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INESS MEZEL: [STRONG]
"Like in a magical tale, at summer solstice..."
Get ready to go on a journey. Pack your dreams. Open your ears. Then sail away, faraway, to a secret Berber kingdom where drums beat, guitars rock and a voice like a promise beckons and shimmers. Its a journey guided by spirits and signposted by symbols - a spiral, a comb, the sun and the moon. By alchemy and omens: the freedom in a broken chain, the light in an all-seeing eye, the vitality and unity in the branches of the tree of life.
This way lies the world - the otherworld - of acclaimed Parisian singer Iness Mezel. A universe as natural as it is enchanting, as gentle as it is powerful. Where strength is found in music and poetry, in an identity forged across oceans and mountains, languages and cultures.
Welcome to Strong.
"Of all my albums, Strong is the closest to who I am," says Mezel of her fourth solo release, whose cover artwork features drawings of the talismans and symbols, many inscribed on pottery or featured in paintings, that protected her as she wrote and recorded. "It has dynamic North African rhythms, great melodies that make the lyrics feel authentic and the sort of creative energy that erupts when like minds come together."
She flashes a smile. "On top of all this it has hope, optimism, good vibrations and the determination of the human spirit."
The positive vibes were there from the moment Mezel walked into the west London studio of John Reynolds, a multi instrumentalist and producer famed for his collaborations with the likes of Bjork and Sinead OConnor. Mezel had only brought along some loose ideas for songs; after 2011's Beyond The Trance, the lauded Justin Adams-produced album for which she pre-wrote and arranged most of the tracks, she was keen - determined - to push the boundaries further.
"John is an awesome contemporary music producer with a huge knowledge of all sorts of rhythms," says Mezel, the jazz-and-rock-loving daughter of a French-Italian mother and an Algerian-Berber father. "We immediately connected through the music. Once we started creating and recording time just flew. Somehow John managed to bring out that little bit extra in all of us."
Her dark eyes twinkle. "That we all went further than we thought we could go was down, I think, to John's understanding, encouragement and generosity of spirit."
And to Mezel's spectacular talent: "Iness has so much energy in her voice, in the way she's always moving when she sings," says Reynolds. "Initially I just sat back and soaked up what she was about, which is partly this big universal sound that makes you want to dance."
Mezel and Reynolds worked closely, intensely, with Mezel writing the lyrics and melodies, as together they built Strongs ten tracks. This made, says Reynolds, for a different type of collaboration. One in which the multidimensional aspect of Mezel's oeuvre variously deep, rootsy, urban, modern, compositional, spontaneous and always evolving was laid bare.
"We mixed styles and influences like you would do in a laboratory," Reynolds grins. "You'd think that something might blow up or backfire occasionally but it never did. Ultimately we've created an album that makes a big new statement."
Their sessions were the perfect fit: the golden-voiced Mezel, singing in French, the Tamazight language of the Amazigh Berbers and for the first time on record, in English. Percussionist Nora Abdoun-Boyer, Mezel's long-time friend and colleague, on krakeb castanets, bendir frame drum and the goblet-shaped darbouka. British musician Graham Kearns on guitar, bass and keyboards, with Reynolds turning his hand to drums, bass and keyboards.
The ease with which everything flowed reflected the album's lyrical themes: nature. Spirituality. Our relationship to the earth - and to each other.
"I'd been thinking about the way many ancient cultures view life, about their feelings of connectedness to the cosmos, seasons, to rivers and rocks," says Mezel, who grew up moving between the wild Auvergne region of France and the rebel-dotted mountains of Kabylie in Algeria before relocating to Paris, the city of her birth. "Our urban lives just move so fast that many of us are forgetting this."
Strong's opening track, 'Silent Waters', is a powerful reminder of the value of reconnecting, an Arthurian evocation of magic and mythology in which women light the way with flaming torches and Mezel rocks out with the singular sound she's christened '6/8 R': "It's combination of the 6/8 time signature that is typical of North African rhythms, with an 'R' to symbolise rock and rock energy and all the western elements in my music."
Underpinned by insistent bendir and galloping krakeb castanets, 'Izha Wuliw' is a song set under the blossoms of the tree of life, with Mezel's deft phrasing enhancing the rhythms and celebrating the joy that comes with finding one's centre. 'Agellid' tells of blushing skies and summer breezes, of seasons viewed, Berber-style, as the 'doors of the year'; 'Illni' is a melody-laden song praising traditional Berber women as they weave their secrets, their magic, their lives.
English-language track 'Precious Souls' is an arresting paean to the benevolent spirits, seen and unseen, who protect and keep us: "Innocent children, beautiful human beings, departed ancient elders or even the entire Berber identity," says Mezel. "It's important to pay homage; growing up I learned nice little things like putting silk ribbons in a tree to please them. Sometimes it's good to be reminded that we are all part of a big collective."
Mezel sings of female desire in the love song 'Just For Me': "I thought it would be interesting to express my feelings in a way that women rarely do in music. This song was too personal for me to sing in my everyday French," she says, laughing. "I'm lucky it worked so beautifully in English."
'Aman' surges and glides as it highlights the fact that water is precious, and is regarded as such in many Berber villages. "Water is seen as a jewel, or a spirit. Fountains and streams are where young men and women go to meet their friends; they are places of purification and replenishment."
"I had my father's village and its mysteries in mind when I was writing," Mezel continues. "But I was also inspired by the women of my family. I was very close to both my Algerian grandmother and French grandmother. They were strong women living hard lives. There was no pushing either of them around."
'Aim At Your Dream' is a charming ode to the inner child in all of us, an exhortation to never lose sight of youthful hopes; 'Anzar' pulses with to-the-moon energy, with challenges laid down and taken up; 'Eau fil de l'eau' spirals and flows, following the current of life.
All of this, then, is Strong. An album laced with feminine strength. With hooks and melodies. With joy, beauty and poetry. With the magic that comes from being in the moment and of the moment courtesy of the force that is Iness Mezel.
by Jane Cornwell