Ethereal dream worlds aren’t easily constructed, yet Syrian/Croatian-American artist Dania has managed to crack the code and craft a poignant and moving world. Dania’s recent single, “I Cook When I’m Homesick,” is comprised of haunting melodies, heartfelt lyrics, and utter heartbreak. Released on March 5, “I Cook When I’m Homesick” has been gaining popularity across social media. Before her most recent release, Dania laid the groundwork for this success with “Cardamom Tea,” a moving ballad included on Spotify’s “Ballads International” and “Arab X” playlists.
For someone whose career started just last year, Dania has staked her claim and made her mark. Amidst the hustle and bustle of staking her claim, Dania took the time to catch up with us and chat about her burgeoning career. During our conversation, Dania was unabashedly personal on all things mental health, representation, and her hopes for the future. In retrospect, this honesty from not just Dania but other artists as well is rather refreshing.
In Dania’s case, however, this honesty plays a vital role in the construction of these surreal dreamscapes, as each and every song in her brief catalog tie back to personal experiences. These personal experiences not only fuel her songwriting but lend to the establishment of a promising music career.
Give us a little bit of background for those who aren’t familiar with you. Who are you, and what is your music about?
My name is Dania. I’m a Syrian/Croatian-American, and I think of my music, first and foremost, is a communication tool. My music is like me expressing and moralizing my thoughts and stuff like that. The best part for me, though, is creating a community. For example, the first song I ever released, “Mala.” I wasn’t trying to make a music career at that point; instead, it just so happened that my mom had been diagnosed with cancer. And I was really fucking sad. I was like, you know, studying for my MCAT and just really stressed and doing anything but music. I found myself not being able to create music. But the floodgates eventually opened, and I just wrote about what was going on. After I released it, people started actually listening to it. I’d get like DMs from people being like, “This song helped me with the death of my grandma” or “My mom also has cancer.” It established this human connection that I don’t think you can get through any other medium, really. So, that’s what I try and accomplish in my music. I’m trying to be true to myself while also creating this sort of communicative relationship with others. It’s just the best.
Your music carries this ethereal and otherworldly undercurrent. It’s absolutely stunning! What would you say are the primary influences on your music?
I grew up listening to jazz like Billie Holiday but then also Fairuz. She is this Arab singer from my parent’s generation. She has class; everyone knows her and loves her. Besides that, I’m going to be basic and say Lana Del Rey and Billie Eilish. They’re both strong women who know what they want and express themselves so fearlessly. Not to mention, they’ve created such a unique sound because they’ve been true to themselves. And their sounds are also very pretty and otherworldly.
Speaking of, several of your songs were recently added to Spotify’s “Ballads International” and “Arab X” playlists. What was your reaction? How did you feel?
I was really surprised anyone wanted to listen to my music! I’m hella insecure, but it made me really happy, to be honest. Music is the one thing that makes me really happy and drives my day. So, to be added to these lists made me feel like maybe I could actually do this. Especially now, it’s been difficult because I only really started right before the pandemic hit. I moved to New York, and I was about to start gigging and making a name for myself, but then immediately, the pandemic hit. Not to mention, the market is so saturated, which is incredible because a lot of music is being created. At the same time, however, it’s also really hard to make anyone care or pay attention to what you’re saying when a billion people post a billion different things. So, I was really excited when they were added.
What do you hope to achieve in the next year?
I’ve been experimenting a bit more with my sound. The first three songs I recorded were just ballad after ballad. Which is nice, they’re very expressive, and I worked with the same producer and stuff. But now, I want to experiment a little more with my sound since I have a bit more time on my hands. “Slow” and “I Cook When I’m Homesick,” two of my most recent songs, are very different. Slow is more upbeat and sexy, I guess. And then “I Cook When I’m Homesick” is a little more of a modern production. It is more electronic. But my goal is to continue exploring and experimenting with my sound, my image, and just like try to figure out what’s up.
Changing gears slightly, your music seeks to uplift and highlight the Arab-American experience. What has your experience been like as a proud Arab woman in music?
Recently there have been more and more Arab-American musicians and audiences. When I was younger, I remember wishing there was more Arab representation. I get so excited anytime anyone says an Arabic word in their songs. There’s more of a push for diversity in music and general (within the entertainment industry). It’s really nice because I like seeing other Arab-Americans. It’s like a connection, like, “Wow, there’s someone like me!” There are people that I can look up to and that other people can look up to. I wish I had that when I was younger, but it’s really nice to see that starting up now.
For those budding artists also stemming from marginalized communities, what advice do you have?
