With big hair and an even bigger voice, Shady Ahmed's unmistakable sound has made him one of Egypt's best-loved underground artists. We talk to him about coming up with songs, singing on the streets and KISS...
A talented singer and songwriter, taking inspiration from the likes of Damien Rice and Jason Mraz, Shady Ahmed has been serenading the scene for nearly a decade. With the company of his trusty acoustic guitar, the big haired singer, known for his eargasmic husky voice, gives powerful, enchanting performances that are good for the soul. In his presence, it's clear to see he was born to do this but it's something he himself may only be starting to realise, recently quitting his job at an international ad agency to pursue a career in music. Also famous for his impromptu street performances, Ahmed released his first full album, Life is Hard for Those Who Dream, earlier this year and seems well on the way to making those dreams a bit easier to come by. We sat down with the man to find out how his musical journey begun, where it’s taking him and how he feels about KISS:
Where did your musical journey begin?
It was a Wednesday, I was in my living room and I watched the video for John Mayer’s No Such Thing. I bought a guitar two days later. That was around 2002, like 11 years ago…
They say Bassem Youssef is Egypt’s Jon Stewart. Would you say you’re Egypt’s John Mayer?
So when you first started playing, what kind of music inspired you?
In the beginning it was mostly acoustic. It was a weird time to be a singer, because everybody wanted you to do Craig David and shit.
Give us your best Craig David impression:
When someone labels your stuff as Pop music, would you take that as a compliment?
Well, yeah! Pop means popular, so I guess that’s what everybody wants to be, you know. It’s easier to hate something that’s successful because if you’re flying high, you’re and easy target. And when you get successful by having others help you, everyone’s like “Awwh!! He sold out!” or whatever, without even knowing what that means.
Are you successful?
Define success for us as a musician…
I guess if you want to be an artist you will never be satisfied because you’ll always want to be better. What I have right now might be “success” for somebody but not much of a success to me. I want to be able to put out a record and have a lot of people excited about it. I want to do bigger shows.
We know you recently quit your job. Was there a specific moment in the past 10 years when you were like, “oh wow! I could probably do this for living.”
No, not even now! I mean even after I quit, there’s still the doubt. Like, is this going to be enough? Is this going be the only thing that I’m going to be able to survive on? And it’s still pretty sketchy you know, it’s not really clear because we’re in Egypt so there’s really not a market for me. I don’t sing Arabic.
Have you tried?
Can’t do it. I tried, can’t do it. Starting off, family and friends were trying to get me to sing but it was never like anything that I had ever listened to and years ago when I started singing and being interested in music, the music that was coming out of the Arab world was SHIT! It was shit! It was the most miserable, painful, bullshit cheesy… you know... But I mean, I recently thought that if, 12 years ago, the music that is being made now was being made then, I would have probably been interested to sing Arabic but that just wasn’t the case.
What do your parents think about you quitting your job to be a singer?
They’re okay. It got to a point where it’s not a debate anymore, it’s just like something that I have to do to continue living, because working in advertising for five years really drains you. I mean, it’s a creative field but at the same time it sucks your soul. You get through the day and you’re just exhausted, plus you add the amount of driving that you have to do every day and it’s not conducive to you know, sitting down and writing a song.
Do you remember your first gig?
Yeah! It was at school, I was singing a song that I had composed, because back then I didn’t know how to play guitar. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing but I would write music and I would write songs. I had a song called Put Me Together.I can’t remember how it goes, but I was playing it at a school talent show and it was the first time I ever went on stage.
How’d it go?
It went well, we did two shows. One in the morning and one in the afternoon, and it went well! It was well received and I got lots of support from everyone at school to pursue it.
What is your creative process when you write a song?
Really, I usually don’t know what the hell I’m doing. I mean, I’ve built an repertoire of songs over the last two years just following one simple rule: just write. Write down anything because the good songs come out of you when you sit down and say “Ok, I’m gonna sit down and write a good song now.”
What’s your favourite track of your own?
I have a track Called The Truth. It’s my favourite because I love playing it, you know, live with the band and everything. It’s a really cool song.
In terms of getting your name out there when you started, how did you do it?
Well 10 years ago I would record myself playing on a tape and then I would make copies of that tape and pass it to a friend. That was kind of cool. I would do the album cover myself, drawing it on the computer. Now, it’s a lot easier. You just put the record online and it goes everywhere.
So you’re quite the famous street performer too. How did that come about?
I was doing a show back in 2009 and I wanted to promote it in other ways, rather than just sending out Facebook invites. I wanted to do something different and so I got this idea to start singing in the streets. I would just head to different locations in the city and just do two hour shows. I went to Zamalek, Maadi, Downtown, Heliopolis and Mohandiseen. I enjoyed it a lot! And then that developed into wanting to play free shows and wanting to get that one-on-one interactive thing, where there are no tickets, no sound system, just whatever songs I have.
What’s the strangest, funniest, weirdest thing that’s ever happened to you whilst performing?
Oh man! Dude! The weirdest thing… I’ve been playing at Cairo Jazz Club for the last six year and several times when I’m performing, someone would get up on stage and want to sing. So I give them the mic and step back! The band is always looking at me like, “Get back on the mic!” but I think it’s great!
If you could play with anyone – alive or dead – who would it be?
I would love to share the stage with Glen Hansard. He’s an Irish singer/ songwriter and one of the best that is alive right now. It’s scary how good he is. I also like Martin Saxton,and independent artist thatr I love, and if I had to pick someone dead, it’ll definitely be Jeff Buckley..
You recently released your first album…
Yes and no. First physical produced record but I’ve come up with records before and put them online.
The title “Life is Hard for Those who Dream” is understandable but don’t you feel grateful that you DO have ambition?
I was busking in Dubai a couple of months ago, and I had the album so that people can buy it, and two people came up to me, checked out the tile and said: “Life is hard for those who DON’T dream.” I get what they were saying and I guess in some way, they’re both the same thing. If you don’t dream then you don’t realise how hard it is but if you do have a dream and you’re trying to make it work then you are aware of how hard it is.
Will you busk for us? We'll give you money...
You're pretty good. Would you like to start Egypt’s first KISS cover band with us?
Oh fuck yeah! Fuck yeah man!! To do the whole Kiss thing? Holy shit we can start the Egyptian KISS army, amazing!