By Emma Volard and Jake Amy
“People have different identities and it’s always important to remember that everyone has their own unique story. Obviously the story of the cis white male is the predominant story we see everywhere. While we can’t discount that story, we all run parallel to one another, and our experiences in society are so importantly different. We have to be proactive in making more space for all voices, all identities.”
That’s Sia Ahmad, a Ngunnawal based sound artist known for exploring deeply personal experiences and vulnerabilities through music, be it through collaboration or under the solo guise Shoeb Ahmad. Proudly identifying as a person of Bangladeshi heritage and a transgender woman, Sia’s recent collaboration with the Australian Art Orchestra (AAO) im/modesty depicts her gender identity journey through extreme musical catharsis. Emma chatted with Sia about the new music release, as well as the intersections between sexuality and cultural heritage, unconscious gender bias, gatekeeper diversity, punk rock and parenting, and rebuilding the future of the music industry.
Sia: I’ve been making music for the past 15 years. My gender identity journey began halfway through that. At the start, my experiences were personal and internal. There was not a lot of honesty in what I was creating. im/modesty’s original form was as a mounted art installation, and I wanted it to explore themes of sexuality, cultural clash, identity and what defines people. I became surrounded by a supportive group who embraced my story and allowed me to explore those vulnerabilities. Peter Knight (the artistic director of the AAO) and I discussed expanding the installation into a live performance piece. The collaboration has since enhanced my experience and story.
Emma: I read that im/modesty is inspired by cultural barriers that people from the Indian subcontinent face when exploring their sexuality. Could you elaborate on this?
Sia: In a lot of circumstances, I seem to think about modesty with religious connotations. I identify as Muslim - I grew up in a Muslim faith and although I’m not still fully practicing, I always pertain to those faith values. The title of im/modesty is a play on the notion of modesty itself. The idea of modesty has been prevalent in my life, so the barriers surrounding the discussion of sexuality and gender fluidity have been weird to experience. I feel these kinds of conversations are inherently difficult in my culture, especially for those still living on the subcontinent. Not addressing sexuality is a tradition of silence which still lingers today. Unfortunately this tradition is passed from generation to generation. im/modesty explores the beginnings of understanding my sexuality in puberty, to resigning myself to living my life the way my family and culture wanted it to be lived.”
Emma: What was the process like of translating your personal experiences into a musical context?
Sia: The musical conception of im/modesty came from an experience in Kerala in southwestern India. There was a lot of discussion about how women and men are seen as modest beings, and I thought deeply about the differences and gendered clash. I taped some field recordings while I was there and used them to set context for the musical narrative. In the AAO adaptation, I gave Tilman Robinson the field recordings to electronically reconfigure using his 4 track tape machine and effects pedals as he pleased. This created a really tactile sound world that is sonically detailed, but performed in a live setting.
When conceptualising im/modesty, I wanted to focus on three moments in my life (puberty, early/mid 20s and early 30s) as each moment came with various expectations transpired from other people in my community. There are three musical sections in the performance which reflect these. There is a loud, cathartic section with loose, abstract vocalisations from Sunny [Kim] which dissipates into the feeling of resignation. Following an emotional arc was important. And it’s a privilege and an honour to work with such great musicians.
Emma: Do you see yourself represented in the music scene of so called Australia?
Sia: When I was growing up, I didn’t see people like me. I didn’t see enough coloured people. There were amazing Indigenous songwriters such as Archie Roach, but my background is from the subcontinent and so I often looked to bands from the UK for visual signifiers. There was a UK band called Cornershop that consisted of a few Indian guys who had music on the charts, and that was the first time I saw people like me playing music. As I was growing up, I found an affinity for Riot Grrrl punk rock - fem driven. That felt more relatable and in some ways my drive to be a musician came from that.
