Living Circle, by Shida Shahabi (2024)

Stockholm-based composer Shida Shahabi returns with her sophom*ore album, ‘Living Circle’ - a wonderfully rich and accomplished new work that resonates with a powerful depth and viscerality. Where the warm, homespun piano of her 2018 debut, ‘Homes’, drew widespread praise and announced her arrival as a bold new voice, ‘Living Circle’ sees the artist pushing forwards into deeper, more expansive sonic realms. With tracks stretching longer and slower, and her piano lines less ornate and dominant, ‘Living Circle’ is a heavyweight album and a must-hear for fans of Stars Of The Lid, Sarah Davachi, Max Richter, Labradford, etc. Released via FatCat’s 130701 imprint on June 23rd on vinyl, CD and digital formats, it is preceded by a live show supporting A Winged Victory For The Sullen at London’s Barbican Centre on May 13th.

Patience is a virtue, and in Shahabi’s world things generally move at a gentle pace. You’ll hear this in her music, in which delicate piano and cello lines trace spellbinding melodies amid the cavernous depths of vast, richly textured drone waves, and you’ll see it in her lifestyle, an unhurried, considered existence to which nurturing is central, whether of her family, herself, her work, or the plants she grows. Good things, as they say, come to those who wait, and Shahabi clearly understands the axiom’s truth. Hers is a lusciously sensitive music. Using a piano prepared with felt (to create a damped sense of closeness) and intimately captured via clever microphone placement and a subtle prism of tape delay treatments, the simple, gentle beauty of her compositions is striking. Uncluttered and unhurried, a deep warmth seeps through her music’s every note.

Born in the Swedish capital in 1989 to Iranian parents, Shahabi grew up in a home filled with the sounds of both ‘70s Persian pop and classical works, and would pick up pieces on the family piano by ear without having the patience to learn from sheet notation. As her tastes developed, an early ear for punk and grunge shifted towards more esoteric, experimental flavours – among them The Cure, Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine. From age eleven, Shida began experimenting with her own simple compositions, noting how “it was like doodling, but became a way to spend time when I was bored, and I did it for long periods, provoked by pure pleasure.” Following four years studying fine art at Stockholm’s Royal Institute of Art, she began freelancing as a musician with numerous local artists and bands, and found herself composing music for dance, cinema, theatre and fine art contexts, as well as taking her first steps as a solo artist. Discovered by Stockholm label Sing A Song Fighter, her album recordings were sent to 130701 who, blown away by their quality, co-released her ‘Homes’ debut in October 2018.

‘Homes’ was championed by BBC Radio’s Mary Anne Hobbs and Gilles Peterson, whilst MOJO marveled at Shida's “summoning music from the very bowels of the piano, the out-of-focus opacity, like her simple, affecting melodic figures, suggesting a half-submerged music that rewards the attentive ear". Elsewhere, Future Music called the album “a masterclass in simplicity... allowing each note the space and time to become truly affecting... a confident debut of a new artist with their own vision". Released without huge fanfare or big marketing machinery, the LP nevertheless found a strong, organic connection with an audience, being picked up and shared across social media and via word of mouth, and viewed by many as one of the year’s finest piano albums.

Despite taking almost five years between albums, Shahabi has hardly been resting on her laurels. There have been tracks on an EP split with 130701 labelmates Resina and Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch alongside a joint UK tour, as well as ‘Shifts’, her own five track EP in 2019, not to mention the release of film scores and other commissions – including a reworking of Beethoven’s ‘Piano Sonata No. 26’ in 2021 for Deezer’s ‘Beethoven Recomposed’ project – and carefully selected live performances, from Max Richter’s Reflektor Festival at Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie to Film Four’s Summer Screen season at London’s Somerset House. Having scored several short films, Shida recently graduated to working on full features – for Charlotte Le Bon’s award-winning ‘Falcon Lake’ and the SpectreVision production ‘Lovely, Dark and Deep’. She also scored a prestigious new contemporary dance production, ‘Sylph’, choreographed by Halla Ólafsdóttir for Sweden’s Cullberg company, which premieres in May.

