Fear of a Queer Planet: Interview with Multi-Instrumentalist Leila Abdul-Rauf

A prolific creator who needs no introduction (but is getting one anyway), Lelia Abdul-Rauf released Phantasiai over the summer, her fourth solo venture, out via Cyclic Law. Known on the Oakland death and doom metal circuit for her work with Vastum, Hammers of Misfortune, and Cardinal Wyrm, as well as the experimental music scene for projects such as Ionophore and Fyrhtu, Abdul-Rauf puts just as much attention and care into her solo work as she does into extreme metal.  

Phantasiai was completely composed, recorded, and produced by Abdul-Rauf, and the process of working on this prolific new record, as well as creating more during a period of isolation, were monumental to her process as a songwriter.  

“I was trying to strip down to the bare elements and not over-compose,” she explains. “I try to keep it as spacious and uncluttered as possible. I think even with metal, I’m trying to not have too many ideas crammed into one song so that they don’t have space to breathe. I say this a lot, but I feel that space is really underrated in music. It’s a way to express something without having so many notes. It’s more about how you play the notes.”  

The record is based around themes of the self and the disintegration of the psyche, and then an attempt to put it back together. Written in two suites, it starts with disintegration to the point of annihilation, then comes back together in the second act with restructuring of the very ideas that were taken apart. With haunting artwork by Matt Jaffe depicting grasping helpless at nothing, the work deals with some powerful psychological outfits.  

“I think the difference this time around was, I was trying to imagine the album in its entirety,” Abdul-Rauf says. “I was trying to start with a whole concept and work from there.” 

In terms of how she stays motivated to make atmospheric music and play in metal bands, she says the craft itself drives and inspires her.  

“Having different projects in different genres helps me maintain inspiration, whereas if I were in 10 metal bands, I think I would lose that inspiration really quickly, and it would be a lot more difficult to get it back,” Abdul-Rauf says. “But with different genres, you can express yourself in so many different ways. You have so many more options at hand. As soon as your ears tire of loud guitar, you can cleanse the palate, so to speak, and move to other sonic territories that are gonna feel fresh because you were busy doing this entirely different thing before.” 

She also feels that in the musical world, the conversation is finally being shifted to focus on the importance of intersectionality in the musical landscape.  

“In the past five years, there’s been a palpable shift in the conversations people are having,” Abdul-Rauf says. “Even in the mainstream, about queerness, and race, and class, and everything, because that’s all equally important. I think the metal world has always had the issue of trying to force itself into the white, hetero guy norm, and if you are a woman, or non-cis man, or person of color, or a queer person creating music and in the metal world, you had to try and fit that mold, and I think there’s less pressure to do that now.” 

As a woman in her mid-40s, she has seen things shift for the better before her eyes. Often, the temptation is to not lean into marginalization and tokenism, to the point that sometimes, the issues don’t come front-and-center.  

“I think with Vastum, it’s something we’ve never wanted to do, marginalize ourselves as a queer- and female-fronted band, and we’ve been very good at that, but we’ve been so good at it that most people don’t know that I do so much of the vocals, and it’s kind of a shock when they finally see us live,” she says.  

Still, despite the constant conundrum of inclusion vs. self-marginalization, Abdul-Rauf is lucky enough to play music with like-minded folks, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.  

“I’ve played in bands with people that don’t share my values, and it was really, really hard,” she says. “It’s been night and day from now to what it was like 20 years ago, but I think things are opening up to even more discussion.”  

Listen to Phantasiai in full here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KirI7W1JvFw

For more from Leila Adbul-Rauf, find her on Bandcamp.

Photo courtesy of Leila Adbul-Rauf and Dawn Howard

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