Shout Sister Shout: Zela Margossian (IWD 2021)
Approx. 6 minute 30 second read
Shout Sister Shout, my series of interviews to celebrate women in music, is inspired by the (untold) story of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, taking inspiration from the lyrics of one of her popular tunes. I aim to shout about the achievements of my sisters, women in music, by capturing a tiny part of their intricate and fascinating stories here. I’m sharing it with you, my trusted repository, so their stories can be shared again and again.
Zela Margossian has a rich cultural heritage from which she draws inspiration and meaning for the other-worldly music she creates in her ethno-jazz outfit, the Zela Margossian Quintet (ZMQ). Storytelling is central to her creative process. Let’s get to know Zela…
Sonia de Freitas: Hi Zela, how are you and where does our interview find you today?
Zela Margossian: Hello Sonia, I am well thank you and hope you are too. After a very busy week, I am now in my comfy home clothes, on my sofa, responding to your lovely questions.
SdF: Can you tell me about your journey in music? When did you know that you were going to make music your career?
ZM: I started playing piano when I was very young; at the age of four. I used to love music so much that I don’t remember a day where music wasn’t a part of my life, whether it was practicing my pieces, singing in choir, going to solfegio and theory lessons or just singing by myself and listening to music. Growing up, I was trained in classical music and in that time of my life, my aspiration was becoming a classical performer and even had dreams of studying piano performance in Germany. However, as life is full of surprises, circumstances led me to study piano performance in my motherland, Armenia, where I was immersed in my culture, specifically Armenian folk music. During my studying years at the Komitas State Conservatorium, I was exposed to the fusion music of Armenian folk and jazz at the local venues and I fell in love with it. It spoke directly to my heart and captured my soul but as I was focused on preparing and practicing my intense repertoires at the Con, I didn’t take the risk to study jazz harmony or even think of transitioning to that genre only until I moved to Sydney years later and only after transitioning and finding my happy place as a musician, I knew that music could be a career option for me.
SdF: The Zela Margossian Quintet recently released the album Transition. It is a stellar blend of sonorities from your heritage of Armenian and Middle Eastern traditions. My two top tracks are The Child In Me and the title track, Transition. Can you tell me about your creative process when producing this work? Is there anything particular you do that is special to your creative process?
ZM: I think the core of my music is always story-telling as most of my pieces have a story or an experience which produces the ideas or triggers my creativity. I usually don’t sit down to compose as I am very busy usually. I usually have bursts of ideas when I am walking, or driving, or having a still moment and when that happens, I quickly record my voice singing the riff or melodic phrase or the rhythmic idea to avoid forgetting it. When I have the basic idea for the tune, I can then spend some time on and off, composing it and gradually finalising it.
SdF: Who is your sounding board? There must be someone that you trust to give you brutally honest feedback on your music. How do they fit into the process?
ZM: Usually, my band members are my sounding board as we exchange opinions and suggestions when we first test-out a new tune. Matt McMahon, my mentor is the first person outside of the band who would hear the new compositions and offer advice or guidance when required.
SdF: What was the first song that you remember making an impact in your life and why was/is it so important?
ZM: I don’t remember one particular song which has made an impact. I have a collection of songs of different genres and from different periods in my life which have made an impact on me along the way. I can mention a few. 1) The soundtrack of Sound of Music was the soundtrack of my childhood. Annie and Oliver Twist soundtracks take second place. 2) Adolescent years: Various rock groups and also Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. Rachmaninof concertos (specifically Concerto No. 2). Debussy piano works. Khatchaturian Piano Concerto. Armenian folk music. 3) And finally ethno-jazz music or fusion jazz with folk music from different cultures, but specifically for me, Armenian ethno-jazz has a big influence on me and my music.
SdF: Have you experienced particular challenges as a female musician? How did you overcome these challenges and what do you think needs to change for others to avoid these challenges in the future?
ZM: I think my biggest challenge to overcome was giving myself permission to transition from being a classical performer to what I am currently doing; being creative with my music and expressing myself.
SdF: So, what’s on the horizon for you? Any projects you’re working on or new releases to share?
ZM: I am happy to confirm that most of Zela Margossian Quintet’s pieces for the 2nd album are recorded. There are just a few left which will be recorded in the coming few months. The release of the second album hopefully will be sometime in the 2nd half of 2021. I am also collaborating with saxophonist Jeremy Rose for a commission project for ABC. The project is called “Visions of Nar: Hymns of New Hope” which takes inspiration from the Armenian goddess of water, sea, and rain. It’s music that offers hope into the world and a celebration of new beginnings. The album personnel will include tabla master Bobby Singh and guitarist Hilary Geddes and will be recorded in May and released most probably sometime after that in 2021.
SdF: What is your most memorable performance and why?
ZM: I think so far, one of my most memorable performances was my performance with the Lebanese National Symphony Orchestra in 2006 when I performed Prokofiev’s first concerto. However, that one seems to be a part of my past life as a classical performer. One of the memorable performances I had with ZMQ was our performance in Beirut, Lebanon for the International Jazz Day festival in April 2018. It was very special for me to be back in my hometown (after so many years) and present my own compositions in the most iconic square in Downtown Beirut. Another recent memorable ZMQ performance would be our show at the Sydney Opera House in December 2020.
SdF: Musicians come in many “flavours”; vocalists, trumpeters, bassists… ; if you weren’t a pianist, what flavour musician would you want to be and why?
ZM: I think I would want to be a drummer or a percussionist as I love rhythm which has a major presence in my compositions.
SdF: What advice would you give to any aspiring musicians out there?
ZM: I would advise them to trust their instincts and be courageous to go after what makes them happy. It is also important to be aware of your strengths as a musician and use them to move forward, but at the same time it is important to work on the weaknesses and learn and improve your craft as much as possible as knowledge and gaining experience is limitless!
To learn more about Zela Margossian visit: zelamargossian.com
To buy Zela Margossian’s music visit: zelamargossian.bandcamp.com
For more information on International Women’s Day visit: internationalwomensday.com
Keep an eye out for my next interview in the Shout Sister Shout series where I interview Amelia Evans.
Did you miss the previous Shout Sister Shout instalment? Read Ellen Kirkwood’s interview here.