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Voices and Vision 

Sinkane's new album brings the vocals to the forefront

Ahmed Gallab's personal history is written in the different styles and sounds on "Mean Love."

Gallab, who records under the name Sinkane, summoned the percussive rhythms from his Sudanese childhood, the dreamy pop that calmed his alienated teen years in suburban Ohio, and various flavors of synth-heavy, dance-oriented rock from his stints playing in well-regarded indie bands Caribou, Yeasayer and Of Montreal.

"When I start working on my music, I think it tells me what it wants to sound like. I don't really tell the record what I want," Gallab says. "I've traveled around a lot and I'm influenced by so many different things, certain sounds start speaking to me and they don't go away.

"The things that I used on the record are the things that spoke to me the most, like the pedal steel or the reggae groove or the falsetto from Motown Records or African drumming. I see relationships between all of those different kinds of music."

The multi-instrumentalist made his debut for James Murphy's DFA Records on 2012's "Mars," a similarly eclectic blend of soul, pop, country and dance music. For "Mean Love," Gallab teamed with producer Greg Lofaro to further hone in on a multi-faceted style that could only come form someone with his life experience.

"I like to challenge myself. In my head, I've found an intellectual relationship between all those different kinds of music. They feel like they have the same kind of energy in the music they make," he says. "When I was working on this album, I wanted to make an album that had me stand alone as my own person, as someone who's no longer the former player of this band or that band. I wanted to prove to myself and to the listeners that I'm just as capable of making music as these other guys, music that stands beside them rather than beneath them."

The wheels for Sinkane were already in motion before Gallab started playing for Caribou, Yeasayer or Of Montreal, but he says at the time he felt it was important to step back and learn what he could from those bands and songwriters.

"I've always wanted to play my own stuff. I feel like I'm too opinionated to not do that. Whether I wanted to do that in tandem with friends and other people's music or going out on my own, that was a challenge," he says. "I felt like it was time for me to do something on my own or otherwise I'd be stuck. If you play other people's music only, it turns into kind of handcuffs. It's such a good gig and it's hard to let go."

Gallab and Lofaro started working on the new album right after "Mars" was released, taking some of the musical ideas that worked on that record—and its predecessors "Color Voice (2008) and "Sinkane (2009)—and refining them more to fit Gallab's vocals better.

"The first few records were so ornate. It was throwing the kitchen sink at the project. I didn't stop adding more and more layers," he says. "As I started playing 'Mars' live, I realized how hard it is to replicate. So now I think about playing the songs live. A lot of the content in the music (on "Mean Love") came from Greg and I talking about doing a record that had the vocals being the focal point of the music."

Gallab says there are lots of ways to interpret his songs, but that for him, the songwriting was a therapeutic process, facing down some issues in his life that he hadn't worked out in songs before. That aspect of the record comes through most forcefully on "Son," with a refrain that centers directly on the notion of identity: "I will not forget where I came from."

"As I was singing the songs and learning more about the music, the term 'tough love' came up and I had to address the themes in my life that needed to be addressed. I feel a lot lighter now," he says. "To me, it's very cathartic to write these songs."

"Mean Love" is the first time Gallab has truly captured on record the complex and beautifully intricate vision he has for his music.

"When it all starts to make sense in your mind that's one thing, but it's really hard to convince people of your ideas when you're so ambitious," he says. "You always believe in what you're thinking about, but when you can see it and hold onto it and see it's working, it's crazy and it gives you a lot of energy. That's probably the most inspiring thing."

More by Eric Swedlund

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