formed her personality and allowed her to express her feelings in music, when she feared not fitting in with any one group of people. Here lies the heart of what Sami offers her fans – a connection to a cultural dichotomy with which many people identify.

Not only does she fall into a category of singer/songwriters from mixed cultures, her Iranian-American background makes her a target for prejudice from political attacks. She says, “My whole family is there [Iran] except a few people. I am affected by the politics. I’m really happy about the events of last summer because now people know that not all the people are ‘crazy Muslims’ – those people aren’t all the same as their government.”

The balance of counteracting possible prejudice with the humanistic drive all people feel to fit in with sullen songs, like the opener to her full-length release sami.the.great (2012), “Your Only Fool,” makes an instant connection to her fans that she never felt with friends in life, but connected to in music. Such remains its beauty and the strength of its catharsis.

Sami draws from a deep well of distilled heartache – and not just heartache from romantic relationships.  “A huge inspiration, for me, is heartbreak. It’s not always about love either; the heartache from grieving for childhood or the heartache from putting my whole life and love into music without always feeling rewarded,” Sami says. “The material on my first two EPs came from a lot of the dating heartbreak, and even some of the newer material on sami.the.great comes from a rough patch my current boyfriend and I hit,” she says.

When asked what she would do if she suddenly found her prince charming and “happily ever after,” she said she would try to find inspiration in those events. Sami admits, “Well, I would hope to find inspiration in the upbeat details of my life, and I would look to others’ sadness for darker inspiration. I don’t think I will ever be 100% satisfied, though, because I find happiness in setting, achieving, and pushing myself toward bigger goals.”

On the other side of the coin, Sami confesses she would feel lost without music as an outlet for catharsis. She says, “If I suddenly lost the ability to create music as an outlet, I would write in a journal. Writing in a journal is like going to a therapist. If I could no longer write, I would just clear my mind by getting outside and walking. I’ve been doing a bit of water-painting lately, too.”

Sami Akbari always felt the pull toward writing songs and music. She majored in history at Roanoke College, but always felt inspired by and compelled to pursue songwriting. “I’ve always been singing and writing beginnings of songs and poetry all my life. I never really took it seriously until college. I had this amazing experience helping with hospitality for visiting musicians in school during my first year. Over the days that I helped out with these musicians I got the chance to experience their day. When they left, I actually felt depressed!”

Her songs pay homage to the moodier themes without sinking into clichéd ideas. Her tribute to the music from the ’50s and ’60s comes from her parents’ love of The Beatles and other bands that she grew up listening to. “Making Eyes” has a present sense in theme and mood, but the harmonies and sha-boom-bop-style phrasing turn back the clock. Sami says, “I wanted to draw inspiration from the time period in some, not all, my songs because growing up I listened to The Beatles and wanted to mess around with the style in a new way. I looked at the chord progressions from the time while thinking about my own life in the present, which gives ‘Making Eyes’ that modern twist.”

The fact that Sami makes music mostly as a solo artist means that she has to find passionate people with the same vision to back her in bands. She says, “This past time [recording sami.the.great] Felix McTeigue brought in another band he had been producing, 28 North, and they became my backing band. Felix and I also played on the songs as well. We had a great energy that worked on this album. In the past, I worked with friends of mine that I knew were good or I had played with. It’s hard to hold on to musicians because as a solo artist I have to pay people and I don’t have a lot of money myself yet. I’m trying to find a balance of people who will be on board with my projects even if they won’t get paid right now, but will in the future, hopefully.”

Sami said the process of deciding song order on sami.the.great was a collaborative effort, but the closing track, “Acrobat,” was written the longest ago. Sami says, “It was never really a favorite, but I loved the way it turned out so much that I considered putting it first on the album. It gives a good mood feeling.”  The raw emotion of the chorus line, “don’t mess with my heart anymore,” resolves melodiously and without superficial aggression – but the supplication in those lines calls to those who have been through an on-again-off-again relationship.  That relationship could have been with a lover, a label, or with a time period in someone’s life, and that makes the music Sami Akbari records, great.

photos by Shervin Lainez