Shébani greets me on Zoom, glasses on and a Whitney Houston t-shirt. She has a very calm aura about her, an easy-going vibe that makes you feel at home instantly. Born in Iraq, Shébani’s family left in 1991 to flee the Gulf War, making their way first to Jordan but ultimately ending up in Dubai. Shébani grew up in a creative family, with both her parents being writers – her mum was a TV and radio presenter and has written an autobiography about her life, as well as fictional books. Her dad is a poet and an author, collaborating with many people in the UAE. Sarah’s sisters are also both creatives – a singer/actress and a painter and fashion designer. It was only natural that Shébani ended up creating and performing her own music.
“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree!”, Shébani tells me, taking her family’s last name to use as her stage name. She tells me that she started writing and releasing original music in 2016, but her journey really started in 2015:
“I’ve been writing and releasing original music since 2016. I did start in 2015, but 2015 wasn’t me writing original music – to be honest it didn’t really occur to me that I was going to pursue that. I just started off with a YouTube channel where I would make and post covers. I was going to open mic nights in the city in Dubai and then just performing left and right, mainly enjoying it. Growing up all I did was put on my headphones like an emo kid and sit in the corner of my room with my notebook and a pen, and I would write down the lyrics that I’m listening to from each song. I think that allowed me to connect so much to my emotions and I really enjoyed knowing that somebody out there is helping me express myself as a young teen… Even know as an adult. It really fascinated me that someone was just singing something about a certain thing I’m feeling.”
Shébani applied to the British and Irish Modern Music Institute (BIMM) on a whim, while simultaneously working on her first EP “Alter Ego”, and by September 2016, Shébani was in London, studying music and song-writing for a year.
“I was in London with an EP in one hand and the craving for knowledge in the other. I went to BIMM and it was fantastic and I was changed as not only an artist, but as a person. There was a lot of growth in that experience and boy, do I love growth! It makes me happy to know that I’m not stagnant.”
It was when Shébani came back to Dubai in September 2017 after her year-long diploma that her music career took off. In only 3 months back home, Shébani was opening for American rapper Pusha T at the Sole DXB event in Dubai. In 2019, she opened for British singer-songwriter Jorja Smith, and ex One Direction member Liam Payne at The EXPO 2020. But Shébani knows her strength as an artist, and made sure she opened for Smith – certain in her knowledge that she was the perfect person for it:
“Honestly, I’m going to put it out there – I actually fought for that spot because it came to me randomly, and I’m very grateful for that […] Before Jorja Smith, they were actually going to out an alternative rock/funk band and I was before them… and then when I got the call, I said “this is amazing, but I’m only going to do it if I go before Jorja Smith and open for her”. I was on the phone saying “I’m not trying to be difficult, but I am the perfect style/person to open for her” And […] it worked which I’m so happy about.”
She also casually tells me that she opened up for Khalid in December 2021 at Formula I in Abu Dhabi. I tell Shébani that the experiences she’s had in such a short time, are not only down to her talents as a singer, songwriter and ultimately, a writer with the utmost honesty, is admirable and very impressive. She’s touched by my words, but tells me that her confidence is ever-fluctuating, and that her younger self would laugh if someone told her what her future would look like…
” […] if you told my 16/17 year old self that I was going to be doing all of that… I probably would have said “you’re delusional”. But, here I am. There are times where I don’t actually realise it and I’m so hard on myself. I’m my worst critic. And listen, this might sound really cliché but I mean it – I am my worst critic. I’m telling you about all these things I’ve done in the last 5 or 6 years and to be honest… I still have days where I’m like “what the fuck are you doing? You’re not good enough.” I sometimes don’t acknowledge it or realise it because I’m in it… I have to see myself from the outside in.”
Shébani originally started out studying film and photography, aiming to be a director or photographer. However, deep down she knew that she wanted to be a musician, singing her songs in front of huge crowds. She admits that when she first started performing in front of people she would break out in hives and rashes due to nerves. And to think that over a decade and a bit later, she would be singing in front of thousands, opening for famous musical artists – and if you listen to Shébani’s latest single “Burn Me Out”, it’s easy to see why she’s come so far in such a short time:
“… “Burn Me Out” was written completely different to how I write. I wrote it on the keys and a little bit on the guitar – this was before I even approached the producer James Chatburn to tell him that I wanted to work with him on new music and my upcoming album. I always write something, even if it’s like a sentence or a verse – I’m always writing something on my phone… I hit him up and I think the same day or the day after, he ended up sending me a couple of instrumentals he had already written a while back. One of them was “Burn Me Out”, and I loved the instrumental so much and it worked so well with what I wanted to go for with the track.
