Moody portrait of the musician, in red ambient light.

FRKTL – Displaying emotions on a digital playground

Her visual and digital art is immensely intertwined with her work as producer. The British-Egyptian FRKTL (Sarah Badr) moves between Cairo, London and Riga. Ever since she set foot in the Latvian capital however, she found time to finish ‘Excision After Love Collapses’. A record that strangely and totally unexpectedly seems to translate the zeitgeist and absorbs the listener completely.

2020 turned into a rather prolific year for FRKTL. Apart from releasing the new album at the end of July, she also contributed a track to ‘Nisf Madeena’ and began a radio residency at HKCR (Hong Kong Community Radio).

While for most people 2020 has come to a standstill, FRKTL is as productive as ever. There’s no stopping her curating her personal SoundCloud page, where she reposts the songs and sounds she listens to and loves. Her Bandcamp finds are posted on her Instagram and selected tracks end up in her radio mixes. She seems to be producing those on a more regular basis then before. It all began with the release of ‘Excision After Love Collapses’ and hasn’t stopped yet. On the contrary. This record, albeit not that sonically hugely different from what she did before, somehow is 2020’s perfect hit. 

I didn’t intend for my music-making to reach the stage where I was actually releasing music.’ It’s been ten years since she first started putting her sounds on the web. In the beginning, she uploaded what she calls ‘sketches for the sake of practising my newfound hobby’, which evolved into compiling these uploads into an album, ‘Atom’. ‘That’s when I started using Bandcamp’. Without any PR-companies and journals pushing her work, she debuted in 2011 and dropped the compilation ‘B-Sides’ at about the same time. 2016 sees the release of ‘Qualia’, which is followed with ‘Prose Edda’.

But it is her 2020 release that totally seems to push her to the limelight. It’s a stunning release where you hear an artist crafting a sonic palette that sounds like a trip in electric wonderland. As one Bandcamp user puts it: ‘This is an uncompromising masterpiece of electro-acoustic music from the most consistently innovative artist in my collection.’ Indeed, she’s been doing this for years. 

Her sound touches on the entire electronic spectrum. It absorbs elements from ambient and indulges in overwhelming experimentation and gritty beats. ‘Excision’ (Sarah Badr abbreviates the title of the release to ‘Excision’ in our email-correspondence, ks) is a wonder of danceable, crackling and atonal electronics.

There’s no denying 2020 has been an odd year, with lots of artists postponing their releases or quickly dropping a soulless ambient record. It was relatively quiet the first four months of global confinement. Mid-summer in comes ‘Excision After Love Collapses’, a bombardment of emotions and feelings, which pretty much sounds like the ultimate soundtrack for life in lockdown, the silence, the anger. It’s a release that immediately sticks. ‘It’s a very personal work. It’s rooted in grief and heartbreak, coping with sudden change and loss, grappling or coming to terms with facing new realities of self and surroundings.’ 

‘I didn’t intend for my music-making to reach the stage where I was actually releasing music.’

Who would’ve thought that someone’s personal upheaval could soundtrack many’s unrest. ‘Excision’ sounds as if it is the ultimate culmination of sounds and FRKTL’s research into the sounds she has been exploring these past ten years. ‘Some of the most moving, meaningful feedback I’ve received has been about the album’s sound being “of the moment”, and I can see now how the foreboding or emotional complexity of these tracks might resonate in the current context. It would’ve been difficult to imagine a year ago that this summer would turn out the way it has, being so fraught and precarious as a period in human history.’ 

Better still, if she had gone ahead as originally planned, this record would’ve been released November last year. But her moving to Riga slowed down her schedule. ‘I was hoping to release ‘Excision’ last November, on the anniversary of ‘Qualia’, but I’d just moved the month before and it was still nowhere near where I’d wanted it to be as a body of work.’ 

‘Cairo, London, Riga’, says her Twitter-bio. A globetrotter with the urge of not settling anywhere permanently, which she undoubtedly inherited from her parents. They moved from Egypt to London, where Sarah Badr was born. She grew up kind of everywhere: London, Cairo, Manama, New York,… ‘The list is endless.’ She herself traded Berlin for Riga last year. Cairo for Berlin. London for Cairo. And in between, briefly stopped in places like Beirut, Montreal and San Luis Obispo.

