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Interview with Mariam Matossian

img  Tobias

Your love for Armenian folk songs has inspired many. How were you first brought in contact with them?
I have heard these beautiful, timeless folk songs being sung since I was a little girl... My mom loves to sing and ever since I can remember, she used to sing these songs in our home and would teach them to me. I just loved singing with her as a little girl and now too. My first ever public performance was of an Armenian folk song my mom taught me – Gakavig – Partridge – which is on my first album, Far From Home. I was 4 or 5 years old when I first sang that in public! My mom has instilled a love for Armenian songs in me by her example, by her love for them, by her passion!

What kind of themes do these songs cover?
The themes in these songs are universal... Themes of love and joy, loss and pain... Many of our folk songs are about the pain of being separated from the Homeland (Armenia)... The Homeland is compared to one’s beloved or to ones child or to one’s mother... So the pain of losing a child, for example, is compared to being separated from Armenia... Or being an orphan is compared to being separated from Armenia... There is very strong, emotional tie to the Homeland. These songs are mournful and emphasize the sense of loss...

The joyful songs are often love songs or songs celebrating the beauty of Armenia, the beauty of nature in Armenia... these are beautiful folk songs that you can dance to!

The songs that I have written cover topics that I care deeply about – a song about my mom, for instance. I love my mom deeply! She has been one of my greatest supporters, my greatest encouragers... She has sacrificed so much for us and she is one of the most self-less, caring, joyful women I know. She has instilled a love of music in me and has taught me the folks songs that I sing.

Another topic I have written about – my faith – I wrote a song about how thankful I am to my heavenly Father. He has wiped away my tears and given me such hope.

I have also written a song about an Armenian girl who was born in Iraq and went missing... this is a true story and when I heard it, my heart was filled with anguish. I could not get this girl out of my mind or her mother who I imagined would be in deep agony over the loss of her child... thus I wrote the song Narineh, for the missing child.

What, would you say, is it some of these traditional songs are telling you personally?

I love singing these old Armenian folk songs. I am so passionate about them! These songs express my heart – I have been to Armenia and so I can easily relate to a song that celebrates the beauty of the land.  Mostly, though, these songs have such a special meaning for me as I sing them because I know that years ago, my grandmother was singing these same songs... I never had the chance to meet my grandmother. She died long before I was born. But I was named after her. And I want to honour her by telling her story. These are her songs. She taught them to my mom and my mom taught them to me. I want to honour my mom and my grandma... When I sing these songs, I think of the hope and joy of a woman (my grandma) who endured so much in her life (she survived the Armenian Genocide of 1915... She was just 4 or 5 at that time...). She had a horrific childhood and persevered so much as an adult... And yet, everyone who knew her tells me that she was a woman of great faith and great joy... She loved to sing... These are her songs... So when I am singing, I am thinking of her, her faith in God, her joy, her hope despite all that she endured... She inspires me greatly... My mom is the same way... My mom has also gone through a lot in her life, but once again, she is a woman of great faith and hope and joy... And she loves to sing!

You call you mother an „endless source of songs“. Do you feel that she is passing something on to you with the songs she is showing you – like preserving something precious?

Absolutely. My mom is amazing. She is a very passionate woman. By teaching me these songs, she is continuing on the tradition of preserving our culture... I hope to pass on these songs to my daughters...

Your move away from Canada was a seminal and often painful event for you. Did it nonetheless, as often happens when you're torn from your used surroundings, offer you the chance to find out who you really are?
Yes indeed! While I missed everyone in Canada so much – especially my family and close friends – I was coming to the US to be with my beloved, my husband. I have learned and am learning so much through this process. Mostly, I have learned to depend on my heavenly Father in new ways. To trust that He knows what He is doing... My faith has become much stronger because of this move! When everything familiar is gone, you have to turn to something far greater than yourself... I have become more dependent on my Father because I have needed Him in new ways when everything was so new and unfamiliar.... and in this way have learned more about myself.

Is singing these Armenian folk songs in a foreign country perhaps also part of an effort of finding out where you belong?
Singing these songs only emphasizes for me that I will always be far from home, in some sense... A part of me belongs in Canada where I was born and grew up and lived most of my life... A part of me belongs here, where my husband is, where my children were born... A part of me belongs in Armenia, a part of me belongs in the Middle East, where my mother was born and my grandparents ended up after the Genocide... A part of me belongs in Cyprus, where my dad was born... I feel I have many physical homes in some sense... but when I am with the people that I care the most about, that place is home....

