"Music has the power to bring us all together peacefully around the world"
Amanda Abizaid is an American Lebanese singer/songwriter based in LA. Her song "Walking in Twos" feat. Stephen Stills recently won the Honorable Mention: Song award at LAFA.
We asked Amanda to join us for an interview, and met an inspiring human being who uses her art to make a difference in the world ("I hope to inspire and encourage World Peace through my continued efforts writing songs with positive messages").
Amanda, congratulations on winning the Honorable Mention: Song for Walking In Twos! Let's talk about your multi-cultural background. Growing up in Beirut, Lebanon, to an American mom and a Lebanese/ Mexican dad, what music were you listening to as a child?
Thank you! It’s fantastic to receive this recognition for my song. I’m very grateful. I try to create a balance in my music with the person that I am today living in the United States and reconnecting with my native Lebanese roots where I lived as a child. In 1975 my family came to the U.S. for a summer vacation and were never able to return due to the civil war in Lebanon. My siblings, mother and I lived temporarily at my grandmother’s house while my father stayed in Lebanon to look after his business. After several months, the decision was made to rent a house, as the war would not subside. This was a drastic change for me at nine years old. My father would visit periodically, but remained permanently residing in Lebanon. I found myself feeling lost for quite sometime and sad that I was never able to say goodbye to my relatives and school friends in Beirut. We lived a displaced life for what became 3 years in upstate New York until it became clear that we were not going to be going back to live in Lebanon again. The influences of Western recording artists, such as Elton John, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and The Beatles combined with the abundant Middle Eastern music I had heard and sang daily growing up in Beirut began to rise within me as an artist. This was the beginning of the creation of my own unique musical identity and style.
What made you interested in music making? What instruments did you start with and when did you write your first song?
I began taking piano lessons when I was 5 years old in Lebanon. My sisters and I always sang together and because I was the youngest of 5 girls I had to learn how to harmonize with them so I could be a part of their singing group. When I came to the United States at the age of 9, I studied piano and flute and wrote many journals of which I kept to myself. I went on to play flute in the school band. At first I only wanted to be a singer but I was very scared to sing in public. I tried out for the high school musical and froze up so I began to take voice lessons and in college studied voice and drama at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. As I began to grow vocally, songwriting became something that happened naturally. A few years after college, I moved to Los Angeles to fulfill my dream of being a professional singer. I formed a band as the lead singer and we played in all the clubs around town. When the band split up, my journey of singing and songwriting as a solo artist came to fruition. After releasing my first EP The Great Plan Vol. I, I picked up the acoustic guitar to change my style of songwriting. For me the instrument speaks a certain truth about the song and story that I am telling.
Along with your four sisters, you formed a band, what kind of music did you make back then?
My first band Blue was a pop rock band formed by Shane Soloski and myself. We were a soulful alternative pop rock band with elements of Olivia Newton John, the Bee Gees, U2 and Marvin Gay. We recorded an album of which we never finished but I did release my first EP The Great Plan Vol I shortly after including 2 of the songs from the band called “Take It On Faith” and “Timeless”.
What do you like the most about performing on stage? What are some of the highlight moments from your concerts so far?
I like to engage with my audience and enjoy making them laugh with the stories I tell in between my songs. I like to create a mood ultimately taking them on a musical journey. Two highlights come to mind. The first was from my Walking In Twos record release show when I sang “Li Beirut” in Arabic. It has been my favorite Arabic song for many years and was the first time for me to sing a whole song in Arabic. I received a standing ovation after my performance from everyone including the Arabic Community in my audience. The second highlight was a few years ago when I performed at The American Lebanese Festival in Griffith Park. I began to sing my song “Lebanon” based on a poem my father wrote about the civil war of which I adapted and wrote music to. The Lebanese soldiers came up to the front of the stage and raised the Lebanese flag saluting me during my performance. This was such a great honor for me. The beginning of the song recites the Lebanese anthem in Arabic “All of us! For our Country, for our Glory and Flag!”
How do you prepare for a show or a concert, and what is your rehearsals process?
Being prepared and being on time is a priority to me. I do hot yoga and chant to be focused and center my energy. I clear my day so that I can get ready and do any last minute rehearsing. Sometimes things come up on a show day that can be distracting so I always make sure I am well versed in my performance and allow myself enough time to prepare. There is no other feeling in the World then to perform live. I love it but I do have stage fright. I begin to prepare weeks before a show rehearsing at home in my living room with an amp and microphones. This is when I determine what songs I am enjoying to sing and which songs fit with the journey I want to share with my audience. The night before the show I have a rehearsal in the studio with my band and we go through the set list together.
The story behind the song Walking in Twos is incredibly inspiring. What were some of the memorable moments from your trip to the Philippines?
