A love letter to Jeddah: Saudi-Ecuadorian singer Mishaal pens track about home while in lockdown

His latest single, 'Friends', is an ode to loved ones he can't be with during Ramadan

Mishaal's music is characterised by its intimacy. Courtesy Sony Music Entertainment Middle East
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You can do a lot of things with an Xbox these days.

In addition to gaming, you can check your emails, stream your favourite movie or, in the case of Mishaal, churn out killer tunes.

The Saudi-Ecuadorian singer, born Mishaal Tamer, has built a dedicated online following courtesy of his brand of pop music that’s both intimate and soothing.

His latest single, Friends, is not only his most accomplished song yet, but has a serious chance of becoming a sleeper hit.

The track features a guest verse by Powfu, the Canadian rapper behind last year's viral hit Death Bed, ambient production and lopping melodies that recall the hushed sounds of US singer Khalid.

It also represents remarkable artistic growth for the singer, 20, who only began writing and producing material a little over two years ago, using his guitar, a computer and an Xbox microphone.

“It was really that simple,” he says. “Even now, when you can get all this music technology and applications on your computer, I would say that you don’t really need it. It is actually a distraction. If your song is good then it will sound good with a simple microphone. You really don’t need to add too many other things. Anyone can do it.”

The smooth and open sound of chill-hop

Mishaal lays bare the inclusive philosophy of one of the most creative scenes in pop music today.

An offshoot of lo-fi music (a genre characterised by the intimate feel of its home-spun recordings), chill-hop incorporates that unvarnished aesthetic with muted synths, hip-hop beats and vocals that are often hazy and crooned.

While hooks are welcome, they are not essential, as the aim here is to create a vibe. With most chill-hop artists recording from home, the tracks' lyrical subject matter is often personal. That introspection can’t be helped, Mishaal says, as you are often alone and doing it all yourself.

“No one real starts getting into lo-fi music generally by choice,” Mishaal says. “For me, it was based on what was available at the time. There was my microphone and broken guitar and I was learning as I was going along. The only thing I was thinking was that if it sounds good, then go for it.”

A dedication to loved ones far away

While Friends is a more sophisticated offering than Mishaal's earlier recordings, particularly displayed in his wonderfully layered vocals, its no-frills presentation stays true to chill-hop's ethos.

The song's plaintive lyrics should also strike a chord with many of us today. Recorded in his apartment in New York City, Friends has the Jeddah-born Mishaal pining for his loved ones and an all-together simpler time far removed from our present bouts of self-isolation.

Mishaal confirms it was written as a way to deal with lockdown in the US city that has been hit hardest by the pandemic.

“The song was written here in New York about me wanting to go back to Jeddah,” he says. “It was written during the quarantine time that we are all living in and the fact that I couldn’t be back home, especially in Ramadan, made me miss my family and friends even more. This song is very nostalgic and it is almost like a dedication to them.”

From a broken arm to the Big Apple

The track’s quality also reinforces why Mishaal is in New York in the first place.

He first began playing the guitar aged 9 as a way to calm his nerves after breaking his arm in a freak bouncy castle accident.

Those initially painful exercises became a hobby, with Mishaal soon whipping out the guitar to sing various Elvis Presley and Bee Gees covers at gatherings.

His subsequent decision to take his music just as seriously as his studies, made while at a Jordanian boarding school, bore fruit in 2018. He was presented with the choice of either studying engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology or music at the prestigious Clive Davis Institute in New York.

It took another traumatic incident for Mishaal to find his answer.

“The plan was to be an engineer,” he says. “But after I lost a dear friend of mine in my high school year, nothing really seemed to help me other than music. So I started dropping little snippets of songs online and I realised that they were also helping people, and that’s when I decided to really pursue it properly.”

His time in the music school, however – where he learnt "a lot about the business side of the industry" – was cut short after the success of his 2019 track Arabian Knights. A folky trap-music ballad, it's a fine introduction to Mishaal's eclectic tastes and background, as he sings in Arabic, Spanish and English about a tempestuous relationship way above his tender years: "I found your love in the battle of you."

Released in December last year, the song and accompanying video shot in Jeddah (co-directed with his cousin Sultan Tamer) garnered nearly three million views on YouTube and a passionate following (it received half a million Spotify streams a month) in the region and beyond.

With music now a full-time pursuit, Mishaal aims to return to Jeddah when the pandemic abates for another kind of graduation.

"I have been writing a lot but I haven't done a live performance yet, other than playing around the fire," he says, with a laugh. "This is something that I want to do when I get back to Jeddah and play Friends in front of the fans."

And like the best of friends, they will surely be there waiting for him when he returns.