Music From 1970s Iran to contemporary London, from personal tragedy to cathartic creativity, the musician Leila Arab works all of it and more into her latest album.
On a sweltering day in North London, Leila Arab sprawls across the couch in her bedroom studio. Chain-smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, she talks in wild, random tangents as she rewinds through seven years of personal tragedy and creative struggle.
Born in Tehran in 1971, Leila has spent almost 30 years torn between Iran and Britain. In the mansion flat she shares with two of her three siblings, the ever-present ghosts of her homeland jostle for space with the multicultural whirl of contemporary London. Such are the eclectic, cosmopolitan influences that inform her strange and often shockingly beautiful music. There are no overtly Persian touches on Leila's latest album, Blood, Looms and Blooms, an exquisite patchwork of computerised textures, hip-hop beats, ambient sound paintings and artfully deconstructed Beatles covers. But playing up some kind of contrived ethnic angle, she argues, would be a "cheap talking point". And besides, music is a universal art form that transcends its geographical roots.
Crucially, Leila herself is a product of our globalised, multimedia age. Her late father, a tycoon with political links to the deposed and Shah's regime, fled Iran with his family following the Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic Revolution in 1979. The eight-year-old Leila and her siblings were pulled out of private boarding school and transferred to the British state education system. Overnight they went from a life of servants, luxuries and lavish parties to relative poverty in a shared family apartment.
"But when you're young you don't understand luxury, so a plastic toy can be nicer than a diamond," Leila shrugs. "I just remember me and my brother sitting on the balcony of our flat in Knightsbridge, and he looked at me and said, 'Does that mean we're poor now?' But it was fine for me, because I got real parents. When we lived in Iran my mum was just this glamorous thing that you'd see going out, because we were raised by other people. So it worked for me. I was just happy to get parents I could spend time with."
Even during decades of exile, Leila's father remained fanatically interested in events back home. "As far as he was concerned, every day we were going back to Iran," she recalls. "It was real to him." Like the young heroine of Persepolis, Leila's adolescent creative life was fuelled by an outsider attitude and prickly self-confidence. Coming of age during the British club culture boom in the late 1980s, when hip-hop and techno were at their most fertile and experimental, she began DJ'ing while studying for a film degree in the early 1990s. But she never intended to make music until she met the Icelandic avant-garde diva Björk, who encouraged her creative energy and maverick spirit even when her technical skills were limited.
Björk first recruited Leila as a tour DJ and keyboard player, and the pair eventually composed several tracks together. "If I hadn't met someone like Björk I wouldn't have done music," Leila says. "I'd always played the piano and I DJ'ed when I was at university, but that whole way that she hired me was amazing. She will let people do things they can't do. To have someone believe in you like that was really lucky. She is one of my favourite people in the world, and an amazing friend."
Leila released her acclaimed debut album, Like Weather, in 1998 on the label run by another well-connected friend in the British underground music scene, Richard James - otherwise known as the left-field electronic composer, Aphex Twin. A second album, Courtesy of Choice, followed in 2000. Then family tragedy struck, putting her career on hold for much of the last decade. "I really wasn't enjoying music," Leila recalls. "I was thinking there really must be something more profound than this. It was that whole thing about being careful what you wish for, because then my mum got ill. And that really was profound. I helped look after her, which was amazing. I'm really lucky because I don't need to work, so I got to spend a lot of time and energy doing that. And then she passed away, which was pretty harsh. But she wasn't built to get old, she was like the Elvis of mums."
Barely 18 months later, as Leila and her siblings mourned their mother, their father suddenly died, too. She spent the next two years in what she calls an "experimental psychological state" akin to hibernation. With hindsight, she recognises this was profound depression brought on by grief, guilt and a crushing loss of the self-confidence that her parents had instilled in her from birth. "When you're an artist, there's an area where you have control, and you imagine you can project this on other areas," she explains. "So the child in me was offended. I was like - I didn't write this! I didn't want this to happen. It was a profound sense of failure, as if I could have kept them here longer. When they passed away it really felt like everything that was special about me had gone."
Ironically, it was composing and recording again that finally pulled Leila out of despair. Blood, Looms and Blooms does not sound like an album born from tragedy, but it was certainly emotionally cathartic for its creator. "The fact is, while I made music, I was all right," Leila recalls. "Even when I was a proper mess, the few hours where I was OK was actually when I was making noise." Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, may criticise Iranian musicians outside Iran for becoming too westernised, but Leila still maintains a respect for her troubled homeland. Before the revolution, she reminds me, Iran was a beacon of progressive attitudes towards women and resistance to religious extremism.
"Politically it's obviously a serious mess there," she says. "But I really believe the American version of world domination - to be fair, all empires are like this - but the idea that we're all the same is insane. The analogy I would use is it's like birds looking at fish and saying 'What are you doing in there?'. So to a certain extent I'm really proud that Iran asserts it's right to be different. And if you look at the West's involvement in Middle Eastern politics, it's carnage."
Leila does not subscribe to simplistic anti-American sentiments, but she is equally suspicious of one-sided propaganda against Iran. She points out that the September 11 bombers in New York and the 7/7 bombers who attacked London mostly came from the West's alleged strategic allies, including Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. None were Iranian. "There is a lot of amazing popular art that comes from America, but the fact is they are an infantile society and they should not be in charge," she shrugs. "This is what's worrying. If you have a toy that an infant does not have, they will break your toy. America is like a two-year-old."
With poignant irony, Leila's parents did finally return to Iran - to be buried. But Leila herself remains ambivalent about the notion of ever going home. "My relationship with Iran is quite complex," she nods. "My sister goes back a lot, and she says I'd really love it. But for me I associate it with the place my dad always wanted to go back to, and didn't get to go back, so I don't want to. I really love a lot of my family who are still there, but for me it's really tied up with my parents. There might be a right time and situation to go back, but it's not paramount. Maybe one day."