Ripping off an evening gown mid-song is not a task to be taken lightly. Just ask singer/songwriter/dancer/all-around entertainer Lynda Sayyah and her crew. "I think I just flashed the whole crowd," she says after a failed attempt to get it right.
Talbott Street. Awards show. July 2011. Sayyah's the closing act, preparing to sing Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful" and debut her newest single, "Love is Hell." It's a brief, two-song appearance, which fits in well with Sayyah's preferred European approach. Get out there, blow them away, get the hell off the stage. An hour is a long show for her; three or four songs are best.
In between songs: Ripping off an evening gown to reveal a corset and bouncy skirt beneath. You'd be surprised at how much choreography goes into such a simple act. Ditch the mike. Move the mike stand. Grab. Rip. Toss. All while keeping it out of the way and preferably not dinging a dancer in the eye.
Again and again she tries it, surrounded by her entourage – because c'mon, a pop songstress HAS to have an entourage, right? – before getting the timing exactly right, the white gown flung exactly between the dancers, fluttering down like a cape discarded mid-fight by a dazzling white-clad matador.
Seriously, you think stagecraft like this just creates itself? "Now we're talkin'," Sayyah declares.
Sayyah (pronounced SIGH-uh) first came to prominence in 2007 and 2008, working alongside Nate Davis and the Franchize. Her stint with that band culminated in a 2008 performance opening for Ludacris at the Playboy Mansion. ("A word of advice: Do NOT have sex in the Grotto," she notes. "You don't want to know what people have been doing there.")
Appearances around town with the likes of Hum-V or on Real Scene TV have cemented her role as an active Indianapolis presence, even as her work has reached listeners as far away as Germany. ("There's a German radio station that plays my songs a lot. I have no idea how big they actually are, but it's nice to be out there, right?")
Here's the deal with Lynda Sayyah: She's the whole package. Writing. Producing. Dance. Modeling. Spokesmodeling. Fashion. She has an ease in the spotlight and a talent for dominating the stage. Her voice is smoky, sleek, sly, a slightly sinister smooth croon. I would call her Indianapolis' dark princess of pop except that offstage, she's too damn friendly and smiles too damn big to call her dark or a bad girl.
Musically, she exists in that strange space between electronica, hip-hop and pop occupied by Britney, Christina, Beyonce and numerous other artists identifiable by a single name, though her talent for showmanship makes me compare her most closely to Kylie Minogue.
Sayyah grew up in a mixed household, the daughter of a German mother and Palestinian father. She grew up listening almost entirely to Arabic music; as a teenager, she encountered Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston and other divas of the era.
"I didn't exactly want to be better; I just wanted to sing," she says. "I liked those very empowering and strong voices. When I was 15, I realized I could do this as a profession. Christina Aguilera came out and it all came together for me. I realized, this is the kind of music I wanted to write. I became an obsessive, listening to everything Christina. I learned Spanish from listening to her Spanish album. In high school and college I started listing to older stuff, The Beatles, 1970s classics."
In one noteworthy teenage incident,as she tells it, she auditioned for a Disney Channel show and did quite well, right up until the plug got pulled on the show itself. She's had slightly better luck with her music appearing in promos for Hellcats and America's Next Top Model, and more recently on compilations such as Block Starz Music's She Got Next 2011.
A musical career does not always come without its price. Sayyah's choices proved incompatible with her father's strict values.
"For Arabic women, sex is a big no-no," she says. "No women doing music, not tank tops, no miniskirts. To talk about sex or be empowered, these are negative things. We're always going to disagree. I went to my father and said, 'We can be different but we can still love each other. And he said, 'No, I can't accept you as long as you do what you do.' So I walked out. We haven't spoken in five years."
One of her earlier songs, "Ay-Ya-Ya," serves as a direct response to the values she grew up with. Infused with Arabic rhythms and lyrics, the song is about washing your hands of the past and brushing off what's hurt you.
"This was one of the first records I wrote towards the oppression I grew up with," she says. "It's an empowerment record, so it sounds fun, but it's a direct hit using Arabic sounds. It's not bashing people; it's me standing up for myself. This is the music I grew up with. It's an ironic and a happy record. Though I don't think the people it's about would be very happy." It's a theme she revisits frequently, on songs such as "Daddy's Little Rebel" and "I'm Not Sorry."
Despite all this — or perhaps because of it – she maintains an intense focus on the next thing in line. She has a very specific sort of stardom in mind and a very specific plan — actually, five or six plans at any given time – to get there. Just listening to her recite her itinerary is exhausting. A few days of meetings in New York. Recording and meetings in Atlanta. Dance practice and recording and a Talbott Street gig all in a few days.
"Being a solo pop singer isn't a good model for touring," she says. "Getting relationships in the industry and making it onto the radio is key."
- Sayyah twirls backstage at Talbott Street Nightclub. Photos by Paul F. P. Pogue.
She once called her onstage style "a lot of belly dancing combined with head banging, if that makes any sense" — and actually, once you watch her for a few songs, it makes total sense.
She's picked up a not-entirely-undeserved reputation for smoking-hot sexuality in her act, although she points out it's a natural outgrowth of the material: "It's never my intention to try to be sexy. Some of my songs are about sex, but I never go into it trying to be sexy. That's why it comes off as playful, not raunchy. My favorite character to play is a psychotic person.
They're just so interesting. I have a record called 'Uh-oh,' where the concept is a guy's breaking up with a girl, she's crazy and she's stalking him, but the song itself is really upbeat and cutesy. Cutesy psychotic. Sometimes it's sexy, sometimes it's crazy and sometimes it's sad. It just depends on the song."
All her musical work is in addition to her role as a prominent fashionista, designer, model, occasional TV presenter and several times fashion director for Oranje. It was at a photo shoot for Oranje that I first met her in 2007. After an hour or so of talking fashion and music over bagels, we headed out to the back alleys of Broad Ripple, where she slipped right into bad-girl, work-the-camera character as if she were born for it. This chameleon ability is crucial to her work now, which requires an infinite number of attitudes.
"When you're a model, you have to have something behind your eyes — a character, a passion, fiery thoughts," she says now. "If you can't pull that off, you look like a bored pretty girl. Up onstage you have to throw it all out there. People might hate it or love it, but if you can't get a reaction, it's not real. You can have a plan and a strategy onstage, but it's driven by the heart — random, crazy, spur-of-the-moment emotional. There's nothing else in the world like people cheering you on while you're onstage. You can't force a performer to perform. You either are or you're not."