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First Play: Merna, Sans

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Del Cowie

Evolution is a term that many artists use to decribe their creative process in between projects, even when the change isn't readily apparent. But that is definitely not the case when it comes to Toronto-based singer Merna.

The singer's new EP project, Sans (released via DAIS on June 2), finds Merna favouring stark, minimalist, piano-driven songs as the followup to her 2014 album, The Calling. A stylistic shift from the layered and intricately woven ambience of that record, Sans aligns with the different settings consistently reflected in Merna's music and life.

Born in Jordan, Merna spent much of her youth living in different countries and continents, also living in Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi and Seattle before settling in Canada. She began her career under the name Ayah, notably releasing the R&B mixtape Problem Woman in 2008 featuring production work from acclaimed Toronto producer Slakah the Beatchild. Steadily building up a following south of the border, she'd go on to record Back For More, the stellar joint album with DJ Jazzy Jeff (of Fresh Prince fame).

After changing her stage name to her birth name, Merna, The Calling found the singer working with Ali Shaheed Muhammad from A Tribe Called Quest, who was the album's executive producer. Merna began working with Muhammad after she met him in the studio of another high-profile Toronto producer, Doc McKinney, who has been involved on the production side of the Weeknd's career ever since the emergence of the artist's House of Balloons mixtape.

While Merna still works with Muhammad and McKinney, Sans represents a project that is solely hers.

"Sans was born out of acceptance and realization of what was in the present moment," Merna said in a statement. "It was also a super fun project to work on all by myself, for the first time. It's opened the door for me to express myself in a whole new way, producing audio film scores and art installations. I've never felt more honest about my art."

Sans, as the title might suggest (French for "without") features Merna working entirely by herself in terms of production, composition and execution. Additionally, the songs are bare and minimalist, mostly featuring just a piano and Merna's strong, malleable voice. The seven songs on Sans are often frank and vulnerable, with Merna honestly conveying her initimate hopes, anxieties and emotions through the prism of relationships.

Occasionally, on tracks like "Broken Telephone" where Merna plays with her voice, she delivers lyrics in a staccato, rapid-fire manner, adding distortion to her background vocals. She adds subtleties to her production throughout, but overall Sans stays true to an aesthetic that ensures the songs can stand alone in their bare-bones form.

Consequently, the undeniable honesty of Merna's voice is tangible. When she sings, "Change is the only constant," in the chorus of "The Exception," there is absolutely no reason to doubt her sincerity.

Follow Del Cowie on Twitter @vibesandstuff