SAN FRANCISCO — Abir Haronni is minutes removed from stepping off-stage at the Regency Ballroom and her adrenaline is still palpable, even as she stops to take photos with new fans. This is the largest crowd in front of which she’s ever performed (a sold-out room of fans on the first date of Jess Glynne’s U.S. tour), and her first show with a full band. Needing to make sure the performance would go off without a hitch, the artist, who goes by Abir, needed to push this chat from before the show to after her performance. But it had nothing to do with her having jitters.
“You know what? I was definitely not nervous,” Abir says, adding inflection to words here and there to dramatic effect. “You know why? I’ll tell you why. Me and Kappa [Tanabe], my guitar player, we were just on tour with Jacob Banks like three weeks ago. When we got off that tour we were like, ‘damn.’ We didn’t want it to end. We had just got into the groove. So today when we woke up at the hotel, we literally were like, “When are we going on?” It was like 8 a.m., and we were like counting down the seconds, ‘When are we going on?’ I was just so excited.”
Abir has been on just three tours, including this one. The 24-year-old Morocco-born New York artist grew up in Virginia after her father moved the family to Arlington and started a limousine company. She’d ride around listening to traditional Moroccan music as well as Etta James and a mix of jazz, classical and soul. In the fourth grade, she sang Jennifer Lopez’s “All I Have” at her school’s talent show. Soon after, she was seeking out every opportunity she could find, from county fairs to talent shows.
“After that, it’s almost like I couldn’t stop,” she says. “I’m the one who would sign up for that. My parents would entertain it ’cause I was a kid.”
Her parents made sure that she was always setting herself up for college along the way, but as long as she got her school work done, she was free to pursue singing. On Saturday mornings when she was in high school, she would wake up early to go to a studio where she began interning, “getting all the knowledge in,” learning from artists who would pop in to work, like Jay-Z’s DJ Young Guru.
In college, she double-majored in business and communications, but she was already looking past education to a future job in music. So she would pack her classes into two days a week and then rush up to New York for the rest of the week, where she was already working on her own songs.
“I figured if I was going to go to school, I might as well go to school for something that I could use towards singing in this business,” she says. “It felt like I was working towards some epic shit. It didn’t really feel like school. It just felt like I was getting to the money.”
She’s been able to apply both courses of study in several years of gigging around New York, but says learning on the job has been equally enlightening.
In 2016 she moved to New York for the summer.
“This is actually really funny,” Abir says. “I told my parents I was like, ‘Guys, my manager needs me up there to work on music for two months; I’ll be right back.’ I went for the two months, and I literally didn’t come back.”
At the end of the summer she called them to say she’d signed a lease. They were confused, but not mad because she had held up her end of the deal and graduated.
“God forbid I would wake up and my voice is not there, or just God forbid I change my mind,” she adds. “They’re like, ‘You always want a backup plan.”’ As soon as I gave them the degree, they were like, ‘You’re good. Do whatever you want.’”
Since then Abir has been working her tail off, building a growing reputation for blending sultry R&B with sticky pop hooks and more recently, her Moroccan heritage. In 2016, she partnered up with Masego on “Waves.” She’s also worked with rappers Fabolous and Macklemore, and last summer had a hit with Cash Cash collaboration “Finest Hour.”
As the story goes, she signed with Atlantic after label CEO Craig Kallman saw her fiery set opening for rapper Aminé. Last October, she released her debut EP, MINT, a collection of sometimes empowering, sometimes cheeky songs about holding onto youth. On “Tango,” a breezy mid-tempo pop song, she asserts her ability to be happy alone (“You think I can’t handle dancing on my own/ It takes two to tango but only one to let go”).
“Young & Rude” is an appropriate party anthem about letting go of inhibitions with some trance elements. At the San Francisco show, Abir preceded the song with a Middle-Eastern intro, and she says that she’ll be incorporating more of her heritage into her songs.
“Even though I didn’t live there very long, it is a big part of who I am,” she says. “My parents made sure to keep the Moroccan culture and heritage instilled in the household, so it never left. That’s why I still feel like it’s home for me. I listened to a lot of Arabic music growing up, but I didn’t really think about putting it into my music until these last couple years. Right now, what we’re actually working on is incorporating some of my roots into the music. ‘Young and Rude’ is one small example, but what we’re working on now that’s not out yet; it’s touching on that a little bit, so I’m excited.”
On “Reunion,” she sings about going back for a high school reunion and seeing her friends moving on with their lives, a subject she revisits on “For Ya,” on which she shakes her head at seeing her friends in day jobs and with kids (“Used to say ‘I’m all in.’/ Then everyone got boring”).
The EP’s title, MINT, is a reference to tea time in Morocco, which served as an airing of gossip.
“After dinner all the uncles go outside and have a smoke and the ladies chill at the table, they drink their Moroccan mint tea, and they talk so much shit,” Abir explains. “I imagine myself at a table by myself drinking tea talking mad shit out loud, like, ‘You know what? My friends are getting pregnant and they’re leaving. They’re not coming out no more.’ I was pretty much saying everything that came to mind that really upset me in the last couple of years. … It’s like, ‘Daaaaang guys, I lost my friends.’”
The only thing Abir hasn’t had any experience with until recently was being on the road. Before her short run with Jacob Banks, she toured with Kiiara; her first run of shows outside New York. From Kiiara, she saw what it takes to play a string of shows and how to prepare for them.
Touring with Jacob Banks, she began feeling comfortable in her own skin on stage, as well as how to read crowds. The opportunity allowed her to worry less about logistics and concentrate on having fun.
With the Jess Glynne tour, she has a talented band for the first time. The band includes Tanabe (with whom she’s played shows for the past four years and who’s played with Chaka Khan), bassist-keyboardist Lex Sadler, and trumpeter Kyla Moscovich (J. Cole, Mac Miller, Anderson .Paak, Demi Lovato).
Up until now, all of her shows have consisted of Abir and Tanabe playing over backing tracks. Playing with her band is opening up even more possibilities as she looks to stay on the road in 2019.
“Honestly, the most fun I’ve had on stage was here in San Francisco tonight,” she says. “This is the first fucking show, so it’s going to be epic.”
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.