For two weeks in November 2014, I toured the Philippines through the non-profit Help Philippine Schools. They invited me to meet the Filipino children in various schools around Clark Army Base for three days each to inspire the children especially the girls to learn how to think for themselves through songwriting. I was very successful and had a lot of fun with these students in teaching them how to write their own songs. I was also invited to meet the Aeta indigenous children in their villages in and around the Pinatubo Volcano mountain range. The village of Haduan is situated in the Southeastern foothills of the Pinatubo Volcano Range, across the Secovia Lahar River Basin. I had to walk a few miles through rugged dirt paths, and a wide river and a tropical wet dirt hike through the mountains to get to where they live. When I arrived at their village, I entered their little stone classroom and soon began singing to my acoustic guitar instrumental of “Walking In Twos” walking in between the tables and chairs reaching out touching the children’s hands. They smiled and their eyes lit up. In their indigenous language they yelled out how much they loved the melody, clapping joyfully and asked what did it mean. That’s when I knew I was on to something special. On the way back, a barefoot little girl Lilibeth walked by my side, and together we hiked down the mountain, crossing the unstable wooden roped bridge high over the river to the other side. We walked until we reached the paved road—the main entry of their village to civilization. With the Aeta, we communicated through the universal language of music. They sang their songs to me and I sang my songs to them. It was a joyful experience as they are such a happy community of people. Later I was told that I was the first white woman this particular Aeta village had ever met and that my visit made them feel that the outside world really cared about them. We filmed unique footage featuring the Aeta in their village. Through this experience, I realized the beginning of my song “Walking In Twos” was special. It’s about children choosing peace and how stepping in someone else’s shoes can inspire World Peace.
The song features fantastic vocal arrangement - with the multiple voices. It's so beautifully written and the performance feels authentic. How did you go about recording the children?
Thank you. I love to harmonize with my lead vocals. This is fun for me. Harmonies are something I hear a lot in my songs and of course also having the SGI-USA Buddhist children singing in the chorus was a special bonus. There wasn’t enough time for me to record the song with the Aeta when I was visiting them in the Philippines. When I came back to the United States, I asked the CEO, Robert T. Wagner, with Help Philippine Schools non-profit for help. He asked his filmmaker friend Alessandro Canlas if he would go to Haduan Village and film the children singing in their native language to the chorus of “Walking In Twos”. Alessandro was able to help the children translate the chorus lyrics into their native language. He then filmed and recorded them singing live to the track while playing it low in the background. These children love to sing and are truly gifted in music to be able to keep the tempo. The recording was then given to my engineer Bill Dashiell here in Los Angeles who inserted it into the mix. It was tricky as there was background noise but with the talent of both Alessandro Canlas and Bill Dashiell, one would think it was recorded in a studio.
How did you meet Stephen Stills and is this your first collaboration? Who are the other musicians who contributed to the making of this song?
I met Stephen through his daughter Jennifer Stills. I met Jennifer at a party where she was casually playing her guitar and singing to friends. I started to sing along with her and our voices blended very naturally. We became friends and I began to sing back up with her at her live performances in town. Every now and then we would stop by her dad’s house, Stephen, and that is how I met him. After my visit to the Philippines and the magic I saw happening with the children, I mustered up the courage to ask Stephen if he would support my cause in helping the Aeta children and play on my song. He said yes. He is a big supporter of children and this was such a special opportunity to have his talent on my song. This is my first collaboration with Stephen. Knowing him for many years now, I have listened and learned a lot when he has kindly shared songwriting and performance advice with me. My friend Mark Stephen Weitz from the legendary 60’s band Strawberry Alarm Clock played Wurlitzer on the song. The other musicians that played on the song are my band mates Stewart Jean (drums), Michael Mennell (bass), Lindsay Gillis (acoustic guitar), SGI-USA Buddhist children Raquel and Reece Luna, students from MI (Musicians Institute) and of course the Aeta children from Haduan Village in the Philippines. The song is produced by myself, engineered by Jason Fahn and Bill Dashiell, mixed and mastered by Bill Dashiell.
Many artists use their power to promote awareness of causes they care about. What do you hope the listeners take away from the song?
I hope to inspire and encourage World Peace through my continued efforts writing songs with positive messages. Music makes people happy and I want to give my fans a new flavor of sound and hope uniting the east and west together in song. I believe music heals our hearts and can inspire love and compassionate bringing us all together peacefully around the world and creating a new cultural exchange.
Walking in Twos is so touching, uplifting and memorable. It really stays with you for a long time after listening! The melody is catchy and brilliantly crafted. Tell us about your creative process on this song and in general. Where do melodies come from? Do you normally start with lyrics, harmony, melody or something else?
