Born in Iran, raised in New Zealand and based, for a few months at least, in sunny Los Angeles, Aotearoa hip hop newcomer and multi-hyphenate talent Chaii has the world both in her music and at her fingertips. Fresh off the back of dropping ‘Pineapple Pizza’, her six-track sophomore EP which lathers sunshine vibes over punchy, old-school beats, Alex Cabré caught up to talk heritage, collaboration, and that lingering debate: should pineapple go on pizza or not?
As challenging as it has been for many, 2021 has been a very fruitful year for Chaii, and when I get to talk with her it’s down the phone, from Los Angeles where she’s currently in the middle of moving accommodation.
“We’re here until April. It’s a stint that I’ve always wanted to do to work on new music,” Chaii explains. “I was collaborating with a lot of people over Zoom so it’s nice to be over here having sessions in person. The last time I was here was to film two music videos in three weeks, which was really intense! This is my first time getting into studios and doing live showcases in America, so that’s really cool”.
It’s clear from the off that collaboration is integral to Chaii – whose given name is Mona Sanei – and her methods of making tunes. She recalls how the zesty, buoyant title track from her November 5-released ‘Pineapple Pizza’ EP came to fruition, during APRA’s SongHubs writing camp at Auckland’s Roundhead Studios where artists, producers and writers are brought together to compose a new song each day.
“For the Pineapple Pizza session, we all kind of wrote it. So me, Rory Noble, Mazbou Q and Lawrence Arabia. It was super fun because we were just throwing bars at each other and laughing the whole time! What you hear now is exactly what was made on the day!”
A self-directed music video that dropped along with the EP in early November amplifies the track’s energy. Splicing drone footage with cool slow-mo, it finds Chaii, rocking a near-fluorescent yellow puffer jacket, grooving around the picturesque Hamilton Gardens with a crew of dancers. The location’s otherworldly architecture and vibrant décor made for perfect video scenery. She tells me that she could envisage the finished clip even before shooting.
“I was like, I can’t believe no one’s ever done a video here. This is gold! I already had a really clear taste of the vibe of it. Colourful, dreamy. I knew with my team we could definitely reach that goal, the exact kind of vibe I had in mind.”
With choreography by Kiel Tutin, whose repertoire includes K-pop sensations Blackpink, this video provided another realm for Chaii to bring in other creative minds and channel her vision.
“It was amazing how magically and organically it came together. The visuals [are] light and bubbly, and it was really fun to make. Hopefully, that comes across when people see it.”
Youtube judgement has so far been exclusively thumbs-up, and feedback from friends and fans overseas has been very positive, she says. But couldn’t it be perceived as misleading as to, er, what wider Hamilton is like as a destination?
“That did cross my mind,” she laughs. “I was like, look, it might be Hamilton Gardens to someone in Hamilton, but to anyone watching it outside of NZ, it looks like million-dollar backdrops.”
Another big and more divisive question remains: just how does she feel about pineapple on pizza?
“I’m comparing pineapple pizza to a complicated relationship because it’s such a complicated topping. The song is saying it’s not even that complicated. Personally, I’ll eat pineapple pizza if it’s there, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to order it.”
A sound engineer by trade before focusing full-time on a career as an artist just a year or so back, instrumentals tend to come first when Chaii is constructing a song.
“I definitely go off the music first. If I’m producing the music, I usually build the beat first and I start freestyling and keep adding until I have the final demo. If someone else is producing the track I’ll vibe off the energy of the beat, rather than going in with an acapella and then building music around it. Whatever I feel through listening I’ll write to it, and however I feel about the finished product is how the visual conception comes around. It’s really feeling-driven.”
Her vibrant musical personality was introduced with first single Digebasse in March 2019, the accompanying video shot in Oman complete with sandy desert-scapes, camels, pipelines and market settings, but mainly featuring Chaii with the equally colourful locals. A debut ‘audio and visual’ EP ‘Lightswitch’ came in 2020, with subsequent single Wow (Look At Me), featuring on an Apple iPhone ad as further proof of a fast-developing career.
In 2021 three other singles/videos preceded the EP release. May’s Oh Nah Yeah was produced by US producer and DJ, Party Favor and matched with a kaleidoscopic music video directed by Mikey Rockwell. In July a new single Might Just saw Chaii showcasing her vocal skills alongside quickfire bars from local supremo Kings and the slick flows of brother duo eleven7four, with a Connor Pritchard-directed video.
