Bedouine’s Humble Folk-Pop Brilliance

“I don’t want to keep downcutting myself,” says Azniv Korkejian, “but to be honest, I have no idea what I’m doing.”

Korkejian, who records and writes songs as Bedouine, is currently talking about playing the guitar — “I’m always just winging it” — but the Los Angeles-based folk musician may as well be describing her complicated feelings about being an artist at all.

That word — artist — is one that Korkejian says she’s struggled to feel like she fully embodies in recent years, even after releasing her self-titled debut, a dazzling display of Seventies-leaning singer-songwriter simplicity, to overwhelming acclaim in 2017. Since then, she’s amassed millions of streams, shared the stage with Lucius and Real Estate, and opened for everyone from Fleet Foxes to Father John Misty.

It took a few years, in fact, for Father John Misty to realize that she wrote songs and played music, despite their paths regularly crossing in their Echo Park neighborhood. “I had no idea,” she recalls him telling her the first time he listened to her record. “He was like, ‘This is Azniv? I never knew, you never talk about it.’”

Korkejian was born in Aleppo, Syria, to Armenian parents and spent her childhood in Saudi Arabia before moving to the United States with her parents around age 10. When she first arrived in Los Angeles, her dream was to work in the film and TV industry as a sound editor. “I never imagined that I could be a quote-unquote artist and have my own voice,” she says.

But before long, she found her own songs pouring out of her for the first time, unsure of what she’d do with them. “I realized I had a little bit of something to say, not necessarily for anybody else, but they were starting to feel special to me,” she says. “Before the first record, I never even talked about how I played music. I just assumed that everybody played music, and that it was a really boring conversation to have with somebody: ‘So, I play music …’ What a boring thing to talk about.”

That initial outburst led not only to 2017’s Bedouine but also her new album, Bird Songs of a Killjoy — a stately set of originals that cements her status as a vital contemporary folk storyteller unencumbered by genre. Korkejian widens her songwriting focus, tackling everything from crippling insomnia (“Dizzy”) to late-stage gentrification (“Echo Park”), while retaining the same dreamy chamber-folk sound she introduced on her debut.

With its ornate strings and delicate arrangements, the new album features more lush production values than her debut, which prioritized a sparse vocals-and-guitar approach, but Bedouine isn’t eager to make any grand pronouncements about how her sound has grown. “You feel like it’s evolved a little bit, kind of?” Bedouine says when I mention the new sounds I hear on Bird Songs.

“I’m happy it does seem like it’s evolving, but it definitely doesn’t feel like it’s a huge departure,” she says. “I don’t write in increments in time, like, ‘OK, it’s time to write for the next album.’ I’m impressed when people do that, because it’s so much pressure. How do you just schedule that? How do you schedule emotion?”

Talking about her songwriting process and live performances, Korkejian shows a humility that’s rare among her Los Angeles contemporaries. Speaking to Rolling Stone on a spring morning in New York, she wonders whether some of her general self-deprecation may be cultural. “I notice the difference sometimes: My parents really knew how to knock me down a peg,” she says with a smile. “If you ever talk about yourself, it’s strange. Patting yourself on the back is not cool in my culture. So, maybe, part of this is just negotiating those two cultures, which is something I’m very familiar with.”

Despite her modesty about her own work, Bedouine has become an integral part of today’s new wave of traditionally minded singer-songwriters. She’s formed bonds with contemporaries and tourmates like Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Segarra, who sent her an early encouraging message about her breakthrough song “Solitary Daughter,” and José Gonzalez. And at home in Los Angeles, she’s become part of a thriving scene that includes Jenny-O, Greta Morgan, and Leslie Stevens, all of whom appear in Bedouine’s new “Echo Park” video. “I wanted to make the point that we’re all here, this is what we’re doing, and we’re all trying to figure it out,” she says.

Bedouine began writing “Echo Park” “as a joke” after being unable to find a table at her favorite neighborhood coffee shop one morning. But releasing the song has been a learning experience for the singer. “I made the mistake of looking at the comments on my YouTube,” she says. “Most people have been really supportive, but I found a few comments where some people are really upset about somebody who hasn’t lived there as long as them writing a song about it. And I get it, people are upset. I know what displacement feels like. I’ve been through it, and it’s not to be taken lightly. It’s been strange to feel, speaking very lightly, like a kind of lightning rod because of a song.”

Bedouine expects many more such moments in the future, as she continues to expand both the range of topics she’s writing about, and her overall sonic palette (at one point, she ponders recording a country-funk album in the future). In the meantime, it’s clear that her creative practice has come a long way since she started taking it seriously just a few short years ago. “It started this reservoir that I just keep contributing to,” she says of her early output, “and have been pulling from ever since.”

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