I was definitely in a minority group when I was starting out some 15 years ago, but positively, there’s so much more representation of differing identities in the public face of music these days. It’s great to see it evolve over the years. I remember when I used to play gigs back in the day and there would be maybe only two other people of colour there. Having a chat to those two people after the gig was always rewarding. These days, I feel proud to think that I am representing similar people to myself. Creatively, I think that Australia is at a great place. Creatives on this continent are of many diverse backgrounds, be it gender, race, religion, etc. Australia is a multicultural melting pot, and I think we’re seeing the real fruition of that now.
Emma: Has your identity affected the way that you've been treated in the music scene?
Sia: I think my style of music has always attracted more male listeners. And that’s never really shifted, even after I expressed that I was a trans-femme person in subtle and unsubtle ways through my music. Maybe my audience is engaged with my work because it’s of good quality and it doesn’t matter who I am? My last solo record quiver and im/modesty are deeply personal works. I’m happy that I’ve been able to be seen as a conduit between the community of colour and the community of queerness and the community of indie rock. I would like to think that my identity doesn’t define my work. I’d like to think that my work is informed by it, but it’s not the end all, be all.
Emma: Have you experienced a “social disconnect”? And if so, what impact has that had on your music?
Sia: Experiences that come with being a trans-femme person, being gay, and being a parent inform me as a creative. I might be on school grounds and have an unfortunate awkward interaction with another parent because of who I am, but that experience is an impetus to write something and express it through creative means. When it comes to social disconnect, I try to be resilient as possible, but as a trans person I’m always clocking even the smallest unconscious behaviours. I work in an office and when I pick up the phone, people may refer to me as “dude” or “man” based on the tonality of my voice. Things like that can irk me. I don’t want people to be so gender biased in their everyday life, even if it is unknowing, and fighting those battles can be arduous. It’s been great to have music as an outlet to deal with emotional turmoil. It’s one of my coping mechanisms.
Emma: If there was one aspect from your experience as a parent that you could teach the music industry, what would that be?
Sia: Don’t go by the book. Your music should follow its own path depending on your own personal values, not what others think is right for you.
As a person, I’ve been heavily influenced by the punk rock scene and I think my parenting style has taken from that too - not following rule books and guidelines, working hard, doing things for myself and nurturing what feels right, even if it may not be the “right” decision. As a parent, I think it’s important to nurture my kids in the best way, shape and form that will set them up for the rest of their life. It’s the same with music. You want to nurture those practices in yourself.
Emma: How can we provide support for people of differing identities within the music scene?
Sia: In so called Australia, the gatekeepers are mostly people of Anglo-European descent, and that is also true for the majority of arts organisations here. People of colour aren’t always involved. If we can offer space to those people, that’s obviously a great thing, but we need to reflect and consider who is taking control of the narrative in that space, who is driving those conversations, and how constructive that actually is. I think we need to disenfranchise gatekeeping altogether, but before that, we need to create opportunities in those positions of power for people from diverse backgrounds.
Emma: What would rebuilding the future of the music industry mean to you?
Sia: Drinking has never been a big part of my life, and it’s interesting to perform in music venues that are driven by alcohol sales. My restructure reframing of the industry would begin with this reset, questioning how we can make performance about performance. We can’t deny that venues have these mechanisms to run and for financial motivation, but I think the reliance on the consumption of alcohol has actually completely shifted who benefit from those performance opportunities.
It’s also frustrating to think that people are happy to pay $30 for a crappy seat in a movie theatre, but then don’t want to pay $10 to get into a gig. A $5 door fee for a gig is just not viable for performers. If you have four bands on a lineup, filling the venue with 100 people still doesn’t make it worth it. I think it's great that we’re seeing a higher value being placed on music again due to COVID’s more intimate and limited seating arrangements. A $20-$30 gig - that’s a better step.
Keep up to date with Sia here
We would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we work and live, and recognise their continuing connection in our community. We would like to pay respect to the Elders both past and present of the Kulin Nation and extend that respect to other First Nations people who have read this article.