Tell us about yourself in your own words.
My artist name is Shoeb Ahmad, I am otherwise known as Sia. I’ve been making music as a “musician” for a decade or so and I also dabble in sound art and all kinds of weird noise making as well. I’m Canberra to the core, greatest city in the world. I’m a human being.
You have your own record label is that correct?
Yes, I had a record label. When I was 18 years old in my college high school bedroom I decided I was going to start a record label just because I wanted to put out CDRs for some reason. So I started hellosQuare and we did a compilation as our first thing and I just didn’t stop until quite recently. Even now I’ve only really stopped making physical editions but back in the day it was making CDRs and you know, cutting out cardboard to make covers and gluing and stitching. Then I met my wife Kate so she started sewing covers with awesome fabric and she did a lot of knitting as well back in the 3 inch CD days. I used to buy a lot of 3 inch CDs, make 3 song kind of singles and Kate would knit these amazing covers for them. Which in hindsight was a lot of work for her and not a lot of work for me! It was kind of nice to hand stamp stuff and think about how to make it look nice beyond the music so it was not just aesthetically pleasing sonically. As time went on, we got a bit lazier (busier?) so I just spent more money and we started doing bigger more professional pressings. At some point in the last 6 years I met Adam J Bragg who became the hellosQuare graphic designer and took on the visual identity of the label. We’ve got a very unique visual identity in terms of blending painting, photos and general design, which is cool. Adam is kind of from the same DIY background as me but works as a graphic designer for his living too so the label is his passion project where he gets to let loose. We’re on the same wavelength so it’s cool.
So you don’t do hellosQuare that much anymore?
Not as a physical label, but we still do digital releases. Bandcamp is good because it meant we could sell stuff without having to worry about putting stuff into shops because it’s kind of niche music at the best of times. I guess with hellosQuare, because I love so many different kinds of music, actually there is nothing to anchor hellosQuare down as a genre. For instance, Adam played in a great Canberra post hardcore screamo band called Moments and we just reissued all their tracks as a digital thing because I’ve been saying to Adam since we first met that we should do it. Then Luke (Keanan-Brown), the drummer in my solo band has a jazz improvisation trio and we just did their release as well and we did the first Hoodlum Shouts stuff and the Agency stuff as well. Just weird noise stuff as well. It’s all digital and very slow going.
Is there something you would identify most with in an art form?
I’m really just self-taught as an artist, especially as a musician. I never learned to play guitar, I actually still don’t know my chords and I’m sort of just dicking around on a keyboard trying to figure out what I’m doing. It’s just cause I don’t know, I didn’t like having to take lessons. I’m like a jack of all trades and definitely not a master of anything. But I like that. When I went to uni - I dropped out of uni doing a music degree, because I didn’t want to be doing, I wanted to get back to playing shows and doing stuff like make records. Because I did electronic music in a media arts course I had to do something else as a second major so I decided to do graphic design because I thought it would be adaptable to what I wanted to do. I like doing visual stuff even if I’m not the best person at it, at least I can work around that. I guess I’m just a creative person. That’s the only thing I can say.
You’re a multi-instrumentalist as well.
Yeah, I guess it’s a means to an end.
Do you have a favourite instrument?
I actually really like playing the drums. I’m not a good drummer. I write everything on guitar or piano but I don’t practice guitar and piano but I’ve got a drum kit at home and I’ll go in and just smash the crap out of it.
Do you play the drums in any projects?
Yeah I do actually. There’s a band I’m in called Oranges and I’ve only just joined Oranges but I joined them as the drummer and I’m also doing some keyboard. I’m playing guitar as well. It’s this weird thing where I just press play and I’m just doing everything else while Luciana (Harrison) and Emma (McManus) get to sing and play their great songs – which is fun. I’m really in the background, it’s awesome!
Tell us about your creative process.
The key for me is that everything is really conceptual and I spend a lot of time thinking about the work before even getting to the practical stage. So with songwriting for instance, musically I might have written something on guitar like the chord structures but unless it’s just going to be guitar and voice which it definitely never is, I’ll actually just kind of ponder what the hell is going to happen with that song or even like if it’s a sound art installation thing, I’ll just kind of ponder and ponder and ponder until I have a really clear idea in my head what this is going to be at the end. I’ll sit around, or like I’ll be driving and I’ll be humming or awkwardly beat boxing and before I drove, I’d be doing that on the bus thinking it’s gotta be pretty weird for people sitting next to me. But it’s a cool process, because a lot of what I actually make has to be done on the computer and I’d rather not sit at the computer, getting headaches from staring at a screen for too long with no end result.
Do you record your little beatboxes and humming and things?
I didn’t but then I bought an iPhone and I’ve been doing the old voice memo, which is always fun. Hilarious to listen back to.
How has your process and practice changed over time?
