Published September 20, 2017
Shahzad Ismaily is a familiar and intriguing figure in Reykjavík’s music scene. A serial collaborator with a distinctive presence, he often graces the studios and stages of the city, playing and recording with prominent artists such as Valgeir Sigurðsson, Gyða Valtýsdóttir and Jófríður Ákadóttur, to name but a few. A musical polyglot, his role is fluid and adaptive: sometimes, he’ll contribute wildly creative rhythms from behind the drums; sometimes, it’s the addition of sensitive guitar flourishes or organ parts. Whatever he’s doing, Shahzad brings a sense of possibility and gravitas to the table.
After years of performing, touring and producing, he has now decided to turn his hand to releasing music, via a new independent record label called figureight. Based around his studio in New York City, the label has an interestingly specific remit.
“I wanted to narrow the curation to solo records,” says Shahzad, relaxing in a downtown café after a weekend in the Icelandic wilds. “I wanted to push the musicians to try to play all the instruments and write all the music themselves. I was seeing, as I travelled through life, many really special, talented folks hidden inside of collaborative circumstances. And they were wonderful in those contexts, but either because they didn’t have the self belief or are still early in their life as musicians, they didn’t step out and make that first statement about who they were.”
A welcoming space
This laudable idea has led to a quickly growing roster of singular musicians that, so far, includes Icelanders Úlfur, JFDR, Indridi and Gyða Valtýsdóttir, as well as Aaron Roche, a guitarist whose collaborative credits include work with Sufjan Stevens and ANOHNI. One of figureight’s first collaborative releases was the acclaimed debut solo album of Jófríður Ákadóttir, aka JFDR, “Brazil.”
Shahzad’s role was that of a collaborator and facilitator. The journey began when Jófríður played him a song at a party. “She played me ‘White Sun,’ and I was really moved by it,” says Shahzad. “I said that if she felt like it could be positive for her, I could help record the track. So we rented a little recording space, late at night. She came in, and from that moment forward I was insistent that she do everything. My arms would be held out, making a welcoming space for her to enter and do whatever she felt like. The way we worked on it was inspired by the general idea behind the label.”
Means of production
Figureight’s style is informed by Shahzad’s experience in various aspects of the music world. As a producer, he’s an expert in the nuts and bolts of making records, and as an artist and performer, he knows the kinds of support artists need.
“The intention with figureight is to be super artist friendly,” he explains, “meaning a 50/50 split after the costs were recouped. Also, we ask artists what they want. Some artists want to make records in their bedroom and never tour. Others might say, ‘Touring is very important to me.’ Then, as a label, you offer tour support. If someone really wants that life experience, then as someone who’s toured for years and loved it, I want to figure out how to help. We want to find out artist by artist what’s important to them, then try and help make it happen.”
Another boon for the label is Shahzad’s Figure 8 studio in New York. It’s a resource for the label, and a hub for the figureight musician community. “I think that what’s cool about the label is having a studio that’s owned by the same person,” he says. “It means the means of production can, at the moment of recording, be free. You can offer studio time for artists to experiment in an open, unfettered way. It’s happened in the past, with Motown and so on, and it’s fun to go back to that time when the studio was a part of the label.”
It also means artists can use the studio without the pressing concern of producing something finished. “I feel very comfortable with artists coming in and not having songs yet,” says Shahzad. “I’m excited about the recording studio as a place of discovery. With reduced budgets in music, the studio is a pressurised environment that’s almost more like a photography studio, where you capture what’s there. I wanted to turn the studio back into a place for discovery.”
In the case of Jófríður, a simple chord progression was enough to start work. “She’d come over and we’d record it and I’d play three or five minutes of it on a loop,” says Shahzad. “She’d sit on the couch and write for half an hour, then say ‘Okay, I’m ready,’ and hop off the couch and record an amazing lead vocal.”
The label has, so far, announced albums by five artists, four of whom are Icelandic. The label’s manager, Hildur Maral Hamiðsdóttir, is also an Icelander, who has previously worked with Bedroom Community, RIFF and Iceland Music Export, amongst others. Shahzad says she has quickly become an essential component of figureight.
“I feel so lucky to have run into Hildur at this moment,” he says. “She used to run the Bedroom Community label, and I was going there a lot to record or hang out, and we got along. We already have several records made, but I thought if I was going to run the label alone it would just go down in flames, because of me being busy and not great at organisation, and having a hard time getting to emails on time—all these things. So I’m very lucky that I found Hildur at just the right time.”
Shahzad speaks discursively about the wide range of influences, philosophies, trains-of-thought, life experiences and musician friends who have helped him form the label’s mentality. He clearly has many ideas fizzing around in his mind, and narrowing them down into the single intention behind the label was a challenge.
“I fight a little against my own excitement to explode identity, explode genre, and do everything all the time,” explains Shahzad. “But I started to realise, after some time working in music, and going to museums that—for better or worse—the more narrowly something is curated, the more life it can have out in the world. It can be spoken about, and taken in. When a band or a piece of art has a specific, narrow identity, something about that laser focus helps its life.”
Shahzad thinks it might also help him develop his own focus as a musician. “There might be a very large circle I’m starting towards myself,” he says. “I find it challenging to play with the idea of identity—I’m against nationalism, I’m against religious, racial, historical, ancestral identity as an idea. That might come from growing up bicultural, with parents from Pakistan but living in the states in the ‘70s. Back then, there wasn’t yet a culture of the weird in mainstream culture.”
“Long story short,” finishes Shahad, “if I start this label to help people make solo objects, which is such an identifying object saying, ‘Here’s who I am right now,’ then it might come full circle, to me having the bravery to make a solo record myself.”