x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

'I just wanted something to open my mind'

This much I know The Lebanese-born, Canada-based R&B singer, Karl Wolf, has been nominated as the best MTV Arabia New Act at the MTV European Music Awards.

The singer Karl Wolf plays guitar, bass and the piano.
The singer Karl Wolf plays guitar, bass and the piano.

The Lebanese-born, Canada-based R&B singer, Karl Wolf, has been nominated as the best MTV Arabia New Act at the MTV European Music Awards. My parents were both musicians. My mom was a piano teacher and my dad played the guitar, drums, bass - we had every single instrument in the house, and both of my brothers are musical, too. When I came to Canada, that's when I knew I could make money out of this industry. We all have to earn our way, and I would have played music whether it was my job or not, so I thought why not. I took it as a business - the industry is all about marketing, and sadly music is only about 50 per cent of it, but I knew that.

I was born in Beirut, and when I was three moved to Dubai because of the civil war. My parents' house, their belongings, their business, were in ruins, and my brother was working in Dubai so we fled there. We lived in Sharjah, and then when I graduated school, I went to university in Canada, where I studied film. But I always loved the entertainment business and I did some music at college. When I was growing up, I wanted to stay away from the music of my own culture - I thought it wasn't cool, and I wanted to listen to Michael Jackson and Prince. But the older I got, the more I wanted to go into my culture and heritage and see what I'd missed, so I started stealing my mum's CD collection of traditional Arabic music. It wasn't popular music, I just wanted something to open my mind musically, and that's what gave me the inspiration for my first single, Butterflies. It was something different, and the industry is all about being original and fresh, after all: how do I stand out, right?

The drama in Arabic music is always sad - the girl left and the guy misses her or whatever - and that's the reason it's in this minor key, to express this sadness. But Western music is not so emotional, so what I did was use the positive of what I heard from Arabic music - the rhythmic side - to make Butterflies uplifting. That sadness is something that's so special to Arab musicians: I just didn't know how to feel that strongly, because I grew up listening to Western music.

I play music because it lets me express myself. In the way that some people need to go to the gun range, or someone hits the drums, for me when I play the piano, even by myself, I let go of my emotions. I'm on my own, no one calls me, no one can get hold of me - that aloneness is what inspires me, it brings everything out of me. Mainly I write on my own, too. It brings a true and honest view of what I want to write, and once someone else puts their vibe on it, you've compromised. The lyrics are coming from deep within you, so how can you compromise on them? Lyrics are special for that, but I think you can collaborate on music. When I'm writing, I generally start with the music, and once I have a vibe, that dictates what I'm feeling, so the lyrics come.

I have a Yamaha baby grand. I've had it for about seven months because I've just moved into a new place in downtown Montreal. It's amazing, with enormous windows and a real skyline view. I grew up playing my mum's regular upright, a humble instrument. It's very different playing other pianos. When you play a grand, the sound resonates more, the acoustic is much better and it's a feeling you can't match.

When I'm playing on stage, I tend to stick with electric instruments. In Egypt, I did a concert with Nancy Ajram and they provided a grand piano, but because of the rhythms and beats of R&B it just didn't really work out. You needed to be playing slower stuff on that piano. And they just take up too much space. I play guitar, bass and drums too - I started in this business as a producer, for eight years, and while you don't need to be able to play everything, it helps to imagine how something is going to be played. Producing is like realising the songs, from a dream to something tangible - hiring the musicians, getting the best guitarist, and you direct the whole process. It's amazing - it's like pieces of a puzzle and they all just fall into place. I have to credit God for that, because you look back and you think: how did that all happen?