Verdant Isle: An Interview with Shadi Toloui-Wallace

Australian singer and songwriter Shadi Toloui-Wallace was raised in a musical family, but her own musical journey with the Faith really came to fruition when she recognised the need within the Baha’i community for more contemporary forms of music that are inspired by the teachings of the Baha’u’llah. With the support and encouragement of her family, and the legendary Louie Shelton coming on board to produce the album, Shadi launched her debut album called Leather Bound Book, which quickly took the Baha’i world by storm.

I first met Shadi about four years ago when I had just moved to Melbourne, Australia, and Shadi had just released her debut album. She had come to Melbourne to perform at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, and her captivating music swept the audience right off their feet!

It was obvious from my conversations with her that she was someone who was driven to share the Words and Teachings of Baha’u’llah with the world through her music, and about eighteen months later Shadi released her second album called Verdant Isle, which is a collection of songs and prayers inspired by the Baha’i Writings and her personal experiences as a Baha’i. (The album is named after The Ridvan Gardens).

Shadi has since moved to Vancouver, Canada, and I’ve been wanting to interview her on Baha’i Blog for quite a while now, but unfortunately for one reason or another, it never happened… We finally managed to touch base again and I was able to pick her brain about her music and what she’s been up to since moving to North America.

Baha’i Blog: So tell me a little about yourself and why you decided to pursue music?

Pursuing music was never really a conscious decision that I made. I studied public relations and media communications at uni, and always felt that this education would always support my music as a side hobby and a way to connect with my local community. It wasn’t until I began performing at conferences and local gatherings that I recognised a need for the kind of music I was creating. I’ve always been singing and picked up the guitar when I was about 12. I tried writings songs but what came most naturally to me was putting the word of God to music. I was about 19 and had newly arrived home from my year of service at the Baha’i World Centre when my parents came to me with the idea of recording a Baha’i inspired album, based on the material that I’d been working on over the years. It was something that many others talked to me about but my parents were the first and only ones that came through. Music has always been my main avenue of service, I’m just fortunate enough that I’ve able to support myself for as long as I have doing what I do.

Baha’i Blog: What are you hoping to achieve with your music and how do you hope it influences others?

My main goals with the projects I’ve worked on up until now, are to promote concepts of the Faith through my music and personal experiences, and to provide an alternate ways for the friends to be connected to prayer and the Creative Word. I personally always feel I can relate to the writings better when they’re put to music, and know that many others feel the same way. I feel it in my heart and soul. It’s that feeling of transcendence. It’s even more powerful when you can get a group of people singing together. I currently live in East Vancouver, Canada, which is a very dynamic and vibrant community. We often start our meetings with collective singing and could sometimes go on for hours before we start the administrative portion. I guess my hope is that more and more communities begin to value the role that music plays in our activities. Music is a universal language and we can see first hand the impact it has on our community life when we value it as an integral part of our gatherings and interactions. Whether its engaging the friends in collective song or supporting artists in our communities to create music of a higher nature, we can all play a part in making it happen, and this is what I’ve been trying to promote in my travels and at my shows over the years.

Baha’i Blog: What’s the response to your music been like so far?

We’ve been very happy and humbled by the responses we’ve gotten from friends all over the world, at shows, conferences, over facebook and email. It’s been overwhelming at times, but always positive. Both albums were completely family driven, and it wouldn’t have happened without the enthusiasm, brains and imagination of my brother, sister and parents. I’m eternally indebted to them. I’ve had many friends ask if they could cover our songs, and have even heard choir versions of some of the tracks I do with my mum sung at community gatherings and online.

Baha’i Blog: You recently left your home in Australia to live in Canada. Why did you do this and what’s the experience been like both personally and musically?

Hmmmm… I’d say adventure and discovery. I spent much of my years in high school and university traveling the country (Australia), and once I’d finished university, I really just wanted to move on and explore other parts of the world and I had this fear of getting stuck. For the first time the world was my oyster and my choices were simple, stay and begin a life that was already pretty defined, or leave into the unknown and pray to GOD that I would have divine guidance on my side. My mum is Persian and migrated to Canada in 1974. All it took was a letter to the Canadian Consulate in Sydney and I was all set. I have lots of family in this part of the world so it made the transition a lot more seamless. Apart from the practicality of moving to North America, I never thought about the impact that it would have on my identity. Since moving here I’ve been able to spend so much time with my family and learn about my heritage and family history, which has really helped in developing a stronger personal and Baha’i identity.

Baha’i Blog: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in writing Baha’i inspired music, and in getting your albums made and out there?

I don’t like to dwell too much on some challenges, so I’ll try and keep this short but frank. As an artist who’s inspired by the Holy Writings and teachings of the Baha’i Faith, I’ve found that my main challenge has been in creating an economy that supports and sustains my work. I often find myself having to explain to people how much time and money goes into writing, composing, producing and promoting to give it value. My work has often been passed up as something that should be done for free or on a voluntary basis, which to me is a very old world train of thought. The way I and many other Baha’i artists see it, is that we’re currently pioneering this new train of thought that enables us to be paid for our shows, devotionals meetings, musical firesides etc, and the albums we produce which we shed blood, sweat and tears over. There’s yet to be a framework that supports us at the institutional level, so all we can do now is do our best in educating the friends at the grassroots, persist, and be patient. I personally try to use my shows as an opportunity to explain the process of making an album and how much the audience can play a part in supporting us in creating more music of this nature in future.

