“It's funny in the pop world because everyone's really worried about losing their spot. Everyone's worried that if someone new comes along they might depose them, so everyone's always looking over their shoulder.” So says Ayah Marar and she'd know, what with her being the next big pop star. It's probably time for those with crooked necks to start facing forward.
Pop music is a broad church but within each parish there's usually a set of rules. A doesn't always go with B and X shouldn't really mix with Y, but sometimes those rules are meant to be broken or manipulated into odd new shapes. Ayah Marar's debut album, The Real, is a case in point; twelve songs that take inspiration from the underground dance scene she's been immersed in for several years, cherry-picking elements of drum and bass, techno and house and bolting them onto well-crafted pop hooks that look set to shatter dancefloors.
Born in Jordan to a Czech-Bulgarian mum and a Palestinian-Jordanian dad and attending an international school with members of Jordan's royal family, Marar refers to herself as a “proper mongrel”. From an early age she was exposed to a myriad of musical styles, the Marar household was full of everything from Elton John, Boney M and Freddie Mercury to The Beatles, Deep Purple and Thin Lizzy. Whilst at school, Marar moved onto hip-hop, finding an immediate connection: “I latched onto that, that was me”.
At the age of 17 Marar decided that she needed something more; more freedom, more autonomy, more of a say. “I told my dad I was leaving and there was nothing he could do about it. I just stormed off” she says with typical candour. “I was cut off for a few years and just came to the UK. It just seemed natural; it felt like home to me. I knew that I couldn't do what I wanted to do musically in Jordan. I came to the UK with the mindset, 'I need to prove it to myself', hang out with the big boys.”
Completely unfazed by her new-found independence, she launched herself into the drum & bass scene, starting her own labels, club nights and touring as an MC. Along the way she met Calvin Harris in a record shop she worked in, offering him a place to stay and collaborating on some of his early singles. Soon after, her manager introduced her to producer Paul Epworth who was looking for vocalists to work on Jack Penate's second album. Marar suddenly found herself warbling alongside Florence Welch, hanging out in a studio and absorbing everything around her.
In a pop world dominated by quick fixes and TV talent show acceleration, Marar's put in the hard graft, be it adding guest vocals to tracks on Hospital Records and the Metalheadz label, touring Europe with DJs or having her own four year DJ residency at Herbal. Not that she's prepared to rest on her laurels. Music means too much for that to happen. “I'll never stop paying my dues to music, because I adore it and there's nothing else in the world that I could or would do”.
It's this genuine passion for all genres (Marar had a huge crush on Zach de la Rocha in her youth, fact!) that has seen her turn her attention to a more dance-orientated pop sound. The Real starts as it means to go on, with a handful of four-to-the-floor, crying on the dancefloor epics. Lyrically it's that alluring mix of strength and vulnerability, with boxfresh beats and Marar's supple, characterful vocals providing an emotional anchor. Recent single Follow You is a yearning, bass-heavy dollop of pop, whilst the ravey synth stabs and hands-in-the-air chorus of Beg Borrow Steal belies a broken heart. “The whole album is really sensationalised autobiography, taking things you feel and making them even more dramatic. People don't get the point unless you're overly dramatic”, she says, dramatically.
There's plenty of drama to be had throughout, not least on the musically and lyrically intense Mind Controller, a song that starts with fluttering keyboards before a club-ready beat pounds the song into submission. The Eastern-influenced Camouflage Girl is a nod not only to Marar's roots but also to production powerhouse The Neptunes, whilst the amazing Party Needs You chucks in some drum and bass, a smattering of garage and a heap of personality. It's this diversity that sets The Real apart; “The first few tracks on the album are unabashedly pop and they're very straight up, but I don't want to make an album for singles, I want to make it as an album. I wanted it to be a journey.”
With seemingly every other new pop star trying to marry a gargantuan dance beat to a pretty melody, it's a competitive world. The difference here is that Ayah Marar isn't faking it; she's lived the life of an underground dance fiend, of a DJ and MC, of a strong woman in a male-dominated industry. Her two worlds – the underground and the mainstream – have been brought together organically, co-existing in a way that sounds fresh rather than forced. “I'm trying something that I don't think has been done in the way we're trying to do it,” Marar states. “It's what I love to do; it's trying to find that balance.”
The Real gets it just right.