Today, Chicago-based group DRAMA has released Dance Without Me on renowned independent label Ghostly International. Dance Without Me is a powerful ode to heartbreak and the metamorphosis that comes from the spiritual journey to total self-love and acceptance. The duo's inspirational voice revealed on Dance Without Me unveils the depth of their personae quite clearly.
Replete with shimmery, buoyant synths and soulful, introspective vocals, Dance Without Me provides a compelling follow up to the duo's 2016 EP release Gallows. Standing at the crossroads of R&B and dance-pop accented by elements of bossa nova, heartbreak and bliss, DRAMA delivers the perfect single Valentine's Day recipe. Nourishment for the human spirit, Via Rosa's lyrics provide solace and comfort to single people this Valentine's Day, making them feel a little less alone even if just for today while Na'el's production delivers the perfect sensual bedroom beats. On tracks such as "Gimme Gimme" and "Days and Days," Via Rosa takes her blues and despair and makes them vibrant and uplifting.
Since first forming the group in 2014, the duo has gone on to accomplish amazing things including signing with Tom Windish at the Paradigm Agency, tour with SG Lewis nationwide 2019, and open their own restaurant called Chisme in San Francisco's legendary Knob Hill. Composed of gifted vocalist Via Rosa and brilliant producer Na'el Shehade, their profound lyrics, and ethereal beats have resulted in a sound that is innovative, deeply emotional, and lavishly groovy.
Read this interview to find out more about DRAMA, the duo that is quickly evangelizing new fans through their moving live sets and immensely powerful music.
What was it like growing up?
Via Rosa: I was born in Austin, TX. Both of my parents were musicians in a reggae band. They raised me vegan. My mom played the keys and wrote the songs and my dad played the drums and managed the band. I was basically on tour for the first thirteen years of my life and then I got really into culinary arts. Music became a sort of therapy for me because I started getting in trouble a lot as a teenager. When I got grounded, I would just go make beats. I loved cooking and being on the road. When I was eleven my family moved to an Indian Reservation and then I went to culinary school. After culinary school, I moved to Chicago and I’ve been here almost ten years.
Na’el: I grew up in a conservative household. My dad was Palestinian and my mom was from Syria. My parents were immigrants and they really stressed a work work mentality, so they were a little confused when I said I wanted to be a musician. They wanted me to be a doctor or lawyer so it was hard to convince them. Once I started doing better in music, they kind of got off my back about it. My brothers were both DJs and promoters at clubs. I was really into dance and house music at a young age. I bought my first pair of Technics at twelve years old. I was DJing around town at clothing shops and record stores at thirteen and fourteen years old lugging around records before MP3s became popular. I had a vision at a young age. At twelve years old, I already had a vision for myself and what I wanted to do with my life. I got the mentality of being focused from my dad. He worked everyday to provide for us and give us the life that we had.
Na’el, early on in your career you worked with some huge artists like Chance The Rapper. What was that like?
Na'el: Working with Chance was pretty cool. He’s focused as an artist. When he came to work he didn’t bring a whole entourage. I’ve worked with some artists like Chief Keef and Kanye and these kind of people, and that was kind of more of the thing I expected. But with him, he’d come in alone or with a friend. I was involved in Acid Rap. He’s a really great honest [person] who cares about his music. It was amazing being a part of that project. He was amazing but really exceeded what I’d thought. He went on to win Grammys. It was really nice to know and be a part of that project.
Via Rosa, can you please tell me more about how you first started writing poetry and how this led you to writing the lyrics for DRAMA today?
Via Rosa: It started in poetry class. I was home schooled but I went to charter school for a few years. The poetry teacher in the school somehow found out that I liked writing, but I didn’t know what I was writing. She was like, "You’re a poet, you’re a poet," and I didn’t even know it. And after that I kind of started writing poetry a lot, and then I started writing beats. I never really put two and two together to put poetry over my beats until I got older and I was like seventeen or eighteen when I started singing and rapping over my own beats. It’s always been relationship-based.
When I was younger, I did a lot of revolutionary activist poetry but I never transferred that over into my music for real. It’s mostly just like a therapy for me. Just… to kind of understand things. I feel like a lot of my songs are me talking to myself or me talking to the person who obviously doesn’t want to be in a relationship with me. Writing music and lyrics for DRAMA has changed my life. I don’t think that I really knew how to write a song until I met Na’el. Everything before that was really just stream of consciousness and just like explaining how I feel and trying to explain different emotions and situations that I find myself in. It started at a young age when I was like fourteen.
When did you guys choose to call yourselves DRAMA?
Via Rosa: Na’el was working with a DJ from Berlin and we hadn’t formed the band yet, we were just two people making music. Na’el played the music for his friend and Na’el’s friend was like, "Why don’t you put out your own music and form a band and call yourselves the DRAMA duo?" And Na’el was like, "Yeah, oh ok, I guess I could." And then he called me and asked me to be in his band, and I was like, "Yeah, I’ll be in the band."