How did „In theLight“ come about?

In the Light was actually recorded in Canada right before I moved to the United States. The idea for this album was born in Canada... We wanted to record again; our fans wanted us to record again! We wanted to do an even more acoustic album... I had grown so much since the first album... There were more songs to record, songs I had written... My voice had grown and developed after being on stage and being surrounded by so many amazing artists... I wanted to share my growth as an artist with my audience...

How do you remember meeting and playing with Free Planet Radio for the first time?

My band in the US is Free Planet Radio – they are incredible musicans. Our first meeting was amazing... They had listened to my album and really liked it and they asked me to bring some music with me and that we would have a jam session. Our first session together was beautiful... When I heard them play my songs for the first time, it was so very beautiful... I had tears in my eyes... They added such beauty to each song... They are such amazing musicians and wonderful guys as well! We all fit together so perfectly... They are soul brothers!

Was it difficult to bring the same immediacy and spontaneity of these first sessions to a studio recording like “In the Light”?

In the Light was recorded in Canada with my musicians there. These are my band members with whom I had been performing while in Canada... And they are so amazing and talented and wonderful! I loved working with them all again on this new album. The first sessions were superb! All the sessions in fact were simply wonderful. I love working with these guys... They are so creative in the studio and on stage... They add so much depth to each song... They are exceptional people and musicians.

I was recording this album right before my wedding, right before I was to move to the US... So it was a highly emotional time for me... Singing these songs that are so close to my heart.... And getting ready to leave everything I loved at home to be united with my beloved elsewhere... Ah, it was such an intensely emotional time!! There would be tears during those sessions from me... Especially singing/recording the song I wrote for my mom in which I emphasize how she is a gift to me... Or the folk song called A Bride’s Song = a bitter sweet song where the singer thanks her mom for everything she has done for her, and asking for a blessing before she leaves home to be married... I could totaly relate to that old folk song that my grandmother had sung before me, and my mother had sung too, before she got married...

Are you getting feedback about why so many people, some of them having never before heard these songs, connect with this music from an entirely different culture?
Yes... People send me messages or come up to me after a show and tell me how the music has touched them deeply, even though they do not understand the language. We have translated each song and I include a description of the background to the song in my liner notes... and people appreciate that. One particular woman who again is not Armenian, wrote to tell me that the songs helped her through her mom’s sickness... She’d listen to the music while driving to and fro, serving her mom, and the music brought healing to her soul. Messages like this move me deeply... I am moved to tears by how people connect with the story and the songs... People from other cultures tell me that they can relate to the themes I sing about – being away from the Homeland, for instance, and the pain of being away from loved ones, or the celebratory songs and the joy they represent. When I see people in the audience, and they are crying or clapping or dancing along to the music, I am so moved... People may not understand the lyrics in the moment, but they understand the message.

During my shows, I am also story telling... I weave my grandmother’s story throughout my concerts... These were her favourite songs that I am now singing... and so I must tell her story... how she survived the Armenian Genocide... how she had such great faith and much joy despite all the pain that she endured... So as I sing, I talk about each song as well, and the meaning behind it. This way, an audience knows what I am singing about...

What is the status of the new album?

I have been collecting songs for the new album... This is a process that takes some time... My mom is a huge help in this... I take my time with what I choose... So that is where we are at right now... collecting songs, writing new material, learning... It is going to be acoustic again, very raw, very vulnerable... After having two children, I have become even more passionate, even more emotional...The depth of joy that these children bring to my soul – this will be reflected in the album, I believe!! I love my children deeply and this comes through in my voice... everything takes on a deeper meaning for me now... an even deeper meaning than before...

With regards to political forces trying to emphasise the differences between peoples, countries and cultures: Do you see your music as a contribution to prove them wrong?
I hope so! When I look out at an audience and there are people from all sorts of different backgrounds and countries and cultures, and everyone is united together in that moment... it is a remarkable feeling! We are all there together, singing and dancing together to music from an ancient culture, that many of them perhaps never even knew about (before the show!) and it is just a beautiful thing... Music definitely has a way of drawing people together... I love that.

By Tobias Fischer

Far From Home (2004)
In the Light (2007)

Mariam Matossian

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