By: Kelly Skinner
When Azniv Korkejian, known by her stage name Bedouine, answers the phone, I’m initially struck by how similar her speaking voice is to her songs. Korkejian sings her modern folk songs levelly, with an intonation that is just as comfortable making wry observations about California, such as in her song “Back To You” – “They talk in exclamation marks/ I’m still dying to know what’s exciting”– as it is crooning about a lover in “Bird.” Inspired by a plethora of musicians in the heyday of the ‘60s and ‘70s folk scene, such as Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake, and Joni Mitchell, as well as the Armenian music her parents would play in her youth, Korkejian crafts a folk- meets-country funk sound on her three albums, Bedouine, Bird Songs of a Killjoy, and Waysides. Korkejian also draws on her unique life experiences living in Syria, Saudi Arabia, and finally the United States, to craft powerful lyrics.
Korkejian’s stage name, Bedouine, alludes to her Middle Eastern roots. Bedouine is a riff of Bedouin, the term which has been historically used to refer to Arabic-speaking nomadic people of the Middle East and North Africa. The term itself translates to ‘desert dweller’ in Arabic. The nomadic lifestyle is not completely unfamiliar to Korkejian, who was born in Syria before moving with her family to Saudi Arabia, where she lived until she was ten years old. From Saudi Arabia, her family moved to the United States after winning a green card lottery. Even in the US, Korkejian continued to move around, living first on the East Coast before moving to Texas, and then relocating to Georgia to begin a degree in sound design. She has now made a home on the West Coast, settling in Los Angeles.
Korkejian states that it is both her sense of having lived in many different places that draws her to the name Bedouine, as well as the fact that she has always been enthralled with Bedouin art and culture, particularly in Syria and Saudi Arabia. Additionally, Korkejian says that the experience of her ancestors has influenced her stage name, citing the Armenian diaspora as another example of her ability to relate to a nomadic lifestyle. The modern Armenian diaspora occurred largely after World War I, when the Ottoman Empire launched a genocide against Armenians who were forced to flee or risk death.
Similar themes are also present in Korkejian’s music. Though Korkejian sings primarily in English, a bonus track on her first album, Bedouine, is in Armenian. Korkejian says that the song “Louise” is about “the heartbreaking decision to leave or stay in a country in times of conflict.” The song is personal for Korkejian, whose friends and family were forced to decide whether to stay in Syria during the civil war or to attempt to flee. She says, “It’s both terrifying to stay, and terrifying [to do] the things you have to do to leave.” She relates how one of her friends made the brave decision to leave Syria by taking a dinghy to Greece. Though released in 2017, the song is heartbreakingly relevant today; twenty-seven migrants recently drowned in the English Channel after attempting to reach the United Kingdom in a small boat.
Another stand-out track on Bedouine, “Summer Cold,” is written about the Syrian Civil War. Lyrics include, “Why must they get involved?/What on earth could this solve?/ I’ve had enough of your guns/ And your ammunition.” Korkejian explains her inspiration for writing the song: “I had just heard about the US selling arms to various Syrian groups and the weapons ending up in the hands of ISIS and other terrorist organizations. The song was my way of venting.” “Summer Cold” closes with sounds of daily life in Syria pulled together by Korkejian from various movies that took place in Syria. She then mixed these different tracks together to get the sound she wanted, putting her sound design degree to work. The song carries across her feelings of frustration to the listener and is a poignant reminder of the people who are impacted by war, even as great powers attempt to manipulate conflicts to varying ends.
As a follow up to Bedouine, Korkejian released Bird Songs of a Killjoy in 2019. The album is a continuation of the bird motifs that she employs throughout all three of her albums, including her latest, Waysides (2021). Bedouine features the song “Heart Take Flight,” while Bird Songs of a Killjoy includes songs entitled “Bird,” “Bird Gone Wild,” and “Hummingbird.” On Waysides, Korkejian steers clear of bird imagery for most of the tracks but concludes with a stunning cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Songbird.” Korkejian admits that she almost rewrote several of these tracks, as she feared they might seem cliché. However, she says, “ I resisted doing that [rewriting the songs] purely because the songs seemed cliché to me and seemed like they were basic. I really leaned into the bird imagery on the second album because of that.”