Na’el: Yeah, it was cool because I was like kind of working with Chance and I kind of started doing my own thing. I am a producer and I want to produce artists and have them to go on to win Grammys and tour the world. I never saw myself onstage with the artist. I was in the studio with Nicolas Jaar. He heard I was working on Acid Rap and some other stuff so he was like, "Yeah I want to come visit you." So he was in town playing this bar downtown. We met up and he was like, "Why don’t you make your own music?" And I was like, "I don’t even know how to do that. I’m producing other artists." I was taking what they had and bringing it to life.
He kind of inspired me to do my own thing because I really liked what he was doing like his Darkside stuff and his independent stuff. That was my attitude when I was first working on the project with Via. We were like, "Whoever likes it likes it and whoever doesn’t doesn’t." And then the name DRAMA came when Via and I were working on the EP. We didn’t even know we were working on an EP. And this guy named Benjamin from this duo said, "You should start a band and call it DRAMA," and I was like, "Ok." So I called Via and I asked her if she wanted to be in the band. I asked her to come by tomorrow. I was like, "The band, it’s me and you." I didn’t want to have to rely on a drummer and a bassist so I was like, "I’ll play all the music and you sing and write. It’s going to be great. We’ll tour the world." And she was like “No, we’re not going to do that.” And now we’re touring the world so there you go.
Via Rosa: At our first photo shoot, I wore a mask. I used to wear wolf masks. Well I still do. I wore a wolf mask made out of jewelry and paint and stuff. I was like I’m going to wear the mask. I don’t want anyone to know I’m making pop music or they’re going to make fun of me...
At the beginning he never forced me to change my music. He helped me understand what I was doing. I wasn’t writing songs. I was doing my poetry. And it was never like we need to make music like this. We made songs that never saw the light of day and we made hit records and we didn’t even know it. We have songs in our catalog that are amazing that we haven’t worked on in like three years.
I read that there was “magical music chemistry” from the moment you guys met. Do you believe in serendipity or fate?
Via Rosa: Fate. I knew it was a friendship made in heaven when I found out what he did outside of music. I remember this day where we were just working and he never asked what I did for real until that moment. I would just show up in chef pants and dirty hair and be there. And he was like, “So you work in restaurants," and I was like, "Yeah, I went to culinary school. I’m a head chef at this cafe and I’m a line cook at another vegan fine dining place." And he was like “I open restaurants. I just opened two restaurants.” I was like, "This is amazing." We made “Low Tide” the first night we made music together so that alone was like, ok, this is going to be good.
Na’el: If you really want something, then it’s going to happen. You just need to keep going and never give up. A lot of people think there’s a timeline where they need to make it in two years. There’s no timeline. You cannot control time. It develops and things happen when they’re supposed to happen. I always knew it was going to pop off in a certain way. I just didn’t know where or when or with who. When Via and I started making music, we were coming from a very pure place. I just wanted to make music that I liked and I think Via felt exactly the same way, so that was the approach.
What was it like touring with SG Lewis last year?
Via Rosa: When we got on the tour, it was instant love from his whole team. He was a sweetheart. We really got along. It was a lot of fun. His fan base is really cool.
Na’el: He’s very talented.
Via Rosa: We got to meet his parents. He’d call his parents after every show and say how amazing we were so he flew them out to LA to see us perform at the show so they could meet us.
What was your biggest achievements to date?
Via Rosa: We opened a restaurant that’s 80 percent vegan or so called Chisme in Knob Hill in San Francisco in 2017. And it’s doing pretty well. I never dreamed of opening a restaurant on the scale. And musically, we went to Palestine and did a show for some kids. That was like really cool, like really, really cool.
Na’el: I’m Palestinian and it was wild to go back and play for my culture.
Who are some of your greatest musical influences?
Via Rosa: Lyrically I would definitely say Sade and Drake. Steve Nicks, Kurt Cobain and vocally, I would say like Billie Holiday, Toni Braxton.
Na’el: I would say like Sade. Producer wise, Jon Brion. I really like Kanye’s stuff. His production is really great. I love how he layers his drums and vocals and all that kind of stuff. I love his new album. I’m not Christian but it was great. I love it. I mean if you hear some of the Kanye stuff and some of the DRAMA stuff, you’ll hear my inspiration. I love choirs and big background sounds. I like Pharrell and those kind of people too.
What is your songwriting process like?
Via Rosa: It starts with a good twenty to thirty minute discussion of what we did that day. And we decompress. Na’el will start with some keys or drums, like three to four instruments max, and then I’ll write a little bit to it, and he kind of just builds about what I’m writing or singing about. Sometimes it takes five minutes and sometimes it takes weeks to figure out what the song is about. I really try to make sure that the song tells a story lyrically, and Na’el [tries] the best to make sure that the song tells a story as well production-wise, so you can see and feel the song. Let it all come out. I described it once as letting go and letting the universe write the song. I saw an interview where Sade was talking about how you don’t try to write the song. You’re just like a vessel in trying to articulate what’s happening in the song. Just write and pick apart the pieces and brainstorm. I just write and then Na’el helps me figure out what a good chorus is.
