Singer-songwriter Emel Mathlouthi is the voice of a generation — and in her new song, “Lost,” this Tunisian artist makes it plain that the jittery uncertainty that many people are feeling right now is a global phenomenon.
“Lost” is a track from Ensen (Human), Mathlouthi’s first album since her debut, Kelmti Horra (My Word Is Free), which was released in 2012. But by the time that the first album was released, Mathlouthi was already an icon: Her song “Kelmti Horra” was an anthem for a generation of Tunisians and other across north Africa.
“I am the voice those who would not give in,” she sang on “Kelmti Horra.” “I am free and my word is free.” She took those lines from the streets of Tunis, during the revolution that led to the ousting of the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, all the way to the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in 2015.
In the ensuing years since that potent debut, Mathlouthi has moved to New York and is releasing Ensen later this month on the American indie label Partisan — a signal of her bigger ambitions, which spanned working with several producers, including Valgeir Sigurðsson of Sigur Ros and her mainstay collaborator, the French-Tunisian producer Amine Metani, and recording Ensen across seven different countries.
Mathlouthi drenches “Lost” in the moody electronic hues that define her new album. She describes the sound of Ensen as having run buzzy North African percussion and other instruments, like the guimbri lute, zukra flute and kick drum as “organic beats run through homemade effects and setups.” Those textures frame the undeniable sweetness and pure potency of Mathlouthi’s voice, which she wields with the precision of a knife.
“It’s a song about loss, about totally missing the control over your dreams, your thoughts, losing your bearings,” Mathlouthi writes in an email to NPR.
The video for “Lost” comes from footage shot last month at the first Wasla Festival in Dubai, an event geared to alternative Arabic music that also featured such other heavy-hitters as Mashrou’ Leila and Souad Massi, both Tiny Desk Concert alumni.
Lyrically, Mathlouthi tends to alternate between plainspokenness and elliptical poetry. The opening line, a simply declaimed “I am lost,” morphs into “As I was listening to the Water / From my dreams came a swan / And straightens his wings / To give me the sweetest birth.” It’s a metaphor, she says, inspired by Patti Smith’s writings.
But it’s facile to compare Mathlouthi to some of the great singer-songwriters she counts as her heroes, like Smith, Joan Baez and Björk (and, from a different sphere altogether, the great Lebanese composer, oud player and singer Marcel Khalife): she is no wannabe. As she evolves into a mature artist, Mathlouthi is a singular voice.