But it’s in London that she attends college. Before she ended up studying Computing and Interaction Design at Goldsmiths, she studied International Relations and Law.  She eventually transferred to the Creative Computing programme. ‘It was while I was at Goldsmiths that I began to explore using software for composing and producing music.

Her visual work closely intertwines with her music. She creates her own artwork not just for her releases, but also her online radio shows are given appropriate art. Her artistic work overflows with personality and is ‘primarily digital renders and type work, with certain elements derived from photo compositing or drawing by hand. Everything associated with FRKTL as a project, including visual work, I’ve done myself since the beginning. It’s been a very solitary endeavour and I remain ambivalent about involving labels and others more generally in my work.

At the moment she is in the process of developing a live show for ‘Excision’. It’s still too early for her to describe how she might approach it. But it doesn’t seem wrong to assume she could be turning it into a visual spectacle that wouldn’t go wrong at Atonal or Unsound festival. ‘I’m currently in the process of developing a live show for ‘Excision’. Too early to tell how this will turn out, as it depends on some presently unknowable factors. As much as I love music that stands on its own, I’m also obsessed with sounds that go along with visual elements or choreography and so on… So perhaps this is where I’d ultimately like to fit: composing music for imagined worlds.’ 

She adds that to her it seems quite common to be both a digital artist and musician. ‘I’ve noticed many visual creatives also working with sound and vice versa, or artists generally being interdisciplinary or operating “at the intersection of” several fields.’ It is, according to her, the result of the digital economy. ‘It seems it’s no longer sufficient to focus on one thing when that thing is in such abundance and people’s time is very scarce.’ Though for an artist who’s so present online and made the digital world her own, she might be laying down a path for future musicians. 

A freelance designer by trade, Badr oozes digital wizardry. Though, she also enjoys regular walks in Latvian forests. ‘I do love nature and especially mountainous or forested regions. I’ve long had an affinity towards cooler, northern climates—in many ways antithetical to the Southern Mediterranean, but similarly rich in flora and fauna.

On Instagram she blends curating the latest sounds with images of all the beauty she encounters on her walks. Not only does she have a soft-spot for Northern Europa, it’s more exactly Scandinavia she really adores. For ‘Prose Edda’, Badr took her inspiration from 13th century Icelandic poetry. Iceland, however, is still one of the few countries she hasn’t been to yet, though she wrote ‘see the puffins in spring’ on her bucket list. Because of her fascination for the North, she began learning Swedish as a 19-year old and spent hours digging through Nordic mythology and sagas.

It seems a huge contradiction; her love for nature and how she, in her work, be it music or visual art, distorts reality. Just as her images are digital manipulations, as such are her songs, digital manipulations. At the core of her sound are the usual instruments like guitar, violin and voice. But once turned into songs, sounds can hardly be traced back to their origin. ‘I record and arrange most of my music using Ableton Live with the Max bridge and a variety of MIDI devices and VSTs, as well as my own live recordings and custom-built instruments. A significant part of it is classical instrumentation or vocalisation which has been digitally processed or triggered, sometimes manipulated beyond the point of recognisability. With this album, I focused a lot on building instruments based on my voice and instrumental recordings, as well as field recordings.

I’ve taken to controlling digital instruments in much the same way I would if sitting at the piano without a set piece to play, only in this case I use MIDI controllers while recording for extended periods. I leave a fair amount unaltered, whether it’s that or a single take of my singing or playing electric violin or guitar with pedal, or a recording from a walk someplace…  I love the spontaneity of improvisation and random overlaps that carry with them surprising moments of resolution that never cease to amaze me. This is what I’d like to continue building on in my next project.

In response to the Beirut August 4 explosion, Ma3azef, amongst others, published ‘Nisf Madeena’ on Bandcamp, featuring a plethora of artists from the MENA-region or its diaspora. One of them is FRKTL. ‘I don’t think there’s a single person with ties to Egypt who doesn’t also have ties to Lebanon through friends and family. It was a heartbreaking, gutwrenching event with lasting repercussions—near unimaginable still in its aftermath.‘ 

Badr herself also used to live in Beirut, while working at a music technology startup. ‘Having friends in and from Lebanon whom I’ve met while living there and elsewhere, it really was the least I could do.’ Having lived in Cairo for more than a third of her life and being from Egyptian descent, she of course follows whatever happens in the region on a daily basis. ‘I still am very much linked to Egypt and will forever be, regardless of whether or not I’m living there.’