Warming up to the EP drop, September’s single offering was the hypnotic Get It Done, this time with a spontaneously shot and self-directed warehouse video, and the tellingly confident lyrics; ‘Life is good in the city I live in, oh shit/You don’t got a clue where I is/You don’t got a clue where I is/and that’s all good coz I feel great’.
Listen to most Chaii songs and you’ll find airy synths drifting over choppy percussion, her half-rapped, half-sung vocal strutting straight down the centre line towards you. She achieves such an unfuckwithable sound by knowing and trusting her equipment, raising another core question: what piece of hardware or software couldn’t she live without?
“Ooh! Obviously, I could use another DAW but I love to use Logic. And my SSL interface. Oh, my [Neumann] U87 mic as well,” she rattles off acronyms like a kid reciting a Christmas list. “I could live without those things because I can substitute them, but obviously I couldn’t live without a good mic”, she hesitates. “I probably could! There’s heaps of shitty mics that you can get really cool sounds out of!”
Elsewhere on her sophomore EP, Chaii is joined by rapper Chvrsi on the track Mano Tou, which is performed entirely in the Persian language Farsi, a regular presence in her singles to date.
“He’s an Iranian rapper who actually lives in Iran”, she explains of Chvrsi. “It was an awesome collaboration. Rap music is really underground there but he’s killing it in the scene. It’s my first full Persian/Farsi song. It’s quite vibey. I was like, people might not even notice. That’s what Chvrsi said, that people in Iran don’t even notice that it’s in Farsi! They’re listening to it and bopping and they’re like, ‘Hold on, it’s in our language!’”
The song’s title translates as ‘Me and You’.
“It’s like if Pineapple Pizza had a part two,” Chaii explains further. “It’s kind of like a love song – it’s a happy release.”
Since moving to Aotearoa from Iran aged eight, her two-worlds upbringing has played a huge part in her creative output. She credits the multiculturalism of NZ for giving her time and space to discover and celebrate her Persian heritage as well as her Kiwi identity, in equal measure.
“For anyone who moves to another country, you’re always on a journey of discovering things [about] yourself and your background. You adapt to that new culture. And then you’re like, ‘Hold on, I’m forgetting my old culture, let me relink with that a little bit.’ I went down a path of watching Persian movies and listening to Farsi language because I was forgetting how to speak. Everywhere in NZ that I was raised is a big part of who I am, but so is my Persian culture and my heritage. I’ve found a nice balance between the two.”
Expressing where she is in life through music helps Chaii stay in touch with her unique background mix. Sometimes when writing Persian lyrics she’ll do research and discover new facets to the language she didn’t know of before.
“It’s a way for me to keep connecting. I think it’s really awesome that we can do that in NZ. Unfortunately, there’s so much bad press about Persian culture. I don’t feel like it gets a break.
“We’re big foodies, we’re super big on music and dancing. People wouldn’t jump to that as their first thought when you say ‘Iran’. We have so much history as well. And it snows in Iran! That seems to really shock people. People from around the world go to Iran to ski, it has the best mountains for skiing!”
She has only been back to her homeland once but is keen to return again, to travel rurally and experience the country from a tourist’s perspective.
“It’s on my list of things to do!”
Despite its challenges 2021 has been a year of significant progress for her as an international artist. Chaii has some big plans for 2022, including getting on stage to perform live more (she was recently confirmed for the iconic SXSW festival in Texas), as well as making headway on recording a debut album.
“It’s nice to say that out loud,” she smiles.
Working on this EP has provided her with more confidence in what she’s able to do with her vocals.
“Someone else can push me in a direction I wouldn’t have pushed myself if I was writing in my studio. With ‘Pineapple Pizza’, we went down a singing path which I hadn’t done before, to that level. On all the recent stuff I’ve been writing, I’ve been experimenting a lot more with my vocals. You always learn different things technically and stylistically [from collaboration]. It opens up another level.”
Chaii’s already been consciously putting into practise lessons learnt from her collabs to date.
“You take away so much from every session. Just seeing other people’s process, and vice versa, you can adopt a bit of what you’re into.”
Prominent among her wish list of future collaborators would be a session with Childish Gambino.
“That would be insane. He’s the most open-minded, crazy, creative dude.”
Creativity is certainly not something that Mona Sanei is short on. Neither does she lack artistic credibility, colour or confidence. She might just get her wish.