Elias is a French-Algerian singer and songwriter. Born and raised in Dijon, France, he started singing at a young age. Growing up, he was influenced by 90’s Hip-Hop and R&B, as well as French and Arabic music. At the age of 19, he decided to pursue his dreams and went to the US for the first time. While in NYC, he started performing at open mic nights in the city and collaborated with local artists and producers. In his music, Elias uses all of his influences, as he switches between English and French.
In this interview, Elias details his creative process, his relationship with languages and diverse music influences, as well as the complexities of being a French-Algerian in the music industry. He generously illustrates snippets from his childhood all the way to the beginning stages of his music career, leading us to his recent single Daisy Chain.
– How does creativity manifest itself in your life?
I’ve always had that love for creativity; when I was little, I was drawing all the time. Being an artist is way more than making music, it’s building a project from nothing. I’m super happy about this project that I’m working on right now, and excited to have you hear it soon.
I play the guitar and sometimes I try the piano by ear. I really want to learn how to play the Oud and other Arabic instruments. With samples, you don’t really have everything, so I’d love to do ones myself and really produce. I love to think of music as art.
For example, every time I write a song, I definitely try to create a universe around that song, so I create moodboards and I try to find references like movies or paintings, quotes, anything that has to do with that song.
When I’m working on projects, I want it [the process] to definitely have meaning, and not just be a cool pop track. I think it’s great when you listen to music or watch a project and notice all the symbolism behind it. For example, with Beyoncé’s album Lemonade, there are a lot of videos about the hidden messages behind her songs. Artists should be really involved in the creative process where there are the visuals, the concept, even with strategy on the business side, it’s great to have that control, where I know where I want to go.
– How was the creative process for Daisy Chain?
For the visualizer [of Daisy Chain], I really wanted to shoot a video but that was during one of the numerous lockdowns, so I wasn’t able to do that. I started reaching out to people on Instagram, and that’s where the power of social media shows: I really wanted to work with people who created a chrome type [of animation] (inspired by @chrometype).
I found this amazing graphic designer from London. I sent him a vision board, told him my inspiration: the metallic vibe, the chains, my name in Arabic, and I wanted to have something that would intrigue people. When I released it, people thought “damn it’s scary.” Global collaboration is great, different people have differing approaches.
I started working on it during the summer of 2019 while I was in LA, and it was super simple. It had a verse and a chorus—no pre-chorus in French, no drop with the Arabic music, but we experimented a lot with my producer, Sean Cook. He’s awesome, he worked with a lot of amazing artists.
I remember when we had the sessions to make the drop, we had people stop and say “yo what is that? That’s so cool.” That made me realize it’s not that they don’t like it [Arab influences in music], but maybe that they never heard it before. We definitely succeeded in making pop music that is Arab infused, and that is something I want to do way more, even if I couldn’t do it with my first single [Dernier Chance]. In the visual of Dernier Chance, I had African symbols on the hand. They’re Berber tattoos that show which tribe you’re from, and that’s the tattoo my grandmother (from my mother’s side) used to have on her face. I was able to show a part of my culture through that, but I want the influences to be heavier.
– How does your songwriting process usually go?
Usually, I like to start with building the instrumental and the beat, mainly on the guitar, to find the melody and then we try to find a cool concept. There’s this song that I’ve been working on lately and the production is super influenced by Arabic instruments, but for the lyrics I really wanted to have pop culture references, so the story is really influenced by the movie Kill Bill for example.
I like to find the melody first, see how it makes me feel, and then try to find the lyrics. Sometimes we can write for an hour or two, and sometimes it can take weeks. The best songs are the ones we can write super naturally, it’s different for each song, but usually I like to go from beats, melody, to finding the lyrics and then changing things. Now what I do with my songs — I started doing it three years ago— I write most of them in Frenglish (franglais): it happens super naturally, when I don’t have lyrics in English I think of something in French, and when I think of something in French but don’t have the inspiration, I just switch to English. French is my first language, so it is easy for me to write in it.
– What kind of languages are you infusing in your songs and how was the process of infusing multiple languages?
I didn’t really notice it at first, but the more I worked on my recent project, the more I saw the French it has in it. But there’s also a lot of English and some Arabic. I don’t feel super comfortable writing in Arabic; I speak broken Arabic and North African Arabic, which is a dialect, not the formal Arabic we’re used to hearing. Usually when I’m in the US and I meet other Arab people, I don’t even try to communicate anymore since it’s super hard.