Na’el: It’s pretty organic and simple. Drums, keys, and kind of just build around Via. I’m a producer so I make sure the artist sounds as great as possible and hears every instrument. My thing is to make sure that everything has been accented and emotional. That’s my job at the end of everyday. To make sure that everything is emotional and that you hear every instrument. You have to feel it. We’re all fed inside one way or another.
Many of your songs discuss love and heartbreak. What are your beliefs around romantic love?
Via Rosa: It’s been so long that I experienced any type of romance. Most of the songs come out like that because I don’t talk about a lot of the things that are going on in my life romantically, so that ends up going into my music. Most of the lyrics are me talking to myself or talking to the person I don’t feel like I’m comfortable enough talking to through music. I used to have this grand explanation and now it’s been so long. I’m a strong believer in love and true romance and finding your twin flame, which is probably why I’m so passionate about it all the time, but now it’s been so long I’m like asking if it’s real or if you just settle for people that are around us. I know back in the day, there was no like I’m going to go online and find a girlfriend, you married your Dad’s best friend's daughter because she lived two doors down. And then you stayed together forever until you were in your seventies. Now there are so many options it almost feels impossible to find someone who just wants to be with you. No one wants to be with one person. They want to be able to move around. I get it and understand but I question the point of it all. So I just talk about it in the music because I don’t have anyone to talk about it with for real.
I want to believe that love is real and love is everywhere. For now my thing is platonic romance. Being romantic with people I don’t necessarily want to be sexual with. Going out, getting dinner, giving hugs, telling people, "I love you," and doing that with everyone, not just people you want to sleep with. I think just romance in general is important.
What has it been like working with Ghostly International?
Via Rosa: It hasn’t been that long. We signed in August. So far it’s pretty cool. I’ve never signed with a label before. I think it’s pretty cool that we have direct access to the owner of the label. He texts us ten times a week and sends me memes. It’s really cool that we have direct contact to the head of the label. To give us they deal they gave us, they must really believe in the music and want us to do really well. Ghostly is a very artist friendly label. We appreciate it that they allow us to be us. We appreciate them.
Na’el: We could’ve gone the major route several times but we didn’t really think that was the look route right now. We have a story we wanted to tell without having them have a say in everything.
Who are your heroes?
Na’el: My parents. I really learned to value my family growing up.
Via Rosa: I definitely feel that way about my family. Business-wise, 50 Cent and Phil Collins. 50 Cent because his manager is a genius and Phil Collins because I want to score a Disney movie. Business-wise those are my guys.
Na’el: 50 Cent and his story and how he came about. Anyone who is out there in the world has some type of genius in them. It all matters what you do with it and where you go with it. We’re all geniuses at the end of the day pretty much. Conditioning and training your brain is the battle. That’s it.
Anything else exciting planned?
Na’el: New merch and a new album.
Via Rosa: The next one is in the works. We’re roll with the punches, so I’m sure new things will come up by tomorrow. We want to have some really cool visuals for our set next year.
Anything else you’d like your fans to know?
Via Rosa: Come to the shows and keep dancing. We love to see our fans singing and dancing to the songs. People are holding onto each other and crying. Keep that same energy for 2020.
DRAMA hits the road this month for their nationwide tour. Dates in major cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco have already completely sold out.
DRAMA NORTH AMERICAN TOUR
02.26 - Phoenix, AZ @ Valley Bar
02.27 - San Diego, CA @ Music Box
02.28 - Santa Ana, CA @ Constellation Room **SOLD OUT**
02.29 - Los Angeles, CA @ Teragram Ballroom **SOLD OUT**
03.01 - Los Angeles, CA @ The Echo
03.02 - San Francisco, CA @ Amoeba (DJ Set + Signing only)
03.03 - San Francisco, CA @ The Independent **SOLD OUT**
03.04 - San Francisco, CA @ The Independent **SOLD OUT**
03.06 - Portland, OR @ Wonder Ballroom
03.07 - Seattle, WA @ The Crocodile
03.18 - Detroit, MI @ Marble Bar
03.19 - Toronto, ON @ Velvet Underground
03.20 - Montréal, QC @ Le Ministère
03.21 - Boston, MA @ Great Scott
03.22 - Brooklyn, NY @ Music Hall of Williamsburg
03.26 - Brooklyn, NY @ Music Hall of Williamsburg **SOLD OUT**
03.27 - Philadelphia, PA @ Johnny Brenda's
03.28 - Washington, DC @ Union Stage
04.03 - Chicago, IL @ Metro
04.28 - Atlanta, GA @ Aisle 5
04.30 - Dallas, TX @ Three Links **SOLD OUT**
05.01 - Houston, TX @ White Oak Music Hall
05.02 - Austin, TX @ Barracuda **SOLD OUT**