Elika Mahony Her melodious voice and beautiful renditions of the prayers and writings is some of the finest available. Her work moves hearts. When we heard she was coming out with a new album which takes off where Fire & Gold left off, we were intrigued. Here is our interview with her as we explore the creation of her latest project ‘Infinite Bounty’:
9 Star: Please tell us a bit about yourself and about how music plays a role in your life.
I was born in the US, raised in Kenya and my parents are from Iran. Growing up, I was surrounded by music. My father loved listening to jazz and classical music and my mother was a piano teacher. She played the most beautiful classical pieces on the piano. Music is, and always has been, one of the greatest joys of my life and being able to share my music with others is a blessing beyond description.
9 Star: How would you describe your music?
My music expresses the diverse cultures I’ve been exposed to growing up. I would describe my music as a mixture of New Age, Pop, and World music with influences from classical Western, African, Middle Eastern and Chinese traditions.
9 Star: What inspires you to create?
I believe that God inspires me to create. God is the Creator, and when we are engaged in the creative process we are manifesting that Name of God. Sometimes I hear a melody and simply must drop whatever I am doing and run to the piano in order to capture it! For me it is the most moving form of prayer — allowing the inspiration to flow through me and to bring me closer to God.
9 Star: What influenced you to make this record? Does the album have a central theme or message that you want to explore?
One of my previous albums, “Fire and Gold”, was on the theme of tests and difficulties. After completing that CD I was reflecting upon the need for detachment when going through the tests of life. So I started composing pieces based on passages from the Writings relating to this idea. But the more I read the Writings and reflected the more I realized that our tests are actually the greatest opportunities for us to grow spiritually. Ultimately the album was given the title “Infinite Bounty” to express the idea that all aspects of life, including its challenges, are gifts from the ocean of God’s bounty. So in this sense the album documents my own thinking and learning about the themes of tests, detachment and bounty.
9 Star: How long have you been in China? How has it influenced your musical creation or recording process?
My husband and I moved to Beijing in 1998 and have settled here ever since. Before that we lived in Hong Kong for 3 years and before that we were in California finishing up our education. Living in China has been an extraordinary learning experience in every way, but I would need a book to describe it all! One of the gifts of living in China has been the opportunity to work with extremely talented musicians that I would never have met otherwise. For example, one of the songs on ‘Infinite Bounty’ is a duet with my dear and talented friend, Cheng Lin, who is one of the most gifted singers I know. In addition, four members of the China National Symphony recorded strings for two of the pieces on ‘Infinite Bounty’.
9 Star: Please tell us a bit about your creation process.
Often when I sit at the piano, the urge to create is a powerful one. If I haven’t composed in awhile, the urge to create is even greater. I usually hear a melody and play a few chords on the piano to see how it will flow. Once I feel the direction of the song, I look for an appropriate quotation and begin to sing it as I play the piano. Im trying to see how the music can flow around the words as the Writings are always the primary focus of each of my pieces.
9 Star: Are you more of a collaborative creator.. or someone who looks within to find the creation?
Initially I work on my own, but once I have created a demo version of a song, I will work with a producer to arrange the song and craft the instrumentation and vision for the piece. If I am composing a duet, I will usually collaborate with the other musician from the start. It’s important to me that everyone involved is happy with the song and agrees with the direction and vision for the piece. There is a lot of consultation that takes place from the very beginning to the final stages of mixing. Many minds are definitely better than one as I love hearing the creative ideas of others throughout the process.
9 Star: Do you meditate? If so, did meditation influence your creative process?
Meditation is an important aspect of creativity, but I believe meditation comes in many different forms. Meditation, for me, can be just sitting at the piano and singing my prayers in the morning. It’s usually after I’ve sung a few pieces that my soul feels ready to create. It is difficult to describe what happens during that creative process. Something magical takes place, like a seed that has just been planted but yet starts to blossom immediately. It is often a rapid process of unleashing what’s in the soul and the moment it comes out… well, that feeling really can’t be equaled by anything else. For me that is a form of prayer. Those are the times I feel the most deeply connected to my Creator.