Thank you! That means a lot to me. The opportunity came to go to the Philippines and I thought this would be a great time to play the new song I started called “Walking In Twos” and see what these kids think about it. All the children and teachers loved the song and so I began to brainstorm on how to get them involved. The idea of the Aeta singing on the song with me in their native language was an exciting challenge. With Stephen Stills guitar performance on the song would really help me gain some real exposure for these indigenous people.
My creative process changes with every song. Sometimes a melody will come to me in my sleep or during the day and I record it on my phone. Sometimes I write, journal, brainstorm how I’m feeling and sometimes it becomes a poem/song. When this happens, I begin to speak the lyrics out loud and can begin to hear a melody my voice is naturally portraying within the meaning of the words. Sometimes I’ll sit at the piano or pick up my guitar and just start playing around until I hear chords or notes that spark some kind of emotion.
Who are some of your main influences nowadays and what do you appreciate about their music? Do you feel their style influenced yours?
I am listening to a lot of fusion and Arabic music now from artists like Natacha Atlas, Azam Ali and Alabina. I appreciate their versatility. I’m studying Arabic again for my next album so I can sing most authentically in my native language. I am always honest in my work and enjoy uniting the east and west together in song. This is something I want to do more of moving forward. The artists I am listening to are not bound by any rules or styles. I respect that and enjoy the non-traditional approach to music.
Many of your songs are synced to film & TV productions such as One Tree Hill, The 4400, Smallville and more. Can you share a bit about that process? How did you get involved in these productions, and how did you go about getting your music-to-music supervisors?
When I first came out to Los Angeles I was discovered by two guys by the name of Stephen Phillips and Tim P. who founded Bosshouse Music. They saw me perform at The Gig on Melrose in Hollywood. They were starting a music placement production company and were looking for a singer. We began working together building their library of songs for a few years. One fun experience was watching Ali Sheedy and Charisma Carpenter lip-sync and perform to my vocals for the MTV series Strange Frequency. To see them on the TV singing to my voice was surreal. “A Place In Time”, the theme song for The 4400, came after that and was the most successful song we recorded together. The song went on to win the BMI TV and Film Awards in 2005. From then on I began to have opportunities with my own songs through other producers and music supervisors of which I met along the way. I really enjoy reading scripts given to me by producers in order to write theme songs for their up coming films.
Who is a fellow musician you would love to collaborate with?
I would love to collaborate with Peter Gabriel and Sting. They stand for Humanity and World Peace. Sting has a song called “Insha Allah” where the chorus lyric is in Arabic. This song has a beautiful message. Peter Gabriel recorded the song Haumea (“We Are The Ones”). The music video shows Palestinian children singing about Peace and love. The song is on a benefit album called 2 Unite All. To have the opportunity to collaborate with these artists would enable me to grow my audience, uniting my fans in the direction of peace and compassion. I want to break down barriers between people and cultures through my music and reach more fans with a message of hope.
What is the recipe to writing the perfect song, in your opinion?
Write from your heart, be honest and tell your story. Don’t over think it.
Tell us about your upcoming projects, concerts, songs and albums. What's the plan for the near future?
Just this past November 16th, 2018 I released a Bollywood remix of “Walking In Twos” feat. Stephen Stills. The single is produced and remixed by Raj Ramayya. I will be touring up and down the coast of California next year continuing to promote my album Walking In Twos. I have family and musician relationships in Miami and Sarasota Florida and will be doing the same there. I’m writing and researching my new album, which will be more infused with eastern melodies. My goal is to challenge myself moving further into the world music genre. I am changing my approach to the songwriting process, stepping out of my comfort zone and educating myself artistically. I want to work with Middle Eastern refugee children in the United States and travel to my native country Lebanon to my school to teach songwriting workshops. The end product will be a fusion album of lyrics in English and Arabic with eastern vocal melodies, flute lines, eastern percussive drumbeats and instrumentation. This is what I’m beginning to hear in my heart.
Is there anything you wish to add or anyone you with to thank?
First I want to thank you and everyone at Los Angeles Film Awards for your gracious offer to do an interview with me and of course for my award. I’m thankful for the opportunity to work with Stephen Stills, Steffen Franz and everyone on the team at IDC San Francisco (Independent Distribution Company), Michael Jensen and Erin Cook at Jensen Communications (PR representative), Greg Scelsa, who helped me promote my song “Walking In Twos” feat. Stephen Stills and all of the people who have taken the time like you to review and interview my music and me. Of course the talented singers and musicians that played and performed on my album and the joy in meeting the Aeta people through my friend Robert T. Wagner with HelpPhilippineSchools.org. I hope to continue with my team. Walking In Twos has brought a community of artists and industry to me that have become my family. I look forward to seeing this grow.