Street: Is there anything different about this [North American] tour that allowed you to be able to write more?
Tamino: I think it's just mindset. I used to need a lot more alone time. And I would keep new ideas to myself for a very long time until I thought they were worthy of showing to other people. And I think now I'm able to present an idea, even if it's not fully formed yet, to the people I trust or to musicians I want to work with which is a different process.
I do have a few questions about your songwriting process, because your lyrics are so interesting. A lot of your songwriting is very visual. Do you have a favorite visual artist or images you pull from when you're writing?
I'm very flattered you say that actually, because I feel like visually, I'm actually not that advanced. If I'm in a museum, and I look at some paintings, I don't feel like I'm an expert or that I'm able to see stuff that maybe some of my friends are able to see or be touched by. I had this one friend in New York who took me to the [Museum of Modern Art] and he was like, “Ahh, the way the light falls there ...” He was touched by everything.
Recently I went to the [Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp] where I live, a big museum that was under construction for 10 years, and now they reopened. They have an artist there called James Ensor who is this English painter who lived in Belgium for most of his life. I think most of his collection is in Belgium. I thought he really made beautiful paintings. He's a big influence on expressionism, because it was sort of at the edge of impressionism and then [the start of] expressionism, so I think he's really cool. Overall, I guess I'm more touched by expressionism, but I also really love very figurative, realistic stuff.
Would you say those are the same inspirations that go into your music videos as well?
Those movements really struck a chord, and those paintings really struck a chord with me. The "Sunflower" video was influenced by Degrasse very clearly and some other stuff. Then "You Don't Own Me" was influenced by a Tarkovsky movie. "Fascination” [is] just a total tribute to [and] rip off of a Jim Morrison video.
Thinking about the songwriting process of Sahar versus Amir, I think that Sahar seems more pared down, and it wasn't recorded with the firka from Amir, so it's more intimate lyrically. How would you compare your process for writing the two albums?
The process of songwriting was similar in the sense that it's just usually me on a guitar trying to figure out something that I like—a chord progression or melody. [For Sahar,] I recorded a lot of the demos in my home, and they had a roominess to them. I wanted to keep that intimate feeling in them. We definitely consciously didn't make a big sounding record. It didn't feel right. It was a time of reflection and of looking inwards, I guess. I feel like that's what you feel in that record.
Across your songs, you use a lot of religious allusions and considerations of faith. What is your relationship with spirituality and religion?
There's this friend of mine who is actually reading a book called The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and it talks about how the stories that are most true to our inner being will always come out in some way or another in similar ways—and it's true. We like to look at religious texts from all over the world, [and] they always share a lot of similarities. That's not because they necessarily influenced each other, it's more that our inherent experience as humans comes out through storytelling. It's awesome. So that's something that's really interesting: the story that we need to tell. And the stories that we tell will always survive longest. I think it sort of gives them a higher truth, a metaphysical truth, which makes religion quite beautiful to me. You don't have to necessarily believe in every little thing that's described in a book.
I mean, that's something that I would never do, for example, to specify my take on religion. I could never believe some of the miracles described in some of the holy books, but they are talking about the metaphysical truth, which says something about us as humans, and it's something very valuable. I really think it's true that a person's relationship with a character from a story can be more real and more valuable than with their own neighbor, so that's the same with religion. I felt with just reading books, just reading some of those authors who have died a long time ago—that they're my friends. Sometimes they're even better friends than people I know in real life. I think [that is] what religion does, but I don't know. That's my take on it.
I'm not a practicing believer—not in the classical sense. But I do have faith. I think a lot of people have faith without realizing [it]. Even waking up and starting your day, we all have like these little acts of fate throughout our lives without even noticing.
Which artists would make your dream collaboration list for any future albums or work?
There are so many. I've always said a song with Massive Attack would be cool. I still think that would be amazing. Not even on [one of my albums], I would gladly sing a song on their album, or a standalone song, whatever it is. I would love to work with them, but I've never reached out or anything. Maybe I should try that one.
In a 2020 interview with GQ, you had mentioned that you were learning Arabic. How is that going?
How do I say it… انا افهم عربي شوية ["I understand Arabic a little" - Ed.]. I'm learning a bit of Egyptian dialect on an app. I should do it every day, like half an hour, but I always begin and go slow. But I'm loving it though. It's really a lot of fun.
You've been spending a lot of time in New York, and I think you've hinted at a possible move. What appeals to you about New York? How do you feel like the music scene compared to that of Brussels?
I'm definitely planning on moving. It's just where I want to be right now.
I've never really felt part of the music scene, and it's the same over here. I think if I would want to be part of the scene, I'd better move to LA where there are a lot of musicians. I feel like here there's a lot of artists, but not necessarily a lot of musicians—at least not that I know of, not that I've met. I'm moving because I just don't know any other place like this where you can walk out your door and experience so much unplanned adventure. It's just so inspiring. So much has been said about this, and so much more eloquent stuff that I don't have the vocabulary for it.
I don't have the experience of the city to talk about it that way. But I can only say that the experiences I've had so far over here have been beautiful and life changing. I just want to keep being in that energy for at least a while, and I feel like it's beneficial for me as a songwriter as well.
How do you like to spend your time in the city?
Walking is just my favorite thing, which is honestly something I never did in Antwerp. It's just not an inviting city to go for [a walk]. Some parts of it are, but in New York just everywhere, just anywhere, I love to walk. It's so inviting to go out there and see where you end up. It feels like this huge playground where you can just hop from one thing to another. You can go to a museum, then you can go shopping or go to a bookstore, and it's just endless. It's endless.
And you can also just do nothing and not be bothered by anything. Yeah, it's very freeing. Very, very liberating.
To finish off the interview, what made you decide to record in English [at the beginning of your career] rather than Dutch or French? Did you always plan to target your music towards an English–speaking audience?
I've always listened to English music way more than any Dutch [music]. I know some Dutch songs, of course, usually “klein tunes,” which means “little art,” literally translated. It's usually very folky songs about our little life basically, and it's something that I never quite related to. Also, being Egyptian and Lebanese, I've always felt more like, it's a cliche, but a child of the world or whatever. So, that would have never felt right. [As for] French, I don't even speak French that well, so that was never an option.
English felt natural, it still does. It's the language I love expressing myself in. I do love this distance between me and the language, because, I mean, it's not my native language. So I'm always learning, which is fun. Even now, I also love to read. I read more English books than I do Dutch books, or I watch more English movies. It just makes sense to me. Of course, the fact that it's more universal, well, that's something that's very appealing too, because it blows my mind where I can go. Seeing all of those places ... that's an amazing experience which would, of course, never have happened if I sang in Dutch.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.