Merna Exorcises Her Past Selves on New EP 'Sans'

The Toronto-based singer and composer reconciles the changes she's gone through as a performer and where she is headed next.
May 10, 2017, 3:45pm

Lead photo by Kadeem Ellis Perhaps the cruelest falsehood that we're conditioned to believe is that anything is permanent. We're brought up in systems that explicitly value, privilege and celebrate permanence and stability. But just as one piece of our life settles into place, so does another shift from its footing. Life is a constant balancing act— happiness, comfort, love, and life are transient. And that is a solitary truth Toronto's Merna is a firm believer in it. "It's been a quiet kind of year," she says over the phone. She's in Jamaica, speaking about the release of her upcoming EP Sans, her first since 2014's extravagant full-length The Calling.

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Born in Jordan, Merna spent her early years crisscrossing continents and countries like wind currents. It's a way of life that forces one to become well-acquainted with the inevitable mortality of everything. "I moved around a lot as a child," she explains. "Constantly having to get close to people, adapt really quickly, and then let go of them very quickly." Those experiences quickly shatter the construct of stability, but that revelation comes at a price. On The Calling, Merna parsed through the separation anxiety that accompanied a life of transit, in orchestral, grand fashion; the record was nothing if not awe-inspiring. "I felt like, while making it, that it was my opus. I had hired a string section!" she laughs affectionately. "It felt like an exclamation mark. I was like, 'Let me sing everything really loudly, let me show my skills, let me write the most poignant of lyrics.' It had a point to prove." It was also the first record she had recorded under her birth name, Merna. She previously recorded under the moniker Ayah, until announcing in late 2013 that "Merna killed Ayah." These exorcisms are cathartic, but not without reflexive regret, questioning the change.

Sans is the beautiful, distinctly solitary manifestation of these whirlwind progressions. A gnawing feeling of loss developed; she had just let go of a relationship, she was backing out of the music business, The Calling wasn't a chart-topper, she missed Ayah. "I was just in a place where I felt alone, and in relationships without my identity, or the identity people have come to know me as," she explains urgently. She explains that since music had always been an anchor during restless, strenuous times, she returned to it, but she found some parts missing: her close, trusted collaborators. "Everybody just got super busy," she remarks. Her co-conspirators, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Doc McKinney, were committed to other projects; Muhammad, of A Tribe Called Quest, had been hard at work on Netflix's Luke Cage, while McKinney had been working on The Weeknd's Starboy. Merna admits being thrilled for her friends, but revisited by a familiar sense of loneliness.

But she saw a purpose to it, an opportunity afforded by change: self-producing the haunting, striking minimalism of Sans. "If you believe in the universe, and that everything's for a reason, it was all meant for this," she states firmly. "Now, I feel empowered, and I can do it on my own." The gentle, sparse introspection of the seven tracks on Sans suggests something uniquely singular; besides Merna's voice, whittled down from its Calling gusto, and humble piano accompaniment, there aren't many trappings or tricks to speak of. There's room to breathe, and to reflect; the songs imply solitude in the space they provide. But they also imply triumph, strength, resilience, in all the pointed keystrokes and quieted, carefully-chosen words shared.

Photo by Natalie Caine

It's a problematic maxim that the one who speaks loudest is the least sure. But it bears a hidden truth: only when one is comfortable and confident can they sit in quiet and perhaps be content. Merna has created Sans to embody that internal serenity. It does not insist upon itself, it has nothing to prove, and yet it has much to say.

"It's not a new thing to say, but art reflects life, and my art definitely reflects my life," she states. "I'm Palestinian and I'm looking at that struggle, and I'm a person of colour and I'm looking at that in the world. It's really saying… perhaps we can do this better."

Besides, these are the moments Merna wants to interrogate: the spaces between. "I'm not into boxes," she says plainly. "I don't like to be comfortable too long. That's why I guess my sound changes, or I had to drop Ayah. My hair's blonde, it'll be black tomorrow. Whether or not that's good for branding, I can't small myself." It reads as an accentuated, awakened facet of our nature, dulled and submitted by a hegemonic dedication to convention. Merna continues: " Sans came from… just shunning the idea of fame and the business of music. It's not about going to studios, it's not about meeting everybody."

The deliberate title of Sans encourages a life without such self-imposed restraints, like believing something will last forever. Merna's reminds it's not pessimistic. It's not about prophesying that something is going to end. "It's literally just going, 'I'm in a new relationship, I love this relationship. For as long as it works out, this is a blessing,' and leaving it there," she articulates. "The song has to end and there's no way around it."

Luke Ottenhof is a writer living in Ontario. He's on Twitter.