Azniv Korkejian of Bedouine offers up her beginner’s mind with guitar, building soundscapes, and working on her sophomore release.
This interview originally appeared in She Shreds Magazine Issue #18, released August 2019.
Recording an album can often feel like setting a particular time of your life into stone. The necessary exposure and permanence can feel emotionally turbulent. But Los Angeles-based Azniv Korkejian, who performs as Bedouine, counteracts that dynamic with soft and sturdy confidence. Korkejian’s palpable ease is apparent on her sophomore album, Bird Songs of a Killjoy, released on Spacebomb Records in June. Over 12 songs, Korkejian captures moments of ending and acceptance, like on “When You’re Gone,” an anxious but mellow tribute to the feeling of absence; “Bird Gone Wild,” a testament to the journey of immigration that Azniv’s family took in her childhood; and “Bird,” a reflection on a past intimacy.
On the phone with She Shreds, Korkejian spoke about the agency that came with being heavily involved in the recording and mixing of her own album, and all of the challenges that come with letting an album live and breathe in the world. That can be one of the hardest parts of making an album, but Korkejian understands the power of setting it free.
What is your relationship to the guitar?
I definitely have a beginner’s mind when it comes to guitar. I was classically trained in piano when I was five, and my mom was a little too hard on me, so I quit as soon as I could. I picked up guitar in college and taught myself. It’s been a pretty loose journey for me. I’ve [honed in on] the way I like it to be, but it’s something I want to look more into, getting lessons and actually understanding the instrument. It’s not been super technical; it’s been more [about] emotional navigation.
Is songwriting therapeutic for you?
Songwriting has always been like journaling to me; it’s a form of expression. I like using an instrument that I don’t know backwards and forwards. When I look at the piano, I get completely stunted. I know too much about it so I can’t look at it like a beginner, which is what I love about playing guitar, that I’m always doing it by ear and guessing my way around until something feels good.
Did guitar change or enhance your relationship to music?
It allowed my relationship with music to be more internal and less about agility. When I was playing piano and classical music, it was more about agility, which is really exciting in a lot of ways, and you still have to be emotional no matter how technical or nontechnical it is. But when I picked up the guitar, there was something about having a beginner’s mind that allowed me to navigate more with my emotions or my ear rather than the agility of my fingers or music theory.
What is your songwriting process like?
Writing, for me, is not really regimented. It happens when there’s a feeling I can stand to confront or try to work through. It’s an itch that I need to scratch. I sit down with a guitar and there will usually be a phrase poking at me. On a really good day, I’ll work it out start to finish in one sitting. But what usually happens is I’ll amass thousands of voice recordings, and when I’m in the mood to really massage an idea out, I’ll go back to some of those.
I definitely see the benefit to flexing your songwriting skill like a muscle, but for me it’s more of an intermittent response to an emotional need. When something is really bothering me, or when I feel overwhelmed in a good or a bad way, it’s this overage that I need to put somewhere.
Did any of those voice memos make it onto Bird Songs of a Killjoy?
Pretty much all the songs on the record started out as voice memos. For every one song that makes the record, there has to be about 50 half-finished ideas. All of it is just really slow and steady.
I think about the next record throughout the previous record’s cycle. So by the time I was ready to start working on Bird Songs of a Killjoy, I already had a pretty good idea of what would make it. I don’t write specifically for the next record; I journal along the course of any time in my life. Some of these songs are older, from the time that I was recording the first record, but other songs are more recent.
Do you see distinct differences between your self-titled debut and Bird Songs of a Killjoy? Did you feel a shift in songwriting and technique between the two albums?
It still feels like me, and I definitely didn’t make a conscious effort to make a departure. That’s up to the listener to decide for themselves. Sometimes I’ll talk to people who’ve heard both and they feel like it’s a step up, which is great to hear, but it feels very natural to me.
In terms of songwriting, it’s very much intuitive and I do think I branched out a little bit more. There are some strange chord changes that I didn’t really write early on. I hear some people using the term “jazzy folk” for my first single, “When You’re Gone,” and I guess that is branching out for me.
What was the recording process like for Bird Songs of a Killjoy? How long did it take?
I recorded at the same studio [as the first album], Sargent Recorders, with Gus Seyffert. It was pretty much me and him, and was done in a similar fashion. If anything, it was a little more stripped back. We had some of the same players, like Smokey Hormel and Mike Andrews on some guitar, Josh Adams on drums, and a couple of keyboardists. It was all done to tape and then Gus transferred things into Pro Tools. We both picked at the editing and comping because I’m proficient in Pro Tools—I was a sound editor before I was a musician. It gave me the ability to sweep through the session, and a little bit of autonomy when it came to comping something together or picking a take.
Do you prefer to be more involved in the editing and mixing because of your experience as a sound editor?
I think I’ve grown in the studio. This time around I was a lot more vocal about what I wanted and what I didn’t want. Gus is very much the producer still, and he was on the first record too. In a way, he navigated the very early days, and he’s very invested in the sound of Bedouine. Because we are so comfortable with each other and because I can go in there and get some work done myself, it does feel collaborative.
Of course it’s easier said than done, but I would really recommend to anybody going into the studio with someone who is using Pro Tools to try learning the program for themselves, so that they can take the hot seat and tweak through stuff. But you know, some producers might not be comfortable with that. I’m lucky that I’m working with somebody who I’m so comfortable with and that we can just swap seats for a second.
Did you and Gus work together before your first album?
At first, when I was writing so much, I wanted to put the songs on tape so I could start storing them in a better way than voice memos. I wasn’t really sure that I would release anything, but I knew that I at least wanted to give them a good home. I had known Gus for a while, and had been to his house and noticed all of these tape machines everywhere, so I asked him if I could pick his brain about it. We had a really good talk, and then he asked me to sing through a song in one sitting [and record] to tape because he had everything already set up. So I did, and the very first take is “Solitary Daughter” on the first record. That was the first thing we did [together]. I’m so proud of that. It was the very first step towards [Bedouine]. That carved the way for Gus and I to work together.
Did that moment help solidify a sound for Bedouine?
That did set that tone for the [self-titled] record. I think “Solitary Daughter” inherently doesn’t need very much, and so we started in such a simple fashion. After I put down that first take, Gus put down this really beautiful bassline and then we worked together on the harmonies. And before we knew it, we were done. It was just so special and I’m so happy to have started that way.
On your first album, you have a field recording of your grandmother’s street in Aleppo, Syria, that appears at the end of the song “Summer Cold.” Do you have any moments like that on the new album?
On “Echo Park,” I built a soundscape of Echo Park Lake [in LA]. I went there and took ambient recordings and layered some things on top of it. In the video, there’s a scene where I have a picnic and everybody there is a woman singer-songwriter, and every one of them has their own project. That’s kind of an intentional representation of the East Side of LA and the women who play music here. There’s so many people in LA doing such exciting things.