The Iranian-born, L.A.-based singer, composer, theater artist and activist, whose background also includes dance, media and film, has worked with legendary musicians including Ornette Coleman and Peter Gabriel, and visual artists such as Shirin Neshat – as well as bringing poet Forough Farrokhzad to life on stage in her acclaimed show, The House Is Black – plumbs her own psychological depths only to discover what makes her love work and life.
What historical art figure would you like to have lunch with and why? I’d like to meet Goya. He’s truth-telling, bluntly political and hardcore dark, and then he’s completely otherworldly and masterly in each painting. I went to his exhibit in Spain, and he depicted actual political figures of his time – very very recognizable figures. On the other hand, the painting is so masterly and otherworldy, it takes a whole different, other dimension. I always loved Goya, but I had no idea how meticulous he was with choosing the political figures from his time. It gave me a very different experience.
What did you purchase with the proceeds from your first sale? In those days we had advances from record companies. Every time I had a little advance I would go to my designer friend, Simon Azoulay. He’s based in Paris and he always had the most exquisite futuristic chainmail pieces, whether jewelry, tops, or a whole dress. I would always buy one from him because it was something that no one else had. His stuff was like armor, but also futuristic.
What words or phrases do you overuse? ’Take a deep breath.’ I use that all the time, because nobody breathes. I also say ‘Sing all the time,’ when I see people, and ‘Snap out of it!’
How do you know when a work is finished? There’s always a deadline that tells me it’s that time. It’s hard, because my pieces aren’t song formats, they keep evolving, there’s always counterparts. Rarely I find something finished-finished, but I’ve learned to let imperfections guide my next piece.
When and where were you happiest? Always near the sea, near the ocean, and when I travel to indigenous cultures. I love so many of them. Every time I have the privilege to show up in a culture I don’t know, I feel like I’m reborn and everything becomes inspiring. I’ve traveled a lot, but not enough.
What’s the worst survival job you’ve ever had? I didn’t have a survival job, but I got involved in a very progressive, avant-garde theater piece based on mythology. I was having a leading part and I was excited about it. I performed in it for two nights and I bailed, and got a bloody eye after I left. I compromise a lot, but not with work. This is my religion and it was being raped. That was really, really hard.
What TV series from your youth best describes your approach to life? We were like addicts when TV showed up in Tehran. The shows I was glued on and watched religiously, were Twilight Zone dubbed in Farsi and Lost In Space dubbed in Farsi. Yeah, this was the Western world to me. It formed the way I thought the Western world was – outer space and otherworldly. We had soaps and some other ones, but I was mostly interested in these.
What is your most treasured possession? My mic[rophone] and my vocal chords.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? I would be finding it less challenging to contextualize this abstract-minded stuff and be able to constantly take it into words and tell people what I mean. It almost never happens, because there’s not enough time to be a teacher and an artist. Sometimes contextualizing stuff takes all the ambiguity, and the art dies. But it is a problem, and some people have the talent for doing that. I don’t. I try, but I always feel I’m betraying my little universe.
What is your most treasured memory? It usually happens when I’ve traveled to indigenous cultures with childhood friends, global girlfriends. These [trips] are always vibrational and some of the best moments have happened…and are still happening. I treasure any moment we can get together somewhere in the world.
What makes you smile? Oceans and seas make me smile, and I love old British comedies. Laurie and Fry, Monty Python are really dry and absolutely silly. I just love them and I actually laugh. There are a couple of absolutely to die for [shows on] YouTube. You could always watch that and laugh. It’s that silly and it’s really funny.
What is your go-to drink when you toast to a sale? If I can find it, it’s a non-corporate deep native Tequila shot. The ones that come from Mexico. I have a niece whose husband loves Tequila, but only good Tequila. I have to ask him [because] I can’t find it here. It’s good stuff.
After an all-nighter, what’s your breakfast of champions? It’s usually one of those dense ginger, red beet lime juices that gets rid of all the stuff. I love those intense gingery liquids.
Who inspires you? So many people. In general, people who are really in touch with death, people who have a day-to-day Buddhist relationship. They just live differently. And also people who just understand there’s something beautiful about being a human, the nuances of humanity. Buddhists cultivate that. All of us are forgetting what that means. It’s such a deep, deep feeling when you connect with another human and have the time to. Such a beautiful feeling comes out of that. I have a few friends that bring that to me, and they don’t even know that – to feel this wonderful feeling by doing nothing, [to] connect to each other and have a cup of tea.
What’s your best quality? I think my best quality is to be able to stay serene when there’s confrontation with things that need so much contextualization and education. I just know that there’s no reason to get into that kind of confrontational level with situations. I’m able to wait until the time is right to communicate something. I’m an Iranian progressive artist who’s been in America for 40 years. You can imagine what I’ve learned. It’s not that person’s fault or another person’s fault or my fault to discuss this in a way that’s rational, and I know I’m going to have to transcend it, because I am a guest here – in this land. I try to be polite. I think that really is something that I’ve learned to achieve, and it’s been hard. It’s hard to be in the face of idiocy and not shout out. I have a certain level of understanding of the roots of the problem, as opposed to be a byproduct of a shortcoming.
What’s your biggest flaw? I’m too responsible. I love people who are always late, because I’m just too responsible. I’m really on time. I think it’s a flaw and I think you should be looser.
What is your current state of mind? It’s been a big year for me. I’m just happy that I have another month to finish with my album – that’s a sense of relief. I look forward to being in L.A. in the summer – being a normal person with no deadlines, not an enormous amount of stress, go for a hike in Topanga. The stuff you do in this city, when people travel miles to do these things. All of this I have to force myself to do during the year. There’s always something to be done.
What do you consider your greatest achievement? Basically I’ve been very aware that I’ve never compromised on my work and that’s been very, very challenging. Not only my work is out there, but I am from another world and the combination has been way otherworldly. It never was a reason to compromise. The only thing I’m really proud of is I’ve tried to really not compromise on that, whatever the consequences are.
If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be? I would be another musician, or maybe a better musician, or an astronaut – someone who has to do with sciences. These are the two things I’m most interested in – science and music.
All photos courtesy Sussan Deyhim
Sussan Deyhim’s latest recording, La Belle et la Bête, will be released in October. For more information on Deyhim’s art and music, please visit sussandeyhim.com