From the sidelines, Nasri Atweh has seemingly spent much of the past decade living an impossibly charmed life, and not just because he’s managed to relocate himself from the frozen tundra of Toronto to perpetually sunny Los Angeles.
But based on Expectations, the forthcoming third release from his band MAGIC!, the 37-year-old songwriter isn’t without those moments when the walls start to close in and the future seems uncertain. Lush and almost symphonic as the record is at times, there’s also a dark side lyrically, especially on the back half of the album. Consider “I will never find the centre of your heart,” from the woozy, synth-buzzed thumper “Darts in the Dark”, or “When the trust is gone, so is the love,” from the breezy soul jam “When the Trust Is Gone”.
Reached in an L.A. studio, which he laconically refers to as his second home, the musician who goes simply by the name Nasri acknowledges there were times when he felt overwhelmed while writing Expectations.
Having a child will do that to you.
“I’ll pull back a little bit of the curtain for you,” Nasri responds when asked how personal the lyrics on Expectations are. “I have my stepson who is nine, and my son Noah, who is almost three. Life changes when you have a child.”
For Nasri, there was more upheaval than normal. The singer met his other half, singer Sandy Mölling of Germany’s all-female No Angels, while working with the group as a songwriter. When she became pregnant with their child, she agreed to move to Los Angeles, where Nasri relocated after growing up in Toronto as the son of Palestinian immigrants.
“What happened was that I was, for the first time in my life, domesticated,” the singer says. “That was something, being a dramatic artist, that I was kind of fighting for a long time. You go through a lot when you have this drastic change from staying at the studio till 4 in the morning, doing whatever you want, to ‘The kids get up at this time and you have to take care of them.’ It’s good stuff, bad stuff.”
So for every dark-cloud line like “She says she loves another man” from “How You Remember Me”, there are also tender moments like “You’ve got me hanging on your every word, so be careful what you say” from the symphonic pop ballad “Things You Say”.
“What I also found,” he continues, “was that when someone is around you all the time, you start to rely on them emotionally—it’s a level of codependency which comes with a relationship. That’s where ‘Things You Say’ came from. The opinion of your partner is kind of like the heaviest and most important thing in your life. That’s the person you want to be impressing the most.”
Lest one think that Expectations is something that would slot in nicely between Joy Division’s Closer and Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral, the record is ultimately an uplifting and hopeful one. The bright-eyed tropical-pop jam “Kiss Me”, for example, came from Nasri missing his family after they departed for a minivacation in Germany, suddenly leaving him alone with plenty of time on his hands.
If something binds all the songs together, it’s that MAGIC! has more or less abandoned the sound that made it something of an overnight sensation. After years of writing songs behind the scenes for everyone from Pitbull and Justin Bieber to Shakira and Iggy Azalea, Nasri found himself wanting something more. Forming MAGIC! with guitarist Mark Pellizzer, bassist Ben Spivak, and drummer Alex Tanas, he sprang the ska-pop bonbon “Rude” on the world, the track shooting to No. 1 in America and the U.K., and top-five around the planet, including Australia, Japan, and Sweden.
It would have been easy to go back to the same well for Expectations, but Nasri chose to branch out. While you get traces of Jamaican ganja on tracks like “Appreciate You”, the album also serves up everything from thumping left-field electro (“Darts in the Dark”) to neon-splattered synth-pop (“Core”).
“It was a tough album to make emotionally, but the songs were just pouring out of me,” Nasri says. “There was just a flood of songs, and that’s why there were so many styles. There was no calculating the style of the album—it was more that the songs followed the lyrics and the message.”
All this, he suggests, has him in a better place than he once would have imagined. Before kids, and before MAGIC!, he found himself with a steady flood of royalty cheques, which only drove home once again that money doesn’t solve problems.
“I was super unhappy,” Nasri says. “Imagine you have no money. Then you write songs for all these big stars and you’re given a big cheque. You can do whatever you want with that cheque—buy a house, things, go on vacation. Except you’re sitting there not knowing what to do with the money. I thought that the money was going to make me happy. But it was something that just ended up sitting in an account. I was doing the same thing that I was doing before I had money—going to play basketball with friends, with nothing changing.
“But something was really missing,” he continues. “It’s like you’d be in the sessions feeling that something was wrong—that you didn’t have a voice, that you were just a servant to everybody else. Because I’d got paid, I had the choice where I didn’t have to do these sessions that I had only done to make money. It was clear to me that I didn’t want to be there anymore. So I met Mark, and we started a band.”
And while the walls might close in on occasion, “impossibly charmed” is on most days a good description of where Nasri is now.
“Some people think I just don’t care, but I honestly don’t take a lot of things that seriously,” he says. “I never have. That’s how I make music. I spend half the time while I’m making music playing PlayStation, like I’m trying to turn back time and be eight years old.
“But I’ve been finding grey hairs,” Nasri adds with a laugh, “so I’m not sure that’s going to happen.”