Habibi the word is Arabic for “my love,” but Habibi the band is four self-proclaimed tomboys who share love for their friends, families, food and rock ‘n roll. Their debut self-titled album was released earlier this year (via Burger) showing their simply-produced music which can be described as Motown meets the Middle East. Frontwoman Rahill Jamalifard’s Persian background mixed with her and guitarist Lenny Lynch’s Detroit upbringing revive a ’60s sound with relatable contemporary subject matters.
The day I called them up to chat, the busy ladies were shooting the video at a junior high school in New York City for their single, I Got The Moves. From what I’ve heard, it’s going to be a nostalgic mix of all their favorite ’70s and ’80s movies combined. Lucky for me, Habibi was able to take a pause in one of the school’s bathrooms to talk to us about musical influences, their favorite dining spots and the inspiration for their artwork.
Hey, so you guys have been shooting a music video this morning, right? Can you tell us a little bit about which song it’s for and what we can look forward to?
Rahill Jamalifard (lead vocals): Yeah, it’s for I Got The Moves, and it’s going to be great! It’s going to be set in high school, and it’s pretty much every one of my favorite ’80s and ’70s movies put together in two minutes. It’s got a dash of Rock And Roll High School, a dash of Grease, a dash of Female Trouble, Ferris Bueller. We rented out a junior high school today and they were so kind to us, they let us rent out the school and these little girls, they were like 12 or 13, had their own rock and roll band and they were helping us out and were like our interns on the set. It was really amazing.
That must have been awesome for them, right?
Rahill: Yeah, they let us into this classroom and there were these old lockers by the side of the wall and everything. It was pretty amazing. Yeah I’m excited for what it turns into. We’re still shooting tonight.
So it’s an all-day type of thing?
Rahill: Oh my God, forgive us if we sound brain dead or anything (laughs).
Don’t worry about it, I totally understand. You guys have just recently released your first LP so congratulations for that, first of all. Can you talk about how the response has been so far?
Rahill: Yes, it was overwhelming. I don’t think we expected so much of a positive and excited response from everybody. Including you guys, I mean all of the college radio stations and all of the positive reviews from everybody.
That’s great! So since Habibi is Arabic for “my love,” what are some things that you all love?
Lenny Lynch (guitar): Food!
Rahill: Family, friends, rock and roll music. We really love the three times a day that we eat and that’s when we’re the most excited about food.
Karen Isabel (drums): We’re the most edible band!
Rahill: We ate like an hour before this interview.
So is it like after every meal, you’re thinking about the next one? That’s how I am.
Erin: Yeah, and I totally love horchata iced coffees! Austin, we love you for creating those!
Lenny: The only different thing too is that we try to show our different personalities of what we like. I’m always like, “I hope there’s champagne at this dive bar!”
So have you guys ever heard of the graphic novel Habibi by Craig Thompson?
Rahill: Yeah, my good friend gave me a copy when we first started the band.
Did you guys know about it when you named yourselves or did you find out afterwards?
Rahill: No, we had no idea, it was only afterward that we heard about it.
So can you talk about how your background affects your songwriting? Because I know your sound has been described as kind of “Motown meets the Middle East,” but what are your specific musical influences as far as singers and songwriters or even literature?
Rahill: I think Lenny and I had really similar interest in Middle Eastern psych and garage rock. She grew up in Detroit and I grew up outside of Detroit so we both have a mutual love of the Motown stuff. I think for me, the most beautiful songs are the old Iranian tapes that I grew up listening to, which were the most poetic, saddest songs I ever heard. You know, trying to translate them to English doesn’t do them justice, but I really love the lyrical quality. And our lyrics aren’t necessarily sad but I feel like, lyrically, having such rich content was influenced by my upbringing.
So do you think when you write songs that the most important part is the lyrics?
Rahill: Well no, because if the lyrics are great for a song, but the melody is lacking, it’s all for nothing. Every element we have together, like what Karen’s doing on drums, what Erin’s doing on bass, what solo Lenny’s doing, has to be unified, it can’t be unbalanced. I think because our songs are really simple, the lyrics are just as much of an instrument as everything else.
I wanted to ask you about the song “Detroit, Baby” because when I first listened to it, I thought it was just about Detroit, but it’s not, right? Is it about a relationship or anyone in particular?
Lenny: Well, it’s about a guy from Detroit, but it’s pretty fictional. Like, it’s based off of real events, but it’s fictionalized and Detroit is referenced in it, like even a street is referenced in it. So, yeah, it’s about Detroit, but it’s the story of a love affair that happened there. You know, a guy from the mean streets who brings you flowers and who’s being sweet. There’re so many songs from the ’50s and ’60s that were like, “My baby’s from Kalamazoo,” and every city has their baby. So we really wanted to honor Detroit, and not the guys there but… just kidding, just kidding.