But there are definitely Arabic influences, sometimes it can be a verse or a word. There’s this song that I’ve been working on with an amazing singer/songwriter from LA, her name’s Noemie, she’s awesome. We wrote a track called Habibi and I’m super excited about this one, because it has a lot of meaning for me. Habibi is the only Arabic word in it, but I love it. There’s this other song where I kind of take samples or melodies from super old songs like “لما بدا يتثنى” (Lamma Bada Yatathanna). I really try to make references that speak to those who know Arab culture, and interest other people in it.
We’re a lot of Arabs on this earth but you don’t see a lot of Arab artists. The only Arab artists we have in mainstream music are the ones that sing in Arabic [only] and there’s definitely a lack of representation. Hopefully for this generation, things are going to change because we can see people who are super interested in other cultures, for example reggaeton and K-pop, even with artists like Rosalia that introduced Flamenco music globally. If you can sound the right way, you can definitely interest people.
Not everyone is Korean, but people have a huge interest in K-pop. People like it because it’s different, it’s catchy and it has a unique vibe. We’re not alone in this, I feel like there’s a lack of representation even with Asian artists, outside of K-pop, or with south Asian people—their culture is beautiful too and I’d love to see way more of their sounds with recent music. I’m sure it’ll happen thanks to music streaming platforms. Now, we have the power to listen to what we want to listen to, while before, we used to listen to what they [the mainstream] wanted you to listen to on the radio.
– What’s your favorite line from Dernier Chance and Daisy Chain?
In Dernier Chance, my favorite line has to be “Je me rassure avec des mirages pour tourner la page” which means “I try to reassure myself with mirages to move on.”
As for Daisy Chain, I like the whole chorus, the idea of spinning round and round.
I use metaphors in both songs that people can relate to.
– Growing up have you had Algerian influences at home? How have you developed an interest in your North African heritage?
My mom was born in France to Algerian parents. She was born here [France] two years after they left Algeria, so she was always influenced by Algerian culture. My dad came to France when he got married to my mom at the age of 26-27. Growing up it’s always been there: when I’m home I eat Algerian food, I listen to Algerian music, I wear gandouras; at home, I’m Algerian. That’s why I feel super lucky to have that double culture, even though in France, it’s super common.
There’s a lot of Algerians [in France]. I know for a lot of people, their parents are afraid they would have the same experiences as them, like people making fun of their accents… There’s a lot of racism in France, including Islamophobia.
We experience discrimination even if we don’t have accents, but we experience it less if we’re not too Algerian. A lot of parents want to protect their children, they want to be as French as possible. But it’s beautiful to have that double culture.
– How often do your two identities, as a French and an Algerian, merge?
I feel that being French-Algerian is super specific. Our experience is different from a French or an Algerian person, especially with the history of French Algeria. So, there’s a really weird relationship between the two countries. I consider myself Algerian, but also French-Algerian because it’s unique.
– How did you find music in your life? What are some early music influences that you were exposed to?
When my dad was living in Algeria, singing was his full-time job. When he came here [to France], he would do concerts or weddings. I would see him on stage and think ‘I want to do that one day.’
[Another influence is] being exposed to 2000’s music on the radio, from different languages to genres. My family were not just playing Algerian music, they were also playing 90’s hip-hop and RnB, Spanish music, music from Sahra (the desert). That really developed my interest in diverse music. When I tell you that I listen to everything, don’t give me the AUX because nobody will be dancing. I always had that love for different genres, especially alternative music, artists who are super unique whether it’s their style, the language that they’re singing in, their voice, or their visuals.
– How did you discover that you could sing?
I remember when I was in elementary school, I was the first one to get home after school, and I remember doing karaoke every day. At first, I wasn’t so good, but I practiced, and I was able to reach some notes, and then I was like ‘damn I can sing.’ I bought my first guitar in middle school. At first it was a secret at home, me, myself and I, and that’s it.
My family was my first audience and my dad is super supportive. When I released my first song, he shared it with all his friends in Algeria. He’s seen me grow because when I started, I wasn’t signed, and I was saving money. I didn’t have the best demos or the best material. I think you have to go through that phase of bad quality music to see the growth and be proud of yourself. Even with my grandparents, just a few days ago, I went to their house and my grandma was like “you should do The Voice” and I was like “yo, you know that?” Thankfully I have really supportive family and friends, Alhamdulillah.
– How was your first studio experience?
My first studio session was in NY. I was looking for cheap studio sessions on Craigslist. I found this guy who had a home studio and I went on the same day to his place. He was doing a session before me, so it was all rappers. And then I came in and I was singing to a piano instrumental and they really liked it, so it was so cool!
