We often only get to see the finished result of years worth of work; we don't always have the opportunity to look behind the curtain, at what makes our favorite artists tick, and what detours they had to take getting from Point A to Point B. We had the chance to talk to Jelena Dobric, frontwoman of one of Tunisia's greatest musical exports, Persona, about exactly that. She tells us what it's like being in a metal band in Northern Africa, being your own manager, and what it's like to be a woman in the boys club of metal.
Obviously the Tunisian music scene is pretty obscure to most of the world, let alone metal bands. Admittedly, Myrath is the only other band that comes to mind for many. Tell us a little about what it’s like trying to build a career in heavy music in Tunisia, and what obstacles you faced getting started.
Jelena: It’s tough, I must admit that. Anything heavier than some kind of commercial pop/house music, or something that’s not oriental in some way, will hardly ever get the attention of media here. Luckily, this is something that can be solved with the help of the internet, but there are other things that are a lot more difficult to deal with. For example, there are no labels, recording studios nor music producers that specialize in rock/metal, and same goes for music videos; there are no venues, no festivals, and concerts are organized only by few music lovers and enthusiasts, or by bands themselves. Those are the conditions that slowed us down so many times, and I sincerely hope something will change in the future.
So I'm curious, what sort of live options do you have? Where can you play out, and how hard is it to find a set of bands to do a metal show?
Jelena: We can either organize the concert ourselves, or participate if another band or usually a music lover and enthusiast organizes it. Of course, the organization assumes dealing with many things that don't function well in Tunisia, so it's quite an adventure (we haven't organized anything just by ourselves yet, but we're thinking about it). Also, from the technical point of view, most of those concerts are never well executed (everything's horribly late - not just the fault of the organizers, but of everyone involved; not enough time for sound check; sometimes too many bands squeezed in too short period of time, so everyone has to reduce their time on stage; the worst of all, sound system of not such a good quality and very bad sound as a result). But even in those conditions, bands are happy to play and audience is happy to be there, there's good energy between people and everyone's giving their best. We just had to lower our standards and to be prepared for all eventualities. I really hope some day soon we'll get to play in entirely professional conditions. It is not difficult to find a set of bands for a show, there are many new bands that are just starting, as well as some that have been playing for some years, and they are always ready to participate.
You mentioned the challenges of the do-it-yourself process. I think most people have some idea (though maybe not completely accurate) of the financial burdens you have to deal with trying to make an album, but they don’t necessarily understand the time and emotional energy that goes into what you’re doing. What’s it like to be your own manager and PR firm, all in one?
Jelena: We’re still new in all this, and we have to learn and manage things, all at the same time. Since this is just the beginning, we’re still able to somehow handle it by ourselves, but even in this early stage, it’s really time and energy consuming. Especially if you’re a perfectionist, you can’t help but do every single little thing with 100% of your resources, and then you experience chronic fatigue, along with occasional brain shut downs hahahah ;). But being tired all the time is not the real issue here; what’s frustrating is that we sometimes end up not having enough time to make some actual music, because we must deal with everything else. But we’re still trying to find the right balance and I’m sure we’ll succeed.
Have you found that your reach, globally, is farther than you expected? I’m seeing positive reviews from The U.S. and Denmark, to name a few. That has to make the time spent sending out promos and press kits feel all the more worth it.
Jelena: To be honest, we still haven’t allowed ourselves to breathe a bit and turn around to properly look at the result of all our efforts. Every new review, comment and message gives us a great amount of extra motivation, because people are incredibly kind and supportive, and I’m proud to say that we now have fans even in Japan and South Korea, besides the US, Canada and all over Europe. I sincerely hope that we’ll get a chance to tour in some of those countries sometime soon and meet our fans in person.
Needless to say, your distinctive sound wasn’t an overnight phenomenon; it took time for you to find the “right” style. How did Persona come to be the metal fusion band it is today, and what influences did the individual members bring to the table?
Jelena: It’s true, it took some time until the style we have today developed. The main reason for that is the fact that we didn’t want to plan beforehand how our music should sound; we didn’t want to pick a genre or sound-alike bands. Of course, it was always meant to be something heavy because we all love energy that metal music possesses. But while we all have quite different tastes when it comes to metal or other music genres, they happen to meet just in the right spots and in the right way. In general, Melik prefers thrash, death and heavy metal, Yosri is more progressive/djent but he recently started showing a worrying amount of interest for funk music hahaha :D . Nesrine, Walid and I all love classical music, but Nesrine’s more into gothic metal, Walid into symphonic and I mostly prefer progressive/power. Our drummer Youssef loves everything with rich and complicated drum work ;).
Tell us about a time in that process where you felt as though, maybe, things weren’t going to work out the way you’d hoped; that moment when things seemed bleak.
Jelena: We had too many of those moments here in Tunisia as I said before, but we never thought about giving up, not even for a second. We used those times to improve and to learn, even from the most discouraging experiences we went through. We chose to accept it all as beneficial on the long run, and from this point of view, it certainly was. We’re stronger, wiser and ready to take on any new challenges future might bring.
For you, personally, how do you feel about the current place women occupy in modern heavy metal music? Have you ever found yourself the victim of metal gender stereotypes?
Jelena: I think we might be slowly taking over the scene! :D No, really, this might sound weird, but before we started doing more serious promotion for Persona, I wasn’t even aware that bands with female singers were so clearly classified as “female fronted”. Obviously, they ARE female fronted and therefore the label, but I never realized that there are so many people who particularly like metal with female singers, that there are groups, forums etc… dedicated to this type of music. It’s because I’ve never chosen any of my favorite bands according to the gender of the singer (another shocking fact: not many female fronted bands are on that list :D). I was, and still am simply drawn to the music itself and the quality of performance, be it a woman or a man in front of the mic. But now, belonging to the group of “female fronted” metal bands, I see that we’re quite numerous and I’m curious to see how will all that develop in the future. I don’t feel particularly affected or concerned by any stereotypes; there are more important things to think about ;).