Baha’i Blog: Why do you think we need more Baha’i inspired music, and do you have any suggestions to other aspiring Baha’i artists?

Have you heard what’s on the radio these days?! I don’t even want to get into it incase my eye starts to twitch insistently and my neck spasms. But if you have, you’ll know why. Sure the beats amazing and the melody is pretty catchy, but do you hear the words that you’re singing? I just feel that we can do much better and we have it within our capacity and knowledge to know that. I don’t mean putting the healing prayer to music with the intention of getting it on the iTunes top seller list, but we’ve basically been handed the written word of GOD and we all serve humanity on a daily basis in some shape or form, surely that could be inspiration for something? I just hear the stuff that my own Junior Youth Group listen too and it makes me even more motivated to change that. And as I said earlier, music is such an incredible way to connect people’s hearts to the Creator and can be utilized as such an amazing teaching tool.

In regards to my fellow colleagues, don’t wait for someone to come to you to make it happen. We all have access to a microphone and most likely an instrument of some kind, don’t be afraid to record something and put it up online. I guarantee you that there’s a village in Rwanda that’s been transformed by your interpretation of the Creative Word. Most importantly, encourage your communities to engage in and support the music that you’re creating. This is where I’ve witnessed first hand, the most significant transformations. I think that we can also start working on being a little bit more original and creative. I love what people like MJ Cyr have done with creating live loops at her shows, or Nabil and Karim integrating Hip Hop, or what the guys from Badasht have done with mixing Blues and Gospel melodies into their interpretation of the Sacred Writings of the Faith. I tried to do something different with incorporating my mum’s skills as a Persian chanter into a few of the tracks, which have been really well received, so much so that she was able to get enough support to record her own album which I make a few appearances on. It’s been awesome amalgamating Eastern and Western styles, cause we’ve been able to stay true to the writings in presenting them in their original form, whilst also making it accessible to Western ears. I’m so lucky to have such a talented and willing mother!

Baha’i Blog: Are you working on any new initiatives or do you have any new albums coming out soon?

Right now I guess you can say I’m taking a break and trying to work out my next move. I’m in the process of recording a single titled ‘This is Faith’ – a poem by Ruhiyyeh Khannum, which many of my friends have heard and requested that I make available to them. I’m still touring and performing when I get the chance, I think that will always be part of my life. I’m currently planning a tour/travel teaching trip to Ireland and Iceland in the summer. But for now I think I’m in that sort of lull creatively where I just need to sit back, reflect, live a little, and pray that it just comes. I’m always jamming with friends though, playing around with new gadgets and technology, its all part of living.

Baha’i Blog: You had mentioned to me that you’re working at the Sarah McLachlan School of Music. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

YES! I really feel blessed to have scored such an amazing job with such an incredible organisation. I work in the administrative office at the Sarah McLachlan School of Music, which is a not-for-profit that offers music tuition at no cost to those who would otherwise not have access. There are about 450 students learning voice, percussion, guitar, piano, and music production, ranging from ages 9-17. I’ve been able to create such close bonds with the students and their parents, and am surrounded by an incredibly supportive team of staff and instructors, who are all very likeminded and share a very similar vision. I’ve been exposed to much of the local music scene through the people I work with, and have better understood the realities of many of the neighborhoods I serve in as a result of my job and the students that attend the school. The plan now is for me to continue working at the school with the hopes of my responsibilities slowly increasing.

Baha’i Blog: Where can our readers buy your albums?

My website, www.shaditolouiwallace.com  will lead you to iTunes and Bandcamp to download the albums, or if you’re a little old fashioned like me you can purchase a compact disc direct from the website too. You can also find my albums on 9starmedia.

Baha’i Blog: Thanks so much Shadi for agreeing to do this interview, it was great catching up with you again and keep up the great work with your music and your endeavours to serve the Faith through this important  “ladder for the soul”! 

About the Author

Naysan is the editor of Baha'i Blog and he has worked in various avenues of media for two decades. He’s passionate about using the arts and media to support and explore the teachings of the Baha’i Faith and he has produced and collaborated on popular music projects like the "DawnBreaker Collective" and the successful Ruhi-inspired sequence of "MANA" albums. His experience as a producer for CNN was invaluable while working on a number of special projects for the Baha’i World Centre, including the "Building Momentum" and "Pilgrimage: A Sacred Experience" videos. If there’s a media-related Baha’i project out there, chances are that Naysan was involved with it somehow!

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Discussion 4 Comments

  1. Thank you for this wonderful interview with the talented Shadi and for speaking openly about the need to support Baha’i artists! I hope Shadi is able to one day perform at the Musical Prayer Station where we do ask the guests to support the artists financially to the degree each can.

    Where can we get her mom’s album?

  2. I can’t wait for “This is Faith” to come out… I really can’t. Shadi does one of the most touching versions of this famous poem I’ve ever heard. I travelled 3 hours to go see her show only to hear that song! The rest was great too 🙂

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