BY ANNA ISKANDARIAN
Sergey Agababyan is a poet, singer and musician who lives in the Bay Area. He has used his talents to introduce audience to Armenian culture and sensitize those around him to the Artsakh Liberation Movement, which will mark its 30th anniversary in February.
His experiences as a child have informed his art and influenced his poetry and music. Agababyan and his parents fled Baku when Azerbaijani OMON forces began targeting Armenians and carried out systematic pogroms with the aim of eradicating Armenians who had lived in that city for centuries.
He has channeled the grim experiences of his early childhood to charity work in Armenia and has used his music as a centerpiece of numerous fundraisers in San Francisco, Silicon Valley and elsewhere in the Bay Area.
Anna Iskandarian caught up with Agababyan to discuss his music and poetry in an special interview for Asbarez.
ANNA ISKANDARIAN: When you look at the entirety of your work as a songwriter, do you see large themes characterize it, or, maybe, distinct musical ideas that define a certain time period?
SERGEY AGABABYAN: To begin with, let me say what I always say with respect to my songs, in order not to mislead. My songs are not really songs. I mean for better or for worse, I never studied music and as we know, the music is considered the most important part of a song. My songs are based on poetry. As I often say, it’s a way for me to communicate with the surrounding world. If I have to put it in a simpler way, I’d say my songs are made of eighty percent lyrics and the rest is music. I almost always start with lyrics and then add music ‘by the ear’ so to speak, which is often simple, and creates a final presentation that I then share with my audiences. Having said that, I have to add that I always make a clear differentiation between traditional poetry and song poetry. In fact when I produce my albums, I purposely mix poetry with songs throughout as I always do during my performances.
Now that we got that out of the way, I can tell you that everything that I ever write is based on the influence of things around me and life experiences that inspire me. Unfortunately, they are not all good. Often, I am terrified with the way things happen and that may also inspire me to have my opinion, which I will share in the form of a poem or a song. Some may be dedicated to certain periods of life and some may be ongoing matters.
A.I.: What’s the most important element in your lyric writing?
S.A.: If I had to point out the one most important element, that would certainly be responsibility. I strongly believe that if you are an artist, whether you paint art or sculpt things, or simply write music, you have to understand that there will be people who will follow, especially when you write. You always have to remember that people will read or listen and that you are being judged and followed by your lyrics. Also, you must remember, not to just say or use words simply to rhyme sentences. Each word carries a very specific meaning and as a poet you must remember that. So therefore, responsibility for what you say in your work would be the most important element.
A.I.: How do you know when a song is completed—it’s time to stop revising and put it down?
S.A.: Poetry is something beyond you. I never write when I don’t feel like writing. It happens very naturally. It starts and ends organically. I must add that since it’s a one man show; meaning, I write the lyrics, make the music, and perform all by myself, it is often common that some of my work will find its final form throughout time, recordings and performance. Again, a very natural process from the minute the idea is born. We have to understand that life happens all the time. Therefore, there is nothing wrong with changing words or adding a verse to a so-called finished song, as long as it doesn’t change the intended meaning. Famous painters have changed their masterpieces as events unfolded and times changed. However, that was just an addition to what I’ve stated in the beginning, that it happens on its own. A great analogy that I can bring is the birth of a child, from the moment of inception to the moment of the birth. The beginning and the end are clear. Of course, some pieces are easier in creation and some will make you suffer. But the end result is always a new life if I may use it as a metaphor.
A.I.: Did you ever study songwriting and singing formally?
S.A.: Unfortunately never. And as I’ve stated in the beginning, it all starts with poetry for me. In fact, this is how it all started when I was 7 years old. At that time I was still living in Baku. I remember it was just an ordinary Saturday evening. My parents were watching a western movie on television. There used to be this Retro channel every Saturday evening. I guess they were so into the movie that they completely forgot about me even though I was sitting in between them. I was sitting there with a piece of paper and writing something for no particular reason. To make a long story short, when the movie was over, I handed them a piece of paper with four short poems about the four seasons of the year. What happened after I don’t remember exactly, but most likely they sent me to bed. And that was kind of the end of the story. I don’t even remember what happened to those poems and only many years later I found out that my aunt got a hold of them and up to today they are in her safe keeping.
Gradually the situation in Baku started changing for the worse and my parents were understandably more concerned about more important things rather than my poetry. Later, we had to immigrate to Leningrad (Saint Petersburg) and I didn’t really write much at that time. I only started writing, as I call “real poetry”, when I was in the States at around the age of twenty. I’ve often described the time prior to when I started writing poetry, time of self-contemplation. Like old wine, first it sits and matures and then you get to taste it and hopefully enjoy it!
A.I.: When you write a song, how much focus do you put on your intended audience?
S.A.: My number one intended audience is me, myself and I, and I don’t say this because I am in love with myself, but rather, because of the responsibility that I talked about earlier. If I am not satisfied with what I do, with what I create, what can I expect of surrounding world. So, yeah, I am my own biggest critic and trust me, I don’t give myself any slack when it comes to my work. I perfectly understand that you can’t be liked by everyone, nor disliked for that matter. Therefore I never strived to be liked by the masses, besides I strongly believe that it’s a pity idea. I want to be admired by people who have the same visions in life. Sure, if my art could possibly be an eye opener to someone, that would be great, however that is never the plan.
A.I.: Tell us about the biggest challenges you face as an artist, and future plans.
S.A.: Well, my biggest performance is yet to come, however, my largest performance yet, was in September 2016. It was a charity concert in Arno Babajanian’s concert hall in Yerevan. All proceeds went to FUND100, an organization that helps support young oncology patients in Armenia. Speaking of which, all my concerts are charity concerts and all proceeds are forwarded to orphan kids and ones in need in Armenia as well as directly to FUND100.
My biggest challenge has always been an audience. What I mean by that is, since I write in Russian but reside in the States, it is always a challenge to get in front of a large audience and get the exposure I wish, however, I offset that with quality over quantity. I often say that I’d rather get ten interested people that come to listen and that understand the genre, rather than a sold out event, where the audience is very random. My genre is very specific and I understand that. Every time when I am being asked to perform, I always thoroughly pick the venue. I take a lot of pride in what I do and therefore I want to make sure that it never turns into a commercialized event but rather a heartwarming event for the people who came to hear me.
A.I.: As an Armenian-American, why do you think it’s important to support Armenia and Artsakh?
S.A.: I think the answer is pretty obvious: if not us then who?! Besides, to me, patriotic feelings and the whole concept of patriotism was never about screaming out publicly that I am an Armenian. Armenia and Armenian people have a long history, rich culture, respectful traditions and many talented sons and daughters to be proud of, for which I certainly am! I strongly believe that any sober, forward thinking Armenian, despite of his or her domicile, that shares the same thoughts and ideas, should understand that helping Armenia is not a choice, but rather a must, though I don’t really like word help in this case, it is more of a tribute!