Behind the Album: Uncaged

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Uncaged Album Artwork
Photography: Nafiz Pran, Edit: Nagib Hawk

It’s been a 4-year long association with one of the most talented and inspirational artists from Bangladesh — Xefer — and the astonishing amount of diligence and creativity in the past 3 of those years led to something I’m immensely proud of: her debut album “Uncaged.” As the producer of the album, I can confidently say that this has been one of my most important journeys in music, and I’ll tell you why.

They say self-realization demands great struggle. It’s true. Honestly, most of our time was filled with amazingly productive and creative outputs. Sometimes, however, Xefer and I both dealt with our own hurdles and adversity — not only throughout life’s rude-awakenings but also with each other. There were times when we completely saw eye-to-eye with the music, branding, or the overall strategy, and there were times when we clashed big.

“But  that’s the irony.”

We never lost sight of why this work — originating out of Bangladesh — was more symbolic than just a music album. So, it demanded us to work harder, smarter. All the turbulence was somehow necessary and brought a great deal of self-discovery, compromise, teamwork, and chemistry. It powered the messages behind songs like Uncaged, Lone Wolf, Better Than That, Blind, Judge, Somebody, etc. Those lyrics happen to be personalized to Xefer’s strength, core ideologies, and history. 

It also pushed me out of my musical boundaries, motivated me to come up with new ways of expression: some in tune with nature, some abstract, some with secrets and easter eggs embedded in compositions (some of which I haven’t even divulged to Xefer to this day). Basically, how I defined myself through music evolved.

Check out the official music video of the song, Somebody:

Essentially, our goal was to create songs that spoke out against oppression, in favor of individuality and acceptance, something that could be contemplative and make you look again, something that could cross genres and unify.

Check out the album — Uncaged — and I hope you can enjoy the next 37-minutes and appreciate the work behind it as much as I have!

International Digital Platforms:

Check out samples of the 9 songs from Uncaged:

This album wouldn’t be complete without the amazing artistic and musical contribution from Mohon Sharif, Russell Ali, Samir Hafiz, Moon Atumnal, Susmita Biswas Sathi, GSifz and on the creative side, from Zayad Zaad, Nafis Pran, Touhidul Hassan, Sheikh Priyanka Rahman, Mortuza Alam, and all the members of Flybot — Nahiyan Ahmed, Moyed Bhuiyan, Sumon Sarker and others. Thank you for your support and letting me witness your vivid imagination.

One of the biggest push and support came from a reputable entrepreneur and a philanthropist – Mahboob Rahman – who believed in our vision and became an avid investor of this project. Thanks to his advocacy and sponsorship, Jadughor (Label) and Star Cineplex (Sponsor) were able to co-launch this album successfully on August 25, 2017. Furthermore, Jadughor, LLC’s official partnership with Show Motion Limited on Uncaged opens up possibilities for some creative collaboration in the future. I’ll be personally looking forward to those!

Uncaged launch with Xefer and Mahboob Rahman
Photo: Jawad Mahmud Chowdhury | Uncaged Launching Ceremony

The Uncaged Blueprint

Originally, the album consisted of 12 songs, and after we figured out the name of the album, the final direction, and analyzed the song variations, we decided to go with 9 that fit the theme. The songs that we excluded were (working titles): “25th Hour,” “Crystal Drops,” and “Break the Silence.”

 Uncaged

// Working title: “Fire” // Music & Lyrics: Nagib Hawk // Melody: Xefer, Nagib Hawk // Guitar Solo: Samir Hafiz // Length: 4:45

Part of my research on Xefer’s personality has always yielded as someone who won’t be held back by shackles or by those people who suppress one’s success for their own insecurities. So when we decided to tackle this song, we wanted to provide a clear message against oppression, something that so many people still face in one’s own home, relationship, or out there in the world. The point is, you hold the key to your own freedom, you just have to believe that you’re strong and brave enough to fight for it.

Musically I decided to include two distinct genres: hip-hop (which was used as a tool for expression against oppression after the Civil Rights movement), and cinematic rock which culminated the rage in the song, ending with Samir Hafiz’s epic solo. Setting the intro was a bit tricky as the lyrics and the music of this part would have to set the mood for the song as well as the rest of the album. So lyrically, connecting the characteristics of “fire” to Xefer’s own personality and her thoughts on oppression made sense, along with the “slave/prisoner” chants and various other sound effects.

By the way, this is the only song on the album which doesn’t have the song’s name in the lyrics. Look out for this song in the upcoming Indian-Bangladeshi joint film: Senapati.

 Dirty Tricks 

Left page: Xefer, Right page: me

Sometimes, this process worked amazingly for us: Xefer would scribble down words that we would say out loud related to the topic. Then I would take over and start compiling it to write the first draft of the lyrics and so on.

