Artist Spotlight: Karima Walker

    Karima Walker’s music seems to exist in a liminal state: oscillating between abstract and concrete worlds, caught in a dreamlike haze but marked by striking moments of lucidity. The Tuscon, Arizona artist describes herself as somewhat of an “in between person” – she is Arab, half North African/Tunisian on her mother’s side, but was “raised in a very white context,” as she puts it – and though her personal history hasn’t explicitly informed her songwriting, that sense of in-betweenness can be felt in more ways than one. After releasing a set of acoustic guitar songs in 2012, she started experimenting with field recordings, tape loops, and synthesizers, presenting a mesmerizing fusion of ambient textures and traditional folk melodies on her full-length debut, Hands in Our Names, in 2017.

    Though conceived under vastly different circumstances, her new album, Waking the Dreaming Body, a collaborative release between Keeled Scales and Orindal Records, employs a similar sonic approach and is driven by the same hypnotic ebb and flow of emotion. Almost entirely self-produced during lockdown, each track evokes its own elusive yet rich landscape, and the way Walker connects each scene reveals a natural command of space: “Sonoran sky plays a movie/ Draw a line to the stars inside of me/ Write it down, tell your friends/ I know where I am but I can’t tell where I started,” she sings on opener ‘Reconstellated’. It’s easy to lose yourself in these delicate, ethereal arrangements, but there’s a strange kind of magic in not knowing where they might take you next, moving like a gentle tide guided only by forces.

    We caught up with Karima Walker for this edition of our Artist Spotlight series to talk about the Sonoran desert, her relationship with her mother, her musical journey, and more.

    How are you doing? How has your day been so far?

    Today has been pretty nice. We’re well into springtime here where I’m living, in Tucson, Arizona, and so flowers are coming up, but it’s this sort of unusually grey day. It reminds me of when I lived in the Midwest, and you get this sort of gloomy weather. It’s nice when it happens here because it’s so rare. It feels sort of like one of those days where there isn’t the same kind of like pressure to be – I don’t know, alert, ready to start.

    I was actually wondering if you could talk more about the desert and where you are in particular. How would you describe it to someone who’s never been to or wasn’t raised in that kind of environment?

    Something that strikes a lot of people when they first see the Sonoran Desert is how lush it is, and how green it can be. And certain seasons, that’s maybe less so the case, but for a lot of the year, we have a ton of vegetation. And because, geographically, Tucson is in a basin surrounded by mountain ranges, you end up feeling this combination of – you’re kind of securely resting at the bottom of this bowl, but you also have a lot of sky. So, you know, I was saying how it’s kind of cloudy today. But the clouds are always really high. Whereas like, in Chicago, they would drop down, you sort of have to tuck yourself underneath them. Most of the American West is just, we have these huge skies, we have these wide-open spaces. And I think people talk about the negative space in the desert, how everything’s kind of spaced out, things don’t often crowd each other very much the way you’d see in a lusher place. I think there’s still a lot going on, but you kind of get this sense that things have sort of been arranged in this really intentional way, the way that these different species are vying for resources and kind of arranging themselves.

    Is that natural environment part of why it feels like home to you?

    It’s a big part of what makes it home. Most of my family is here, also. I left for school when I was 18, and most of my siblings and my dad stayed in Tucson. And that has always made it feel kind of like a home base; I think I always kept expecting siblings to move away – there’s five of us – so it’s like, the odds are good that someone’s gonna move, and maybe we’d have sort of a long-distance relationship. But everyone has stayed here. So that, I think, bolsters the sense of home. But when I think about the time I lived away from Tucson, it was often the seasons and the landscape that would feel like home; just the smells and the way things cycle here is so different from anywhere else.

    Do you mind talking a bit about your upbringing and the role music played early on in your life?

    I grew up going to the Catholic Church, and so that was the main experience in music that I had as a child, at least overtly. So every Sunday, I would sing in choirs and just being part of a congregation. But there’s also this other piece that I didn’t grow up with my mother at a young age, we were apart. And that was the case all through my childhood. I didn’t know really anything about her either, except that she was a singer. And so that, I feel, more and more as I have gotten older, has been a piece for me. It’s something that was never really explicitly discussed – it was one of those family pieces of information that no one talks about. And where she was, even, was kind of a mystery for a long time. And so, I haven’t really mapped out all the ways that that has shown itself in my upbringing, but one thing that feels kind of significant is that, you know, I was singing in choirs, but I was terrified for anyone to hear me singing. For a long time, up until my mid-20s, I really didn’t like singing in front of anybody. It was a really intense sort of stage fright, which eventually changed, but I can’t help but think that there’s some kind of connection with that kind of mythological understanding of who my mother was, and this piece of myself that I was hiding and felt like it couldn’t really be exposed.