If you are new to Korkejian’s music, there is no better time to dive in. Looking at her three albums as a trilogy allows the listener to see themes that are carried throughout all three and examine the subtle shifts that occur as Korkejian navigates life and has new experiences. In her first and second albums, for example, the bird imagery she uses focuses on hope and a need to feel free. “Bird Gone Wild” illustrates these themes as Korkejian sings:
Daddy was an electrician, fingers to the bone
Mama was a seamstress, stitched everything she owned
Crossing the Atlantic, a dream over the tide
Soldiers, we were ready there, approaching the front line
Don’t let me down
I’m beating ’round a cage like a bird gone wild
Come back around
Strong hands, pull back the wire
These themes shift, however, by her third album. By closing Waysides with “Songbird,” Korkejian gives a song about peace a prominent spot on her album. This helps to signify an important change from the desires for freedom and feelings of anxious hope which came before. Korkejian says, “I chose to end Waysides with “Songbird” because it was a really important song to me during the time I was writing these three albums. I almost saw this as wrapping up an era.” Her version of the song, with a beautiful synth accompaniment, is reminiscent of a benediction of sorts, the perfect choice to close the trilogy.
Another theme throughout Korkejian’s albums is solitude. On Bedouine, Korkejian sings “Solitary Daughter” about enjoying being alone and the peace she finds from solitude. Lyrics of “Solitary Daughter” include: “I don’t need your company/ to feel saved” and “I don’t want your pity/ Concern or your scorn/ I’m calm by my lonesome/ I feel right at home.” However, by her third album, Korkejian acknowledges that her perspective has changed. She states, “I think after being in a long-term relationship, like I am in now, anyone’s perspective on solitude can change. Solitary Daughter had almost a protectiveness to it.” This shift is evident in the third single from Waysides, aptly titled “The Solitude,” about missing a lover. She opens the song by acknowledging her change in perspective with the words, “I never viewed/ The solitude/ As something to avoid until you left.”
Released during the pandemic, a time of both solitude and collective grief, Waysides (October 2021) also speaks to Korkejian’s own experiences dealing with difficult emotions. Written after the loss of a close friend, lead single “The Wave” explores the tendency many of us have to struggle against feeling powerful emotions. Korkejian explains that when she sings about riding the wave, she is talking about embracing your feelings instead of struggling against them. She says, “When you struggle against feelings it doesn’t actually help and it just prolongs the feeling or makes you feel worse… The song is really about embracing feeling the way you are feeling and just leaning into it.” She says that the song has helped her to embrace her feelings more, and, even though she acknowledges it may sound corny, she has turned to its lyrics when she finds herself struggling against her own grief.
As Korkejian has wrapped up an era with Waysides, she is looking to what comes next, stating that she would like to experiment with different sounds. Some of her largest musical influences currently include Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Nick Drake, and Carole King. She has additionally recorded covers of songs ranging from the bands Big Star and Fleetwood Mac, to solo artists Elton John and Margo Guryan.
Korkejian states that while many of her musical influences are Western artists, she has also been influenced by the melodies and rhythms she heard growing up. Her parents often played Greek, Armenian, and Syrian music at home. This influence can particularly be seen in her use of guitars in the song “Louise,” which she says was “definitely inspired by Armenian music.” Though it may not be her next album, Korkejian would eventually like to make a record with lyrics entirely in Armenian. However, this project would require her parents’ input to find the songs she heard as a child. Korkejian says, “I was exposed to them, but they were more in the background, so I don’t remember the names of the artists I heard, or the names of the songs that were playing.” Whatever comes next for Korkejian, it seems evident that her thoughtful lyrics, careful diction, and unique perspective will remain constant through all her future music.