Zaki Ibrahim Faced Down Tragedy and Found Joy Making 'The Secret Life of Planets'

Zaki Ibrahim Faced Down Tragedy and Found Joy Making 'The Secret Life of Planets'
Photo: Gillian Mapp
At its zenith, music is an emotional statement. For Zaki Ibrahim, the creation of her new album, The Secret Life of Planets, is neurochemistry in motion.
 
Having experienced the death of her father and the birth of her son within a four-month span, emotional reflections on time and purposeful existence became paramount for the album, the West coast-born vocalist and songwriter's first since her debut full-length record, Every Opposite, was shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize in 2013.
 
"I was in the middle of writing this album when all this was happening," she says. "It actually allowed me to deal with what I was feeling and to explore a lot of themes of outer space, time travel, memories, nostalgia… It took me away, but at the same time, got me even deeper into who I am."
 
The Secret Life of Planets — a riff on the classic experimental 1979 Stevie Wonder record Journey Through "The Secret Life of Plants" — operates within her personal space-time continuum. She spends her time between Canada and South Africa, and she collaborated primarily with co-producer and co-writer Alister Johnson and multi-instrumentalist Casey MQ to hone the album's future-minded sound of classic soul, pop, hip-hop, disco and house.
 
"It was a collaborative effort, but I was the director, like a filmmaker would be. The lyrics and the stories were there, and I had to be specific about being the boss of the project. There are moments of collaboration, but for this album I definitely played the role of producer, director and wearing all of the hats."
 
Her father, the late Zane Ibrahim, was managing director of South Africa's best-known community radio station, someone who was musical, spiritual and helped inform Zaki's sonic outlook. She honours his legacy with the two-part "Binary," musing on nonlinear chronologies and the cumulative effects of time and space on human consciousness. Heady stuff, but a headspace in which Ibrahim resides within the high-minded sonic experience the album represents.
 
"It's a very analogue record. It's touching on music that has been done and things that have happened throughout time. It comes from hip-hop and the sampling age," she says. There aren't any samples, she adds, but there are a lot of historical music references throughout the record, spanning from the '70s, '80s and '90s into the future.
 
The elliptical project unfolds reflections on identity — her Scottish-English heritage on her mother's side and her South African father have informed her worldly and outwardly outlooks — along with love, longing and the nature of being in a holistic fashion. It spins on an emotional axis, taking into account that she was alternatively grieving death, celebrating life and pondering futures within a postpartum state.
 
Conceptually, The Secret Life of Planets orbits around in the idea of the mysticism of sound and the tones made by the planets in our universe; it maps along with her own emotional highs and lows, recognizing that sadness and joy are emotionally expositional, shades on the same spectrum of love. And in this context, all feelings are venerated, non-compartmentalized.
 
"What surprisingly came out was more joy than grief. The album was just a cathartic thing to do."