Do yourself a favour and listen to Monowhales’ new single “CTRL^^^” now, since it’s only a matter of time before you hear it on the radio and fall in love with it anyway. The confident and cool rock music of their debut album, DAYTONA BLEACH, had three Top 10 singles (RWLYD, All or Nothing, and Out With The Old), and gained the hardworking independent band a well-deserved loyal fanbase. On the back of this success, the Toronto trio are not slowing down – not even a year later, Monowhales have a sophomore album on the way. “CTRL^^^” is the first taste of that upcoming album, Tunnel Vision: it’s unwaveringly confident, cool and precise, with candid lyrics that speak of singer Sally Shaar’s personal relationship with control. It has just as much smash-hit quality as anything they have done before, and it’s part of an album which the band promises is a more honest reflection of themselves than ever before.
It was an honour to catch up with Monowhales singer Sally Shaar to talk all about “CTRL^^^” and control, representing Syrian heritage in rock music, and the perks of writing an album over Zoom.
Melodic Magazine: Whenever you talk about music you sound so passionate, which is so exciting to see. What’s the first thing that got you into music and what’s the first thing that made you excited about it?
Sally Shaar: I don’t know if I could ever remember the first thing that it would be because I grew up so heavily around it, just being a part of my everyday life at home with my parents. I was born in Syria, so as a baby growing up it was mostly Arabic music that I was listening to. But then when my family immigrated to Canada, they started getting into more English music so at home they were bumping Celine Dion, my dad was a huge Abba and Elton John fan and all that kind of stuff. So that was always in the house at all times.
But I feel like the first CDs I remember having were Beauty and the Beast or something Disney. I’m sure TV, which really helped raise me in a lot of ways, influenced me loving music just subjectively. But other than that I think I just naturally loved it and gravitated towards it. Even in elementary school I remember sitting cross-legged, it must have been in second grade, and it was just my favourite class. They’d have flashcards on the wall, and seeing all the different instruments I was like, whoa, I want to know them all. Like, “that’s a tuba, I’m going to remember.” It’s the one class I really cared about for some reason. So I think it was destined for me in a lot of ways. It felt so natural that I wanted that.
MM: What was the first instrument you picked up? And when did songwriting and performing come into the mix?
Sally: I find that the performance aspect was always there, even when there was nobody there. So there was one of those old school huge nineties silver boomboxes in the living room, I’d be popping in my Britney Spears CD and then full out having my concert to literally nobody. So I’ve always been performing.
And singing I would say is my first instrument, although I feel like everyone sings. There’s no barrier to entry which I think is so wonderful about singing, that almost anyone can do it and they don’t need a prerequisite. But at a young age, my mom did enroll me in piano lessons. So that was my next auxiliary instrument that I learned and the instrument that honestly had me the most interested because I’ve learned a lot of instruments. I know how to play the trumpet, euphonium –which is a cousin of the tuba, and then I also have a theremin and that I kind of just do for fun. And guitar, even though I’m not so good at it so I don’t want to advertise my guitar skills.
MM: For Monowhales, your debut album Daytona Bleach was written partially during the pandemic and your upcoming album, Tunnel Vision, was written completely during the pandemic. Has songwriting over Zoom affected your sound and your songwriting process?
Sally: Yes, interestingly enough most of this album (Tunnel Vision) was written over Zoom, and that’s because it was written primarily during the first lockdown ever. If we all remember it, which I’m sure we do unless we black it out, it was a really uncertain time. It was a terrifying time. It was weird, but it was also very innovative because everyone was like, well, how are we going to do these things? They were trying to find creative ways to be able to still do art in ways that we’re used to. What was cool is it opened up this whole new universe of people being down to even try writing online. Because it’s not like it didn’t exist and it couldn’t be done before. We had Zoom, but it was like, why would we do that? Let’s get in a room together.
So, yeah, it changed a lot of the dynamic and how we write. Being in a room is wonderful, but there’s something really beautiful I think about writing this way and the fact that I can like, mute myself and walk away and think about something, have a cup of tea in the comfort of my house, come back and be like, oh, I went to the bathroom and I figured out the next lyric or something. There’s something really beautiful and personal and real about it. And I think that that’s what gets to come out in this next record. Not to mention it broke the limitations and opened up other people all over the world being willing to try it. We wrote with people from Germany and from L.A., and they all were just on Zoom and it was awesome.
MM: You’ve mentioned that Tunnel Vision is the most honest record that you’ve done. What does that mean to you for it to be the most honest record?
Sally: I think a part of it comes from, like I said, being at home and and in your thoughts and your feelings and kind of being trapped physically in a lot of ways and so needing a real outlet to let it out. So that’s all we had. All we had was putting it out in song or in music or in art, obsessively. That’s why I think Tunnel Vision was such a great record name. I felt like we were all, everyone in the world almost, just glued into the void, plugged into the matrix, basically like we weren’t before. And with that it brought about a lot of real feelings. Being at home in general, we were all able to have a lot more therapy, both on our own and together, and that brings out a lot of pain and trauma. It also heals a lot of pain and trauma so that I feel like we can talk about it and put it out there and let it go, whereas before it might have been like, you don’t even know it’s there or it’s just like, I’m terrified to say this out loud. And so in a lot of ways, it’s like, we’re growing, we’re just growing. And as we grow, we try to find more ways to be as honest as we can be, because that’s the type of music we love. So we hope to be that.
