The whole world is living a new kind of normal. And while the term has become something of a colloquialism these days – referring to how life has changed owing to the Covid-19 pandemic – for American-Pakistani singer Aneesa Sheikh, 18, it holds another meaning.
New Normal is the name of the young musician's latest single released this month, which is inspired by how her father's illness changed her life.
The Kentucky-born singer-songwriter, who lives in Michigan, is the youngest of five siblings. The multitalented musician is also a figure skater, and the title holder of Miss Michigan Teen USA 2020.
She describes her music genre as "pop with a fusion of country and rock", and the release of New Normal marks the first time Sheikh revealed her acoustic sound. "I write all my songs on my guitar, acoustic, unstripped, before they get produced in a big production company. I wanted to show people what it's like when I'm just playing it live. I really thought New Normal [would be the song to do this] because it's a ballad, and a slower song, so would be best to introduce that side of me," she tells The National.
Sheikh learnt how to play the guitar at the age of 8, and while her lyrics often tell the tales of teen life in America, New Normal is a deeper ode to familial ties. "My dad and I are very close, he's like my best friend," she says. "He had a stroke, and New Normal reflects how the dynamics of our relationship changed and how our roles almost reversed when I had to become his caregiver."
Her father now lives in a nursing home five minutes from where Sheikh lives with her older sister. "I haven't been able to see him, though, since March, because of the pandemic, but I do go by and peek through the window and Zoom-call him quite a bit," she says.
A pre-pandemic environment would have allowed her to celebrate through launch parties or live performances. Instead, Sheikh has used the current climate to focus on what she calls "music therapy". She has also launched Music4Miracle, the last word an acronym for "music inspires, reaches, accepts, captures and loves equally".
“I truly feel that music does this because it does have the power to heal. In times of stress and heartache, people turn to music,” she says. “That’s exactly what happened with my father after his stroke. I would take my guitar and sing for him at his rehabilitation centre and I saw a lot of physical and emotional improvement, and that helped me find my light again.”
Over the past few months, Sheikh has been organising performances over Zoom for hospital patients across Michigan, who haven’t been allowed visitors because of restrictions due to the pandemic. “Right now, I’m just doing this in my state, but I’d love to really grow it nationally,” she says.
While Sheikh is an all-American girl, she says people are often shocked to learn she has South Asian roots. Her father grew up in Lahore, Pakistan, and moved to the US for medical school, while her mother is American of Irish and German descent. And she says she’s proud of her heritage.
“Coming from the dichotomy of two polarising cultures, in the way my dad grew up, and how my mum was raised, definitely influences my values and beliefs, which shape my daily life,” she says.
Her experience with Islamophobia in her early days of figure skating led to the family moving to Michigan. “Growing up, I felt it at certain ice rinks in Kentucky, which is known as part of the ‘Bible belt’ region of the States,” she says. “My whole family felt quite a bit of Islamophobia, and that’s actually why we ended up in Michigan for figure skating training. It’s a lot more diverse and accepting of different cultures and communities.”
Sheikh says that over time, she has managed to find a balance between her career aspirations and religious beliefs. "Being a figure skater, you wear certain attire that's not the most covering, and being in a pageant, such as Miss Michigan Teen USA, doing some modelling alongside school full-time, and being able to find my place in my religion and in my culture has helped and propelled my music – my lyrics come from a lot of these experiences," she says.
Sheikh has ambitious plans for the future. "I definitely see myself sharing my experiences through my music, and to do that at the level I want. I want a Grammy. I see myself with a Grammy. And it's not just about the gold trophy or plaque, it's about all the hard work, going through each of the steps, the good and bad times, the victories and the failures to get there," she says.
“When I’m at that level, I hope to be able to stand as a symbol for every Pakistani girl, everyone who is mixed, to show, ‘You can do this too, don’t let one culture be something that you’re shy of or that holds you back.’”