One to watch
Hana Malhas (say HEN-a) was raised in Amman, Jordan, and came to Ann Arbor to attend business school at the U-M. She graduated a few years back, and now she says she'd like to spend the rest of her life making music. Based on the evidence of her career thus far, she has a good shot at it. One to watch, indeed. One rapturous song, "Radiate," from her full-length debut album, Shapeshift, sounds to me like a song with national potential.
The main attraction is not her Arabic background. She does sing in Arabic occasionally, and some of the imagery ("Some day I'll ask you to grow me an olive tree") comes from that part of the world. You might even enjoy an edge in her singing that speaks to having heard Umm Kulthum and other great Arab popular singers-her voice has a great deal of texture and soul. But her music does not use Arabic modes. It's basically folk-pop, piano or guitar based. The Swell Season is a reasonable comparison.
Instead it's Malhas's songs that are getting the attention of audiences at her shows over the past year or two, in the Detroit area and as far beyond as Jordan. The majority of them pertain to relationships, familiar enough ground for a twenty-something songwriter. But Malhas's songs are both deeply felt and full of fresh images. A song about a lingering attraction ends unexpectedly with "Some words are only meant to be sung." Some come from the downside of love, and Malhas has an unusual knack for using elemental nature images with emotional resonances ("I crumble like salt, and you sink like a stone"). She writes long verses that show evidence of a good deal of work done to bend emotion to a metrical scheme. A few of her songs have ambitious, dark lyrics that can be read in multiple ways.
I've seen Malhas twice, and both times I've been impressed by her stage presence and her way of
responding to the distinctiveness of the occasion. At Hollerfest last summer she performed in the shadowy log cabin, accompanying herself on piano and joined by only a single cellist. The effect was haunting. Amid the bustle of Noel Night in Detroit last winter, she appeared with her delightfully named new band, the Overthinkers, and passed out instant cameras to the audience, asking them to take pictures of her or each other and then return the cameras.
The Overthinkers will be appearing with Malhas at the Ark on May 31 (see Nightspots), when she releases her new album. I've heard some rough drafts from it, and she seems to be going in the direction of writing band-based hooks that stick in your head.
[Originally published in May, 2012.]