So what influenced you to come to New York, and which city do you prefer?
Karen: Well Erin and I are from here.
Rahill: And we all met out here, even though Lenny and I are both from Michigan. We have a bunch of mutual friends, we met out here.
Lenny: Rahill, when did you move here?
Rahill: About six years ago?
Lenny: I’ve been here for seven years now. You know, there’re so many amazing things about Detroit, and of course there’s so much of a music culture. And so many of our peers there, everybody knew each other and they all dated each other’s sisters (laughs). You know, Detroit can really wear on you, and sometimes it’s not a healthy thing for everyone to know each other. But honestly, I have only good things to say about Detroit, except you gotta watch your back!
Is it really that dangerous?
Lenny: Hell yes, it is! I mean, I got every window busted in my car, I’ve been held up. All our friends have endless stories. It’s definitely a grimy city.
But you know, it’s your city so that’s why you love it.
Cool, so another song that I liked on your album was Tomboy, and I was wondering if the song was possibly about one of you in the band, or was it also fictional?
Rahill: It’s a fictionalized song that I wrote inspired by our drummer, Karen! Because when I met her, I was like, “This girl is such a badass,” and I just had such a huge crush on her. I just thought she was so cool, she’s so New York, so Queens. And people might get the wrong idea because if you listen to it and take one sentence out of context, but the girl is actually sweet. At the end of the song she’s like, “Can I help my mom?” And she has a really great relationship with her mom.
And her mom is the band mom basically, because she’s out here. But you know, she’s tough and that’s what I saw in Karen. I saw this really strong woman who’s struggled with bullshit but is cool as hell and watching our back. It’s like “Don’t fuck with her.” And at the same time she’s so sweet. When I was writing that, Lenny was like, “Oh it kind of sounds like a Blondie song!” because I think of Karen as Blondie and I was like, yes! That’s a real New York love song.
So you basically have that tribute to Detroit and cryptically added this nod to New York! Ok, so which song for each of you is your favorite and for what reason?
Lenny: I’ve always loved “Let Me In” and I think every time I hear it I feel proud of it and has this ’60s element that I really like.
Erin: I would say “Sunsets” or “Gone Like Yesterday.” I really like songs that get into a certain groove. I think “Let Me In” does that too, but “Sunsets” and “Gone Like Yesterday” definitely just flow and every time I play them I’m just having a really good time.
Karen: I have to say “Detroit Baby” because I like the swing of it, and it’s a dance tune and I like to dance.
Rahill: It’s hard for me to say, because I feel like allegiance to “Persepolis” because I wrote it with a full heart about my grandfather and lyrically I really love it. Because it’s a tribute to my Pops, and Persepolis is this ancient ruin outside of the city my father’s from. It’s between that and “She Comes Along” because it was really the first song I ever wrote and it’s always been super special to me. It’s probably the simplest song ever and literally like six notes. There’s something about it that makes me revisit the feeling of writing the song, and the first time you do that and it’s really special.
So I wanted to talk about the cover art for your album. I read that you do it yourself so I was wondering do you have an art background? And how does the music influence the art?
Rahill: I have an art background for sure, like I’ve always done art and I really love collages.
Yeah, I wanted to know if the cover was a collage or if you drew it.
Rahill: The cover is completely collage besides a photograph of a nomadic tribe in Iran. But yeah, it’s all collage besides the photograph on the back. There’s a few songs where there’s definitely a Shia in the lyrics. Even on our single cover, I did a collage with a photograph that I took of my cousin in Iran. So there’s women on both covers and I think it’s just representative of the subjects of many of the songs. So I think they both inspire each other.
So that brings me to my last question, do you think being an all-girl group has an influence on your overall vibe at all, or how people view you?
Erin: I think if anything, it’s the way people view us. We’re just being ourselves and being people and if anything all of us are kind of tomboys.
Karen: Our friend just said something really funny like five minutes before the interview. She said, “Do people ask Animal the drummer if he’s a puppet drummer or a regular drummer?” We are who we are and we’re not thinking that we’re women or anything, we just go off of our experiences.
Rahill: And I think it would never interfere with the lyrical content. Because really, you write what you know.
Karen: It’s pretty comfortable but also, girl bands can do things that guy bands can’t. We’re all big fans of all-female bands like Pleasure Seekers. We’re all fans of that kind of element. And guy bands have a different sound. And I think what we’re doing now is pretty unique for girl bands too.