LONDON – Sassy, pint-sized Iranian pop artist Golazin Ardestani, an up-and-coming star of the underground pop scene back home in Iran, has a surprising anecdote to share. Giggling and running a hand through her short, peroxide-blonde hair as she plunks herself down on a plush bar couch, she says her mom and dad used to call her their “Israeli baby.”
This requires further explanation and the 28-year-old – who now goes by the name Gola professionally – is happy to oblige: Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iranians who could afford to do so would sometimes travel to Israel for fertility treatments. She was born long after this practice ended, but as she was also 16 years younger than her other siblings, she recalls how her parents would jokingly say that they had “gone to Israel for her.” It was, says Gola, “their shorthand way of saying I was special and not at all an accident.”
It took her a while to get the joke, though. Once, in third grade, she remembers telling someone she was “from Israel” – much to her mother’s consternation. “I always loved that story,” says Gola, showing that she never worried about being different – a trait still true today as she forges a career singing to her own tune.
We meet at a bar she has chosen, on the 52nd floor of the Shard building – the highest hotel bar in Western Europe, she points out. She likes the whole “top of the world” sensation it gives. It’s kind of how she feels these days, she says, as she orders up a shrimp roll and rose petal tea.
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It’s another rainy afternoon in the city where she now lives, and Gola is rocking a modest-on-top-but-outrageously-short-below outfit: a red velvet minidress with big brass buttons.
It’s a style that would undoubtedly not be approved by the government back home in Iran, where she was born, grew up and began her career as a singer – and where, she admits, she often felt less on top of the world.
Iran’s thriving female-led 1970s pop scene had long fallen silent by the time Gola was born in 1990 – shut down, like the fertility tourism to Israel, by the hard-line clerics of the Islamic Revolution. But this didn’t faze Gola, who, by the time she had reached 13 – her mother’s age when she was married off to her much older cousin – was busy begging her parents for piano classes and asking to drop out of her high school biology track.
“I didn’t want to be a doctor or a dentist. I wanted to become a singer,” she remembers. “My mom would say, ‘Don’t be silly. There are no female singers in the country anymore.’ But I fought to do my own thing.”
Cat and mouse with morality police
Gola spent her teenage years listening to cassettes bought on the black market – “Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, whatever was available” – and learning how to playing classical piano with a kindly Armenian teacher. Her favorite memories of those years involve weekends spent at her family’s ancestral home in Ardestan, in the southern foothills of the Karkas mountains, where the extended family would gather and sing traditional songs into the night.
She was arrested no fewer than three times in those years: Once for sitting alone with a boy at a café in the city of Isfahan; once for letting her hair poke out of her hijab; and once for wearing (over her pants) something that is still a staple of her wardrobe today – a very short dress.
Eventually, her progressive parents – her bank manager father; and her mom, a housewife-turned-successful fashion industry businesswoman – succumbed to her strong will and off went Gola, alone, to study music performance and composition at Tehran’s University of Soureh.
While receiving classical training on the piano, santur (a hammered dulcimer) and the flute, she also found time for her true love: pop music.
At 19 Gola joined Orchid, at the time Iran’s biggest girl band. The group expanded its fan base by performing around the country, but only – as prescribed by the religious authorities – for other women and with morality policewomen always on hand.
“It was not a concert the way you imagine a pop concert,” Gola explains. “Everyone has to remain seated, the performers have to stand still on stage and no one is allowed to sway to the beat.”
Even so, underground Tehran was actually a blast, she says, complete with parties, sexy outfits, disco lights, dancing and plenty of bootleg liquor to drink – all while playing cat and mouse with the morality police.
But one restriction the ambitious singer could not circumvent was the ban on women recording music. After three years with Orchid and realizing that her career needed to progress, she asked for a meeting with the official at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance in charge of granting CD release permits.
“I was probably the first woman who went to his office and he said, ‘How can I help you? Do you represent a male artist?’” she recounts. “I said, ‘No, I want to release my own CD.’ He said, ‘Don’t you live in this country?’”
Gola suggested a compromise: What if she only sang in English? To which the official retorted, “We don’t need a Celine Dion here” – leaving Gola disappointed but amused, imagining the official humming “My Heart Will Go On” on the sly.
“I decided I would leave the country right then and there,” she recalls. “I told him, ‘OK, you will not let me sing here, but one day you will hear my voice.’”
Gola arrived in London in 2011, originally on a student visa, enrolling in an MA in music psychology at the University of Roehampton. She bartended and worked as a music research assistant to make money, and started releasing Farsi recordings. These soon reached home via forbidden-but-nonetheless-accessible messaging apps like Telegram and online platforms like Radio Javan.
With no copyright laws, it’s hard to gauge the exact numbers of listeners, but her debut single “Miri” was downloaded close to 3 million times from Radio Javan, she says.
Other songs, such as “Roya” and “Ta Azam Door Shodi” – both recorded with Iranian rapper Hossein Tohi – enjoyed similar numbers.
Her hit pop song “Iranam,” an ode to Iran’s soccer players, became something of an anthem in her homeland during this summer’s World Cup. In some ways, it foreshadowed the monumental development last weekend when, for the first time in 37 years, some 500 Iranian female soccer fans – covered head to toe, and separated from the men – were allowed to attend a match in Tehran.
“I remember when my mom called me after the Iran-Morocco game [the World Cup game that Iran won 1-0] and put the phone out for me to hear what was going on in the streets,” recounts Gola. “I couldn’t believe it! Everyone was celebrating by playing my song out of their cars, dancing. It felt like the whole country knew the words.”
Gola mainly records her own material. Occasionally, though – like in the case of her hit “Booseh,” a reworking of a Mexican tune – she reimagines other artists’ music. That’s how she discovered and immediately fell in love with a song on Spotify called “Sabe Deus,” by Israeli singer-songwriter Idan Raichel. She called her version “Khoda Danad” and appears in the video angel-like, with dark black hair, bare shoulders and metallic nail polish.
Made aware of Gola’s song, the Israeli performer called her up and invited her to join him on tour in Paris and London.
“No, this wasn’t strange at all,” she giggles. “It was fabulous.” After all, she reminds us, she is “an Israeli baby.”
“I listen and engage with anything that sounds good to me: Portuguese, Greek and, sure, Hebrew too.” she says.
Gola has not been back to Iran since she arrived in Britain seven years ago. She feels her music, her look and her pronouncements – let alone her collaboration with Raichel – would make it unsafe for her to return, even if just for a visit. She has not seen one of her brothers for eight years and has been unable to visit her father’s grave.
She has become an artist in exile, she says. “I miss Tehran, my friends and the parties. I miss Isfahan and Ardestan too, the cities of my childhood, with their pomegranate gardens and good earthy smells.”
She still hates the London weather and is still freaked out by the city’s urban foxes. But in more ways than not, Britain is now where she belongs, she says. She has British citizenship, an apartment and, as of this month, her first single in English – “The Line,” a slow, attitude-drenched number about women and power. The video features the singer with her face covered and her hypnotic backup dancers wearing hijab-esque outfits.
“I wanted a video that could help women understand how powerful they are,” Gola explains. “The idea that they can have their eyes covered but still see, or have their mouths covered but still have a voice. This is a video about crossing lines and breaking barriers.”
Drinking the last sip of her tea, Gola concludes that the first step in breaking any barrier – whether being able to sing and dress freely, or attending a soccer match – is to raise one’s voice about it. And that’s what she loves to do.