    But other than growing up in the church, my friends were in bands and I loved to go to their shows, even though it was always hardcore shows in Tucson. It wasn’t really a genre of music that I felt like was my world. But I always felt attracted to that, and I felt drawn to people who were doing music. I think that was something that I never really thought was something I could participate in, but that I could sort of observe. And so I did that for a long time.

    There’s a lot to talk about there, but I’m curious why you use the word “mythological” in reference to your mother.

    I think I choose that word because she is and was my mother, this primal, before anything else, presence in my life. And yet I didn’t have access to it; all I had was this really just a few words to kind of ascribe to this presence that wasn’t there. And so I think when you get these pieces, something about the mismatching of like, this is the person who birthed you, we know that she’s a singer, we know that she’s Tunisian, which means you’re Tunisian. And we know that she left. And that’s it. And so, what’s the story then? And that’s actually something that still exists in this ambiguous place where you get these pieces, and you try to make sense of it, but it doesn’t exist in my life in these day-to-day ways that I could really understand. I don’t know if it becomes something like, archetypal, or becomes part of my subconscious, or it’s the story that kind of just floated with me, but that I couldn’t really inhabit. And so maybe that’s something about myths, right, like myths can distort, they can change over time. I don’t know, it felt like a natural way to think about her because her presence didn’t become concrete until much later.

    What was it that helped make it more concrete, if you don’t mind me asking? Because I think read a quote that was somewhere along the lines of her asking you why you don’t sing like Whitney Houston, which kind of shows how different your approach to performance is.

    It eventually shifted when my family was going through this other new cycle of turmoil. So, my dad and stepmother were separating. And in the ending of that relationship, a lot of things got churned up and one of them was tracking down my biological mother. And as I was thinking about this question – you asked about applying a mythological quality to her identity – one of the images in my mind was remembering the first time I saw her as not a very young child. The first time I remember seeing her was, I think I was 15 or 16. And we went to the airport to pick her up. And she came off the plane, and she was – she looked like a queen. She had like furs and full makeup and jewelry and this luxurious perfume on. And I was this really scrawny kid in the middle of puberty, and this family unit that I’d been in was dissolving again, you know. I remember her coming off that plane, and she was just larger than life. And I think that that’s part of her performing personality; like, when she performs, she has this sort of commanding and matriarchal presence, and her voice is very rich and deep. I think that the world in which she makes music, that is often the role of these famous female singers in the Arab world, there’s sort of this doe-like beauty there and they’re ethereal. And sometimes they’re just very strong and very grounded, and that’s sort of the world that she occupied as a performer, the kind of archetype that she’s moved toward.

    And I think it’s easy to see the way that she performs, the way she uses her voice, why she would point me towards someone like Whitney Houston, who’s just the pinnacle of someone who holds it down and occupies performance in such a solid and beautiful way. So I think that, given the delayed and distant role that my mother played in my life, the first part of it, I haven’t had the kind of relationship where I’m sending her what I’m working on, you know, I haven’t expected her to necessarily understand or engage with what I’m doing. And maybe it sounds like she was missing something in pushing me in that direction, but I think she’s like, “I want to help you, I want you to be successful.” I think the way that I am interested in exploring and occupying space is really different from her, but I think there are still commonalities. I want an elastic way of occupying that space; I want to be diminutive and small, and I also want to expand. This is a much more abstract way of connecting my world with my mother’s, but something that’s definitely evolved from those types of conversations with her is – I think this probably happens for a lot of people at some point in their late 20s – visiting her and getting to know her story a little bit better. I developed this really profound respect for what she does and how she’s been able to do this work for so long and provide for herself and provide for her family in North Africa.

    I really appreciate you talking about this, and it does help paint a better picture of what you were talking about before. To get to how you yourself started to explore singing and songwriting – you mentioned that you didn’t have as much confidence at first. What changed?

    The first piece was, early in high school, my grandfather gave me my grandmother’s guitar – she had passed, maybe five or six years prior, and I was just exploring around their house and found this guitar in the closet. So having this really lovely little Martin, that was something I would play songs on; I would try to learn, like, Jeff Buckley and Radiohead and, I’m embarrassed to say, lots of church songs on it. That was my first welcome into making music, even if it was just for myself for a long time. And then I brought it with me to college and would play on it for my own pleasure. And then after college, I think that’s when things started to change. I would play with my roommate, and there was this person that I, young 20s-version, just fell in love with, and they were a musician. And then I fell in love with someone else, and they were a musician – there was this kind of classic, similar to what I was talking to you before about being drawn to these people who make music – I think that was happening in this more concentrated way. And one of those people encouraged me to play more. I was in Chicago at the time, and there it was post-O Brother, Where Art Thou? craze of Americana folk music. It was everywhere. And in Chicago, there’s this folk school that teaches really simple guitar stuff and banjo and they have like this really wonderful program, and so I took some classes there. That kind of opened up – it was this right mixture of having time and this instrument and people around me who were like, “Hey, you should keep doing this.” And then I started making these goals for myself, like every year I would be like, “Alright, this year I’m gonna write my own song,” and then the next year like, “This year, I’m gonna sing in front of somebody.” It was a really slow process.