// Working title: “Dirty Tricks” // Music & Lyrics: Mohon Sharif, Nagib Hawk // Melody: Xefer, Nagib Hawk, Mohon Sharif // Length: 3:20

One of the turning points of the album was when Xefer introduced me to Mohon and sent me a track titled “XF_106“.  When I asked him — why 106? — he nonchalantly says “Oh that’s how many versions of this song I have.” My jaw dropped. He’s insane, and I absolutely loved every minute of working with him and his fresh ideas!

Realizing that we’re about to put an EDM into the album, I thought Xefer needed a special set of lyrics, something that could have dual interpretation and still be personalized to her. I told them that this track made me feel “liquid” (especially with the undulating bass line), and then I remembered something. A while ago Xefer expressed her frustrations about rumors in the industry and how many people play games/politics, bluff, act fake, etc. Honestly, it reminded me of poker. So we ran with that with a lot of sarcasm and puns.

 

As far as the dual interpretation, here’s the twist: if you’re familiar with rap/hip-hop then you might start with the double-entendre in this song’s name. Then you’ll realize how the song takes on a completely new meaning. Have fun with that!

 Lone Wolf 

// Working title: “Lone Wolf” // Music & Lyrics: Nagib Hawk // Melody: Xefer, Nagib Hawk // Length: 4:18

How many of you know the story of Little Red Riding Hood? But how many of you know the earlier (more sinister) version by Charles Perrault? Read the story, and pay attention to the moral in the end.

Where am I going with this? Well, among the many social topics that we discussed for the album, women’s rights was an important one. What I realized was that she’s a strong advocate (something else we had in common). We agreed that it’s a shame so many aspiring models, actresses, artists, employees fall into the wrong hands — in the entertainment or corporate industries — and believe that in order to succeed they have no choice but to give into sexual favors. 

Let me tie this back to the fairy tale and the song. Imagine if the “predator/wolf” going after the “victim/little red” realizes that he’s not about to encounter someone helpless for him to devour, but instead, another more savage creature who’s been setting her own traps all along, ready to tear him into pieces. Really, that’s how it should be, because while pursuing your career, you always have a choice in defining your self-respect and dignity.

 Blind (feat. Russell Ali)

// Working title: “Blind” // Music & Lyrics: Nagib Hawk // Melody: Xefer, Nagib Hawk // Guitar Solo: Russell Ali // Length: 3:53

Blind is one of the two heartfelt songs that I had the pleasure of composing and writing. Xefer told me from the beginning that she wanted a song that felt dry and raw, up front, especially vocally, with subtle blues influence. Plus, at the end, when Russell Ali offered to come on board and write a solo, it really fulfilled the vision of the song.

When you think about the vast number of songs written about pain and loss of relationships, you start worrying about being a chiché. How do you get past that? How do you make your suffering unique? Well, you stop worrying about it. You draw from personal experiences, swallow your pride if you need to, and speak the truth. If people can relate, they’ll share your burden. Personally, at the time I had a lot of pent-up things to say about this topic, and I also believe Xefer connected with that.


Let me tell you about another process that brilliantly worked for us during all the melody sessions, which was crucial in capturing the essence of this song. Xefer and I always sang natural nonsensical gibberish/English hybrid on top of the instrumentals when we worked on melody. We pushed this further in this song. This was one of the melody options for verse 2 of Blind:

My interpretation of that was:

Could you lift
This lie that's kept alive?
Why were you, suddenly
Looking to change everything?
Open door, stupid and damned 
If you really wanna know,
F*****g up everything
Now all for show, say...

Xefer’s ability to do this on the spot was very impressive. Then, not only could I pick up the phonemes (“syllables” and “sounds”) that fit the music and which came naturally to her, but also I could choose the words that fit the vibe.  Strangely this is something we had in common before we first met, and it helped build another dimension to our chemistry.


 Shomoy ( সময়, trans. Time)

// Working title: “Kata” // Music: Nagib Hawk // Lyrics: Susmita Biswas Sathi // Melody: Xefer, Nagib Hawk // Length: 4:14

It’s funny that out of a dominantly English album, a Bangla song happens to be my most favorite.

Xefer, Susmita Biswas Sathi (lyricist), and I already had a working history with a previous Bangla song called “Chera” (from my debut album Onkota Bhul), so in September of 2014, we decided to give it another shot: the subject being time. I loved this idea cause we needed an abstract song in the album and because it relates to life and how we chase our dreams against time. Most people can connect to this, I certainly can.

If the music alone can tell you the song’s story, then its bond with the voice and lyrics is even more impactful. I wanted to make the audience feel the presence of time and a sense of growing impatience in the music, but with moments of peaceful explosions.

I’ll explain the strategy. First I had to establish the right tempo, and if you guessed 60 bpm (beats per minute), you’re right on the dot, and you know why. Then I thought: how do I elicit this feeling of “impatience” along the continuous rushing of the clock’s hands? So I let the harp “tip-toe” throughout the whole song. Why use a harp? It’s stereotypically celestial and time being metaphysical and all… you get the point. Next, I thought let’s make the verse snare (Persian Davul to be exact) more desperate and trip on itself in verse 2. Then something else happened — the 7-seconds (2:39-2:46) of the entire album that taught me more about myself than anything else.

