Though I Have Laid My Hand to Many a Reflection, I Have Found Nothing Stronger than Necessity: A Conversation with Drama
DRAMA, or the band formerly known as 'Drama Duo', is the Chicago-based musical act composed of singer Via Rosa and project producer Na’el Shehade. Blending soulful lyrics with highly danceable beats, DRAMA’s music is a true collaboration between the two artists. The duo made their debut with Gallows in November 2016 has since released their sophomore album Lies After Love earlier this year. Lies After Love features five songs that focus on “the affirmations and lies that people tell themselves to get over heartbreak” including “Majid”, their newest EP accompanied by a music video inspired by the ancient legend of Orpheus and Eurydice.
Up next in June, DRAMA will embark on a West Coast tour. We sat down with the pair to discuss the appeal of Chicago, their musical influences, and the creative process.
How did you two meet and start working together?
Both: We were introduced by a mutual friend in 2013. We met at Na'el’s studio in Chicago where he was working on Chance the Rapper's Acid Rap mixtape and Jean Deaux’s Solar system. We started talking and formed a friendship, which made the process of working together super easy.
What is the origin story for the name 'DRAMA'?
Na'el: I was mid-way though working on our first EP Gallows and came to the realization that we did not have a name for the group. At the time I was working on production with Benjamin Myers from Benoit and Sergio. He randomly sent me a text message while he was in Berlin and said "you should call it DRAMA" and it stuck.
What is it like being based out of Chicago, does your city influence your songs in any way?
Via: Moving to Chicago has definitely had an impact on my musical career. The people that I’ve met in the city have influenced my sound. I feel very fortunate to have found a community of VERY talented friends that inspire me every single day.
Na'el: Chicago is the reason I make music. At a young age, I was very influenced by Chicago house music like Mark grant and Bad Boy Bill. You can definitely hear the Chicago influence in my production.
Can you talk a little bit about each of your backgrounds and how they have shaped you artistically? Was there a turning point / moment where you realized you wanted to pursue music?
Via : I was born in Austin Texas but grew up on an Indian reservation in Northern California. I spent most of my childhood touring with my parents and their reggae band. We were home schooled and raised 100% vegan. When I started making music I didn’t take it seriously. My passion was cooking so I decided to pursue culinary arts. When I was 19 I went to culinary school in Hollywood and met my homie Colin Tilley through some mutual friends and he gave me my first microphone. I moved to Chicago in 2010 to help my grandmother who was battling with cancer. After she passed away I was making plans to move to Italy to further my culinary skills but was spending more time in the studio than studying. I started to really focus on music a lot more and released a few projects between 2010 and 2014. When I met Na’el we started working on-stop. The rest is history.
Na’el: I was born and raised in Chicago. Spent most of high school making music with friends, selling my first EP at the age of 16 for $5 to classmates. That’s when I realized I could make a living from producing records. When I was 17 two of my songs were licensed for Bravo reality TV show. I continued to grow and evolve as a producer and started working with more and more artists. Around 2011-2012 I started working on Chance the Rapper’s mixtape Acid Rap and with Kanye West’s Cruel Summer project. I was probably the busiest producer/engineer in Chicago at the time but I wanted to explore a change in direction. I grew tired of making other artist’s dreams come true and wanted to work on my own stuff. In 2014 I randomly met Nicolas Jaar who visited me in the studio one day. He basically asked me ‘Why don’t you put your own records out?’ So I took his advice. I met Via and started DRAMA.
Who are your biggest musical influences? Who (or what) is your biggest non-musical influence? (maybe something that would surprise your fans?)
Via: I listened to a lot of reggae, ska, Motown, and British punk growing up. My parents listened to a lot of different music from all over the world like SouKous music from the Congo and Sade (because she’s her own kind of genre). As I got older I started really getting into NSYNC and Brandy. When it was time for me to choose my own music I was instantly drawn to hip-hop. I started producing music that sounded like Big L. I was a very BIG fan of his music even though he wasn't a current artist of our generation. I made music to honor his beat selection.
Lyrically Stevie Knicks, Drake, Davie Bowie and Sade really inspire me on the daily. I love how their style of making music is effortless story telling. Also, I LOVE DISNEY MOVIES! Every single Disney movie ever made. I watch them everyday while I write, paint, cook lunch, etc.
Na’el: I pull influence from every direction possible. If you could see my Spotify play list you'd understand. It takes you from Chaka Khan to Amr Diab, from Selena to Drake, KLLO, ReaKwon, NSYNC and a lot more! I'm also inspired and influenced by a lot of contemporary artist like Jeff Koons and Frank Stella and people in the business world like Mona Haddad and Elon Musk.
How do your unique styles and skills come together in your creative process? What are the challenges and rewards of collaborating? Is there anyone you would hope to collaborate with in the future?
Via: We work really well together because we both have similar backgrounds in music but come at it from different angles. He see’s things I can’t see and vice versa. It’s very easy creating with Na’el, especially now that we’ve grown to know each other so well. At first it was a challenge for me getting used to a whole new way of making music. It wasn't so smooth. I was confused as to what he was doing with my vocals. I’ve never seen anyone chop up sounds or produce around lyrics the way he does. He really cares about the art. He turns songs into cinematic beauty. So the more I learned he more beautiful it became and I couldn’t fight the fact that it sounded amazing.
Na'el: The music we create is the combination of dramatic lyrics and dark chords. We don’t limit ourselves when it comes to the sound we create. It's a very natural combination of both of our passions. It's interesting because we come from two different worlds but have so much in common.
I’d love to collaborate with Jon Brion. He’s the only producer I know that can score a film and produce records for Fiona Apple and Kanye West with an enduring sound. Lasts FOREVER. The man knows how to make good music period.
How did you come up with your latest song “Majid” and can you share a little bit about the stories and cultures that influenced its inception?
Via: Majid is based on a conversation I had with someone that I was breaking up with. We were essentially breaking up by telling each othe e’re not good for one another, and to leave the conversation knowing that love still exist for the both of us.
The name of the song came about in an interesting way. We were in the studio recording the song. When I sang the chorus Na’el thought that I was saying ‘Majid’ when I was really saying ‘magic’. Coincidentally we both really love Majid Jordan and Na’el has a brother named Majid. After we made the song we realized that his brother was actually going through something very similar to what the song is based on. And we were like ‘Man, we still believe in Majid’ and that there’s a love out there for him. So, in a way it’s dedicated to both Majid Jordan and Na’el’s brother Majid.
“Majid” seems to draw a lot of similarities thematically to your earlier track “Hopes Up,” - is there an overarching message that you are trying to project about love through these two music videos?
Lyrically “Hopes Up” and “Majid” have nothing to do with each other. One is about believing in life after a love, the other is about someone wasting your time and getting your hopes up. Visually, however, both are very similar in that they highlight forbidden or cursed love tales.
They also feature people of different or unique backgrounds. I think it’s really important to present different perspectives about love.
What's next for DRAMA? (Both in the micro and macro sense of 'next')
We have a lot of amazing things coming up! Touring the West Coast in early June, the Middle East and Europe in the fall and more North America dates later this year. We also plan on releasing more music before the end of the year. We are excited for what’s to come!!
Photography by Marsha Lebedev Bernstein