Persona – Emerging from the Cocoon

Thursday, 5th October 2017

The Tunisian act Persona came out of nowhere last year with their excellent debut Elusive Reflections. Impressive for such a fresh act to be so driven in promoting their material, it wasn’t long before the band then announced their plans for a second album. A well-pushed Indiegogo campaign more than exceeded their goal (going far enough with stretch goals to reach a physical release and future video) and journey towards Metamorphosis continued.

In listening to Metamorphosis, the album also works as a metaphor for the band’s music. They’ve incorporated more extreme influences (musically and vocally) and embraced a more theatrical vibe, giving them even more tools to add to their kit. An impressive jump in diversity, yet one that feels entirely natural for the band. With the album release date closing in, we had a Skype chat with guitarist Melik Melek Khelifa and vocalist Jelena Dobrić in which we hit all these topics and more.

Dead Rhetoric: Congrats on the new album. It has more extreme elements and a more theatric feel to it. The first album sounded unique, but this album really sounds like you are moving into your own path.

Melik Melek Khelifa: For the first one [Elusive Reflections], I’m happy that you find that it sounds unique – for us, when we started writing and recording the songs for that one, we were mostly inspired by what we were hearing in female-fronted metal bands, so we didn’t have our own proper touch. For this one, it’s more pronounced.

Dead Rhetoric: Were you surprised at the level of success that your crowd-funding effort had for creating Metamorphosis, given the band’s fairly brief history?

Jelena Dobrić: Yeah, actually we were. We were very pleasantly surprised because all of the people that donated are fans from abroad. We didn’t have it in Tunisia – I’m originally from Serbia but they don’t have the cultural habits of donating or investing in Indiegogo or things like that. Here it’s impossible due to some technical things with the money.

Khelifa: The Tunisian currency is not exchangeable to dollars/Euros so there’s no way for anyone living in Tunisia to participate in anything with PayPal over the Internet.

Dead Rhetoric: Wow, that’s even more impressive then!

Khelifa: We have a lot of fans here [in Tunisia] but we knew from the beginning that none of them could participate because of the currency. You cannot pay over the Internet because of something with the Central Bank of Tunisia.

Dobrić: So basically all of the people that participated in the campaign – none were family or close friends, or their friends. It was literally just the people who like our music, and that makes it so great.

Dead Rhetoric: In terms of the music, what did you hope to achieve with Metamorphosis?

Dobrić: We had a lot of new ideas that had accumulated since the first album. When I was writing the vocal melodies and lyrics, I included a lot of my personal stuff – some psychological processes I was going through. It was a nice way for me to incorporate all of that into the music. It was like a snapshot of that time when I was writing. My real life incorporated with the music – that’s what it was for me. I was expressing myself through the music.

Khelifa: I feel like it’s a step up from the first album, which was made without really knowing where we were going. For this one, we had a focused approach and I had more time to prepare my lead guitar solos. For the first one, they were sort of rushed – we were doing it in a short period so I didn’t have time to properly write what I wanted to do. For this album, I had time to write what I was doing, so in that aspect I’m happy with this record.

Dead Rhetoric: Were you afraid of alienating fans with the introduction of more extreme metal elements?

Dobrić: We thought of that, but for me personally, the music comes first. If we feel the need to express ourselves in a certain way, we have to do it. If someone doesn’t like it, that’s the way it is. I didn’t decide to add growls and do some screaming when it wasn’t in the songwriting – like, doing it just because it’s now in fashion or something. There were parts that I couldn’t express myself otherwise. We had to do it in that way.

Khelifa: We did it in a purposeful way. Like Jelena said, it wasn’t like, “Let’s do an extreme part” or something. It came out naturally. I think that some of the songs are much darker on this album than the last one. I know that some songs don’t have growling or extreme guitar parts, so some people will be happy with that. But I think the new fans would enjoy the heaviness and rawness on this album. I think it’s a good combination. If we are doing something that’s strictly symphonic/female-fronted, there are already a lot of bands already doing that. I don’t think we could add something new on that aspect. But if we could add something new on the heavy side, which for example, I’m into a lot of heavy metal and thrash metal, so if I could add that, with her voice – sometimes clean sometimes harsh, it could be more specific to us. Rather than doing a whole album with a clean voice and normal symphonic arrangements.

Dead Rhetoric: I think with the length of the album too, you’ve got to have that diversity to it, because otherwise it feels too long.

Khelifa: We listened to it so many times that it’s hard to be objective about it now. But we feel like once you start listening, there are so many tempos to the songs – some of them faster, some of them slower. We hope it’s a good [mix].

Dobrić: It leads you to from the beginning to the end without too many pauses. Hopefully no one is saying, “Ok, let’s skip this and see what’s next” [laughs].

Dead Rhetoric: Could you talk about the story of Metamorphosis?

