Tamino speaks to Anthony Carew about the nature of songwriting, dramatic life changes and celebrating the life and music of his late grandfather.
Tamino openly calls himself a singer-songwriter. And, in conversation, the 21-year-old — born Tamino-Amir Fouad — references a host of classic singer-songwriters that’ve served as inspirations in his life: John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen.
“Leonard Cohen used to say, ‘If I knew where songs came from, I’d go there more often,’” Fouad says. “It’s a really good quote, something a lot of songwriters would feel. When I write songs, I cannot really force anything out of the song that isn’t naturally there.”
"I was already hooked on the songwriting. From thereon, it meant everything to me.”
Songwriting came early for him. Growing up in Antwerp — where he was born to an Egyptian father and Belgian mother — Tamino was the kind of kid who loved theatre and his classical piano study. “I really wasn’t into sports, I was into spending time by myself, writing stories,” admits Fouad.
When adolescence came, he grew out of the fantasy world he’d spent his time in as a kid, and at 14, writing stories turned into writing songs. “My first song was this real shitty song, it was just for a girl, about how amazing she was, or something,” Fouad recalls. Did she like this song? Was it a success? “No, no, no, no, no. Not at all. Thank god. It didn’t matter that she didn’t like it, because from the moment I wrote a song, I was already hooked on the songwriting. From thereon, it meant everything to me.”
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“When you’re a teenager,” he continues, “you realise that life makes no sense. Songwriting is a way of giving sense to things. You work really hard to create something, you’re making this thing that comes from nowhere, only out of your own passion.”
At first, Fouad played in Antwerp in teenage punk bands, but when he moved to Holland to study music at 17, all those outfits fell apart. He was on his own. “I spent a lot of time by myself in Amsterdam,” he recounts. “Just in my room, writing songs. It felt very natural to just start performing these songs by myself, under my own name.”
From there, things happened quickly. At just 20, Fouad’s debut EP, Habibi, was released, with Colin Greenwood of Radiohead, no less, playing bass on the track Indigo Night. The songs were grand and dramatic, with Fouad’s keening voice and classic singer-songwriter chops earning constant comparisons to Cohen and someone who famously covered him, Jeff Buckley (Fouad’s great, Chalamet-esque hair is an added bonus). Lots of the songs on Habibi have made it onto the debut Tamino LP, Amir. Its release will be followed by endless tours, with plans to come to Australia in 2019 afoot, Fouad’s life a whirlwind.
Pic: Tamino and Colin Greenwood
“I’m only 21 years old, so I’m experiencing all these things for the first time,” Fouad marvels. “Love for the first time. I’m having this crazy career for the first time, I’m seeing the world for the first time. My life is changing so drastically, so fast.”
Amir finds Fouad working with Nagham Zikrayat, an Arabic orchestra based in Brussels, made up of musicians — many of them refugees — from the Middle East. This collective first got in touch with Fouad when they were planning a night performing the songs of his late grandfather, the great Egyptian singer Moharam Fouad. “They wanted me to sing,” Fouad says, “but I didn’t really think it was appropriate for me to do that, because I don’t speak Arabic, so I would have to learn the songs phonetically. So, instead, I asked if they could play on my album. And they said yes.”
Having Nagham Zikrayat play on Amir both emphasises the Arabic influence on Tamino’s music, whilst making the songs sound large. “An Arabic orchestra is more focused on melody and rhythm than on harmony, so I really wanted to have this orchestra play along with the melody I was singing. All playing one melody, it just makes it so big,” Fouad says. “I really wanted [the album] to sound really big, to sound grand and majestic and proud. I feel like with a lot of singer-songwriters when you listen to their music you kind of envision them sitting alone in their room with a broken guitar, being sad all day. I really didn’t want that.”