THEO PANAYIDES meets a girl writing songs on her piano, when she isn’t working at the bank, who has just released her second album. Young at heart and delicate, the girl next door is bigger abroad than in Cyprus
The face is oval, fine-boned, somewhat pale, fringed by tresses of frizzy reddish-brown hair. (The cut is different in the photo on her album cover.) The expression is mild, almost birdlike. The voice is soft and small, surprisingly for a woman who is, after all, a singer in a band: Arda Guevherian, better known as Arda from Arda & the Stolen Moon.
We say ‘better known’, but in fact that’s a moot point. It’s unclear if her neighbours in this quiet part of central Nicosia know she has an album (her second album) coming out in a couple of days, for instance – and, though most of her colleagues at the Bank of Cyprus know that she makes music, it’s unclear if they think it’s serious or just a hobby. Even Arda herself doesn’t sound entirely sure.
“A lot of my colleagues say ‘Why don’t you just do this?’,” she admits, ‘this’ being singing-songwriting as opposed to banking. “I’d love to, but now is not the time. I feel that, as much as I’m a dreamer and I like to create, I’m also very down-to-earth – so, as long as I can juggle the two, I’d rather have my day job which, you know, finishes around 3.30 so I have time to be with my family, do my music”.
Is her heart really in it, though?
“Oh yeah!” she replies, as if the answer were obvious. “Of course. I’m in a very nice department, we deal with the accounts for the General Insurance of Cyprus. Very nice people.” Later, she avers how great it is to have a job that “doesn’t tap into your creativity”, so that whole artistic side remains intact at the end of the day. There’s no irony intended, no veiled dig or backhanded compliment. Arda doesn’t really do irony.
She’s not showbiz at all, if ‘showbiz’ means brittle and flashy and bitchy; TMZ holds no attraction for her, and vice versa. “I don’t do Instagram or Twitter,” she sings on ‘Emotional Hacking’, the opening track on the new album Outsider in Perpetual Motion. “Can’t compete with the Kardashian glitter. / I’m too reserved and disengaged / Miley and me are not on the same page.” She’s literally just a girl writing songs on her piano – when not working in a bank, that is – and sharing them with the world. “I don’t need to be covered in tattoos to have something to say, you know?”
Sure, some may scoff; but the people with tattoos – the people on Instagram and Twitter – are the ones who actually make it. It’s nice to have a hobby, but who really cares if a band in Cyprus brings out a new album? Here’s the catch, however – because the world has changed, and a singer writing songs in Cyprus can actually connect with a global audience (making money is another matter; but the bank job takes care of that). Radio New York Live, an online radio station in NYC, currently has ‘Emotional Hacking’ on heavy rotation, playing it every four hours. The legendary KALX, broadcasting from Berkeley, California, took a shine to ‘Bad Things’ from Arda & the Stolen Moon’s first album Minutes Into Years; “This other station in Germany loved ‘Grandma’s Minute’” – a song she wrote about her grandma, also from the first album – “and had it on their top songs of the year”. The band has fans as far afield as Belgium and Scandinavia; they’re actually bigger abroad than they are here. Comments to the website (ardaandthestolenmoon.com) keep pouring in from all over.
“It’s a good feeling,” she says, sitting outside on the small balcony of her third-floor flat, with a songbird chirping and the air conditioning whirring in the background. “I’ve promised myself not to fall into this trap – you know, like the Tinkerbell syndrome, where you don’t feel happy or alive unless you’re getting appreciation… But, having said that, when a complete stranger says ‘I heard this on the radio in New York, and I just had to find it!’, or another person writes ‘I don’t understand why you guys aren’t famous yet’ – it feels good. We are writing good stuff,” she adds contentedly. “People love our music.”
The balcony has been reinforced with a three-foot protective screen, from the days when her son was a baby (he’s now 10). Photos of the boy, as well as Arda’s two nieces, are tacked on her fridge; the paintings on the walls are by her father, an architect and occasional artist. Family means a lot to her, and it’s actually quite telling that she went back to England for three years after uni – in her mid-20s, having had time to confirm that Cyprus was no place to launch a music career – yet chose not to stay, both because “the weather got to me” but also because she didn’t want to live away from her family. Being an Armenian is perhaps related here, the local community being famously conservative but also famously close and clannish; Arda went to Armenian schools, Nareg and Melkonian, and, despite having lived nearly all her life in Cyprus – she was born in Beirut, where her dad was working – considers Armenian to be her first language. “My Greek is good,” she reassures me, “I just have a bit of an accent. A lot of people ask me ‘Are you from France?’, because I speak it in a very delicate way.”
‘Delicate’ is a good word to describe Arda Guevherian, her big eyes and fine features – and mild, guileless manner – making her seem downright girlish. How does she manage to look so young, anyway? “The secret is I’m young at heart. Really. I don’t worry. I’ve got this innocent outlook on things.” (She pauses, gives it a beat: “And I just use good moisturiser”.) She’s delicate on the inside too, a sensitive soul who – in the past, at least – would be so upset she’d be unable to sleep if she’d had an argument with someone. At school she was shy, not the type to stand out; the Armenian bubble played a role here too, sharpening her natural self-consciousness. “Whatever you do is being watched, judged,” she recalls – “so you say ‘You know what, I’m not going to express myself much. I’ll just go with the flow’.”
