Hopeful Wanderer

How Dubai-based singer-songwriter Tim Hassall fell back in love with music and his hometown

Tim Hassall
Clint Davis
By Adam Grundey
Nov 05, 2013

IN LATE 2010, when singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Tim Hassall returned to Dubai – the city he’s called home since he was 14 – from Los Angeles, where he’d just spent the last of his savings producing his debut solo album, Oh Restless Heart, he was feeling kind of beat-up. “For a long time, I was, like, ‘This is my last year in Dubai. I’m outta here,’” he says, sipping a mint-and-lemon concoction in a beachside café. “I just was confused with why I’d chosen to stay here and what was here for me. I just felt really disheartened.” He had, he admits, slightly skewed expectations for what would happen when he put the album out. “I rushed, rushed, rushed to put it out. I stayed up all night tabbing it the night before it went out. I’d got it in my head that I was, like, releasing this record, and it was, ‘Stop the press! Tim Hassall’s releasing a record!’” He laughs. “And I’m in this f***ing flat in L.A. on my own. And, like, that wasn’t realistic; with where I am, with who I am, with what’s going on.”

Coming home to little fanfare, and returning to the U.A.E.’s notoriously tough-for-unsigned-artists music scene, Hassall says he felt he’d hit “the ceiling of potential out here.” Gradually, though, he settled back into the regular cover gigs through which he makes a living. And he began to figure out how a U.A.E.-based artist may be able to break out of the Middle East. “I didn’t really understand the potential [at that time],” Hassall says. “It feels like there are people who are making this stuff happen, and you’re here and you can’t make it happen. And I think that’s really just an illusion – if you’ve got the talent.”

And the U.A.E., he’s discovered, might just offer him a greater opportunity to develop his talent than he would have elsewhere. Which isn’t an argument you’ll hear from many regional musicians. But then, the majority of them have non-musical day jobs, whereas Hassall survives by gigging most nights – even if he is mainly playing covers. (This year, he has his weekends free for his own shows. And he’ll often sneak a couple of originals into his regular cover gigs.) “Yeah, I’m not making my living from playing just my own shows,” he says. “But I’m making my living from music. And that’s still, in my eyes, commendable.” And the hours he puts in onstage are invaluable. “You just can’t buy stage experience,” he says. “And you can’t fake it. I can clock up three hours a night, six nights a week.” Plus, he says, learning other people’s songs gives you a better understanding of how to reproduce the sounds in your head on your instrument. “You learn every possible way to go from something to something else. You’re learning. And if you practice six hours a day, then go play for three, if you do that for two or three years, you might not be great, but you’re not gonna be shit, that’s for sure.”

So, despite not making his fortune yet, it seems Hassall’s past his disillusionment. “I’ve invested everything into my music, and that’s not changing. I’ve been at zero, after summer, for the last six years. And that gets repetitive, being broke all the time. It’s stressful. But I’m dedicated, y’know?” And for the time being, he’s decided that Dubai can be the base for his attempts to carve out a career playing his originals.

It’s a realization he’s still processing. Recently, David Byrne’s book, How Music Works, has helped. “The first chapter is about how context shapes music,” Hassall explains. “And when you think about Dubai, that really resonates with me. In Nashville [where he recently wrapped his sophomore album, Gallatin – more on that later], for example, you have all these cafés where people want to go and sit quietly and be told some truth, or something like that. So the songwriter is king. But in Dubai, you have all these beautiful beaches where people just want to hear beats. So the DJ is king.” It’s a situation he believes can alter.

“A lot’s changed [over the last three years],” he says. “But change is very hard to gauge, sometimes, as it’s happening. It’s like when they’re building a highway and you just see construction every day, and then one day you have a new road and half the traffic has gone. I feel it’s like that here, in the music industry; maybe we have the construction signs still up. But when it goes, suddenly there’ll be some standout bands from the region, if they stick with it. Any of them – maybe me – has the potential to go on to bigger and better things. Like, not just support a headliner, but be a headliner. And people will say, ‘Where did they come from?’ And they’ll be like, ‘Well, we’ve been here…’

“So, I see [the potential] now,” he concludes. “It’s a good place for me to be for, like, six months of the year – and maybe be on the road for six months. I like life here. But I don’t think it’s a six-month game. It’s, like, 10 years.”

This is an extract. To read the full story, pick up a copy of Rolling Stone Middle East

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