Snoh Aalegra’s Lonely Los Angeles
Interview and Styling: Nazanin Shahnavaz
Photography: Elijah Dominique
When Snoh Aalegra walks into West Hollywood’s Petit Ermitage hotel, people notice. At 5'10", she is poised and statuesque, immediately striking, with dark, magnetic features. The Iranian-Swedish singer carries a natural air of sophistication, which is balanced by an evident weight of experience. Just as in her achy soul ballads, beauty and sadness cozy up close in Aalegra’s demeanor. Her story is one of struggle—with love, anguish, and loneliness—defined by the death of her estranged father. Managing to become one of the year’s most promising female artists amidst personal tragedy has been a remarkable feat, and you can see it and hear it in everything that she does. She is a comforting counsel, exuding the warmth of an old friend while gracious and unafraid to open up with a rare honesty. Here she talks with Nazanin Shahnavaz about love, loss, and being mentored by her idol, Prince.
L.A. seems like a lonely city.
It’s a very lonely city. The sun shines every day, but there’s an underlying darkness. You wonder what people are up to, where they are hiding. I like a high-tempo metropolis, when the city feels alive, like Stockholm, London, or New York. In L.A., everyone’s in their car.
It feels less spontaneous.
I still try to walk and people look at me like, “What are you doing?”
You are half-Iranian and half-Swedish, and you split your time between L.A. and Sweden. How do those two lifestyles compare?
There’s some obvious differences. L.A. is a fantasy place. It’s bizarre. Moving here, I was surprised by how much the city lives up to its own clichés. I've met some of the most amazing people in my life in here, and some of the worst. Everybody wants to be famous, even if they have no business being famous. In Sweden, people are modest. At the same time, that’s what I like about the U.S.: no idea is too big. It's the American dream mentality, and it’s kind of sweet. I don’t know if living here makes me happy, but it’s good for creating.
You must get a lot of people asking you where you’re from.
I get asked that almost every day. As soon as I open my mouth, people are like, “Oh, you have an accent, where are you from?” It’s perplexing, because I’m confused in my own identity. The blood in my veins is Iranian and, as you know, Iranian culture is like, “more is more.” Everything is glam and everything is extra. We're bigger families, and very warm, very poetic, romantic. I love that side. I am that. But at the same time, my love for melancholy and minor chords when I make music comes from the dark Swedish winters.
Who did you look up to musically when you were young?
When we had family gatherings my mom would play Persian music, and we would all dance. She listened to a lot of jazz and soul music. She loved big voices like Shirley Bassey and Whitney Houston, so I was very influenced by that. I'm influenced by all the greats: MJ, Stevie, Whitney, Prince.
Tell me about your friendship with Prince.
Prince was everything I imagined him to be. All of that and beyond. He lived up to the stories, he lived up to the legend. Meeting him changed my life. The day after I signed with Sony, his manager contacted the label asking for my details. Apparently, he’d tried to get ahold of me on Facebook, but I’d somehow missed his message. Sony called to ask if they could pass on my info and I was like, “YES!” And then Prince called me and wanted to meet up. I just couldn’t believe that one of my biggest idols recognized me. Nobody knew my name at the time. I had dropped two songs online, and he was already onto them. He was constantly on his computer, digging for new music.
What was he like as a person?
He was one of the funniest people I’ve ever met, always joking around. He’d prank call me. Once he showed up at my hotel at 4:00am to go on a donut mission. Another time, I fell asleep on his private plane and woke up to him throwing popcorn at me. We spoke about everything from music to religion to makeup—we’d compare eyeliner. I’ll never forget one moment: I was meeting him in LA—he would always stay at the Beverly Hills Hotel—and he shut down 1912, the downstairs bar, so it was just the two of us. There he expressed how much he believed in me, and how he wanted to work on an album with me after I completed Don't Explain. Then he walked over to the piano and started playing. I was like, “This is not happening.” He had me just jamming along with him. That’s something I’ll never forget.
That’s wild, a whirlwind friendship with Prince. I’m sorry it came to such an abrupt end. You mention your life has often been dramatic—with family, work, love?
My parents divorced when I was young, and I was always stuck between their never-ending disagreements. I didn't speak to my dad for several years. Once we regained contact, it was too late, because he got sick quickly after and I lost him. I'm very scared of death, and I'm not at peace with it. When it comes to my career, I've been doing music for as long as I can remember, and I'm still struggling. It's turned me into a tougher person, and a better artist, but also made me a bit bitter. It's been difficult for me to break through, with people judging all the time. Then the last thing is love: I don't make the best choices in the love department. But naturally it has inspired my writing, as it gives my life very high highs and very low lows.
When did you last have your heart broken?
Yesterday. Today. Probably tomorrow. I live with a broken heart [Laughs]. But jokes aside, I think I actually do. Unfortunately, I love with my heart and my not my brain. Often I should run the other way but I don't. I'm a hopeless romantic, unhappily in love.
All this hardship is clearly good for you creatively.
I’m so moved when I listen to music. I still remember the first time I heard Whitney Houston’s voice. I felt spiritually connected. Music is love. It’s a powerful exchange of energy. And, I just hope my music makes people feel something.