9 Star: I know there were several songs which featured artists from around the world.. how did you work with them? Did you get together virtually (Skype etc.) to consult?
My favorite pieces on the album are those that were recorded as duets with other musicians. I had an idea of who I wanted to collaborate with from the beginning of the album creation process. I was lucky that Nasim Ma’ani, who records with me on the Arabic/English duet, lives in Beijing so it was easy for us to work on that piece together in person. I also had the blessing of recording a duet with Cheng Lin on ‘We Must Look Higher’. I had asked her to record her erhu (A traditional Chinese 2 stringed violin) on the song, but she felt inspired to sing instead! Ali Youssefi and I have collaborated before and I love his style. He lives in Serbia and he was able to record his vocals there, and we were able to consult back and forth over the internet. Fiona Doomun-Rouhani and I collaborated on our first album in 1997 (‘Melodies of the Nightingale’). We have always wanted to record more together so I was so excited that she was able to find a great studio in California to record her vocals. Siria Rutstein and I have also sung before and I have always loved the tone of her voice. She was passing through Beijing visiting her parents so I seized the opportunity to record with her (I had sent her the song to practice before she arrived so that she could walk into the studio as soon as she arrived). And the youngest musician on the album (my daughter, Amelia!) sings with me almost every day. I was thrilled that she agreed to sing on this album as I have always wanted to professionally record a song with her. Most of the communication with these artists took place by email, Facebook chat, Whatsapp, etc. With the available technology these days and a great producer who can put it all together, so much can be accomplished from afar. Thank God for modern technology!
9 Star: You have made about a half dozen albums before Infinite Bounty, how does this one differ and stand out from the rest?
This album has more collaborations than any of the others. It is also unique in that the CD comes with a small hard cover book adorned with beautiful, ocean-themed photographs against which the passages from the Writings are printed (the CD is housed in the back cover of the book). Thus the project was really two projects in one: to produce a music CD and to create a beautiful book of meditations for use at devotional meetings, Feasts, as well as for private reflection. I wanted the book to be a work of art in itself and a way for people to be able to reflect on the Writings while listening to the music.
9 Star: Tell us about your producer and production team.
I have had the good fortune of working with several talented producers in the past but before starting on this album I felt it was time to work with a new team to bring to the music a new dynamic. I prayed that I would find someone suitable for the project and was surprised and thrilled when a few days later I met “by chance” a producer at a friend’s concert. The whole thing happened in a most mysterious way and it was a huge confirmation that urgent prayers are always answered.
9 Star: You were able to record a full live string section for this record.. What was that like?
Much to my surprise we were able to have the quartet from the China National Symphony Orchestra record on 2 of my pieces. These musicians are of the highest caliber in China (concert master, principal cellist, principal violist). The first violinist had prepared the notation and printed the score. The other musicians in the quartet had not seen the music until the moment they sat down to perform it in the studio. They had not practiced the songs beforehand at all and once they recorded the pieces they played flawlessly… no mistakes whatsoever! They recorded it once again just in case we needed an extra take and the second time was just as perfect as the first! This experience was awe inspiring. I am so pleased that the string sections they recorded are on two songs ‘Behold Me’, which is a duet with my daughter, and a piece entitled ‘Detached From All Save Thee’. The opportunity to record these amazing musicians was definitely one of the unexpected treats in the making of this album.
9 Star: The secular world has a rich musical landscape.. but there are invariably influences that are sorely lacking.. how does your music fill that void?
When people I meet ask me what kind of music I compose and record, I tell them that there is a lot of noise and distractions in the world and that the goal of my music is to bring calm to the soul and a sense of peace to someone’s day. My instrumental piano album (‘Glimmerings’) has been playing on radio/TV all around the world and the emails I receive from people tell me how much they appreciate the beauty in the melodies and tranquility it brings to their lives. Many others write and share how listening to the Writings of Baha’u’llah and ‘Abdu’l-Baha set to music provides spiritual substance and solace to their hearts and souls. And one of the most touching compliments is from parents who tell me that their children have memorized all the prayers and Holy Writings on my CDs and have grown up with these Divine Words. Hearing these type of stories brings me the greatest joy.