I’m still kind of learning. So I tried to be unashamedly myself, you know what I mean? Even if no one fucks with me, then like, kind of “fuck them.” Especially in this age of social media, people can smell a lack of authenticity. So, for those budding artists, I know it sounds corny, but be yourself. Because what makes you unique is what makes you interesting. Everyone (myself included) falls into this habit of scrolling through social media and being like, “this is what they did to be successful,” so I should try and do that. In the end, though, my advice is to just be yourself.
In attempting to further cast a positive light on Arab culture, who are some of your favorite Arabic artists that we should check out?
There’s this one DJ that I’ve been really fucking heavily with recently; her name is Nooriyah. There’s also Mashrou’ Leila, Felukah, Aziz Maraka, Amira Jazeera, Elyanna.
Returning back to your music, you recently released “I Cook When I’m Homesick.” What was the whole songwriting and recording process like behind this?
Last Ramadan [May] was the early stages of the pandemic, and I couldn’t see my family. At the time, I had just moved to New York, so I was kind of stranded in New York. No family. For the first time in my life, I had like no Arabs in my life, no Muslims in my life. It was just me and my roommates, who are lovely people but they’re not from the same culture as me, you know? Ramadan is usually this time where everyone [from the community] gets together, and there’s a feast every night. It’s very communal and a very important part of both the culture and the religion. At the time, I was just so alone and sad. So, I started FaceTiming my dad and cooking. I realized that by cooking the food that he used to cook for me, I felt better. He would walk me through how to cook everything, and then I would just sit down by myself at fast-breaking time and eat; it made me feel a little bit better.
Around that time, I started writing the lyrics. I usually tend to write the words before the melodies a lot of times, so I kind of made this word map and sat with it for a bit. A few months later, I was finally ready to write a song about it but couldn’t figure out how. Eventually, one day the melody came to me. So, I went to my producer. I work with Good Stuff Records, so one of the members, Adam, helped me start producing it. During the production process, when I was laying down some vocals, I kind of came up with this idea for an outro in Arabic.
The outro was me writing about being homesick and trying to connect with my culture through cooking. Additionally, I was also sort of reflecting on how I’m drifting away from my culture. I’m Syrian, half-Croatian, and I haven’t been back to Syria since I was 12 or 13 due to the war. Because of that, I feel like my language skills are slipping and that I didn’t follow the path they set out for me. For example, they really wanted me to go to medical school, and I was like, I want to take a break and try music for a little bit. It’s a really common feeling for anyone who is sort of in diaspora, feeling not quite a part of the culture that you’re from. So the outro kind of came from this place. It’s a separate thing but kind of ended up tying in with the cooking theme in that like, I cook when I’m homesick, and also sorry for disappointing you. In a sense, I’m saying I’m sorry to like my grandma, to my dad, and to my hometown. I’m sorry I’ve forgotten everything and that I’ve disappointed you.
In retrospect, most of your music addresses personal emotions of loss, inner turmoil, and disconnection. How important is it to you to address themes of mental health in your music?
I would say very! I’m really happy that recently, this idea of being open about your mental health is really popular. It’s very encouraging, and that’s great, but I also think it’s kind of used a lot. You know, it’s almost like become trendy to be like, “I have this and that disorder” or whatever people think it’s like. In that sense, I feel like people have been trying to commodify mental health, which is really problematic. Because when you begin to commodify it, you begin to glamorize it. Once people begin to do that, they only show the positive aspects of it and not the negative aspects, so people will be like, “Oh, I’m depressed.” Their response will be, “Oh, don’t be depressed,” and they’ll just leave the conversation there.
Speaking of mental health, how are you doing, honestly?
I’m not great, honestly. Like I was telling you, I started music right before the pandemic hit. At first, I was like, maybe I can actually do this, but then it hit, and I was like, “I can’t gig, and no one knows who the fuck I am because I haven’t been able to get out there.” It’s also been really hard to network because I’m not like a TikTok kind of person, which is honestly a pretty great app for people who don’t have connections. But the market is also extremely saturated, so it’s hard. I’m trying not to give up. You know? I’m trying really hard not to give up, so I’m trying really hard to remember all of the good things and remember why I’m in music and why it’s important to me. It’s a tough time right now, but hopefully, I’ll come through, and good things will come out of it.
I appreciate your honesty. It’s really refreshing to just take a moment and check in with not only yourself but with others. With that in mind, what do you do to relax? How do you practice self-care?
I think the diplomatic way of answering that is like, it’s a journey and that I’m still perfecting that journey. For me, self-care has taken the form of trying to exercise more. Additionally, it’s not just doing face masks and having spa days; but instead, it’s allowing myself to be sad for a little bit. After a while, though, I’ll try to pull myself out of it, you know? Focus on exercising a little bit, go to therapy, and just be kinder to myself. It’s a lot of internal work rather than external work. In the end, though, it’s a journey that I’m still on.