Song Deconstructed: ‘Rock The Boat’ by Imogen Mahdavi
The rising alt-pop singer-songwriter reveals what went into writing and recording her brand new track about rekindling a fragile relationship
London-based singer-songwriter Imogen Mahdavi released her debut single Doormat Darling back in July, matching her honeyed vocal with a contemporary production that mixed heady trip-hop laced electronica and dreamy 60s pop. Then, drawing on a myriad of influences – from soul to indie and folk to pop – Imogen followed up with Rock The Boat, which was released last month. We were intrigued to know what inspired this new song and how it was created, so we asked the alt-pop star-in-the-making to explain in her own words…
This was the first song I had written about love that didn’t involve a romantic interest. I wrote it on the way to the studio when I had a falling out with a family member. We had been rebuilding a tainted relationship, that has been up and down since my childhood. I felt we were on a good path, but as these things go sometimes you can fall back into bad habits with the way you treat those you may love the most. There is a level of comfort and stability where you can say or do anything and know that they will always be there to forgive you. Blood is thicker than water and all that, but I had started to reach the end of my tether and wrote the words “Please don’t rock the boat” on my phone. I didn’t want to lose what we had spent so long rebuilding.
There was so much tension between me and the person I wrote the song about, so much resentment and passive-aggressive energy. I kept thinking about tectonic plates and how they rub until they break from each other. The opening line: “Friction in the room, light moving plates” came straight away – that feeling on pushing each other so far that you eventually break, these moments can feel irreversible. However I wanted the song to stay hopeful, I wanted to be hopeful about spending our lives reunited so the chorus came and I thought to myself if I don’t bring up old trauma, if I live in the present, if we don’t rock the boat then we can be steady with one another without feeling like I was being taken advantage of.
At first, I thought the pre-chorus lyric, “It’s never too late, to leave me again, or tell me to wait,” sounds quite morbid and desperate on my part – to linger on to something that repeatedly leaves me disappointed and used. But I am forever an optimist, so it’s also never too late to rekindle. Life is too short.
I brought the finished topline to my friend Alex Patton and he immediately had some chords on the guitar, we reworked it and eventually felt that it had a certain intimacy on the piano instead. It started off just as a simple ballad. I revisited it a few months later with a producer called Ali Bla Bla, and I couldn’t shake the idea of a surprise trap beat ending. It took a while to figure out, I had been listening to Frank Ocean and loved a particular track on his Blond album and was inspired to take the listener to an unexpected space. He smashed the beat, it’s seductive, dark and feels pretty ballsy.
In The Studio
I have never worked with another lyricist so most of the bare bones of an idea are created before I go to the studio, I like to take my time and find that, when you are involving someone else’s time, I feel a pleasure to rush to the process. It took four sessions to finish. The first in, it’s most simple keyboard chords and vocal structure, soon after George Clode played the entire structure on a beautiful live grand piano. Finally, we wrote the harmonies and beat. I usually write in a similar structure, the emotional sentiment comes first from my mind. Then my body will guide me to how I want the song to move.
It’s the second single I’ve put out and it has taken a different sonic energy from the first, I find it’s much more challenging to write a ballad. Upbeat music can be masked in production, but you know a great song when you can just sit back with a few chords, a voice, a story and it still packs a punch. I’m so proud of what we created.
Imogen’s new single Rock The Boat is out now. Check out more of her material at soundcloud.com/imogenmahdavi