Following a string of rare but brilliant live performances and with her music having racked up millions of digital streams, ‘Living Circle’ finally arrives to answer the building anticipation. Recorded and produced by Shida and Hampus Norén, it was pieced together between 2021–22, with recordings made in several Stockholm spaces - at both Shida’s home apartment and studio space; in the octahedral Skeppsholmskyrkan church; and finally at Grammofonstudion in Gothenburg, before being expertly mixed and mastered by Francesco Donadello (Jóhann Jóhannsson, Dustin O’Halloran, Hildur Guðnadóttir) at Berlin’s renowned Voxton Studios.

Whilst previous releases were created via minimal approaches and clear conceptual framing, ‘Living Circle’ arose out of a more gradual and intuitive, organic process. “I wanted a vaguer framework," says Shida, “not always knowing what the next step would be, and seeking a wider and longer format. It arose partly from improvisation and partly from sessions spent working and talking through what sounds that felt interesting and what the core of the material wanted to say. I don’t think the tracks would sound the way they do, if it wasn’t for me giving the process time and letting things rest, without being quickly packaged or defined too much. Working ‘in the dark’ like that puts you in a more vulnerable situation. But that complexity and vulnerability also created other outputs and made the process strangely more fun.”

Without radical reinvention, ‘Living Circle’ sees Shida continue to pull her music forward. From the sparser unadorned piano of ‘Homes’, through ‘Shifts’ which first featured cellist Linnea Olsson – a wonderful foil and now a fixture in Shida's live show - and into her piano-free soundtrack work on ‘Lake On Fire’ and ‘Alvaret’, there’s been a consistent sense of expansion and refinement of her craft – exploring different instrumental sources; dialling deeper into subtle atmospheric detail and spatiality; learning how to say more with less. On ‘Living Circle’ that journey, and the time she has allowed it, has led to a hugely impressive work that feels both vast and nuanced, radiating a masterful sense of confidence and control.

With an increased focus on ambient texture, drone and extended duration, four of the seven tracks stretch beyond seven minutes in length. ‘Kinsei’ might open the album on a decaying piano note, yet it's almost fifteen minutes before the instrument audibly enters as the title track powers slowly and assuredly forwards, feeling like a pitched down take on Radiohead’s ‘Pyramid Song’ whilst recalling ‘Futo’ from her ‘Shifts’ EP, in its powerful and emotive interlocking of piano and cello. Where it does appear, Shida’s piano playing is pared back and more repetitive/ less ornate than before. In another shift, she incorporates choral elements for the first time, with ‘Deep Violet of Gold’ and ‘Aestus’ featuring the voices of Julia Ringdahl, Nina Kinert, Sara Parkman alongside her own. Double bassist Gus Loxbo also plays on six of the album’s seven tracks, whilst Olsson’s cello is increasingly foregrounded. Across the LP, there's a deeper layering and weathering of sounds, with distorted surfaces blistering and peeling away on 'Deep Violet Of Gold’ and the more synthetic, Blade Runner-esque ‘Tecum’; the former at times nudging closer to the saturated/ overdriven tape of Ian William Craig’s reel to reel processing and delight in gritty materiality.

As Shahabi points out, silence also plays a vital role in the album. Suffused with an elegant melancholy, it allows notes to linger and melodies to unfurl at a speed that reflects the record’s making. Eerie but uplifting, imposing yet redemptive, it succeeds in being as expansive as it is intimate, as still as it is fluid, haunting those who hear it long after the music’s quietly faded. Glacially paced and powerfully resonant, ‘Living Circle’ is an important reminder of the joys in taking a measured, patient approach to the art of creation. There is, let’s not forget, nothing like being in the right place at the right time, especially if ultimately the goal is to achieve something timeless.

Living Circle, by Shida Shahabi (2024)
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