The people who I met in that studio…we remain good friends till this day. It’s great to be in an environment where you meet people who love music, even if they don’t necessarily introduce you to a lot of people, to have that kind of relationship and being around that energy is definitely cool. I met a lot of people through studio sessions who don’t necessarily make the same type of music as me. One day I was working with this producer from LA, super talented guy, and we made amazing songs together; he introduced me to someone who’s now my manager, and who is also Sean [Cook]’s manager. When I went to LA, he set up sessions for us to work with, and Sean instantly caught the idea of what I wanted to create and I’m really happy with the songs we have.
– What are some difficulties that you found during the pandemic, recording with your team from a distance?
I found the time difference especially difficult. The people I work with are in LA and there’s a 9-hour time difference between Paris and LA, so… even in terms of creating music, when you’re in the same room, usually it’s way easier to create and go faster [in the music production process]. There are tracks that I’ve been working on for a year now, and I know that if I were there [in the LA studio], it would’ve taken maybe weeks. But it’s the same for everyone so I’m not going to complain.
We’re still able to do Zoom studio sessions, and Facetime, but the energy is not the same. I wrote songs with people from other countries and cities during the pandemic. Creating music with people you’re comfortable with will release the best tracks out of you. I’m really sensitive towards other people’s energy. You need to feel good vibes.
– What about you writing songs, how’s it been collaborating with different artists?
It’s been really interesting. My first music session in France was a year ago. And that is weird because I was born and raised here [in France]. I started collaborating with people while I was in New York, and it’s been really interesting seeing how they work compared to, for example, how they work in LA. I feel like you can totally notice the difference in people’s creative process depending on where they are. You’re able to see different approaches to music.
It’s just been super interesting to collaborate—the project I’m working on right now is heavily influenced by my North African heritage. At first, I wanted to work with Arab producers and writers then I thought no, if I do that it’s going to sound like a typical Arab pop song. I really like the fact that Arab music is foreign to them [LA producers] because they don’t have the same approach to it, so they’re going to take the influences and mix that with modern pop sounds.
In Daisy Chain’s drop we use a lot of Arabic music samples, like violin and Chaoui, which is the kind of music that’s from the part of Algeria where I’m from. Using these influences with the typical structure of a pop song is what I was looking for.
Now I feel like I’ve really found my sound and I feel way more comfortable using these influences. Some people that I work with are more used to writing country music or rap music and it’s been interesting working with people who don’t have knowledge of Arab culture as much, because it’s interesting to see how they process it.
Right now, I’m totally open to working with Arab producers. But I grew up in France and I was way more exposed to Western music, so I wanted to use what I have without being influenced by other people who knew more than me, since I wanted it to be my own approach to it. At the moment, I’m really looking for Arab producers and writers. There are songs that I wrote which have more Arabic bars than before. At first, I wanted to discover myself and experiment.
– Tell us about your history with the stage
Over the past 5 years, I spent a lot of time in the U.S. I was doing a lot of open mics and concerts in restaurants and bars. The first performance is always terrible because you feel like you’re going to be killing it like Coachella, but when there are a lot of people, you’re like “oh shit.”
Back in 2018 I was performing every week in Harlem for months. Just like everything else, you need to keep doing it to get better; the more I was doing it, the more comfortable I felt. There were times when I was singing in French, Arabic, and Spanish, seeing all the different reactions depending on the language. That’s how you notice a good performance is a good performance, when you can touch people even if they don’t speak the language. There’s this one song that I was singing one time, Zina by Babylone, and people loved it. Good music is good music. Language is definitely not a barrier anymore especially with streaming music, people listen to everything.
– As a French-Algerian, how has your experience with the music industry been?
Honestly this industry is definitely not easy, and for minorities, we won’t have the same opportunities as other people.
I definitely want my Arab heritage to be part of my art and sometimes that can scare people, not because they’re racist, just because they don’t really know that culture. Not everyone is going to be willing to invest themselves into something that’s foreign to them.
They’re definitely going to invest more in what’s popular. But I wish if sometimes this industry was about taking risks. A lot of global successes are ones that took risks, and they were seen as trendsetters.
I definitely wish if it were easier for us, and if people would give us a chance, I know the potential that we have. But even if it’s hard for us, it’s definitely going to be easier for the next generation. I don’t have the platform to change things, but even if it’s just one step that you’re taking, it’s one step that the next generation is not going to have to do. It feels good to be involved in that change. Even if you influence one or two people, then those people could talk to other people, and that’s how things change. There’s no little or big change; as long as you’re doing it for the right reasons, it’s definitely good change.
This interview was conducted on April 6, 2021 with Elias Bouatit.
Stream Elias’ Music:
Daisy Chain is on all platforms