Merna Talks Emerging from the Shadows of Ayah for 'The Calling,' Working with Ali Shaheed Muhammad

Merna Talks Emerging from the Shadows of Ayah for 'The Calling,' Working with Ali Shaheed Muhammad
While she had been using the name Ayah professionally throughout her career, going by the name Merna represents a reinvention of sorts for the Toronto-based singer-songwriter. She tells Exclaim! that her name change and new album, The Calling, is the end result of two and a half years of growing as a person, mastering her craft and working with big names such as Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest fame.

"It feels good. I'm really excited. It's been a while," she says. "It's nice to be able to connect with the people and let them know what's happening in my life. That's kind of been what music has been for me."

Merna means "beloved" in Arabic and is actually her birth name; using it serves to represent that she has come full circle as a creator and as a person, she says. The Palestinian-born artist notes that her family moved a lot over the years — including between Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, Seattle and Toronto during her formative years — which resulted in her developing a case of separation anxiety.

"It started in Grade 5 and continued on into adulthood," she says, adding that it was hard over the years to let go of people, relationships and even material things.

So after years of being known as Ayah, it was after a relationship breakup that she felt that she needed a change. "This album came at a time in my life where I needed to purge. I wrote the album and afterwards I realized how personal it was," she says.

The Calling was executive produced by Muhammad, Makai Black and Merna herself; she is confident that the 10-track album represents who she is as a person at this point, and hopes her followers will like the new direction. The project represents her maturing sound and renewed focus on self-actualization, blending in themes of love and empowerment with elements of soul, pop, rock and Arabic music.

"We just need to educate people that it's the same person even though it's a new sound technically. I'm not worried about that."

Working with celebrated producer Muhammad came about by way of knowing producer Doc McKinney (Esthero, the Weeknd); the two met in McKinney's Toronto studio.

"I've been friends with Doc for a long time. He's an amazing producer. I had met up with Doc at his studio during a listening session and Ali was there — they had just worked on some John Legend stuff. I went to hang out with them and I played them what I was working on at the time and we just started hanging out for a while and stayed in touch."

She stayed in New York for a stint and came back to Toronto to work with Black for seven songs on the album, and with Muhammad for three songs, including "A Little More."

"He's amazing," she says of working with Muhammad. "We just always decided on the same thing. We have the same tastes of music and the same standard for perfection. Working was [about] being very critical of ourselves, very critical of what we make. I've never seen someone work so meticulously on stuff. We were never afraid to scrap something and start over."

A video for the single "Better Run" was recently released, and Merna is coy about mentioning the next single or video supporting the album. She notes however, that more videos are in the works. That said, Merna notes she's been noticing the international recognition The Calling has been getting since its release and notes that she's grateful for whatever happens next.

"As much as I believe in hard work and preparation, there really is a divine thing in charge. Whatever comes to me is what I need at the moment. I'll always get what I'm supposed to get and this album has gotten me attention that I've never gotten before. That is really spectacular to me as I didn't set out to do a certain type of sound or be a certain type of person or genre — I just made the music that I felt at the moment. People seem to be feeling it."

The Calling is out now on W.A.R. Media.