It's tempting to ask about her eyes first – they're so green that it's a bit unnerving, truth be told. What would you even call that color? But no, stay focused, because one quickly gets the sense that too much attention paid to the superficial would make those striking eyes roll; clearly pop chanteuse Shahnaz wants to talk music.
Though barely out of her teens, the petite singer/songwriter with the powerhouse voice has already received her first gold record for co-writing "Live Like There's No Tomorrow" for Selena Gomez’s sophomore release. The long list of industry heavyweights she's collaborated with is impressive, too – producers like Howard Benson, Mike Elizondo and the Matrix, go-to hitmakers Toby Gad, Bonnie McKee and Weezer's Rivers Cuomo, Sixx: A.M.’s James Michael, and hot producer/songwriter Greg Wells, who just made Shahnaz the first signing to his new co-venture with SONGS Publishing.
Meghan Shahnaz Kabir was born in a small college town in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina to an Irish mother and Afghan father, who as a young man escaped to America from his native war-ravaged Afghanistan. Although Top Ramen was a frequent dinnertime staple for the young family, "every extra penny" went towards after-school activities like acting and dance to support Shahnaz’s obvious talent for music and performance. Eventually, bit parts in studio films like James and the Giant Peach materialized, and at age five she almost landed a role opposite Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire: "I started crying because they wanted me to cut my hair," she says. "Some parents might've forced their kids into that, but my family always supported me in whatever decision I made, even then."
A job opportunity moved the family to the Nashville area, "which thankfully allowed me to come of age in a very musical environment," Shahnaz says. As a pre-teen she remembers comparing notes with friend Hayley Williams of Paramore about their favorite rock songs, while at the same time absorbing the music of Michael Jackson and ABBA, studying and emulating the vocal chops of Whitney Houston and Celine Dion, and cutting her teeth on arias like "O Mio Babbino Caro" with her vocal coach, Gerald Arthur. Arthur "changed the way I will sing forever," asserts Shahnaz. "Now when I sing, it feels like speaking…even the raspy, edgier moments are all so relaxed and effortless. His technique brings out rich overtones and a fullness and bite in my voice that really makes possible what I want to express musically."
Shahnaz's path was clear early on, and her reputation blossomed as a fierce vocal talent with way-beyond-her-years songwriting chops and a peerless work ethic. A showcase landed her major management and a major label deal. Things looked great – until they didn't. "I had a really tough year," Shahnaz says matter-of-factly. The head of the label was replaced, and "just as it was all about to take off, it all fell apart."
But Shahnaz dug in her heels, and like any songwriter's songwriter saw the adverse circumstances as prime source material. On "Not The End Of The World," Shahnaz sings, When I count my blessings I include every scar, and it's true that whatever pain she's endured recently has translated into pure pop rock pleasure for her listeners. "World" sounds like My Chemical Romance kicked out Gerard Way in favor of Janis Joplin; it's an epic track with a fist-pumping chorus, a visceral rap from Papa Roach's Jacoby Shaddix, and a Shahnaz vocal whose raw intensity is instantly believable and markedly more soulful than pop radio is accustomed to these days.
Her other songs are just as affecting; some are more playful like the driving kiss-off "Take A Hint," some more vulnerable in the face of inescapable attraction ("The Way A Heart Can Beat"), and some a celebratory call-to-arms to own who you are, let the freaks and the misfits unite! ("People Like Us"). The breadth and depth of her already impressive catalog made Shahnaz "one of the first writers I thought of when I was starting my own publishing company," says the aforementioned Wells, whose production credits include No. 1 hits like "Apologize" by OneRepublic and "Waking Up in Vegas" by Katy Perry. "She has a killer instinct for melody, she's young, hungry, has great pop sensibilities, an excellent work ethic, and I knew from other writing she was doing how versatile she was…you can't really ask for more in a songwriter."
Enter James Michael, writer and producer of rock hits from Papa Roach, Saliva, Motley Crue and his own band, Sixx: A.M., as well as more mainstream artists such as Alanis Morissette and Hilary Duff; Michael has emerged as the missing link Shahnaz needed to fully realize the comprehensive artistic through-line she'd been searching for. "James helped draw out the true artist in me," says Shahnaz. "He has a gift for knowing what is relatable and always pushes a song to another dimension that is not only inventive but universal in its message. He's a rare find and unlike any writer or producer I’ve ever worked with."
Ultimately, the goal with this music is "to capture the contrast between danger and beauty," Shahnaz says. "I believe the more you listen to these songs, the more they give back. Each listen reveals something deeper." She pauses to contemplate the question of how she wants to be seen as an artist. "I hope that people feel like I'm speaking for them and offering them another perspective…and maybe even helping them through some difficult times."
Shahnaz, by the way, is a Persian word meaning pride of the king. And if one were to examine the most detailed of color wheels, the shade that most closely matches the mesmerizing blue-tinted green in Shahnaz's eyes is indeed called "Persian green." Just some knowledge to stow away as you turn your attention to what really matters: this is refreshingly substantive, but widely accessible pop music that celebrates living with passion, keeping the faith, and embracing personal freedom – all things the exciting, genuine, and inspiring young artist who created it knows a lot about.
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