"My heart goes La La La La for you" – the hook of Alya Al Ali’s debut single Hung Up is enough to make you want to get up on your feet and bust out some dance moves. An upbeat song that talks of teenage crush gone sour, Hung Up is crashing the internet with Alya winning accolades from global audience as well as well-known names such as Simon Fuller and Kyle Hanagami.
In an exclusive interview, the 15-year-old singer/songwriter talks about carving a niche for herself in the highly competitive global music industry, managing expectations and straddling cultures.
Excerpts from the interview:
Where do you get your inspiration to pursue a career in the music field?
My mum is a jazz, soul and RnB singer; my nana was a singer and my great grandad was a jazz piano player so I believe music is in my genes. I never had to be encouraged to pursue music – I always had a passion to do it. My parents and the extended family have always encouraged and supported me in my music and most importantly, they believe in me. It is what I love to do every day of my life.
What made you decide that you would like to pursue a career in the music industry and how did your family react to your decision?
My family always knew that the music industry was where I belonged and they were – and continue to be – extremely happy and supportive with whatever I need to do to make this wish a reality. It was easy to convince them because my mum, who is British, is a singer. Culturally on the Emirati side, while being in the music industry is not something they take lightly, [they are] open-minded and believe it is incredibly important to support talent coming out of the Middle East.
You were born and raised in Dubai to an Emirati father and a British mother. Growing up, how easy or difficult was it to embrace and identify with two different cultures?
I think if you grow up with something, it becomes the norm for you. It was easy to embrace both cultures because I have always lived my life that way. I am comfortable and equally at ease in both and genuinely love navigating the two as I take the best that each one has to offer.
Who were your favourite music icons growing up and which musician do you wish to emulate?
It was very varied – Beyonce is a huge inspiration because she is so incredible, both in terms of performance and creatively. She is involved in all aspects of the business from writing to producing to performing her work. I love her voice, her songs and how she has evolved as an artist. Growing up, I was exposed to everything from Aretha Franklin and Toni Braxton, to Snoop Dogg, Tupac, as well as the greats, including Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. More recently, I have been drawn to Summer Walker.
That said, I don’t really want to emulate any one artist, rather I just want to be myself and be known for being Alya. I would, however, love a fraction of the success Beyonce has had in her career.
Some years ago, you competed with thousands of formally trained students for a NAME music contest and came out tops...
The competition took place about five or six years ago and it had thousands of entries! By chance I saw an advert for it and told my mum I want to do that. The format included many rounds of auditions and, initially, to be honest, I didn’t go into it knowing what I was going to do. I had never had a dance lesson – I had just watched videos of Beyonce and copied her routines on my balcony at home.
In the first round, I had to do a routine and for subsequent rounds I had to choreograph routines from scratch. I was only about 9 at the time and each night I would spend hours practicing on the balcony of my grandparents’ home irrespective of the weather – rain, sandstorms – I would practice, practice, practice! Then I got through to the final and it was then I realised that a lot of the other children had been practicing for months with trained choreographers – whereas I did it alone. It was then I knew I had a gift. When Kris Fade [congratulated me], I knew I was right. I have continued to push myself to become better and better since then and I believe this is my future.
What is the best compliment you have received to date?
The best ones were from Simon Fuller and Kyle Hanagami. Kyle, who is Jennifer Lopez’s choreographer, said there was just something about me and he felt like I was made to do this. Simon Fuller said he couldn’t fault me and thought I was an all-round performer. Considering he is a well-respected bona fide music mogul who created American Idol, this was extremely flattering.
You auditioned for Now United in 2017, a global pop group formed in Los Angeles, California, by Simon Fuller. You finished runner-up to Nour Ardakani in the final round. How was it to compete against such talents?
It was a great experience. They asked me to audition for it and throughout the whole process, we were put under a lot of pressure. We had to recreate videos, dances, sing, do the choreography... it showed me just how intense the music industry can be at times. I was up against some really talented people so I felt really lucky to have been chosen. I didn’t win but it wasn’t such a bad thing as it gave me a platform to release my own music and share what I write myself.
Has your experience with Now United helped you with your music career? Do you enjoy working in a group or as a soloist?
It got me some loyal fans who have stayed with me and shared my music so that I have attracted more fans. It was also a great platform to release my own music and it gave me the confidence to push ahead with that. While I do think I could work as part of a team, I am happy to be working on my solo career right now.
Universal Music Mena is a huge platform in the world of music. How did it come about?
Wissam Halal is a good friend of ours. He is also a singer and signed with Universal. He liked what I was doing and so he passed on my song and video to Universal. They asked to meet with me and in the meeting asked me to sign. I was over the moon as it really is a dream to be signed with a globally recognised entity like Universal.
My mum threw a surprise party for me – my entire family were there. She also got a massive cake and put the cover of my single on the cake but reminded me that with this opportunity, we need to push harder now. So I have been back in the studio recording and working on more music, as well as working on other projects to enhance my visibility in the region, including collaborations with Fendi and American Ragcie.
Your debut single Hung Up talks about a souring relationship between you and a guy. What was the production process of this like?
It started with a beat and when I was happy with that, I went away to write the song. For a week or so, I couldn’t think of anything though; I had a mental block. Then, one morning I woke up at 3am with the hook "La, la la, for you" and I thought that is it! It just started flowing and I managed to get the whole idea for the song easily after that. Once I had the lyrics, I put in the tune for the song. Then I went to the studio and laid the track down in a few days. It happened fairly quickly and then I added some extra bits on top such as the harmonies to give the song a bit more oomph. It took maybe two weeks from start to finish to have the final mix.
I work with an amazing producer, Salproductionz, who is super talented.
What kind of an image and discography do you wish to create and portray to your fans? Any plans to step into the Arabic music industry?
I want to portray a confident, young girl of mixed race and show everyone my age that you can do whatever you want to do, no matter where you are from – it’s OK to dare to be different. I want to engender feelings of happiness and positivity in people when they listen to my music.
As to stepping into Arabic music, I have already done that. I have just recorded an Arabic song and have plans to record more songs that combine Arabic with English to represent who I am.
Which artist do you wish to collaborate with in the future?
The ultimate dream would be to collaborate with Beyonce. She has inspired me beyond belief.
How does it feel to know Hung Up has received over a million views on YouTube in a short span of time?
I was so proud, happy and thankful for all the people and fans that have supported me in this journey. It made me feel like I need to get the next song done so that people can continue to enjoy my music – the singles and the videos that I create.
With more than 60,000 followers on Instagram and a growing fan base, how different does your life feel like now and how do you cope with these changes, in terms of juggling school, friends...?
School work is a priority and it is important to me. It can be a struggle to do everything that needs my attention: social media, writing and recording new songs, interviews, photoshoots, TikTok posts, new dances, choreography, but I love it. It was my dream to be a performer and I am living it so I wouldn’t change it for anything! I really do feel very lucky.
Follow Alya on Instagram: @alya.singsz