At the risk of sounding naive, the situation is such that I love listening to music and—by extension—I love making music as well.

Besides her work as a freelance designer and producer, she’s also an avid listener, constantly reposting her musical findings on Soundcloud, Instagram or Twitter. As a curator she delves through the immense amount of music on offer. At the same time, she gives her fans a nice insight in the musical background of FRKTL. 

I do listen to a lot of music, especially when I’m working. I regularly check the weekly Bandcamp newsletter, and I occasionally listen through the stream on SoundCloud. I’m often attracted by cover artwork or interesting release titles, besides there being many musicians and labels that I adore and follow. I regularly repost on SoundCloud and post my favourites to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Inevitably, I’ll buy anything I find myself listening to more than a few times through on Bandcamp—often it’s these purchases that wind up in my mixes for different radio shows and on my Currents playlists.

One of this year’s biggest trends is everyone’s slow move to revenue sites such as Patreon, Medium or the newsletter-platform Substack, in order to gain money with their curating and or writing. There hasn’t really been much discussion about this trend yet, but maybe there should be. As this trend makes content less available and maybe even more exclusive where people who can’t afford it, are missing out. As such, it’s really amazing Badr hasn’t fallen for Patreon yet. ‘It sometimes seems like a tall order in hoping that people will spend money on music nowadays, much less the curation of music.’ While with her endlessly plugging songs and online mixes, it almost comes across as if it could be her dayjob.

At the risk of sounding naive, the situation is such that I love listening to music and—by extension—I love making music as well. My curatorial activity is a natural compulsion, one which I honestly do out of my enjoyment of these artforms. It’s been really nice to receive messages from people saying they’ve found something they’ve enjoyed through my posts, things they might not have otherwise had the immediacy or access to.’ 

Image of Thoom

Thoom – Rebel in Exile

Rebellion seeps through the work of the Beirut-born artist Thoom. With her label ‘Career Whore’ and a musical shift away from the habitual harsh noise sounds, she invariably is challenging the music industry. On ‘Pork’ she distances herself from her aggressive electronic noise and makes her first steps as a singer-songwriter.

It could’ve been a reference to the Arabic word for ‘garlic’. It’s not. Thoom was a word that ‘I just kept hearing. Like a hallucination or something, while driving at night. ‘It’ felt spiritual’.’ ‘Pork’, the title of her debut album, was also chosen for how it sounds. But as a young rebel she did, however, completely against her Islamic education in, been wanting to eat pork. ‘I find it really disgusting now’.

Just as rebellious was the recording of the video ‘No Speech’. Joined by her sister, Thoom went to a variety of specific areas in Beirut, which are guarded by the military. Just to dance, in front of the soldiers, whom undoubtedly wondered what she was doing. ‘The music industry is a game. I want to poke fun at it. It doesn’t have to be all this professional.’ Which is also why she named her recordlabel Career Whore. As a sort of finger pointing to all the issues with doing PR and men always trying to bring her down. ‘It makes me feel like I am a career whore.’ Besides, this feeling of men bringing her down; it is a feeling she experiences a lot more in Europe than she does in Lebanon. ‘I don’t know what it is. I’m also never allowed into Berghain, unless I am playing.’ In the meantime she’s trying to get hold of a visa, in Germany. In Berlin. ‘My boyfriend already got his, I constantly need to proof I am an artist.’

Thoom is not just another artist trying to make a career out of playing industrial techno in a town that became synonymous with the genre. ‘I had to get out of the United States. I want to be closer to Beirut. I never wanted to move to the US.’ For now, she doesn’t really like Berlin yet. ‘I don’t find a place for myself here. I also don’t really like the music in Berlin.’ It seems almost ironic that a musician who admits being influenced by industrial, doesn’t connect to a city that breaths industrial techno. It soon becomes clear in the conversation she doesn’t want to be pinned down to a specific sound. As an artist, she wants to keep on searching and changing. Even it that results in, as she calls it, ‘an alienating from the experimental fanbase.’ ‘This is what had to happen. This is how I relate to music.’