I took the inspiration from the older song that I had written on the keys/guitar – in terms of context, lyrics, emotion and context. I just applied it on that. The inspiration for the song comes from personal experience of my past relationships… I dated a few guys in the past like all of us have… I’ve been in very toxic relationships like all of us have. I experiences cheating, lying, gaslighting.”
“Burn Me Out”, is a raw, blunt and heart-wrenching track that gives listeners an insight into Shébani’s experiences with love, infidelity, trust issues – and all with smooth, soft, bittersweet lyrics that highlight the genius and vulnerability of Shébani’s songwriting talents. She kindly breaks down some of the lyrics of the song for me:
“. I start off the song trying to confess to the person that I love so much and that they helped me heal in the process… Then I move onto the part where I say: “I know you’re a good guy / I know you won’t hurt a fly” – that kinda, like, a funny line in there. “I know you wouldn’t lie / though insecurities say otherwise”. So, I’m saying like I know you’re good, but I have insecurities and they are telling me that this person is going to fuck me up. I kinda wanna… I have kind of like a tug of war, between me and my paranoid self.
There’s a very important thing I’m going to mention about the song and I won’t make it long, but its about the chorus, I’m saying: “you’d see that I’m not crazy / That I’ve just been hurt ‘til I was burnt out / Then they call me crazy, they hurt me and burn me out / if I could just ask for one thing, baby / don’t hurt me and burn me out / please don’t call me crazy / don’t hurt me and burn me out”. There’s a cycle going on here, where I’m saying that I wasn’t born paranoid or with trust issues, that’s from nurture, not nature. You develop these insecurities from experiences and relationships that you go through…”
One of the things that stood out the most to me in the track, was vocabulary Shébani uses so profoundly yet simply in the song, such as “gaslighting”. In the second verse, listeners hear Shébani’s incredible vocal range and rhythmical ability: “Wish I was strong enough back in the day / wish I could say I’m done with all the gaslighting / done with the hurting, the begging, the screaming, the hiding behind their lies / done with the lies, done with my cries / done with these guys / that made me feel so fucking worthless / made me feel so fucking helpless / made me believe I was tripping with the paranoia, made me go crazy / so don’t do the same, baby”.
When I tell Shébani how much I admire her for listing off these experiences so bluntly, she tears up, telling me that she still finds herself struggling with her identity as an artist, feeling as if she hasn’t found her core audience yet:
“I’m super emotional, you should know that too – I’m a Pisces. I’m a cusp between Pisces and Aquarius so I cry so easily. But listen, I struggle with my identity so much as an artist because I doubt myself a lot. When I release a song, it’s very rare for somebody to come up to me and say all the things you just said. I think I haven’t my audience, that’s why – I truly believe that.”
The music video for “Burn Me Out” was directed by Mark Issa and co-directed by Anas Abu Baker, and Shébani had a very clear idea of what she wanted for the video:
“I had this concept. So, when I imagine myself singing “Burn Me Out”, I can’t imagine singing it anywhere other than in a theatre. It’s called “The Theatre”, it’s all red. I felt like I needed to show the audience that this is kind of like a… a reality, but because I felt like I wasn’t in real relationships, I felt like I was acting. I wanted the element of the theatre. My favourite part of the video – which I told the director had to be non-negotiable – was mannequins. We got a few mannequins to sit around me and in the crowd while I’m singing because that’s the symbol of my exes. They’re all sitting in the crowd, while I sing “I’m not crazy” – but I look crazy because I’m singing to a bunch of mannequins. But they’re sat around and I’m singing to them, and they’re not responding (obviously) and that represents the lack of reciprocation in my past relationships… Honestly, I loved the music video – I’m working with great people!”.
Shébani is an ever-growing, evolving and changing artist. Yet at her core, she holds her experiences and truths close to her heart, but allows those lucky enough to find her music the chance to come into her world, her lyrics and her emotions. Her honesty is raw, thought-provoking, and refreshing in a world where truth seems to be ever so hard to find. Her music will stand the test of time, her vocals the test of strength, and Shébani? You don’t have to worry about her. She’s going to go far.
You can keep up to date with Shébani via Instagram, Twitter, & Spotify.You can catch Shébani headling her own concert at The Fridge Concert Series in Dubai on the 31st May 2022.
Written by Tala Woods.
Written by infostoryofsong