She never had a rock’n roll phase, never dyed her hair blue or hung out with the wrong crowd. She was happy at school, “easy-going”; she loved being onstage but was too shy to be in the spotlight, “I’d just be part of the dance group, or in the choir”. She listened to Top 40 stuff, whatever was big at the time; only later, when she returned to Britain (she’d initially studied Accounting, at Hull University), did she start discovering singer-songwriters like Kate Bush and Tori Amos. Those were good years, on secondment to Bank of Cyprus UK in central London and heading out after work to sing at local pubs and other venues: “I’d just send an email and say ‘Can I just perform? 20-minute slot, four-five songs?’ – and there would be so many open-mic nights!”. This, obviously, is the huge advantage of being in London over Nicosia, for the young musician.
Yet she came back, as already mentioned; got married in 2009, had a child in 2011, never left the bank or quit the day job. Even now, “there’s no doubt that my priority is my son,” says Arda. Even now, despite the great good fortune – a game-changer, really – of having met veteran DJ Robert Camassa in 2014, making music is a rather DIY affair.
Her husband Michalis (a musician himself) runs a studio, where the new album was recorded on weekends. Camassa has produced both albums, growing into something of a mentor – and he also knows everyone who’s anyone, introducing Arda to ace guitarist Socrates Leptos who’s become a Stolen Moon mainstay (the rest of the band tends to change as required). As for promotion, the internet has developed its own ecosystem, including websites like musicsubmit.com that undertake to submit your songs to radio stations (the songs still have to impress them enough to get played, of course) plus a plethora of blogs and zines where albums can be sent for review. CDs are merch, sold in limited quantities; bands make money by playing live – which of course has been paused in the past year, making their existence even more precarious. Like Arda says in her song, she and Miley Cyrus aren’t really on the same page; for a singer-songwriter looking to express herself, however, this slightly tentative system is more than adequate.
Arda isn’t really a celebrity. That’s absolutely fine; she’s never tried to be. The past two decades of selfie culture and TV talent shows have sparked a vogue for plastic glamour and big brassy voices, but she isn’t into all that. (It says ‘Outsider’ right there in her album title.) Her persona is the “everyday girl-next-door, jeans and a T-shirt”, while her voice – though pleasant – isn’t, she admits, her biggest strength; she’s not likely to perform any “vocal acrobatics”, Celine Dion-style. Her songs are melodic, low-key, with a 90s feel (think Natalie Merchant, say); her process is to sit at her piano – her haven, her safe space – and get in touch with her feelings, her authentic voice, then share those stories with others. “I’m a storyteller, I’m an actress. I have things to say. I’m an artist, I create. And I do it in my own way.”
The songs have matured on the new album; Minutes Into Years was mostly love songs (a highlight was ‘Who Am I Kidding?’, about an office romance) – but this time, she explains with charming sternness, she told herself “Arda, you’re an adult now”, and determined to write about issues. (Nothing about lockdown, though; the songs pre-date the pandemic.) Thus, for instance, ‘The Duke of Icicle’, based on a fairytale character she’d invented in childhood – “He’s made of ice, he lives in the North Pole”, and of course the ice is melting due to climate change – or ‘Upset the Apple Cart’, inspired by the stoning, in 80s Iran, of a woman known as Soraya M.
Her music is growing in confidence, which is great – but the truly inspiring part of Arda Guevherian’s story is Arda herself, and the way she herself has grown with age and experience. Those few years in London helped, giving her a taste for performance (“Total strangers would come up and say ‘Wow, that song touched me. You have to continue this’. I’d give them my email address, jot it down on a napkin, you know how it is”) – but even later, after she’d returned and met Camassa, she worried about how it might look to be making music: “Here I am, a mother, and I’m releasing an album?…” She’s not “a person of extremes,” she explains. She’s not confrontational, indeed I suspect she hates conflict. She’s not vain, or flamboyant. She was never the proverbial little girl singing into a hairbrush in front of the mirror.
“I think I grew as a person,” muses Arda, looking back on the past few years. “I’m very much into self-growth and improvement – I read this book, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. You can’t grow as a person if you don’t go outside your comfort zone… It’s a myth that only the most extrovert and loud people make it,” she declares. “I think there’s a lot of intelligence, and knowledge and creativity in the more low-profile, reserved, calm, introverted people. And they become different people onstage – or when they write a book, or whatever. That’s why I had to develop. I had to realise that I have inner strength, and I should do this, and not be afraid.”
She herself represents those people, the secret artists and gentle souls, the shy types and late bloomers who took a while to go after their dreams – and perhaps that’s why audiences appreciate her (her rapport with fans is among her strengths; she can’t wait to start touring again), because they sense the journey behind the music. They sense that she’s singing from the heart, they sense the patent sincerity of the woman with the kid and the day job. “I enjoyed normal life, and I still do. And if anything happens with this album – be it a record deal, or a mini-tour – I will just embrace it”. She gives me a CD as a gift, and I scan the lyric sheet in the elevator down from the third floor: “No emoji can describe my mood / This is my anthem, this is my truth”.