When Farah was eighteen months old her family relocated to Ireland, leaving their home in Libya behind. Despite the geographical distance, her ancestral connections to Libya’s historically fraught political landscape lingered over her adolescent years in Ireland. Farah’s grandfather was a court martial judge until 1969, while her mother served as the first female Minister for Health for the provisional government after the Libyan Revolution in 2011, during which time Farah was doing her Leaving Cert in Ireland. Her paternal grandmother spent years of her youth in Italian concentration camps during the Italian occupation of Libya. These drastically different positions demonstrate a remarkable contrast between power and defeat in her lineage. These extraordinary ties to Libya often caused internal conflict and confusion in how she should embrace her heritage.
At 3-and-a-half minutes long, ‘Play It By Ear’ opens with twinkling keys before the Libyan-Irish musician’s distinctive vocal draws the listener into her world of intrigue. Opening the second verse she sings, “Empty but open are my eyes because I tried to lie but I can’t deny this feeling” before the song reaches a joyous, no holds barred crescendo in true Farah Elle style.
Farah says: “‘Play it by Ear’ is a song about how we can only ever really take life as it comes. Even when striving to achieve and believe in our long-term goals, we still, in a practical sense, can only take things day-by-day. Some things just need to be played by ear, whether we like it or not.
1. Rockstar by N.E.R.D
This is such a timeless jam. It never gets old and it’s a total “f**k you” to anyone who tries to put you down or mimic you. I first heard it when I was 13 years old, feeling like a total outcast in my school. I was also very into hiphop & punk movements at the time and I got so angsty whenever people didn’t know the history behind certain music and it’s origins, which made me reeeeeeally hate on posers. You know how it is, being 13. We cared a bit too much. Anyway the point is, this song kinda celebrates the fact that nobody is the same and trying to be anyone else is useless. It also is such a confidence booster, especially when you’re pursuing a career in music. Not only does it slap but it honestly is such a celebration of being unique and not apologising for it either. Pharrell Williams & the Neptunes were so good at capturing the essence of hiphop meeting punk rock sensibilities too.
2. Radio/Video by System of a Down
Yeah I loved S.O.A.D. so much. They were one of the only metal-type bands that I really enjoyed, along with Tool. Again, Artists I listened to in my teenage years. My favourite thing about this song and its’ album, is how it rips the glamorous mask off of Hollywood and what it takes to get there. The sacrifices people make for fame and all of that. They were also quite political as a band. The singer, Serj Tankian, is Armenian and does a lot of activism around the Armenian genocide. I was always inspired by that, I felt like it gave him a lot of depth and integrity. His voice uses really similar melodies that you’d hear in North African sounds, which I felt in my spirit whenever I listened to them. When I was 14, I made a bebo page called “SERJ TANKIAN 4 PRESIDENT”. Hahahah wow, yep, that’s out in the open now.
3. Baltimore by Nina Simone
This song just makes me want to cry everytime I hear it. Nina Simone is hands down, one of the best songwriters to have ever lived. As well as best performer, pianist, vocalist and general icon. Easily. This song feels like those moments when you’re people-watching on a grey, sad kind of day, in the city – where even the seagulls look like they’re fed up. The way you can sense the pain of a place quite deeply just by observing peoples faces as they go about their day. It’s such a beautiful song and that hook, “ain’t it hard, just to live?” kills me everytime. I used to sit on Balbriggan Beach after school and listen to this song and watch the world go by.
4. Running Up That Hill by Kate Bush
So everyone always told me to listen to Kate Bush, and I didn’t get around to it until the pandemic when I was living in Killiney for a homeshare during all of 2020. I lived on Killiney Hill Road, so everywhere I went was via some sort of hill. It was the most exercise I had ever done in my life and it was the most in touch with nature I had ever been too. I was swimming in the sea almost everyday as a form of escapism from a kind of difficult living situation. When things got hard and I felt down, sometimes I would just listen to this song to keep me motivated. “If I only could, make a deal with God” – damn. So good. Come to think of it, Kate Bush really helped me out during the first year of the pandemic. I love her passion.
5. Settle Down by Kimbra
I first heard Kimbra when I was 16 and what always struck me about her was her weird vocal riffs and the amount of cool layers she used. I felt like her voice WAS the music. Her playfulness and almost child-like appearance always made me feel like she was having fun with the music, which is kinda the reason why any of us do it. She also does a sick cover of “Plain Gold Ring” by Nina Simone where she completely made the song her own. It’s not easy to do that with Nina Simone, but Kimbra somehow does a great job. She’s really soulful too. I don’t really know anyone that sounds like her either, she seems authentic and is pretty brilliant.
6. Pyramids by Frank Ocean
So, I was 17, getting ready to go to the cluuuub for the first time with an old friend of mine. She was basically my cousin. We’re both Libyan and it was extremely taboo for us to be going to a club as two young women. This song mentions Cleopatra working at the pyramids, wearing six inch heels and the rest. We felt like Cleopatra getting ready and we knew we looked great, so we would just spend ages getting ready vibing out to Frank Ocean and preparing for a night out we’d never forget.
7. Subway by ASA
Ahhhh Asa. She’s kind of like that really important auntie who would influence you hugely while making you feel really safe and held. I felt like Asa understood me. Her voice is so honest, raw and her music is so relatable. I would just listen to Subway over & over again while riding the bus to school. I don’t have much else to say about Asa other than go, go listen to her, get that fix and feel every note.
8. These Worries by Kid Cudi & Mary J.Blige
This takes me to a very particular summer - coming into my adulthood out of my teen years, laying in my back garden with my friends listening to Kid Cudi and smoking. At the time, I had so much on my mind and I felt like nobody had any idea how difficult it all was. I was looking after myself, my family home, my studies etc. without any proper adult supervision and I had so many responsibilities while trying to just finish school and get into college. It manifested as back problems at the time. “These worries are heavy, they rest on my shoulders” is pretty much how it felt. Literally. For me, this song takes me inward and lets me release that pain.
9. Kick, Push II by Lupe Fiasco
ICONIC track, easily one of Lupe’s best. Such an anthem, tells the story so beautifully with a lot of sadness and yet complete victory. It highlights the importance of having a healthy outlet to process life, especially when life isn’t so easy. “Look at what we did, we came a long way from dirty ghetto kids” made me feel empowered because I was always told I’d be limited in my dreams because of being Libyan and a girl. I also experienced a bit of islamophobia at school and got called “dirty” by some kids when I went browner in the summertime. So this track for me, is a complete anthem. He discusses race in the track too, and how hard times fall on everyone, regardless of the colour of your skin. The key is to “Kick, Push, and Coast”. I hung out with a lot of skater kids too so the song seemed apt.
10. Borders by MIA
M.I.A is one of the biggest badasses in music. She emerged from such hard times with such unapologetic music and is truly an inspiration for me, in her personality alone. Then she comes out with “Borders” with that serious video, unforgettable. She bluntly lists all the bullshit in our world, in a repetitive hook, followed by the question “what’s up with that?”. I heard this song soon after the Libyan Revolution too, where Libyan refugees were just drowing at sea and being rejected at borders because nobody seems to want to take Libyans in (apparently we’re all terrorists). What’s amazing about MIA is that she came to London as refugee, because her and her family discovered that her dad actually was a terrorist. So yeah, she’s a badass. M.I.A does not G.A.F. If I could hang out with one Artist for a day, it’s probably her.