Sevdaliza is kneeling on a cushion in the backyard of an Echo Park bungalow, surrounded by a canopy of dangling jasmine and lilies. The Dutch-Iranian musician landed in L.A. earlier that day to play the first American show in her sold out tour. She’s joking with her manager, Nigel, and publicist, Danielle, about her early morning workout. “My dance team wanted me to look extra buff for the shoot,” Sevdaliza laughs, pumping her biceps like Popeye, before scolding herself for breaking character mid-photo shoot.
The photos are moody black and white portraits, and Nigel prods the crew to wrap up so that Sevda, as he refers to her, has enough time for her pre-show ritual of meditation and bodywork. “I definitely have some developing rituals,” she explains. “I, of course, do a lot of yoga, and I try to meditate everywhere I can. I like to visualize how the show will go and what kind of energy I have in my body—‘Am I tired, am I angry, am I happy?’ I want to try to be close to my feelings on stage.” In a few hours, she will perform at the Echoplex in Los Angeles, before continuing on to New York City as part of her first sold-out headlining tour.
Sevdaliza self-released her debut album ISON in April of this year. The record is a meticulous blend of trip-hop and minimal electronica, with delicate inflections of jazz and soul. Her sound most commonly draws comparisons to contemporary alternative R&B artists like FKA Twigs and Kelela, as well as predecessors like Portishead, Massive Attack, and Aphex Twin. She, along with her co-producer Mucky, draw less from club music’s vast canon than her contemporaries, looking instead to classical composition and jazz arrangements for the bones of what she writes. For ISON, Sevdaliza tapped string arranger Mihai Puscoiu and in some of its lighter moments, the album brings Sade’s Lover’s Rock to mind.
The album quickly drew critical praise from Pitchfork, The Fader, and NPR, and in the month between its release and the beginning of her tour, Sevdaliza put together a similarly stunning live show. She's not concerned with giving fans a nice performance with perfectly timed bells and whistles. “I want to translate the raw presentation of me,” she specifies. “I have a lot of anxiety, and I get panic attacks. I try to use that in my performance. I try to show my vulnerability, because I really think that helps other people as well.” For an artist whose work is decidedly high concept, showcasing the humanity, and the cracks in the execution of those concepts is what makes Sevdaliza so particularly magnetic. “I try to show the multiple sides of the human being, and not just the pinpoints that I chose for my artistic expression,” she notes. It’s a stark counterpoint to the mainstream practice of only sharing the best of your life with the world on social media.
A self-professed control freak, Sevdaliza produces, sings, mixes, and masters her music, as well as writes, directs, and stars in the striking accompanying visuals. Since she began to study dance a year ago, she has developed choreography for her live shows, and now travels with a dancer when she’s touring. Through and through, her creative process is physically taxing, and skirts the borders of musical performance and performance art. “I’m so thankful for my body,” she says. “Whatever I’m doing, it’s doing it with me.” It’s a novel thought for those of us who spend hours sitting behind a computer each day, forgetting our bodies exist until they beg us to feed them or put them to bed. For Sevdaliza, though, listening to her body has been a constant for the majority of her life.
Before committing to music, she was a basketball player for the Dutch National Team. As a result, her relationship to her body is almost scientific. “I use my body as a lab,” she offers, explaining the different dietary experiments she has used to land on a way of eating that sustains her daily work. “It’s quite rigorous, I don’t eat dairy, I don’t eat pork or any fatty meats,” she recounts, snacking on a bowl of fresh cherries. She also cut carbs including alcohol a number of years ago. “I did an experiment where I cut diary and I had a lot more constant energy throughout the day. I cut meat, and I realized that my energy level totally dropped, and I thought, ‘Okay, this is not for me, I’m going to add a little bit of meat.’” For Sevdaliza, eating is a practice in the service of her body that she’s constantly refining as she learns more specifically what makes her feel good, and what doesn’t. “You have to treat it well,” she maintains. “And I think treating it well doesn’t mean being on a constant regime. Sometimes you just want to eat that cake.”
In a past life, Sevdaliza’s exercise regime was 100% results driven. Playing sports at such a high level required sticking to an extreme program, and only in looking back does she realize how unhappy it made her. “I felt like a robot. I think that experience of training twice a day and being on your reserve all the time, it made me realize that it’s not worth it for me, to not feel good.” In hindsight, she realized lifestyle choices that restrict her emotional range are the most damaging to her overall success. Exercise still plays a central role in her life, but only to the degree that it bolsters her other daily activities—singing, writing, performing, taking meetings and editing footage.
Rather than clocking hours on a treadmill or reps in a weight room, her current exercise plan is designed to improve motor skills, and what Sevdaliza calls moving power. “I spend a lot of the day stretching. I will work in a stretch, I will sometimes sleep in a stretch, I do passive stretching, active stretching. I do something similar to calisthenics, exercises with body weight.” She also dances and swims laps.
To battle the anxiety, she uses a series of healing rituals she learned from her mother and grandmother, like listening to music, laying on the ground and doing breathing exercises, as well as burning herbs like Iranian sage meant to remove the negativity surrounding you. “It cleanses your aura, it makes you just feel purified again,” she explains, smiling when she qualifies her love for the practice, “even if it’s just placebo.” Panic attacks are no longer crippling for Sevdaliza, she finds the space between controlling the mechanical functions of her brain and being open to the potential for her body to respond to her surroundings in seemingly magical ways.
As a whole, Sevdaliza’s musical persona toys with presentations of strength and tenderness. This extends to challenging notions about gender, and her work uses a specific cross-section of androgyny. She does not reject traditional tropes of masculinity—bulging muscles washed in flaming red color palettes abound in her video work, nor femininity—she dresses her microphone in custom floral arrangements and wears her nails and lashes long and accentuated. Rather, Sevdaliza utilizes elements of each identity at different times to create an ever-changing subject.
Each day she chooses one or two activities—yoga or stretching when she’s tired, running or body work when she’s on high energy—and slots them in before and after time in the studio. On the road, it’s a shifting schedule, and she’s grateful to be forced to loosen the reigns. “Touring is calming for me because I have to let go of some of my control. Some things are not in your power. You can’t predict if the airplane is going to have a five-hour delay.” She also recommends vitamin B and magnesium. “This is, by the way, something that really calms down your anxiety as well. Stress withdraws magnesium from your body and it also withdraws vitamin B, so these supplements can really help you and stabilize your mood”—important skills for a performer who suffers from panic attacks.
Watching her move around a room, she softens her shoulders and facial features in one moment, only to contort her back and lock her jaw in the next. The fluidity is remarkable, and not always pretty. It’s a skill she credits learning to dance with, though she considers herself a beginner, still. “I feel like if you’re well trained, then you wouldn’t get the same nerves that I get, because I need to really prep myself to hit a certain level right now.” As we prepare to part ways a few hours before her show, she bids each person in the room goodbye, touching everyone gently—a hand on the photographer’s cheek, a warm embrace for the assistant. It’s easy to picture the 6-foot tall artist sharing her wellness philosophy with others in a more formal capacity, perhaps as a healer in her next life.
“I knew I was an artist before I was an artist, so I have this kind of intuition that guides me through my life,” she reflects, when I ask a parting question—whether she ever feels like quitting or giving up. “This is, for me, quite simple. I want to be the best friend, artist, lover, family member, band member that I can be. I try to spend time with my friends, with my family and focus on my music. If I cut all the noise, then there’s enough time to do that. I’m just living a focused life with the people that I love and that I care about.”