Anyway, I won’t continue with all the details, but here’s the instrumental of the song. See if you can extract the story I had in mind, or maybe come up with your own.

 

 Judge 

// Working title: “Purple” // Music: Nagib Hawk // Lyrics: Nagib Hawk, GSifz, Xefer // Melody: Xefer, Nagib Hawk // Length: 4:02

On the morning of January 27, 2015, Xefer walks into the studio and says “we gotta make a song from scratch, right now.”  Seeing that she’s pretty determined and had no sleep the night before, I asked: “Ok, about what?” She said it’d be about her secrets, and the bee-hive (her hair), and her Western attire, and her demeanor — but specifically about how she doesn’t give a damn when people judge her for all of it. So I was sold on the idea.

We decided to make the song funky, mysterious, and colorful. Coincidentally I also had a recording session with GSifz that day for a song called Dolna (from the film Mrittupuri)As soon as he heard the pitched subs of the pop+hip-hop skeleton, he wanted to write to it. This is another collaboration that I truly appreciated and loved his idea of bringing in Greek mythology.

Check out Xefer’s debut original music video of Judge that I had the pleasure of directing as well:

 Somebody 

// Working title: “Somebody” // Music & Lyrics: Nagib Hawk // Melody: Xefer, Nagib Hawk // Length: 4:40

One of my music coaches told me once that If you want people to buy into your lyrics then write something personally genuine. So when Xefer told me about her childhood and that she wanted to sing about it, it hit a common nerve.

I asked her if she ran into her dad today what she would tell him. Then it started flowing. Not only that, at the time I was going through my own relationship hurdles, a lot of which also got poured into the song.

Musically, I wanted a feeling of vastness and depth, so I thought why not begin the song with sounds of the ocean? Then I thought an instrument that sounded like water-drops would be an ideal representation of her sorrow (i.e. tears). Also, what originally was a 28-second intro became 70 seconds, because it made sense to have the appropriate emotional gravity from the beginning. During mixing, I also made sure to use larger reverbs, longer automated delays at times, lots of saturation and color on her voice, and create plenty of space. Check out the official music video.

Check out behind scenes of Somebody:

Behind the Scenes – Somebody

Check out a behind-the-scenes clip between me and Xefer during the songwriting of “Somebody” in Bangladesh.

Official Music Video: https://youtu.be/VG2yos4w5A0

Posted by Nagib Hawk on Saturday, April 22, 2017

 

 Ke Kobe Hereche (কে কবে হেরেছে)

// Working title: “Ke Kobe Hereche” // Music: Moon Atumnal, Nagib Hawk // Melody: Moon Atumnal, Xefer, Nagib Hawk // Length: 3:47

Let me begin by saying that Moon Autumnal is a brilliant songwriter. Since I worked with him in the past (in my album), I got to know his artistic and witty writing style. Since we already put a heavy Bangla song in the album, we decided this one needed to be lighter.

I’ll leave the details of the song’s lyrics to Moon, but personally, I love the way he uses his symbolism to encourage people to go after love. No matter how daunting it may be, you never lose. Musically, we decided that this one needed to stay almost barebones with a blues influence.

Now here’s an important fact when you’re a producer working with artists on their original songs: make sure the music, as well as the lyrics, resonate with them and they’re confident that it’s who they are or what they want to represent. When it came to romantic songs, Xefer was always apprehensive and careful about whether it fit her darker style. So when Moon presented this inspirationally romantic song to us, surprisingly and fortunately, it clicked right away.

Check out Moon demonstrating Ke Kobe Hereche:

 Better Than That 

// Working title: “Protexion” // Music & Lyrics: Nagib Hawk // Melody: Xefer, Nagib Hawk // Guitar Solo: Samir Hafiz // Length: 4:18

Take a scrap piece of paper, bring it very close to your ear, and slowly start tearing it. Trust me, just do it.

We all have our dark sides (some more than others) that tear us apart and betrays us at times. No matter how much we try to ignore it, suppress it or deny it, we’re also somewhat addicted to it. Why? Maybe it gives us a sense of completion, provides the ying for the yang. Maybe without it, we wouldn’t know how to define and truly appreciate the good in us.

Now listen to this song again, then you’ll realize why it sounds glitchy from the start or I why engineered the song to have sounds that are “torn apart” — from random automated distortions in the bass-line, to lo-fi rhythmic slices, to seemingly never-ending distorted riffs. Of course let’s not forget Samir’s shredding, the perfect solo to end the whole album. Also, pay close attention to the lyrics and maybe you’ll realize who Xefer’s talking to or the irony behind her conversation!

Check out Samir shredding the solo of Better Than That:

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