‘The production process of ‘Pork’ felt very cult. Me, my boyfriend, his twin brother.’ For ‘Shaytan’ she got input from her mother. ‘I take her advice to heart. She never finished school, but I really wanted her perspective. I wanted to work with people that are close to me, and who’s closer to you than your own mum? I really appreciated her advice.’ 

This is the story of a person in exile. Someone who is looking for her place in the world to call home. It explains the loneliness you feel seeping into the conversation.

Her homecountry is Lebanon. Her town, Beirut. Her neighbourhood, Tarik el-Jdideh. An area not just known for being rather conservative and overcrowded, but one that also seems to be carrying the entire instability of the country. In Lebanon, you never know when something will happen. You only know something could happen, anytime. (This interview was conducted before the port-explosion that hit Beirut on august 4th, ks).

Thursday, October 17th, 2019. In response to the Lebanese government announcing they will also begin taxing WhatsApp-messages, the country turns into a massive protest. In every part of Lebanon, people take to the streets to protest the money-grabbing corrupt politicians. A thawra (Arabic for protest, ks) that only stopped early March, because the country had to go in confinement when hit by Covid-19. As soon as the restrictions were eased, people took back to the streets. In this short time, the Lebanese Lira devaluated massively, people had lost their jobs and all the money was gone.

That night, the first night of the revolution, Thoom set out to play the Ballroom Blitz, joined by Deena Abdelwahed. While she’s performing, protestors begin blocking the streets. Car tires being lit everywhere, smothering the city with a toxic black smoke. (the author of this article was also in Beirut that night. But not at the performance.) Cars are being stopped. The road to the airport is being blocked. The next day, Thoom is to play a show in Italy. She leaves right after her set, fearing she would otherwise not make it to the airport. ‘I’ve never seen the set of Deena,’ she adds regretfully. The next day, the country is nothing but chaos. A chaos that, now after the explosion in Beirut, seems desperate.

“That’s where the best music is. When music is in touch with your subconscious. When you do things instinctively, without self-judging or self-censoring.”

From Beirut to Iowa. A past she doesn’t really talk about. Except that Iowa was boring. Her move to Chicago did open possibilities. Even though she didn’t really experience the city as liberating. ‘This neighbourhood I lived in was a very hard place. It was an area where lots of shootings happened. It became the new norm.’ But here, in Chicago, she discovers music and began wandering around in, what she calls, the good underground-scene.

In contrast to other musicians, Thooms’ productions are not about ‘being beautiful’ but about ‘that what sounds good’. While living in Chicago, she created a far more industrial and rough sound than what you hear now on ‘Pork’. Drawn to industrial and noise, she created a musical record that gave her space to accommodate her anger, frustrations, confusion and sadness. Lately she prefers writing songs, like a singer-songwriter would do. ‘This album is meant to be listened all the way through. It goes through a lot of different emotions, from anger and sadness to dancy light feeling.’ At the moment she don’t just listen to Nirvana all day long, but also began listening to Arab and American folk music a lot more.

‘Your influences always seep through. Whichever they’ll be, they’ll show up at the most unexpected moments. Whether it is Genesis P.Orridge, Soapkills or Michael Jackson.’ 

As a musician, she now wants to make music in a more traditional sense, with her voice taking the leading role. ‘What can my voice do? What noises can I make? But I don’t hold back either. If I want to sing a certain sound, I will just do. Singing comes from your entire body. I don’t want the music that is coming out now. We need the music we used to listen to as a teenager. Songs that show us universal things. Like Oum Kaltoum,… In her singing there is so much emotion. It is more accessible. In a human voice you can hear honesty, feelings. Even very minimal songs can bring me to tears.’

So how did the confinement impact her and the sudden disappearance of a lively music scene? ‘I’ve never ever been so isolated and lonely as during the confinement. It made me realize how import being near to people is. But as a musician you also essentially want to seclude yourself. Right now, I have no one to judge what I do. It’s very in my own head. But that’s where the best music is. When music is in touch with your subconscious. When you do things instinctively, without self-judging or self-censoring.’