How does she do all that when I still haven’t been to a lecture this year?
Sabreen Islam’s upcoming EP ‘ROOM SERVICE’ is a joyous collection of certified bedroom-pop bangers that I’ve been blasting at an offensively high volume all week. I sat down with the law student, musician, and published poet in an attempt to figure out how the fuck the rising star manages to fit all that girlbossing into her day.
A: So you’re only 20, and your first single came out a few years ago now. What got you into music?
S: I’d been messing around in the recording studio of my high school for a couple of years, and in Year 13 I was sitting on these songs and thought, “you know what, why not”. I’ve actually been writing since I was ten—just really shitty songs on my ukulele those first few years. I hope I’ve improved a bit! I’ve been writing for such a long time and it follows me wherever I go, so putting them out was the natural next step.
A: Well I’ve listened to the EP so I can attest that you have improved! When I was listening to ‘still love you’, I loved that you incorporated tabla drums from your culture. What made you decide that this was the song you wanted to use them in?
S: I’m Bangladeshi, and we have a really amazing, rich, and ancient musical culture in that part of the world. So with this EP I thought “why don’t we sprinkle some spice in?” With ‘still love you’ in particular I had a hunch tabla would sound good in there. It’s a very upbeat song, and the way the tabla is played is incredibly intricate and I thought it would fit really seamlessly—in a way where it would stand out as a feature but would also blend with the production. My friend’s dad actually came into the studio to record it, and he was such a champ about it, it was one of the coolest studio sessions ever.
A: I know we’re here for the EP, but I also want to talk about your poetry because I think you’re such an overachiever it’s actually offensive. You published your collection ‘Spring Clean’ last year while writing the EP, how much did your creative processes overlap when making those?
S: Poetry comes out as quite a raw form for me. Sometimes songwriting can be hard work, poetry for me is just right what I’m feeling at that moment. But I think they often intertwine—I’ll be writing a chorus to a song and it’ll start to feel like a poem, or I’ll be working on a verse to a poem and think, “this would be better in a song”. So for me there’s a lot of crossover.
A: It’s interesting because when listening to your music versus reading your poems, ‘Spring Clean’ covers a lot of heavier subjects, which feels like quite a contrast with your music which celebrates a lot of youthful joy. But your new single, ‘victory’ really bucks that and touches on a lot of the darker themes of your poetry. What was the thinking behind that song having such a different tone to what you’ve released before?
S: ‘victory’ was another song I actually wrote back in 2020. I find poems less intimidating to share, because they don’t have the layers behind them that songs do like production and mixing. This song is very close to my chest, and until now, going through all those processes was too scary. While most of my music is youthful and happy, it’s not a completely accurate reflection of all of my songwriting—I do write a lot of heavier songs and I think they’re important too, but I’ve always been a little afraid. I think, ‘victory’ may be the best song I’ve released to date, because it has something to say. I remember playing it for my dad for the first time, just the very basic recording of my vocals and the piano, and after it finished he said, “I think this is the best song you’ve ever written.”
A: Three years is a long time to be sitting on a song, did it go through many different stages before getting to this point?
S: The song that you hear is pretty much its raw form. When I wrote it I was never intending to release it. I was just sitting at the piano, like, bleary-eyed from crying. But I took it to Sophie and as we worked on it, it really emerged as something quite important. I felt like I would be missing out on an opportunity if I didn’t let it have its moment. I think 2020 me would be pretty surprised that it’s out, but also quite proud.
A: Well, turning to 2023 you—you’ve just started third year law, which I can attest is insanely hectic. You’ve published a book, and you have an EP coming out this week. I think you have girlboss credentials if I’ve ever seen them. How do you balance your academics with being an artist?
S: I use my music and my writing as an escape from law, but also when my art gets stressful, I use law as an escape from my music—which sounds really sadistic! But it works for me. And for a long time I was really resistant to my studies, thinking, “I’m not a law student, I’m a musician!” But I can be both, I enjoy being both. I got to a point last year where being all of those things became too much, and I just told myself to stop, broke down everything in my life that wasn’t giving me joy, and left it behind. I try not to go on social media, or check my emails before breakfast or after dinner. It’s a continuous process trying to manage it, but I just try to remember that I’m only one person, and what is meant for me won’t pass me.
A: If there were any students out there who really wanted to pursue their art, would you have any advice for creating and maintaining that balance?
S: I’m not sure I’m really in a position to give advice, but I would say that the things that bog me down are comparing myself to others, and really high expectations. If you can manage those however best works for you, you and your art are going to be a lot better for it.
A: So with your way of doing things, you talk a lot about being inspired by your culture. What else inspires you and how do you get that out? Are you writing every day or do you wait until it comes to you?
S: My secret is that I just think way too much. My inner monologue is literally Shakespearean, it’s a real problem—
A: Sounds like Fleabag!
S: Exactly like Fleabag! I’m constantly inspired by everything around me. Like when I look at my parents, they have such a fascinating story, they grew up in war and came to New Zealand and had to start again. They built their way up, which is why I’m here—so I just get inspired by people’s stories and lives. I find those things are a great way to get out of my own head and to put myself in someone else’s for a while.
A: Which makes a lot of sense, because you’re telling stories in your songwriting and then you’re studying law which is all about representing other peoples stories. Do you ever think in the future your different advocacies will collide?
S: It’s like a big braid. I don’t think I could ever settle for just doing one—I’m not sure I could be happy or fulfilled just doing law or music or writing. I would love them all to be able to work together in the future, because they’re all important to me. My main focus is always helping others, especially other Muslims, other women, and other South Asian people. If I was to just do one thing it would feel like a loss to me.
A: Well, your newest single is out, your EP is coming up, and you’re doing a release show at Big Fan. What’s next after that? Any exciting plans for the future?
S: My main focus is getting ready for the show, which is so exciting. It’s my first headline show, just me and the band. Three of us in the band are actually from Bangladesh, which might be a first for NZ music! We’ll be playing all six songs from the EP, and maybe a sneaky Taylor Swift cover as well. Right after the show Ramadan starts, so I’m going to take that time to get my shit together. But I’m really excited to keep making music and playing shows, and to see what the future holds.
Sabreen’s EP ‘ROOM SERVICE’ is out March 10, and her release show at Big Fan Studios is on March 19, tickets from Under The Radar.