Our Campus: Ava Safai's singing career is true to her roots

As children, many people aspire to be singers or songwriters. Few achieve this dream, but first-year student Ava Safai is on the verge of turning hers into reality. In February 2017, her single “Finding Hope” was featured by Dance Moms, an American dance reality television on Lifetime.

Safai’s interest and passion for music began at a very early age. That’s not just all talk — she is competent with the guitar and drums, holds Royal Conservatory of Music certifications in voice, violin and Grade 10 piano and is currently pursuing Associate of The Royal Conservatory diplomas in three disciplines.

“I grew up in a family of musicians — everybody in my household was constantly playing something and it was really challenging because they’re all classical musicians. Their expectations of me were that I would end up going the classical route. I did for a while, but I also dabbled in writing,” she said.

The music Safai currently creates diverges from her classical training. She calls it pop with operatic elements. The best comparison might be a young Serena Rider being produced by Freddie Mercury.

While her music may be easy to listen to, the subjects Safai addresses in her songs are anything but light and fluffy. She began writing lyrics as a coping mechanism for her depression, which she developed in the sixth grade.

“The first death that ever happened to me was my dog, which to some people might seem petty, but I had known her for most of my life. Right after that came the death of my aunt. The year after, another one of my aunts was diagnosed with cancer and she passed away, then my grandfather, then my dance teacher, then my second father figure. It was a ton in one year,” she said.

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Other factors weighed heavily on Safai as well. Although she was born in Canada, her parents came to the country to flee the Iranian revolution. Her family members believe the development of her first aunt’s cancer was caused by the stress of being taken prisoner by the government. While she was too young to process racism at the time, it played a big part in her parents’ transition to their new home country.

Safai’s intensive musical training distanced her from her peers. Enrolled in a program called Peak Performance, she was required to skip lunch and practice for over eight hours every day. She had trouble making friends until grade 12, when she became involved with the drama program at her school.

“The problem with that was I didn’t develop myself socially, as I was away for lunchtime. I got bullied in elementary school. My depression made me shell-like — I was always away from people and I don’t think kids at that age understand. There wasn’t much talk about depression in my school, so they didn’t know what was going on and they’d always brush me off to the side when playing games,” she said.

Although she saw a counselor regularly and took medication, Safai found conventional depression treatment methods ineffective. Instead, she turned to self-care methods, namely writing down her struggles in song lyrics.

“Therapy wasn’t cutting it, so the only way was to write it down on paper, then I started writing music. For me, art therapy was the only thing that really healed me, which is strange since I’ve been doing music for such a long time, but I needed the writing component to tie it together,” she said.

As a result, Safai’s songs tackle issues like depression, racism and the Syrian conflict, which she has a personal connection to. While she imitates Ed Sheeran’s musical style, she rarely addresses love directly and in the rare cases that she does, it’s about dealing with malignant relationships.

“I don’t really write love songs. All my writing came from that place I was in for a couple years experiencing bullying, racism, a weird relationship with an ex — so it’s about self-improvement. If I do write about love, it’s about developing yourself after love, breaking free from an abusive relationship — even though that’s never happened to me, I want to make sure there’s a song out there for every single person going through something,” she said.

For Safai, music is a universal method for reaching people in dark places looking for a hand to grasp, but finding none. During her struggles, Safai had to help herself, and she hopes that those in similar situations are now finding company and solace in her songs.

“I’ve seen the impact it has on people. People have messaged me and said, ‘I have fibromyalgia, and I listen to your music every day and it just makes me want to get up.’ It really touches me to hear that because I only wish I had found something like that when I was younger. My dream is to make sure that everyone is happy and reach those who aren’t through music and writing,” she said.