9 Star: When you create music are you focusing more on the Baha’i community or outwardly?
I am mindful of making sure that the album is not boxed in or categorized even though there is a tendency to do so. I hope that my Baha’i friends will want to share it as a gift with their friends who are searching or open to receiving music that is of a more devotional nature. By bringing diversity to the music (there are Pop, New Age and Middle Eastern genres on the album) I hope that the larger community would be open to hearing it. I have considered tapping into the Christian market to see where it leads me.
9 Star: What affect would you like to see your music have on the listener? What would you like them to walk away with?
I hope that the music helps the listener draw closer to God, to feel more at peace with themselves. In our lives we all have tests and difficulties, and we all have challenges. The Holy Writings are the medicine that heals us, and provide the guidance and strength to forge ahead. I hope that by listening to the Words of Baha’u’llah set to music, souls will be touched by His Spirit and be uplifted and inspired when facing challenges in their lives.
9 Star: In a world, seemingly filled with so much darkness, what keeps you inspired?
Knowing that the world is going through its stage of turbulent adolescence helps me focus on the fact that it is a process leading to maturity. Having faith and centering my life around service allows me to concentrate on what I can do to contribute to the betterment of the world. In the moments that I feel more challenged to stay positive, I turn to music and composing music is the greatest healer. I channel the negative influences through my music and am always so moved by the inspiration that comes.
9 Star: What are three major things you learned in the process of creating this album that you could share with other aspiring musicians to help them overcome the same hurdles?
a. It’s easy to get carried away with perfecting a song and not knowing when to let go. It’s like a painting that one keeps working on improving. How do you know when it’s finished? Setting goals and deadlines helped me keep on track in order to finish the album in a timely manner. I was tempted to keep working on the songs so it was good practice to work on detachment instead.
b. Consultation has been a key to the success of making great music. I have worked with some incredible producers and musicians and being able to consult in a unified manner with the ultimate goal of creating beautiful music has always helped the process.
c. Being detached from the outcome of a song. Sometimes I have had a vision for a song but in the process of working on it, it changed quite a bit. Being detached from the outcome has helped me embrace some great ideas I would have otherwise missed. ‘Sweeten Their Souls’ is a great example. I had never thought of changing it up but the producer had the idea of making it into a band song. If I had held on to what I originally had in mind for the song, this piece would not have come to fruition in the way that it did and I love it!
9 Star: You have created something truly unique with “Infinite Bounty”. Could you tell us about the other albums have you produced and what are their themes?
The first album I produced was ‘Melodies of the Nightingale’ in 1997, which consists of Hidden Words and prayers. ‘Melodies of the Nightingale for the family’ followed a few years later with quotations and prayers for parents, children, pregnant mothers and infants.
‘Fire and Gold’, my third album, was released in 2007 and it set to music passages from the Writings about tests and difficulties, blending eastern and western musical styles. ‘Birds of Love’, released in 2009, is on the theme of love and marriage and comes with an elegant book of gold silk fabric with quotations about love from various poets, Holy Writings and cultural traditions. For 10 years my husband encouraged me to make an instrumental piano album. Finally in 2012 ‘Glimmerings’ was released and has been playing on the radio in many countries around the world. My sixth album, ‘Edge of Forever’, reflects a wider range of my musical influences with original lyrics. It is a collection of songs in diverse styles such as Latin, World, New Age, Pop, Middle Eastern and a little rock. The music depicts the soul’s desire to transcend the limits of the material world and to soar in the spiritual realm.
9 Star: Thank you for taking the time to do this interview… and for continually sharing your gift with the world. It is truly inspiring and uplifting.
You can read more about Elika on her blog: http://www.elikamahony.com
Click below to take a listen to the album and get your copy of ‘Infinite Bounty’ now!