Well embarrassingly, the only reason I got an iPhone was to take photos on tour because I needed to get media savvy! So I’ve bought an iPhone and now, no apps work on it. I did a lot of improvising and I still do, but like with a lot of what I’ve been discovering with my identity and what I’ve been embracing a lot of the improvisation stuff had to do with not being confident in my own abilities.
What sort of themes do you pursue through your music and songwriting and what inspires your work?
I guess I never really had themes for a very long time. I did a lot of improvising and that was about not having to maybe consider a lot of things and just kind of get on and make a ruckus. Then, 3-4 years ago I started embracing my feminine identity and feeling that actually represented me better than a masculine identity. That was kind of freeing for me, personally, but then, in August 2016, I was between tours and what had happened since I started embracing my identity as a woman was that I was compartmentalising my life. I was presenting male at work and everyday life and to my friends, but I’d come out to my wife Kate and we were obviously dealing with those issues, but also I was able then to express myself the way I wanted to at home for certain amounts of time. I was going on tours on my own, and I would basically say I’m going to present female on that trip which is why I guess hotel rooms have a specific meaning to me. Between these two tours I’d compartmentalised my life to be a punk rock dude or whatever and then be a noisemaking dude and I had all this gear and the tiniest clothing bag ever - it was like dude clothing - 3 tshirts, one pair of shorts, and then underneath all of that was my feminine identity just a shit tonne more, because I guess that’s who I am - a femme. It was a weird disconnect. In these two days I had between tours I was in a hotel room and I checked in male and I went out female, but I think I ended up getting targeted for a robbery of my hotel room. Probably because I would be coming across as potentially vulnerable. So I had a lot of gear stolen, and the room was a mess, and it was a weird thing where I had to actually confront being a woman, because I had to go to the police about what had happened and there was a lot of kind of soul searching in this insane four hour period between it happening and getting on with everything else. But at that point in time I started thinking about it more and I was dealing with it when I got back to Canberra. So I started writing words to these songs that I had thought I’ll make a solo record out of. At least half the music had been there for 2 years already and a lot of people who are playing in the solo band now actually knew about that music back then but there was no words because I had nothing important to say but it’s funny it’s just that journey as well. So when I thought I’m just going to write, it was almost like therapy for myself and I don’t really like going to counselors or wanting to talk to someone. I like to think I’m good with expressing my emotions but I don’t like talking about them specifically so it was really nice. I dealt with a lot of things, not just around my identity in terms of gender but also as an ethnic person in Australian culture and also in terms of religion as well. It’s all so intertwined, it’s very complicated and loaded between how I feel my gender identity represents me within religion, within the wider society. So this all kind of came out and now I’m here and I’m kind of saying all this stuff. I think each song will resonate differently at each performance, so I’m not losing a vulnerability, but also being strong in vulnerability as well and acknowledging ‘yeah it’s there, it’s happening, it’s hard, I gotta get on with it’.
Seems like your solo stuff is really moving along.
I guess I really want to get it out there and the other stuff is just happening and a lot of it’s kind of older as well in terms of its history so I don’t have to worry too much. I always feel like with the solo stuff because it’s me, it’s music from my heart and my mind. Back in the day when I didn’t really feel like I was saying anything it was kind of nice listening and it was cool and fun, but now it’s like, well there’s a message there and not everyone’s going to really give a shit but you know for the two people every 2 months, 4 months, 6 months a year who are like ‘holy crap there’s someone else out there like me’ well, actually that’s what’s worth it. So I’m doing that, but there is so much going on.
What do you as artist stand for?
I guess it changes obviously. At the moment it feels like I’m in a place where I feel like I’m writing cool, interesting music - again, not everyone’s going to be into it, but someone will be into it. The message is there, there’s a narrative. I don’t think it’s important, I don’t think everyone has to hear about my narrative, but I think it’s a narrative that people can empathise with and know that someone is empathising with them. But at the same rate, maybe the core of me as a an artist is that I just want to prove to the world that you don’t have to be a fucking genius to make art, you can just do it and anyone can do it. Maybe that’s what I really stand for is just… do it.
What’s the biggest obstacle you face when expressing yourself creatively?
Probably that a lot of people won’t get it. I think that’s what it is. But also, the people you want to like it or understand it I think do, so that’s not the challenge. The challenge is like trying to get through glass ceilings and making sure people can actually appreciate it. The irony I feel like when I made the solo music was I thought ‘okay I’m an adult now. I’m okay with being an adult and I’m okay with being older and you know what? I’m a contemporary adult so I’m going to make adult contemporary music for people like me talking about themes that are relevant to me’. I’m not going to write a Steely Dan record about going yachting, because that has nothing to do with me. I’m going to try and make a cool soulful soft rock record that talks about gender, race and religion.
What is the best piece of advice you could give to young women and queer folk who want to make art or music or just be seen and heard?
You’ve got to try. Don’t worry about what other people say, just keep on doing it and it might not be amazing the first time around but you just have to keep trying and failing and then getting better. We all make mistakes, so, really - just don’t give a fuck.