    How did you arrive at the approach that kind of started with your first album?

    I went abroad for about a year and a half; I worked as an English teacher in South Korea. And that was a time period where I was like, “You know what, I’m going to just do this.” I think a lot of people do that, they leave home and then really leave home and other parts of themselves can kind of surface. I kept trying to convince myself to become a teacher, and I wasn’t interested in it, at least not as a full-time thing. And so that was the first step. And then coming home, moving back to Tucson, I started connecting with musicians and I joined this group called Human Behaviour. And a friend of mine, who it was kind of his project, he made this really dark folk music – it was very strange stuff. So that was kind of one of the first skewing of genre that I got to play around in. And then the other piece was, I started working at my friend’s record store. There’s a local record shop here called Wooden Tooth Records, they actually released the first version of the tape of my first record. And that record shop, I think, was a big part of how things started changing. I was just listening to all different kinds of music all day.

    I had already been recording these field recordings in Korea – I was using my voice memos on my phone as part of a songwriting tool, and then ended up using it to record sounds around me, not really knowing that I was going to be using it in any music. It was more like a notebook for me to reference. And so, that was kind of the foundation of that shift, because I’d been writing songs all throughout that hadn’t really been incorporating things yet. But then leading into the actual decision to change things, after all that stuff was kind of simmering around for a while, and I had been touring and performing as a songwriter, I kind of felt like I kind of hit one of my limitations as a performer and wanted to start changing that. And so that began this exploration of different types of gear and researching different pieces of equipment that kind of open things up.

    Having put out the first record, what was your headspace going into Waking the Dreaming Body?

    At first, when I finished that record, Hands in Our Names, I felt really proud of that record, and really confident in what I was doing and exploring. And finishing that, I thought, “Gosh, I can do anything.” [laughs] I don’t mean that in terms of like, “I’m gonna form a jazz trio,” but it was like, “Wow, I realized this vision and I’m so energized by that.” And I toured a lot, or what felt like a lot. And then I entered this really stagnant season that lasted years. I felt pretty strongly that in a way, there wasn’t a rush to do anything next, that growing and changing is only good for whatever you’re making. This sense of, it’s okay to live life without knowing exactly how this is going to shape the project that you’re going to do. And then, somewhere along the way, I feel like I got really lost. I was waiting for another vision to emerge like it did with the last record, and that was really scary. I think I kept waiting to feel really confident in what I was doing, and it just never came.

    So, I had planned to work with Melissa Dyne of The Blow as kind of – we were still figuring it out, maybe like an engineer, maybe more of a producer, depending on how comfortable I could get with that creative collaboration. And I felt like collaborating with her would be a really important way for me to grow and move out of some stagnant feelings. Because I tend to work alone a lot, and I don’t think that insularity is always the best for such a long time. So I started talking with Melissa about working with her, and then had all these sort of pieces of things that I had been developing over a few years and brought those with me to New York, and I got sick and had to come home. And then there was a combination of continuing to work on the mixes myself and COVID, that complicated our plan. I didn’t want to collaborate remotely, I feel strongly about that. And the mixes got to a place where I would look at these songs that were tons and tons and tons of tracks and I was like, I don’t think I can send this to someone without losing these very delicate pieces that I had arranged already.

    When you reflect back on this album and the process of making it, do you feel that you have a better understanding now of yourself as an artist and an individual?

    Yeah. I think that what I did was continue to make and create something despite not knowing what it would look like in the end, and despite being really uncertain about what was happening. And I’m really comforted by that; I think it opened up a way of moving through stagnation even if I don’t have all the answers yet. And that’s a personal lesson for me as a person, and it’s true as an artist, too, that I don’t have to have it all figured out before I start. I mean, that’s supposed to be the joy of making things, right? And what ended up being the reality is that I didn’t know for a long time and I might not know for a long time exactly what this record means to me personally, but it does stand as this proof to myself of, “Yeah, I can still make things and do things even if I’m feeling lost or don’t have it all figured out. And I can make something that I’m proud of.”

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length. 

    Karima Walker’s Waking the Dreaming Body is out now via Keeled Scales and Orindal Records.

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