MM: You’ve mentioned that the new single “CTRL^^^” is the aftermath of an epiphany you had where you were okay to admit that control is something you like and something that you’ve embraced about yourself. Was there a moment that you realized that?
Sally: Yeah, I can’t say the date and time, but I do remember thinking to myself, like, you know, everyone is always so disgusted by the evils of control, which I understand, don’t get me wrong, but I thought to myself, I’m really proud of the ways that I’ve been able to take control and make things happen, whether it was like musically or visually. Not that I did this all on my own, that’s not what I’m trying to say, but it’s just in my own self, in my own right, being proud that I don’t necessarily fall down or stand down or let people walk all over me. There are moments where that’s really hard, and I’m proud that I did that to see what the outcome was now that I’m on the other side of it. Of course, you can’t be full of your ego and not think sometimes that perhaps I shouldn’t have done that or shouldn’t have said that. So, yeah, I think control is a really deep, deep word and so complicated for all of us. It really made me rethink parts of it, like, can I even objectively know if I’m being good with my use of control because I’m in the driver’s seat? How can you know if you’re in it? But I’m going to try. I think you hear that musically too. It’s just like on this teetering edge of darkness, but also just like bravery.
MM: How does your relationship to control affect the songwriting? Because I know it’s very collaborative between you and the band.
Sally: I think this band has a lot of deep seated issues with control, like our first record is called Control Freak, if that doesn’t tell you right from there that we’re obsessed with this thing. But I think we’ve really learned about it individually, and seeing the good, the bad and the ugly and then seeing it in the context of the band or of the group. What pieces of control can you bring that are going to help and make this band better and write better together? Or are you going to bring the pieces of control that make it terrible to be here and toxic? If I’m going to be completely honest, we have felt both ways. It happens. It can still happen, and it’s all always constantly at work. But the difference now is that we can recognize it. I think once you’re aware, that’s the first step to making things better than they were. And we’re writing better than ever. We are really on the same page mentally, musically, and we love what we’re doing and we’re excited for more. We just want to do so much, that’s how happy we are to be working together. It’s a newfound love in a lot of ways for each other.
MM: There’s also a second epiphany that you mentioned about your Syrian origin and how you want to put your heritage in a positive light to show other immigrants that they can succeed on their own terms. Does this show up on the new album?
Sally: I don’t know if it necessarily shows up musically, but I think just me being present and doing this at all, doing music, being in this genre, speaking out as a woman and being of that origin is what I’m doing. Because I’ve never in my life personally seen someone in rock music that is of Syrian heritage. I’ve never seen it, I don’t know what it looks like. And here I am, fumbling, trying my best, and I hope that somehow this can help someone else who had the same kind of upbringing as me because I feel like I had no one to look at and be like, yo, I can do it. Because for a long time, when you don’t see anyone do it, you know, I truly believed that it wasn’t possible. No one’s done it, so it’s not possible. So I hope that it helps other people see that they can do it too. Even one person, that would make a difference to me and I’m excited to be that beacon, you know, or be a beacon that people hate her, but I still did it so whatever.
MM: If people are going to hate about that, then that’s on them, but representation like that is the kind of thing that stays with people and it’s so important so that’s amazing. Did that epiphany have anything to do with the new song that just came out?
With “CTRL^^^”? Yeah, I think in a lot of ways, I feel a lot more comfortable and in control of being able to be proud of that, I think for a long time, even in the way that I was raised – I don’t know if I’ve ever talked about this publicly, but it was like, because I’m white passing essentially my parents were like, oh, good, don’t tell anybody that you’re not, that you’re Arab or that you’re any other heritage because it’s going to be hopefully an advantage for you in your life. It’s so sad. It’s so broken down. I know that that comes from the extreme pain and horror that my parents experienced growing up because they were Arab and they look a lot more Arab. They had a lot of racism and pain and anger and hurt towards them. And so you kind of put it on your kid a bit, which I don’t blame them.
With that being said, for a long time I couldn’t see past that. I just was living life because what do you know when you’re just living it? And now at the age I’ve gotten, I’ve kind of been like, whoa, what is up with that? Why am I weird about telling people this or feel like I don’t have to tell people this, or somehow hide it? I am so deeply Arab whether people judge that I am or not. Like I fully speak Arabic, I know the culture, I’ve eaten, I’ve grown up for the most part like a Middle Eastern woman. So I feel free that I can finally talk about that and just be myself rather than feel like I had to hide something.
MM: Last question, has taking a break from face-to-face interaction with fans and from live music changed your approach to your career in any way?
Sally: I guess because we’re all so obsessed with getting back to some kind of way that it used to be instead of just accepting… you know, that’s a hard one, I’m kind of still in the middle of that thought. But I’m just continuing to hope, like I really hope that I can be in a room with people, that I can play this tour – like we have this Mother Mother tour and like, this is my dream. Our dreams are coming true. Literally, all I’ve ever wanted was to perform on stages like that with bands like that who are incredible. And mostly because I want to connect with people who are there. With that being said, I care about the safety of people and people being alive more than I do my dream. I think that would be super selfish for me to only be obsessed with this one thing. So although that’s something I hope for, I hope that we can do it in a really safe environment where we’re not afraid for our lives.