A Peek Into the Life of a Singer/Songwriter

April 06, 2016

Rotana Tarabzouni

Rotana Tarabzouni ’10 was chosen as one of BBC's 100 Women of 2015. We chatted with her about how she's inspiring change.

What is your name, what was your class year, and what was your major at Simmons?

My name is Rotana Tarabzouni and I am a Simmons Alumna, class of 2010. My major was Communications, the PR/Marketing track.

What is a typical day in the studio like for you?

It definitely depends on the producer I'm working with, but right now I'm doing a ton of work around unzipping and shaping my existing work into ready-to-release tracks. I'll get to a session, and together we choose which of my songs we'll be working on. We'll spend our time playing with harmonies, building momentum, etc. to fill out each song to its fullest potential.

I tend to work on most of my music outside of the studio. My songs are so intimate and personal, so it's usually me alone, or one of my two co-writers (and best friends) and I on a coach.

What is the best part of the songwriting process?

Writing a song is one of the only truly releases I have in life, it's therapy. Even when you're recording jibberish, you listen back and somehow there is a story there that you are trying to tell yourself. And through the process of writing, editing, and sharing those words, you really get a deep look at what those words mean, or meant to you at some point in your life's journey.

Through writing and performing my songs, I have learned so much about myself in terms of what I crave most. -- I crave a part of myself that operates out of intuition and trust rather than logic and fear.

It has also helped me understand my critics. I write about my experiences with them, so naturally I have to write from their perspective as well. When you delve into your mind and pull out these words, you know they come from somewhere.

What is the hardest part of the songwriting process?

Songwriting only gets hard when you are writing something you don't feel, which happens a lot in this industry. Things tend to start sounding the same. Labels want you to maintain your writing at a very basic level. Sometimes when I'm writing a bubble-gum pop song for a pitch, I get a little discouraged because it really is hard to write something your heart isn't in.

Other than that, songwriting isn't hard. It gets ugly because you can't hide in songwriting. You have to get ugly with it for it to get beautiful.

What was your favorite class you took at Simmons? Why?

It would be impossible to choose! What I loved about Simmons, is that the classes all went beyond the subject and educated my values and beliefs as a person.

I loved Len Mailloux's radio class. It was fun and Len brought us all of his energy and warmth every class. I loved our final project in hosting and engineering our own show on the Simmons Radio, it was great!

I loved my Criminology class as well. That class made me more empathetic as a human being towards “criminals.” It disproved a lot of preconceived notions we have as human beings and was a very humbling experience.

If you could come back and take one class at Simmons what would it be?

The Animation class with Bob White! Word on the street is it is one of the most fun and engaging!

How has it been transitioning after graduation?

It's been amazing. Scary, confusing, and an adventure!! I went back to Saudi Arabia right after I graduated and worked for an oil company for a while. It definitely helped me realize that kind of success wasn't what fulfilled me and what's pushed me to pursue music. I've realized that the best way to transition is to just TRY things and not obsess about whether it's the “right” decision or not. Adulthood to me has very much been throwing paint on the wall and seeing what I can make.

How did Simmons help prepare you for your life outside school?

Simmons gave me the opportunity to use my voice unapologetically for four years straight. It was great! I needed that; before Simmons I never had an environment that allowed me to express myself without restrictions. My professors were so involved and make it a point to ensure I began to take ownership over my talents and declare myself an “Artist.” I didn't see the value in it then, because I didn't believe I was an artist. But I do now. I still see the ways in which Simmons has informed the way I interact with anyone from my friends to people in the music industry.

What advice would you give to the current Simmons undergraduate students?

Be exactly who you are. The choice to unapologetically be yourself is the truest form of independence. It is the most peaceful rebellion. Don't be obsessed with “decisions.” There is no right or wrong. When you are confused about your next career move or big decision, do your research, ask a few people you trust of their opinion. Then, stay silent. Don't overthink it - just do it!

Songwriting can be a long process. Where do you find your inspiration?

From everyday life! I still have so much to say as a girl from Saudi Arabia. I am building a new home and identity for myself that merges both my Saudi upbringing/values with my own values and way that aren't accepted in my culture yet. That's plenty of inspiration!! I am also FULL of emotions. I feel very strongly and deeply and that consumes me sometimes so I need to let it out.

Usually I get to a point where I can't contain a specific emotion and I'll sit at the piano and just close my eyes, turn my phone recorder on, and allow whatever comes from my heart to come out. Sometimes though, I'll have an idea first and approach the song like a puzzle to complete. Either way, I'm always trying to write a story within a song, because I find that those are the kinds of songs I connect with most – the ones that remind you how human we are.

Can you tell us about one of your favorite original songs? Why does it resonate with you?

Every one of my songs defines me in some way, but “Never Going Back” is a good intro to what I stand for as an artist and an individual. The lyric in the chorus repeats, “I'm calling like a wolf to the night,” and that is how I see myself moving through life as an artist. There's a great hunger and desire to know more than what is presented to you, and go into the darkness.

I also have a song called “Hunter” in which I repeat “Don't fight the animal,” as in do not fight the instinct inside of you.

You've been called Saudi Arabia's “daring voice”, how has your support for women's rights inspired others?

I am constantly getting emails, Facebook messages, Instagram comments, etc., from young women in the Middle East and all over the world telling me that because of my music and message, they've decided to pursue their dreams. Inspiring women to take charge of their own paths and follow their hearts is a huge part of my own inspiration. My little sister's life goal has changed to her finding out who she is and making sure she honors that despite our restricting culture. That to me is so so grand.

What are you doing to educate others about the culture in Saudi Arabia?

My country is so rich in culture and beauty. There is also an artistic renaissance happening right now in the region, so I do my best to express that Saudi is defined by more than oppression when I speak with people individually and during interviews. My pursuit of music is the biggest way for me to educated people. The bigger my reach becomes, the more people I can teach through music.

What's the next big thing you're working on?

I'm currently working on recording and releasing my first EP, which stands for “extended play,” and is a shorter version of a full-length album. I hope to get it out to everyone this year!

In April-June I'll be back in Saudi Arabia acting as the lead in a feature film by Saudi writer and Director Ahd Kamel. The film highlights the friendship between a young Saudi girl and her driver in the cultural backdrop of Saudi Arabia.

Follow Rotana throughout her recording process.

Check out her website, and follow her on Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.