Dobrić: It’s about the processes – different emotions, different moods that we are all going through, and different states of mind. When something is really intense, like anger or extreme sadness, we basically become that emotion. Many of those songs are actually me singing in first person. For example, “Invidia” is about envy, “Hellgrind” is about fear. The third song, “Esurience Guilefulness Omnipotence,” is actually ego. Literally, “EGO” – I’m not sure how obvious that is [in the title]. The first song is really an introduction and the last song is a conclusion, which actually leaves you to say – all your life you are going to go through dark moments and light moments and that’s the way it is. You should appreciate them all, because that’s the only way to learn.

Dead Rhetoric: Do you feel that the band has found their approach with this album?

Khelifa: For the heavier elements, I think it’s more interesting to have them rather than having something that’s more melodic all the time and more symphonic. I think we have something there. But the thing is, the next album could be completely acoustic [laughs]. We are happy with these results, but we still want to try – if the ideas are good enough for songs, even if they are completely acoustic with no heavier elements, we will still try to use them. We don’t want to put ourselves into a box and have to fit into it [with each new album].

Dobrić: As long as we find the right way to express ourselves, I think we are going to do it.

Dead Rhetoric: The video for “Blinded” now has over 1 million views. ‘How proud of this are you’ seems like a no-duh kind of question, but is it nice to see the payoff, considering you did all the work in promoting the band by yourselves?

Dobrić: Definitely. People are watching and people like what we do. We are doing everything ourselves, with the help of our manager. When we get a nice response, it really means a lot to us.

Khelifa: Of course, we are proud of the one million views. I don’t know how it got a million views. We did the same promotion for the other videos. I don’t know how it did it, but thank you [laughs]. Everyone that shared it and watched it, thank you. Again, we are doing everything by ourselves – that video was made with a couple of friends…the same thing goes for the other videos as well. It’s a pretty great achievement for a band from Africa that is independent. In Tunisia, there’s no labels or no support. To have that recognition, internationally, because most of the views are not from Tunisia – they are from Germany or somewhere else, it’s very good.

Dead Rhetoric: The Femme Metal Event is coming up later in September. Are you trying to make more of an effort to get out of the country/continent for shows, difficult as it may be?

Dobrić: We were very happy to have the opportunity to play the Female Metal Event. We went to the festival last year to see what it looks like. We loved it – it’s really well organized, the halls are beautiful, and it’s really nice. So we are really happy to be able to play there this year. These are first steps into Europe so we are pretty excited.

Khelifa: We tried to get a couple more dates since we are going to Europe. So besides the Femme Metal Event, we have two dates in Belgium, and one in France. We just have like 4 dates, but it’s a good start for us considering booking – getting booked in Europe being a Tunisian/African band.

Dead Rhetoric: The two of you are going to be in a movie, Tunis By Night. How’d that come about?

Khelifa: It came out of the blue. Someone told me that they were looking for a rock-looking guy [in the film]. So I went there and I did some stuff with a guitar – they told me to look angry. My role in the movie is that I’m the boyfriend of the main actress – some kind of abusive boyfriend, and that’s why I had to pretend to look mean. Most of the movie, I’m not supposed to be a very nice guy. The main actress is supposed to be playing in a band. I’m the guitar player in that band. Jelena got the role of the keyboardist [not the main actress]. I think we have two short songs in the movie that we composed – me and Jelena. There’s some snippets in which the actress’ band is supposed to be playing. We composed those songs. Jelena actually has composed two other Tunisian movies. It’s not metal, but they were movie scores.

Dobrić: One of them is out. The other one is not out yet, but it was a really interesting experience for me [composing scores]. Different moods – piano, strings, ambient stuff.

Dead Rhetoric: So what’s it like to be in a band with your significant other?

Khelifa: It’s good for me – from my previous experiences in a band…I’m always extreme motivated and I’m hard-working. It’s hard to promote your band over here. Many of my previous bands sort of split because I felt like I was the only one that was pushing the band forward. With Jelena, I’m happy because we have so many points in common and started doing this band randomly. It wasn’t planned. She heard my old songs from my old bands, and she started singing. I stopped singing – I was singing before, but once I heard her I said, “Okay, I can’t compete with that!” [laughs]. I’m singing again [in a different band], but I’m sort of into grunge, and in grunge you can sing badly [laughs]. Seriously, once I heard her, I said I’d leave the singing for her because she sings beautifully – with more control, and better than me. Since we started in 2010-11, it’s been good and we live together so we can share our ideas all the time about music. Anytime she wants to compose or something, we have the time – we don’t have to wait until rehearsal or to meet once a week. For me it’s a pretty good experience.

Dobrić: Everything he said [laughs]! It’s good – he’s right that it’s really difficult to find band members where everyone is pushing forward and sharing the effort. It’s usually one or two people who have to be in charge and moving forward, and it’s easy when there’s the two of us. We are also quite compatible in our composition process. I think we also motivate each other in different ways.

Dead Rhetoric: What’s the plan for Persona for the rest of the year and beyond?

Khelifa: We have the dates in Europe that we are looking forward to. We would love to have more dates in Europe, or to be booked for festivals in 2018. We are really working hard with this album and we’d like to be able to play it more. In Tunisia, there’s not much of a metal scene so we can’t play too much here. We will continue doing the promotion for the album, maybe do a video.

Dobrić: We are definitely going to make a new music video, but there’s been so much going on.

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